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Archive for the category “Principles”

Man made deltas and concrete rivers. The south drinks what the north delivers.

Happy Earth Day everyone. To celebrate, let’s have a discussion about the least popular animal in California since the infamous spotted owl. I present to you the delta smelt.

delta smelt
Cute little guy, isn’t he?

So, what did the delta smelt do to deserve the hatred? The same thing the spotted owl did — lived its life. People chose to utilize the law to protect these species and their habitats. This in turn inconvenienced some narrow-minded people. These narrow-minded people advance one of the stupidest arguments ever to attack the protection of these species. It goes something like, “California cares more about a fish than they do humans.”

So let’s unpack that argument. It falls apart rather quickly with some analysis and an understanding of one concept. The delta smelt is an indicator species. Generally an indicator species is any biological species that defines a trait of the environment. Zooming in on resource, species and habitat management, an indicator species is one that is sensitive to and therefore to serve as an early warning indicator of environmental changes. Typically an indicator species is in the middle of the food chain. They eat critters/plants in the habitat. They are eaten by other critters. So the rationale behind monitoring an indicator species is that if it’s healthy and doing well it is likely the interconnected system that constitutes its habitat is also thriving.

Here’s a quick example about how people intuitively understand the concept. When the settlers were emigrating from the east coast out to the plains and the west access to fresh water was at a premium. Sometimes they ran out and had to source drinking water. How would one go about doing that? The settlers looked for frogs. The presence of frogs indicated a (relatively) healthy source. No frogs equaled trouble. So that is the gist of indicator species.

It is patently absurd to state that regulators and advocates “care” more about the health of the delta smelt than the humans. The fallacy here is that regulating only in the interest of humans would always benefit humans. Remember, we are (still) completely dependent on the Earth and its systems. We know relatively little about how these systems interconnect. I believe we should err on the side of caution because the effects can be wide reaching from operating solely for the benefit of people. What about people that enjoy recreational uses of water (fishing, kayaking, etc.)? What about increased costs of treating water to drinking standards as the system degrades? Lots o’ questions here.

So, why do I think that people push this argument? One reason is that it appeals to “common sense”. I’ve written about previously. The baked in presumption that the simplest approach will bring the best results is off base. The next reason is just plain tribalism. Hippie-punching is a treasured hobby for a segment of people. California is a shining beacon of everything that is wrong in the world to that same segment. So it’s no big deal to twist logic to get some cheap shots in. The last one I’m going to advance is the complete self-absorption of our culture. We demand that everything be done so it benefits us directly. The concept of indirect benefits is becoming un-American, apparently.

So on Earth Day, try to think in a utilitarian manner. Let’s try to do things that benefit the greatest number of people because we are dealing with shared resources, health and safety issues, and a future for our children. We can all go back to being petty tribalists tomorrow (or not!). Give the delta smelt a break. It’s only trying to survive and ensure a future for its family and specie. The people who are trying to assist it by protecting flow rate, habitat, food sources, etc., are doing so for your benefit.

ETA: If anyone is curious as to how the delta smelt is doing, sampling at 40 previously friendly to smelt sites found one delta smelt. h/t Trollhattan. Thx buddy!

I’ve got something against you.

This post is purely aspirational for me because I have a very hard time doing what I’m going to propose. From what I observe, the same holds for a lot of people. So here goes: Be for things. Don’t just be against things. Sounds simple, right? Watch me go off the rails straight away……

The inspirations for this post come from a couple of online personae that I admire.

The first is Cleek’s Law.

Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.

Pretty straight-forward, no? It also reeks of the truth. It’s quite easy to sit back and lob criticism at your ideological opposition but offer no solutions. These criticisms don’t need to be true or even make sense. They could be based on perception or potential perception of an issue. They could rely on all sorts of fallacies. Slippery slopes. Straw men. The intent is to invalidate the actions of one’s opponent by making a broad assertion and then force the opposition to defend itself.

