Saturday, September 28, 2013

Always In My Way

I like to think I've outgrown a lot of bad habits. Poor reasoning, sloppy thinking, lazy shortcuts - I work on getting rid of these. But I'm like most of you; I'm not perfect, and humor is my weakness.

You have to be careful with humor. Even if you think you're "just kidding" you have to be careful that you're not hurting someone with it. Witness my earlier piece on my life in Korean school. That story is a prequel to the rest of this. Whether you read it or not, know this: I'm not a racist. I don't actually think poorly of Koreans - or Asians in general - and I don't tell these stories to disparage them. I tell them to teach about the danger of confirmation bias, and to make fun of myself.

So, when you read this and think, "Christ, what an asshole" - that's kind of my point.

It began on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1995. My lovely bride and I were just beginning our whirlwind romance, and we had stopped on a cliff side pull-out where there was a convenience store and a magnificent view of the ocean. We came back out to get in her Saturn and push on southward, but found that we were blocked in by a tour bus full of Asian tourists. There were several dozen of them standing as a group behind our car, with their bus (and the remarkable view) behind them. The driver was trying to take a picture of the group with each of their cameras. He must have had 30 or 40 cameras hanging on his arms, and he was working his way through all of them.

Just when we thought he was done, a few more cameras would be produced, and he would keep going - this happened more than once. We waited. We waited some more. Finally, Kate had a brilliant idea. She handed her own camera to the tour guide, and we stood next to the group and got our own photo out of the deal.

The group seemed confused... but did not take the hint.

Eventually they did disperse to go buy snacks, and we made our escape, laughing at the bemused expressions they gave us as we fled.

That might have been the end of it, but for the fact that I was still attending the Korean language school, and a day didn't pass without someone from Korea colliding with me in the hallway or driving by (usually in a Lexus, usually too close to me or my car). It sometimes seemed like they would aim for me - especially in the broad hallways of the school, where despite having plenty of room for four people to pass each other abreast I would find myself crowded against the wall by one of the teachers. Even when I flunked out of Korean school and started taking Russian, it seemed that everywhere I went, there were Asians in my way!

I commented on this to a few of my friends, and most of them laughed at me ("Christ, what an asshole!") ...but those closest to me noticed it, too. I'd be at the grocery store, and an oblivious Chinese woman would block me at every aisle with her shopping cart. I'd try to exit the freeway, and get cut off by a Korean in a minivan, and forced to take the next exit. It became a running joke - one that I tended to keep to myself, because, after all, I didn't want to seem racist.

But once you start seeing a pattern, you start looking for that pattern, and even my lovely bride started noticing.

Eventually, we left California and ended up in Maryland. One of our favorite things to do was to take our wee bairn out and push her around Washington DC in her stroller. On one particularly beautiful day, we headed for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to see if the baby girl would enjoy looking at dinosaurs.  (She did!)

I remember it being pretty crowded, but there was one family that seemed to dog our steps around every corner. We ran into them several times, and tried to slow down so they'd get ahead of us.  They slowed down, too.  We pushed through the clot of them, and sped up to get away from them, and they kept pace, pushing us from behind. It was maddening. But we figured we'd lose track of them when the baby needed to be fed & changed, and we set up camp in the family restroom.

When we were done, a good 15 minutes had passed, and I went out to retrieve our stroller - only to walk straight into the lens of our shadow family's video camera.

Because I had heard them speaking Korean (I sucked at it, but I could identify it like a champ), I tried saying "excuse me" - "shi-leh hamnida" - but that didn't work. No one made eye contact (they seemed to think that would be rude) and they just bunched up around the cameraman, and became intensely interested in the woolly mammoth he was filming. I tried to maneuver behind them, to avoid being rude myself by walking in front of the camera - but they were kind of milling around and there always seemed to be an elbow or knee wherever I was trying to slide by - and no amount of "excuse me" in any language seemed to work.

My Korean teachers had impressed upon us the importance that manners have in their culture. Being mostly uncouth youths fresh out of the Midwest, we pestered them to teach us "bad words," and they always demurred, claiming that the worst thing you could say to any Korean would be to address them with the wrong verb construction, indicating that you thought you had a higher status than the person you were speaking to. That hadn't stopped us from looking up words that (we hoped) would express some of the important phrases that we frequently used on each other.

