Thoughts from a picture

The picture is small, grainy, faded, and far away
its subject matter not immediately clear
it seems to be a wide angle shot of mountaineers ascending a mountain, taken from a distance
the sound of the neighbor’s door shutting draws my attention away
returning to the image I realize that it is a close up of a woman in a white coat, the black spots that I mistook for climbers either a stain or the result of poor development
the landscape beyond the mountain a park
wondering, hoping to have a new revelation, hoping to have my vision thrown for a loop once more.
I look away,
I return
She is still there
white coat, park
I notice this time there is a road in the background
How did I not see these obvious details before.
What sort of mountain did I see?
I look away
I return
She is still there
white coat, park, street
I squint, hoping to wash away the years of neglect and light damage
My straining yielding no new details but some questions
Are those trees? Is the road paved? Is that really a road? Maybe it’s just a path.
I look away
I return
She is still there
white coat, park
My eyes tired of straining, drive me to the picture,
The park is now suspect. If that IS a trail is that a park or forrest? Is she just in a glen? Is that even a she? The features are indistinct.
I look away
I return
White coat, park

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Love, valentines, etc.

I want you to know that people love you. you might not belive it but it is true. People who’ve you never met you. People who don’t know who you are or what you’ve done, truly and deeply care about you. Some of us become monks or nuns. Some of us become social workers. Some of us got to shitty jobs and just do the best that we can. But what unites us is love.

I want you to know this because the world is both amazing and terrifying. If you look for too long at its uglier aspects it’s easy to wonder, “Why bother?” Bother to keep the humans species going. Bother to work for peace. Bother to get out of bed. It’s different for everyone of course, but for me the anser lies in the possible. We have the ability to become better as a species. I know because I’ve become a better person, and when I was at my worst someone I didn’t know helped me out.

I want you to know this because there are dark days in everyone’s life. Often it’s hard to know what to think. I want you to know this because I’ve felt alone and down and out. I believed the lie that I was alone in my struggles.

I want you to know because I love you.

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Not so lost in the Land of Enchantment

For Christmas my sweetie promised to teach me how to cross-country ski. Last weekend she took me up to Taos and I learned to ski! It was quite fun. Now I’m hoping to take on down-hill.

We stayed at a condo she had rented that was close to the main plaza so we could walk around and see the sites, as it were. We eventually found ourselves in a Western wear and memorabilia shop. We were going to skip it but thank god we didn’t! While there I found a few postcards that I liked and then noticed a belt buckle with a giant “N” on it. Meghan and I talked about it but after looking at the price I blanched. The owner happened to be sitting near by and he noticed my hesitation. He chimed in with “I’ll make you deal on that.”
“OK, what you’re offering”
“How’s $20.” He had it originally priced at $149.
“Done! That’s quite the bargain sir, thank you.”
After that we began talking about Taos and what we had been up to. Eventually it came up that I’m heading to nursing school and that Meghan is a teacher. At which point he handed me my card and the buckle and said “I want you to have that. I try to do anything I can to help someone who is committing their lives to helping people.”

I lost my words. I felt so humbled by this man. I told him thank you and how much I appreciated his generosity. The conversation then turned to where we would live. He quite rightly pointed out that not all places are the same, more to the point that not all towns are the same.

Taos is a small town, it’s not particularly easy to get to and it’s not near any urban centers. But it has a thriving arts community. This makes a world of difference. Unlike many small towns that have the feeling of time standing still hanging over them Taos, and similar places, have the urban feeling of liveliness but without all the traffic or drug problems.

This sort of experience is what gives me hope. People acting out their hopes is what is going to bring enable the human race to continue as a species. Particularly when those hopes are tied to the betterment of all beings. In my own life, my sense of ability changed remarkably when I decided on a course of action. A course of action, which focused not only on my own happiness but on the well-being of those around me. I cannot over state the importance of this. We are all interconnected.

In the United States we’ve fallen under the myth that the pursuit of individual happiness is the height of freedom. I believe the freedom of thought, expression, and speech is of the utmost importance. However to let people with no medical training or knowledge make public decisions is tantamount to letting someone without engineering training decide what the safety tolerances for a plane should be.

But where to begin? In a most obvious and hilarious irony it begins with individuals improving themselves. What I mean by that is not simply some self-help, bargain book, type of “improvement” but doing the actual hard work of being a better citizen and person generally. Meaning contributing meaningfully to your community and the lives of those around you. It can take as many forms as there are people on the planet, but a better world begins with actions, not just thoughts.