Conservatism does not offer solutions. Sure, they trot out supply-side economics (trickle-down theory) and tax cuts that will pay for themselves, but these theories have an awful empirical track record. See, Kansas, State of, for a current example. Restating an ideology that has been shown not to work in the current operating conditions isn’t offering a solution. So we’re trapped in a zero-sum game. Everything that one’s opponent does must be wrong, because it comes from your opponent.

The second is related to Cleeks law and is called Davis X. Machina’s Law.

The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of who will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it.

As a note up front, I get a lot of pushback when I quote this law. The substance of the pushback hasn’t ever been that people act this way. It is always about whether sparrows can fit on curtain rods to cook them. Whenever I hear this line of objection, I know that the criticizer is giving up on the merits of the law (the actions of the people) and trying to divert attention to the trappings of the argument. Basically, they’re trying to say that since a sparrow can’t fit on a curtain rod (or more accurately, they refuse to admit that they are small in diameter curtain rods), then the conclusion must be wrong. Ummmmmmm…no.

The point is that people will act against their interests as long as it hurts the “right” people. But why is this? As discussed above, it’s easy. It’s the path of less resistance. It is much easier to “punch down” on the people one wants to be disadvantaged than it is to “punch up” against the powers that be to obtain something for one’s benefit. Personally, when I see someone acting against their own interests in order to harm others it screams to me that the primary motivator for that person is hatred. It’s not a very good look. For anyone.

So what to do then? Try to make positive arguments and bolster those with negative arguments. By this I mean be for something, not just against things. I’m not saying one should never use a negative argument. Pointing out the deficiencies of your opponent is not necessarily a bad thing. However, over-reliance on negative arguments can be and is a bad thing because it is extremely difficult to find common ground. Only negative arguments is not a persuasive technique. I sometimes find myself painted in a corner and taking pot shots at an opposing viewpoint. I may even be making valid points about the weakness of the viewpoint. But in the back of my mind I know I’m not being constructive or persuasive.

Shuffle up and deal

NOFX — We Called it America

Love it when a punk song comes up on the shuffle and this song is appropriate for the dark and dreary times we’re struggling through. Saw some great NOFX shows back in the 90’s. Good times. Accordingly I’m more of a fan of their 90’s stuff but this song is a good piece of their later work (2009).

The song opens with a quote from Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross.

The leads are weak? Fucking leads are weak? YOU’RE weak.

The vinyl version of the song uses a different quote by Jack Lemmon instead of the Baldwin one. I’m not really an Alec Baldwin fan (I find him to be quite insufferable), but his work in Glengarry Glen Ross is his best.

The song has the usual strong guitar interplay and lightning fast tempo from Fat Mike and the boys. The lyrics paint a bleak (but accurate) portrait of where America has been and where we’re going. Some lyrics:

Remember when America had a middle class
And an upper class, that was way before the exodus
That was the America that we thought was number one,
Thought would overcome, thought would never die
That was just our pride and faith, two shitty deadly sins
I know faith isn’t one of ’em but it should have been
Cuz when things were crumbling, we had no camaraderie
Just a faith someone would save us from despondence

Seems like they’re onto something, no?

A cracked polystyrene man. Who just crumbles and burns.

Robin Williams’ passing is just terribly sad on many levels. Not going to get into most of them as I’d like to concentrate on the politicization of his death and hopefully provide some perspective for people.

The next time I hear someone say, “Robin Williams could have just chosen to be happy,” I’m going to start windmilling hammer fists until the cops show up. The presumption that clinical depression stems from lack of effort or unawareness or the wrong type of effort is just plain false. The majority of depressed individuals are acutely fucking aware that they’re unhappy every waking moment of every day. They’re endeavoring each day to feel happy. But a “mindset change” isn’t going to do the trick for the vast majority of sufferers.  I’m typically wary of “common sense solutions” to complex problems and have written a bit about it here and Marianne has here. One of the problems with applying a trite solution is that it ignores the myriad of different illnesses and treats them all the same. It also treats all people identically. Those are horrible assumptions.