So, I decided to be rude, and finally pushed my way in front of Mr. Cameraman.  Naturally, he pressed forward so I found myself mouth-to-microphone with his camera, and I said what the rude, angry American wanted to say right into that microphone: "Jaji mog-ko"... which was my best attempt at "Eat a dick."

Now, as poor as my language skill was (and is) it's possible that this would mean nothing to him or his audience, but I like to imagine that they took that tape home to Korea with them, and invited all of their neighbors and relatives to a big "trip to America" movie night.  I like to imagine them all gathered in front of the largest TV Samsung made in 1997, and seating their most ancient, honored grandmother right up front. I fantasize that Mr. Cameraman says, "Honored grandmother, behold the woolly mammoth I filmed for you at the Natural History Museum" ...just as the mammoth on screen rumbles "Eat a dick" in a good ol' U.S. accent.

It is possible that I may have killed an old Korean lady in 1997, and I would never know it.

But it gets better.

Naturally, I don't keep these little stories to myself, and I have told them many times to my best of friends. So when my flamingo had a visit from his German friend, I somehow got drawn into telling them to her. We had a few laughs, and I explained that I don't really harbor any lasting resentment, but that I always seem to find Asians in my way - and to watch out if she visited DC.

As it happened, they did. And when they were reading one of the quotes set into the paving stones of the World War II Memorial, an odd thing happened.

They were standing in a relatively open space, obviously reading something on the ground, and an elderly Asian man walked up to them and stood in front of them, placing his feet on the square they were reading. They looked up at him, and he began shaking some kind of wooden clacking device - CLACK-A-CLACK-A-CLACK-A - as he stared right back at them.


"Excuse us, sir..."


"We were reading that!"

And a crowd gathered - most likely a tour group - pressing the two would-be readers off to the side. Everyone kept staring at them, as if they were the ones in the way, and while no one intentionally shoved them, they were nudged further and further away, until they decided to give up and head for less crowded territory.

Naturally, they thought of me. When our German friend told me about this adventure, I had to laugh.  "It looks like I passed my curse on to you!" I told her. "Confirmation bias - it's a terrible, terrible thing!" We all laughed, then, and thought nothing more about it... until she landed in Munich on her return trip home, and they started showing up everywhere. Blocking her way off the train, nudging her away from the baggage claim...

Of course, now that I've told you all of this, you're bound to start noticing it, too. There are 1 billion people in China alone, which means you've got a better than 1-in-7 chance that anyone you meet on this planet would fit the definition of "Asian," and now every time you see one of them, you're going to register the experience in the back of your head.  Even though you're probably cut off in traffic a hundred times a day, you'll only notice the Asians. Even though you're more likely to get bumped in the grocery store by old white people, you'll notice the Asians.

Just remember that it isn't their fault - it's my fault, and my curse. And even though I know it's my brain following it's own confirmation bias, I will continue to find #AsiansInMyWay. And to them I can only (and will only) say, "Excuse me."

Xin lôi.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

We're All Tired So Now What?

You know this already:

So, are you sitting around the table figuring out that you're passively accepting too much?  What do you want to do about it?

Start thinking about Lesterland now, before the media really, truly ramps up the distraction machine. Start thinking about what you can do to make 2016 different.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Order Out of Chaos

I inherited my copy of James Glieck's Chaos in 2007, along with a box of other junk left behind by the Air Force staff sergeant I was replacing in my new office. He had left a bunch of cryptic notes stuffed in the book - mostly libertarian quotes and ideas combining his notions of chaos theory with Ayn Rand - and it took a while for me to decide to actually read the book because I thought he sounded a bit kooky.  I didn't know much about the topic beyond what most people remember from Jurassic Park, and the cover made me think of Deepak Chopra. So at a time in my life when I've been trying to avoid fringe-y, mystical thinking in favor of understanding real science, I almost missed out on this treat.

But when I finally cracked the book and read the stories about Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, and Lorenz's attempts to model weather, I found that it was less strictly a book about science and more a book about scientists. It attempted to describe the people and the problems they were grappling with, and showed how their ideas grew out of wildly different disciplines and, over time, eventually cross-pollinated and became something more than any of the individuals involved had thought possible.

I don't remember when I started, but it has taken me more than 3 years to get through it.  This is not the most difficult book I've tried to read - that honor goes to Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (which I've yet to finish - 20+ years and counting!).  But it is the kind of book that I can only absorb in small sips.  I will pick it up, and run through a couple of chapters, then flip back to previous chapters to make sure I understand what they're talking about - then put it down and think about it... sometimes for weeks or months.