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…like opinions, everybodys got one

Is the United States becoming more polarized? Hard to say. This is one of those squishy things that there actually aren’t very good measures for. Given that we once had a civil war I’d say we’re not quite there yet. But what is everybody talking about? In the recent online debates (which really is an abuse of the term debate) online about gun control I’ve seen all many of horrible logic employed. Just about every fallacy that could be used has been, on both sides of the argument.

That said the hysteria seems to mostly come from folks who are concerned (paranoid?) that the government is coming to take their guns away. Why? Where is this concern coming from? It’s coming from their own side. No one in any position of authority has even floated the idea that taking guns away was on the table. NO ONE.

But that is the nature of most debates. As a population we are not particularly well informed. This is why politicians who couldn’t write a lesson plan to save their life feel perfectly fine acting as experts on education. This is why people who like guns think that they’re experts on public safety. Having an opinion doesn’t make you, me, or anyone else an expert. You know what does? Training, research, and studying copious amounts of verifiable data. All things that are too boring for the average arm-chair politician.

I haven’t done that research so I have stayed out of the recent gun control debate. I have opinions I just know that they’re based on feelings rather than facts, you know, like most of us.

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Bible quote time!

I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, I’m going to quote the Bible. Specifically, Matthew 26:11, “The poor shall always be with you….” This particular phrase has been an excuse by those lacking in empathy to justify injustice and negligence of our fellow human beings. But I suggest you consider it in a new light 1) it doesn’t have to be true and 2) poverty doesn’t necessarily need to be interpreted as being monetary.

Poverty, like all social problems, is solvable. However there is not the will nor motivation to actually do such a thing. Largely because people who are in control of most of the resources on this planet have not interest in giving up any amount of their comfort for those that they see as being below them.

This leads to the second point, poverty in empathy and spirit are the cause of poverty in creature comforts. So, to state the Bible verse in terms that are more appropriate for these modern times, the assholes shall always be with you.

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Why is anybody surprised?

Like many people, upon hearing about the most recent shooting in Newton, CT I was saddened. I teared up while listening to news reports. My heart went out to the parents of those children. Remarkably I heard several people say the most thoughtless things like “How could this happen?” and “blah blah blah gun control (for or against) blah blah blah.”

Mass killings happen in the United States with a predictable frequency. People who are pro-gun often say things like “Guns don’t kill people, people do” and “blah blah blah liberty blah blah blah.” And they are right guns sitting on a shelf, in a box, or stored somewhere do not kill people. Further it is beyond the ABILITY of the government to take those guns away, even if they wanted to (they don’t).

Other people said things like “If that crazy person hadn’t been allowed to legally purchase that weapon this wouldn’t of happened.” And they are right.

But this isn’t about trying to find some sort of equivalence. This about trying to understand how did this happen. What no one seems to be saying with any earnestness (as in funding research type of earnestness), “Why on earth is this happening?” I’ve not found any research that is compelling as to causal factors. I have my suspicions though. In this country we’ve made it clear through our policy decisions that as a country we don’t care about our fellow citizens. We have children living with their drug addicted parents and then blame teachers for those students failing in school.  We don’t fund pre-natal healthcare and then wonder why we have the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world. We throw away more food than many countries produce in a year but still have children going hungry. This list could go on forever. Every single one of these problems is created by policy. By an unwillingness to fund programs that would help children.

Aside from the obvious point that funding programs for children is morally right, it pays off in HUGE dividends by helping to raise a child who will become a contributing member of society rather than another body in our for-profit prison system.

Lots of evidence clearly shows that fundamental causes and NOT individual initiative are more likely to determine a persons life outcome. That is to say, your neighborhood and income level mean more about where you end up than most of your individual choices. We should be making every neighborhood a place worth living in.

But what does it all really mean? It means that, like most political debates in this country, to focus on a policy point rather than the context it’s happening is to miss the point entirely. When examples of more heavily armed countries with lower rates of violence are brought up all that is being highlighted is that our country is different from the example country. Due to our history, culture, and strange obsession with individualism, what works in many countries (every single person being armed) would not be a good idea here given our many divergent cultures and lack of concern for the common person.

The real tragedy in all of this is that politics will prevent even the most mundane and ineffectual of solutions being tried. If you want to make a difference, if you really want to prevent this sort of thing from happening, YOU, yes YOU, my dear reader should volunteer in schools, become a Big Brother or Sister, or volunteer at the community center in the poor part of your city. Politicians are too bull-headed and heartless to make the sorts of changes needed to make an impact, change starts with everyday citizens like you and me.