Some people I see advocating for people they know little about to change their attitude are applying their beliefs to a medical issue. When someone proceeds in this fashion they are showing they don’t care about results, only process. I feel the opposite. I do not care how someone who is suffering gets better. I only care they get better. Medication, talk therapy, attitude change, exercise, meditation, whatever works for each individual. I will not trivialize their suffering and I will not TELL them how to do it.  This is about a person’s life not a validation of one’s belief.  Those utilizing political/social agendas by saying nonsense like “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY” or “THE PUSSIFICATION OF AMERICA” or Rush Limbaugh saying “negativity is a hallmark of the left”. These illnesses know no ideology or tribe or political orientation. To say otherwise seems borderline-sociopathic.

Other people (who should know better) try to tell those suffering  the path they took is the only right path and what didn’t work for them are per se wrong. This is straight up narcissism trying to obtain validation.  If Anti-depressants didn’t work for you but meditation and exercise did, great!  Telling people not to try medication or therapy or any of the myriad of options because it didn’t work for you? NOT COOL. Again, this is not results-oriented and is instead process-oriented. It’s also another pathetic attempt for validation. One could share their own experiences without imposing their values. It’s a question of phrasing, really.

So there’s a simple fucking solution to this. Stop telling people what to do and listen. Sublimate your fervent beliefs to try to ensure that this person gets help. Don’t close doors or paths. Open them.

I need a fix. I need a front. I need a new approach, a new approach.

The mid-2000’s were a high-water mark in contrarian thinking.  “Out of the box” approaches dominated the business, policymaking, writing, and personal arenas.  2005, in particular, stood out for writing that advanced this phenomenon.  Malcolm Gladwell’s follow up novel Blink and Leavitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics were runaway best sellers.  I eagerly read them during that summer and noted a shared theme about thinking differently.  For Freakonomics, it is thinking differently about economics/culture and for Blink it was thinking differently about, well, thinking.

After I read those, I had a new arrow in my quiver.  I started to try to approach thorny issues by looking at them in a “completely new way”.  It’s not easy to do.  I found myself coming up with fantastical rationales (because they had to be different than conventional wisdom) to reach what was 99% of the time the opposite to the established understanding.  I was essentially picking an outcome and backfilling the justification with fluff and “thinking differently”.  I’m not saying that Gladwell, Leavitt & Dubner, et.al. do this same thing.  They’re far more rigorous in their investigation and methods.  They picked specific issues that lent themselves to the application of a different approach.  But I only applied their conclusion that thinking differently was beneficial and led to results.  Once I realized this my excitement was tempered.  Contrarianism can work but doesn’t always work.  The Freakonomics bunch went on to form a cottage industry based on the book.  There’s a movie, a radio station, and a blog that churns out more examples of how going against the grain of “mainstream” understanding can open one’s eyes to the “right” answer.  Over the years I’ve noted that they’re falling into the same trap I did.  I admit it’s got to be tough to keep coming up with subjects that prove their beliefs.   But sometimes (not all of the time) I suspect that they’re starting with a preferred conclusion and backfilling.

The legacy of contrarianism-mania is that we all have a convenient scapegoat if we see a conclusion that we don’t like.  “Yeah that’s the conventional wisdom, but have you read Freakonomics?”  I get that sort of argument quite frequently in the odd corners of the interwebs I visit and in good old meatspace as well.  Things really crystallized for me on this when I saw the following (paraphrased) comment in one of my online haunts in response to the assertion that contrarianism is a “brand”:

Contrarianism is not a brand. It’s more a business model to pitch that you can bash an egghead without doing the learning. It’s like gold ads for the willfully ignorant and conspiracy minded.

There’s something to that. I started to think about the people in real life that advanced the “did you read Freakonomics quasi-appeal to authority arguments to reach their preferred conclusion. Maybe you know these sorts. The guy who in his online bio states that he’s “Doing stuff better than you” and for education says “At the public library” but hates socialism with a white-hot intensity. Or the guy who never showed any interest in learning much about the world that got way into talk radio and now is a geo-political expert. I also noticed when and how they unleashed the argument. It essentially concedes the argument and asks to ignore all of the established evidence. It’s a suspension of belief argument. I’m extremely wary of those sorts of lines of thinking–just as I’m wary of appealing to “common sense”. But I’m still willing to be convinced. The existence of one “looking at things differently” or appealing to process just isn’t determinative in every case.