At one point, I took it with me to my boys' Pinewood Derby, and one of the other dads noticed it on the table. "Oh, wow!" he said, "I read that in college!" He seemed excited, and I expected him to ask me about what I thought, or share some pearl of wisdom he had learned from it; but instead he said, "They disproved it  all a few years back, though.  Of course, I'm a creationist, so... you know." And he wandered off.

I didn't say anything, because what I wanted to say would have been rude.  ("I have no idea what you're talking about, but I guess we have that in common.") That whole speech left me perplexed, though, and it colored the way I read the rest of the book.

Up to that point, I had just been enjoying the stories about the scientists, and how they were fumbling with math to try to figure out these perplexingly complex problems. It was neat to see the way their work overlapped, and how unconventional their approaches were.  It also happened that I had discovered Jonathan Coulton's song about Benoit Mandelbrot, whose famous work with fractals features heavily in the first third of the book, so I had something of a soundtrack to go with it.

Still, I was completely baffled when he said, "They disproved that." How do you "disprove" a whole field of study?  How do you "disprove" mathematical observations and modeling?  And what did being a creationist have to do with any of it? As a former evangelical christian myself, I get why creationists object to concepts like evolution, which they perceive as a threat to their worldview, but this was all math. How can you be threatened by math?

So whenever I picked the book up after that, I kept an eye out for something controversial. In retrospect, I'm surprised it took me so long to clue in, especially since Coulton's song spells it out in an instrumental break:
"He gave us order out of chaos
He gave us hope where there was none
His geometry succeeds where others fail"
As I get nearer to the end of the book, and I see the practical applications of this field of study in medicine, manufacturing, and economics, I'm struck again and again by the ways in which words betray us. The whole grand story arc of the book is about how scientists learned to pay attention to "noise" - the small, irritating factors that have always interfered with accurate measurements. Just paying attention to the tiny movements of air and molecules that can throw off sensitive devices, and the way turbulence in liquids can propagate led them to mathematical techniques that allow scientists today to simplify incredibly complex systems - like weather, or the human body.

But the words involved - "noise" and "disorder", "randomness", "linear" and "nonlinear" - all of these words carry baggage if you're not using them in the precise way that the scientists studying these things are using them.  And if your worldview is shaped by a belief that order cannot come from chaos, then any mathematical indication that it does - that, in fact, chaos itself has an implacable and unavoidable order to it - is going to make you very uncomfortable with the field of study.

It's really worth reconsidering what you think you know about all of those words.  When you really look at nature, and you see how deeply ordered things are - these amazing patterns - you begin to realize that things we perceive as random really aren't. If you look, you can see how (dare I say it) evolution of life becomes inevitable in the patterns of interaction between matter and energy. If you really want to see the world that way, you could almost be excused for seeing an intelligent hand involved in designing everything - because mathematically, it's really difficult to actually produce randomness, and our brains try to fit what we observe into patterns of cause and effect.  But at the same time, because randomness is so rare, you don't need an external, supernatural intelligence guiding anything to explain the patterns in the universe.

I think that is what made the guy at the Pinewood Derby say what he said.

Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog (or my Twitter feed) regularly knows how I get when I am confronted by ridiculous assumptions. It still bothers me that the guy said that and caught me off guard, and then left his assumptions hanging in the air behind him.  It bothers me any time people dismiss something they understand poorly because they think it contradicts something else they hold dear, and they are afraid to face the contradiction. It bothers me especially when people take it further and accuse scientist or atheists (two different groups that this particular kind of person thinks they need to lump together) of being cold and passionless, and devoid of curiosity.

If anything, this book is a fascinating refutation of that. It is a fine example of just how curious and passionate people can be about science and math; and while the proofs these people worked out could certainly call into question some fervently held notions about the likelihood of there being a god somewhere (probably dwelling in the infinitely dwindling gaps of a Mandelbrot Set), it's not as if they concocted the ideas out of spite just to give God the finger. They followed the evidence where it led them, and worked out the numbers they needed to get the answers they were looking for.  For all I know, any or all of the scientists working on any of this could be devoutly religious themselves.

The point is: it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that you can learn a lot from just observing the world around you. Some people can learn a lot more than you can, because they're smarter at numbers or better equipped. Those people sometimes learn and share amazing things, and other people just as smart can take that new knowledge and build on it. That's what science is.