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Further thoughts on social psychology

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” – William Blake

In a not so recent post I mentioned confirmation bias and Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies. These two studies deeply inform how I think about the world. I thought I’d spend a little time writing about why. Perhaps more to the point, why should you care?

1) You can’t be objective and no one can.
I used to think that I could be objective, more to the point I thought anybody could be objective. It’s only after a variety of, how shall I say, learning experiences that I realized, I and everyone else views the world through a series of lenses. The lenses of culture, gender, religion/philosophy, heck even our physiology. The result is that even scientist(!) are influenced. Here is an example of how confirmation bias relates to objectivity.

John is reading the news and sees a study that shows Guns in the Home Provide Greater Health Risk Than Benefit. As a hunter, and the son of the hunter he quickly peruses the article and discounts the findings because the author teaches at a “liberal ivory tower.” He then goes on to think of all of the times he’s safely used a gun and the enjoyment he gets from spending time with his father in the woods.

The above example just as easily could have been about someone reading about abortion (for or against) and similarly dismissing the findings. Now add in an element of obedience. In my own brief tour of the U.S. Navy’s boot camp it was readily apparent that the “education” of the recruits adds a lens that the many of them would be looking through the rest of their lives. Add to that the predilection of people to follow orders and it’s no wonder that so many people “just follow orders.” That isn’t to equate what the vast majority brave men and women in uniform are doing to protect the this country with the atrocities to committed in WWII. But it is to say that the horrors of Abu Ghraib didn’t happen in a vacuum, rather those soldiers received orders and they acted on them. Then they were able to rationalize that behavior because it was being normalized by their peers.

 

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My contract ended, what now?

Like many people working in web technologies I work on contract. My most recent contract has ended. It’s sort of freeing and nerve wracking all at once. Freeing because I can collect unemployment, nerve wracking because unemployment doesn’t last forever. More than that it has me thinking about the state of employment and how it works, specifically in light of the “compromise” that was reached in Washington DC yesterday. The compromise to not tax the rich, not tax corporation, but rather to slash spending broadly. As if this whole financial crisis wasn’t manufactured. This compromise will do a few things to employment 1) it will have a chilling effect on whistle blowers in the workplace, 2) it will increase criminal activity, and 3) if we’re lucky, it will have a massive backlash.

Chilling effects
The slashing of trillions of dollars in spending means that the already fragile social safety net in the United States is likely to allow more people to “slip” through the cracks, and by slip I mean be pushed. Starting with Reagan there has been a notion that the mentally ill are better taken care of by their own wits on the street than by professional caregivers in a medical setting, same goes for junkies and other non-functioning drug addicts. The impact this has on the families of those people is immense and harmful. This is most immediately apparent in the lives of children. As hard as it is to have a drug addict for a parent it is only made harder by the lack of services available. One easy conclusion for children to make is that society at large doesn’t care about them. But what does this have to do with work?

When the economy isn’t doing well people are anxious about keeping their jobs. When the economy isn’t doing well and there is no safety net people are so anxious that they’ll endanger their health and well-being to keep their jobs. This includes things like not demanding a respirator because your manager might fire you for asking them to comply with OSHA, or dumping chemicals into a drain even though you know you shouldn’t, I’ve seen these things happen on work sites I’ve been on and it has never been pleasant. I don’t expect that suddenly all workplaces are going to turn into an homage to “The Jungle,” rather slowly as the economy errodes away at the financial health of businesses owners and managers become more tense, more willing to cut off anyone who steps out of line. After all there are a lot of people without jobs who would happily comply with the bosses orders.

This also has an impact on what people expect in a job. Particularly if you work on contract. Things like asking for medical and dental coverage are off the table. As a contractor it’s up to me to provide those things for myself, even if the job market is too competitive for me to charge enough to afford such things. Having no insurance for the last year I often wondered if I would be able to get “charity” care that is offered by some Catholic hospitals (chances are I wouldn’t).

Crime everywhere
Seattle crime statistics show, amazingly, a 6% drop in major crimes, howeer there was an increase in car theft¹. I think this is a not too surprising. More people out of work means more people trying to get by. And most people aren’t violent. Unlike what some pundits would like people to believe the world isn’t populated by savages barely containing their violence. Rather it’s full of people trying to take care of themselves and their loved ones the best way they know how. So when push comes to shove and you’ve got no way to pay your phone bill it’s more likely, I think, that you’d steal something rather than kill someone. I suspect that the five finger discount is going to become a much more popular method of payment as the economy continues to flounder.