So if you hear this sort of appeal to the authority of “thinking differently”, have some pause. Is this the sort of issue that lends itself to the new approach? Are there some significant leaps of logic required to get to the proposed conclusion? Or are you being asked to forget what you know to be true just because that approached worked on another separate issue? Or are you allowing someone who doesn’t want to do the hard work of learning and knowing a subject to pretend they’re an expert?

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

I remember in high school riding in my girlfriend Kristen’s old Chrysler with a boom box in the center console. Her radio had long quit working and we would blare this song.  We had to keep stopping to buy batteries because the boom box at max volume was a real energy drain. It was so risque and fun and even though I had no idea what Salt n Peppa were actually talking about I happily sung the words.

Fast forward to present day and now I know all about those lyrics and have two little girls as a constant reminder of what happens when the lyrics are put into action.

Today Mike sent me an article about Colorado’s experimental contraception program. The article claims large decreases in teen pregnancies and abortion due to readily available, affordable contraception.  My first thought was, “Wow, way to go CO!” When I told Mike how pleased I was that Colorado was taking aggressive action he reminded me not everyone was as excited.  He reiterated the annoying claim I have often heard naysayers scream which is:

Available contraception leads to an increase in sexual activity in youth. It makes perfectly nice girls into SLUTS!! Ugh.

Really?? Think about it… what teenage girl says, “I didn’t want to have sex and had no plans to but now I can get birth control pills so I am going to roll in the hay with any guy who looks at me!”  None to very very few.

News flash, girls have sex because of emotion based reasons. Girls have sex because they want to fit in. Girls have sex because they want a boy to like them. They want to feel grown up and accepted. Girls want to feel pretty and to feel loved. They do not decide to have sex because they can get a low cost diaphragm or free condom. Girls wait to have sex because they are confident in themselves. They choose to wait because they feel loved and cherished by someone other than a boyfriend. Girls pick a different way to display affection when they are shown praise and encouragement and have a strong sense of self worth.

Before you roll your eyes and click close thinking I am another clueless thirty-something who doesn’t know what I am talking about… I am proof. A few of my friends were also.

My girlfriends and I were all able to get birth control and were not in private schools. We were of varying faiths, popularity and socioeconomic backgrounds. None of us were considered shy or dorky or prudish (quite the opposite actually). On the surface one would not see any correlation between our decisions. Dig deeper and you would have seen ONE major similarity. Every girlfriend I had (and women I continue to meet) who chose to wait until they were ready had a strong adult mentor.

In a perfect world a child is blessed with strong parental figures.  Unfortunately this is not something we can pick. My parents were awesome (still are). They taught me how important it was to be strong in mind and independent. They rewarded and encouraged my achievements without pushing me into areas I was no longer interested. My parents never considered I wouldn’t be successful. It was annoying. They praised my scholastic endeavors and celebrated every tiny accomplishment regardless of how trivial it may be.  They reminded me I was important.  I was and still am extremely lucky to have the support of my parents.

Not everyone wins the parent lottery and has support in the home.  So then what?  It takes a village friends!!   If you know a young person, why not take them to lunch? Why not offer to help with homework? Perhaps your neighbor/niece/friend’s child is struggling.  Make yourself the adult who takes accountability for our precious youth.  I work to encourage and uplift the young women I meet.  It doesn’t matter if they are my own children.  Bonus? You will feel like SUCH a badass when you know you contributed in some little way to a child’s future.

As a mother I am fearful of the challenges our daughters will face. I know they will be pressured to drink, do drugs and have sex. They will meet people who will teach them how to cuss(never from us of course-ha!) and bully and treat people poorly. They will also meet people who are better looking than them. Smarter. Wealthier. Cooler. I know my girls will feel insecure and want to fit in. The day they come home with their first crush will be exhilarating for them and nerve wracking for me.