In the 25+ years since this book came out, we've already come to take the benefits of chaos theory for granted. My parents and grandparents benefited from improvements in the science of cardiology. Air travel and automobiles have been made more efficient, thanks to better modeling of turbulence. We're all benefiting from advances in miniaturization, data compression, and other computer advances. And even the hapless field of meteorology has advanced to the point where we can at least track weather events, even if we can't reliably predict them.

Of course, I'm a realist, so... you know.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Calling America

Part 1: Call Me Maybe (Not)

My life as a working man started out in what many would consider "menial jobs" - first as the fry guy at my high school cafeteria, then as a carry-out at a couple of different grocery stores. After graduating high school with a couple years worth of work experience on my resume, I decided to trade in the rewards of life as a bag boy and move up to something a little more white collar.

Acting on a tip from a friend-of-a-friend, I applied at a Phoenix-based market research company and was hired to spend my evenings calling unsuspecting American consumers to find out their valued opinions about the crucial inner workings of our economy. For the princely sum of nearly $6/hour (more than minimum wage!) I could virtually visit the homes of demographically desirable people in a rolling sweep of America's timezones.

You might think with my pre-disposition against the telephone that I would have avoided this job the way a Congressman avoids accountability - but as the Congressman would probably tell you, you can brazen your way through anything if the paycheck is tantalizing enough. And I had frankly had my fill of bagging groceries for cranky old farts, and dodging their Buicks in 115 degree heat while retrieving their carts. If I could pull down $30+ a night sitting in a cubby and reading off a CRT screen for 6 hours a night, I was all about that.
"Good evening, ma'am, this is Tad with Thelocal Market Research qualify for our survey, how frequently do you purchase jeans? And could you please name as many brands of jeans as you can?... Thank you... and if you could, please, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 meaning "least agree" and 10 meaning "most agree" please rate the following dozen or so statements.... first up: 'Jordache jeans make me feel like a real cowboy.'... Yes, sir, that was the question.... no, I'll need a number between 1 and 10, please. Great! Now how about the statement 'Wrangler jeans make me look sexy and fashionable...'"
But keeping a straight face wasn't the hard part. No, I realized straight off that I was in a cutthroat and merciless business when our managers explained during orientation how we would be judged. The Bureau paid good money for the lists of phone numbers they pumped through our system, and they expected us to maintain a high percentage of "complete" calls. And we were closely monitored for our performance - with our jobs on the line at any time.

We all had a nightly quota to fill of actual completed surveys - meaning that the respondent qualified on the demographic questions, and then actually finished all of the survey questions.  If they didn't qualify - because, for example, they didn't wear jeans, or drink beer, or watch nightly news programs - or if we already had a large enough sample for their age, race, or gender, they didn't count toward our quota.
"Good afternoon, sir! I'm Tad with Thelocal Market Research Bureau...before we begin, I need to verify that you consume at least 3 alcoholic beverages a week... no, I don't need a full count, just more than 3? ... wow, 90?  Okay, well done. And have you been drinking alcohol for at least 3 years? For 7 years...90 a week for... no, that's just... wow. Great - last one - I need to make sure you are at least 21 years old... ah, well happy birthday! Yes, you barely made it - great timing, sir!"
Our overall performance was judged by whether we met our quota in our 6 hour shift, and by our "rejection rate." We had to track how many calls we made, and whether they were a "hangup" a "No" or a "Complete." We were not allowed to hang up on a respondent under any circumstances; if they hung up before completing a survey, that counted as a hang-up, but if they simply wanted to refuse to participate, we were required to get them to say "No" at least twice before ending the call.  We were monitored at random, so we never knew until after the end of a call whether there was a supervisor listening in, but if they caught you hanging up or leading the respondent to say "No," you could be sent home.
"Good evening, sir, this is Tad with Thelocal Market Research Bureau... why, yes, it should be about 9:30 there... since I already woke you, could I get you to answer a few quick questions about... Oh, I'm in Phoenix, sir, but could I possibly ask you... I would appreciate it if you wouldn't use that kind of language sir... if I could just get you to... I'm sure a telephone would never fit *there*, sir..."
I tried to figure out what my co-workers did to keep their numbers up, but it was tough.  We weren't supposed to stray from the script, and there wasn't really any down time for chatting between calls. Even if I could have leaned over to ask for pointers, my neighbors were rarely people I could talk to. The middle aged man with the child molester mustache and bad comb-over wouldn't make eye contact on his best day; the retired school teacher lady had her knitting and an acid tongue for every hangup; the cute girl my age couldn't decide whether to flirt or sneer at me.  The only one who even talked to me was the flamboyant Madonna-themed crossdresser who happened to be the roommate of a friend from choir.  And while I can appreciate now the rare compliment his motives paid me, at the time I was seriously put off by his not-at-all-subtle intentions.
"Good morning, ma'am! Thelocal Market Research Bureau calling, my name is Tad. Could I ask you a few questions to see if you qualify for our survey on burgers today? Great!"
The stress was surprisingly difficult to deal with. I found myself dreaming in surveys; burgers, beer, jeans, and more. I found myself answering the phone at home, "Thelocal Market Research Bureau..." And despite all my efforts, it seemed I couldn't get the hang of boosting my numbers.  Even when I had a good call, I could expect a supervisor to come out on the floor and call me out for some mistake.
"You may want to move your questions along a bit next time, Tad."
"But I got the survey done..."
"It's a 15 minute survey about hamburgers.  It took you 45 minutes."
"I couldn't help that. She was passionate about Wendy's 'buy one get two free' offer."
"I realize that, but these weren't open ended questions."
"We asked how many burgers she buys in a week. She had to average the weeks when she buys 4 dozen against the weeks when she subsists off the frozen burgers."
"But you let her ramble on."
"I tried."
"Try harder...or you go home."
In the end, I got tired. It was overwhelming, and I had other things I wanted to do in the afternoon.  Shift started strictly at 3pm, and school let out at 2:30, so if there was any traffic to speak of, or if I had to stop for anything (like maybe to use the bathroom? I'm only human!) the doors would be shut and I'd be sent home.