Sweet, blessed, backlash
Things are very different now than they were during the Great Depression. Yet there are similarities. The differences are too many to recount. Some of the highlights though, in some ways we are a slightly more just society (think civil rights movement), communications technology has radically altered people’s ability to find and disseminate information, the ability of moneyed interest to directly influence elections is immense, and the use of social science, particularly psychology, against the general population (advertising, political and otherwise) is at an all time high. It appears that the people who run Washington (the Koch brothers) are perfectly content to endanger the lives of everyone so long as they are making money. Their ideological claims ignore the vast amount of benefit that they have, and continue to, derive from public goods (roads, dams, police, teachers, etc). But they’ll continue to erode the social safety net until their is nothing left. Eventually, presumably, people will throw all of the idiots in DC out. There are a number of ways to do this but I think publicly funded “clean” elections are the key.

As for me, right now, I’m just trying to get through nursing school and figure out whether or not there will still be an unemployment check coming.

1. Seattle Police, 2011, “2010 Crime Statistics” http://www.seattle.gov/police/Crime/10_STATS.HTM

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Why people flip out about food

Food is personal. Food is cultural. Food is political.

Food like so many things in our lives exist in many dimensions, it cannot be extracted out of any of them. It naturally follows that people go from zero to crazy in less than second when it comes to food. Like so many other topics, food sends people over the edge until they can no longer even think clearly. It becomes a strictly emotional issue that can conveniently be tied to other ideas that let us hide our emotions, like ethics, religion, and freedom.

Enter science! Although a great many people on both sides of the political spectrum don’t like to side with science when it doesn’t support their view, I still rely on it heavily. That said what does science and facts have to say about food? In the United States approximately one third of our land is used as agricultural grassland (USDA, 1997). As many people have pointed out before, that is a lot of land and energy being used to support an unnecessary dietary choice. The other side of that is the health benefits of not eating, or eating very little, meat.

But all of those things are well known and relatively old hat for anyone interested in food. What I find more interesting is the relationship with food. What I’ve got in mind here is confirmation bias. The long and the short of confirmation bias is that if you believe something you’re more likely to believe something that affirms that. Think on that for a minute. You’re more likely to be receptive to hear/see/think things that confirm what you’re already thinking than things that challenge you. This is part of why propaganda is so powerful. Sociology provides enough insight into what the general populace is thinking. By playing upon the worst parts of human psychology it’s relatively easy to whip people into frothing mass. Add to that people’s inclination to follow orders and you’ve got a big mess.

 

 

What’s all this have to do with food though? It breaks down like this. Advertising (propoganda) tells us how to eat. We internalize those messages. Those messages are part of our culture. What happens when science tells us we’re wrong? We ignore it, we downplay it, we feel guilty about it. We do everything except actually make a change in our life because it’s too damn hard to do the right thing in the face of everyone you know. The result, people form communities of like-minded individuals and then don’t want to talk to people who don’t think/feel/eat the same way. It’s all horribly obvious, stupid, and lethal. We all know, we’re all living it every day.

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Are sweets a pathogen?

As I wrote about previously sugar can have negative impacts on health. The New York Times Magazine, just came out with a wonderful article about the state of sugar research and what the findings can and can’t tell us. The article ends with a line that sums up much of how I feel about diet and health in general, “Officially I’m not supposed to worry because the evidence isn’t conclusive, but I do.” It’s that sentiment that I gets me in trouble. When talking to people who aren’t sympathetic to my concerns I get upturned eyebrows and sideways stares, clearly I’m the crazy person in the room. But it’s long been known that experts aren’t always honest. Although it’s generally acknowledged that eating fast food isn’t healthy it’s much harder to find people who are willing to admit that EVERYTHING about their way of living is bad for their health and the health of the planet. Any given episode of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” offers ample evidence that American’s either through ignorance or laziness eat horribly.

What’s a person to do? I propose that, like most things, we have to start with ourselves. I think the wikipedia page about the adage “pot calling the kettle black” offers a lot of useful ways to think about it. In short, clean-up your mess before you start criticizing someone else. In searching for a sustainable diet I’ve found these month long experiments to be helpful, even if they are crazy-making. Lately I’ve looked at the cookies in my freezer as if they held the answers to all of life’s problems.

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