What can we do? I don’t have the answer (If you thought I was going to bust out the perfect plan you were mistaken).

You know what I am going to do? I am going to love them fiercely.  I am going to remind them how smart they are and about life and traveling and the big world  waiting for them to conquer. I am going to encourage their goals and remind them how much they have to offer.  I am going to attempt to explain that they are at the very beginning of a long adventure and will have many more crushes(they will not believe me).  I am going to encourage them to value their bodies and discuss our faith.  Then, I am going to tell them about contraception.  I am going to tell them where to get it and be cool but firm, explaining one wrong move could give you a child or a disease.  Finally, I am going to have a panic attack in the privacy of our bedroom while telling Mike to load the gun.

When I think they haven’t listened and they come to me because their heart is broken I am going to hold them.  When I am rocking my little girl and hating the piece of crap that hurt her feelings I am going to support her and tell her how special she is.  She won’t believe me and I will certainly think it is falling on deaf ears.  But down deep I know she will hear me.  Maybe it will remind her how amazing she is.  Maybe it will make her stronger. Just maybe it will remind her how loved she is and give her the confidence she needs to choose differently.

Isn’t it weird that a privilege could feel like a chore?

Personal failure: I refused to acknowledge or consider my own privilege for a loooooooong time.

I suppose a definition will be helpful here. I’ll go with this one:

the set of societal privileges that white/male people benefit from beyond those commonly experienced by people of color/women in the same social, political, or economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white/male individuals may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The concept of privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.

What led me to examine these privileges? Being taken behind the proverbial woodshed in online and meatspace conversations. I’d like to thank not only the people that patiently pointed out my ignorance and took the time to educate me, but also the people that rightfully mocked me. The mockery stung but I (eventually) saw that even though I intended to be a good person I was choosing to ignore something important.

Once I admitted that these privileges existed I needed to take the next step and ask myself why I chose to ignore them. This was a difficult step. I relied on my perception that “things are much better than they used to be” to justify my choice to ignore the systemic structural and cultural issues that exist today. I pretended that today represented a true meritocracy and that women, people of color, etc. had zero impediments to success other than their own desires and efforts.

Many people believe they are “colorblind” and I don’t doubt their belief. But even if it’s true, it’s only a partial victory. Stephen Colbert has a great line about this:

Now, I don’t see color. People tell me I’m white and I believe them because police officers call me “sir”.

I love this line, but I didn’t realize the full implication of it until I saw it referenced in a twitter discussion about libertarians and race. Colbert slyly exposes his privilege while disclaiming it, which is genius. His purported colorblindness is a defense of his privilege.

Another reason that I refused to admit my privilege is that I liked the results. This, sadly is a remnant of my lamentable detour into libertarian beliefs. I internalized the “culture of dependence” argument. I thought that other racial groups and women would be OK with just pretending that everything was suddenly equal. Mind you, I didn’t bother to ask any of these groups.

So what does it mean for me now that I’m able to admit my privilege? It does not mean that the existence of the privilege is the only determining factor when faced with an issue. It does mean that I am better able to properly empathize with different groups’ positions. People sometimes let me know that acknowledging privilege is naive. Or it is “playing into their hands” like this is some sort of zero-sum game. Or it is white guilt. I don’t agree. Instead I know that I would feel guilty perpetuating the illusion of things being OK today. There is still much to be done.

My dog was lost but now (s)he’s found.

bianca bee

Our family did something that I never, ever thought we would do. We gave away one of our perfectly healthy dogs that we love very much. In the past we joked about giving her away, but in my heart I truly believed that we would never do it. My stubbornness and misplaced belief of my abilities as a dog-owner would not allow such a thing to happen. But we did it and things are better.

IMG_1072

Bianca came to our family during a difficult period. My wife and I each brought a dog to our relationship. I brought our aussie cattle dog and she brought a maltese named Harley. Unfortunately, Harley passed away far to early due to some medical issues. Our hearts were broken as Harley was a very special being. We quickly found Bianca to help us with the loss and because we both wanted a maltese in our lives. I never thought I would be a small dog person. But I loved Harley so much. Bianca was very mellow for a couple of days. Then, she busted out with a breezy vengeance. She would hide under the couch and sneak attack a passerby’s ankle. She would fling herself out the doggy door and down three steps like she was invincible. When we first took her to the bay, she followed our cattle dog in like she had been swimming her whole life. She had some hilarious quirks. She would fake injuries to get attention (a maltese trait). She would try to boss around the dogs at the park until another dog pushed back.  Then she would yelp like she had been shot and run to her “big brother” to protect her. Read more…

Life is crazy, Candy baby.

rip

The initials seemed to leap off the Facebook feed. R.I.P. What the hell? I last talked to her back in 2011. Before that it had been 20+ years. We weren’t close or anything. But it still struck a chord.

At first the details were sketchy, but they were already tragic. She hadn’t yet been identified as deceased, but her friends and family placed links on her feed to the initial news stories indicating that it was her. While the stories themselves lacked details, the comments to stories on the local newspaper/TV news sites were just brutal. They poked fun of the area of town where the incident occurred and made all sorts of inferences about the deceased. I was a bit taken aback by the casualness of the commenters in saying some objectively horrible and callous things (I hope I don’t ignore that feeling the next time I’m inclined to say horrible and callous things online).

The emergence of new details in subsequent stories only served to fan the flames. Once her name was released people reveled in digging up details about her life and inferring that she somehow deserved her fate. Things took a turn for the worse when the guardian of her children wrote to implore people to stop with the negativity as it was affecting the children.  Her children were trying to cope with the loss of their mother and were tending to her Facebook page,  answering questions and repling to inquiries. Some replied by appealing to “free speech” and doubling down on their jackassery. All of this made me tremendously sad.

But then things started to take a positive turn. Friends of the deceased started reaching out to the family on her FB page. They offered to help with the kids. They took the time to say some kind words or share a fond remembrance. The kids were thankful and replied gracefully. The community rallied to take care of its own. The voices of the trolls on the news articles were dwarfed by the love and compassion shown on those articles and her FB page. My cynical side was surprised by this, which is to say that I was happy to be wrong. Humanity, you’re not all bad.

A me seh one thing Nancy cyaan understan

It’s weird to really like and enjoy a movie but associate negative connotations to it. For me that movie is The Royal Tenenbaums. I love pretty much everything about it — except how it makes me feel.

It was Spring Break of 2002. Spring break was already meaningless for me as I had entered the job market, but my then-sorta fiancee (long story) Nancy was a teacher so it was Spring Break for her. Over the first weekend of her break we went up to the mountains and did some snowboarding. We were planning on heading up again the next weekend as the conditions were great. During the week, I had to work and she was going to goof off.

On Monday Nancy and her friend went and saw The Royal Tenenbaums with her friend Betsy. We were both huge fans of Rushmore so I was bummed that I didn’t go but figured I’d catch it later. Nancy raved about Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Margot and strongly identified with her character. At first the identification was just physical. “She wore her hair at the same length as me with a barrette.” “Her wardrobe looked like it was pulled from my closet.” “We have the same mannerisms”. In hindsight, those things are all true. Her identification went beyond the physical, however. I just didn’t know it at that time.

The next day I was sitting at work prepping for an afternoon meeting. The meeting got rescheduled. I had a bunch of stuff that I could have done that afternoon but I figured that it was a “stolen” afternoon and I’d check in and see what Nancy was up to. “Ummmmm, I’m going to see Royal Tenenbaums again,” she stammered after I explained my free afternoon.

“Oh cool! I’ll come and meet you guys. You going with Betsy again?”

“Ummmm yeah, we don’t know which showing we are going to.”

“Great, let me know. I’ll probably be home in about an hour.” Read more…

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