Finally, my supervisor pulled me aside and put it bluntly - I clearly didn't want to be there, and while he didn't want to fire me, it was going to happen if I didn't improve all my numbers: attendance, rejection rate, call time, quota. So I went home and started looking for a new job.

It wasn't even a close call.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do You Know What You Are Talking About?

Words mean things.

Sometimes, it gets really confusing, because the same word can mean different things - like the way "fly" can be both an annoying insect and a crucial mechanism on a pair of pants.  Other times, different words that sound like they should be opposites mean the same thing - like "flammable" and "inflammable".

And if you want to get really super-King Kong word-nerdy, you could argue about how and whether usage by a population changes a meaning, and about whether people should cling to old meanings that are out of favor.  (Like, should "gay" mean what it does today, or should it mean what it meant 50 years ago?)  I don't want to get too deep into that kind of argument here.  I just want to clear up some things that people keep saying that may be leading to unnecessary confusion.

I want to address the over-used word, "Government."

If you click on the word "Government" above, it will take you to the entry.  Feel free to refer to that, or to whatever your dictionary of choice may be as I wax rhapsodic about the different definitions of the word.  No matter which set of definitions you choose, I hope you will notice that the real difference between them is scope. The first definition, though, should be the most widely used and generic one, and it should boil down to this:
Direction and control exercised over the actions of the members of a group.
Governing, in that sense, is something that we all do when we participate in any group.  And ours is supposed to be a participatory government.  We're all supposed to be paying attention to who is representing us at various levels, and have at least a vague inkling of how their choices represent our choices. The point is to keep every negotiation, disagreement, or transaction from becoming a battle that ends with the stronger party destroying the weaker party and taking away their lunch money. In other words:
Government is necessary to the existence of civilized society.
Deep down, I think all of my friends and neighbors agree with that. Where we run into trouble is when some of you start equating everything that has to do with any *kind* of government as *the* government - or the Big Government.

This is a problem, because as anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention can immediately tell, there are different kinds of governments all over the world, and different levels within each that have different rules, different jurisdictions - and it is wrong and misleading to lump them together as all being the same thing.

Doing so is lazy, and it leads to the kinds of conspiratorial thinking that drives too many people in our modern society - from relatively harmless loudmouths (like the Glenn Becks of the world) to destructive sociopaths (like the shooters & bombers in too many of our recent news headlines). I am not saying that Conspiracy Theorists Are Crazy, but it is important to bring some reason and objectivity to bear on the things that you say - and the first step is know what you meant by the words you chose.

It's probably also a really good idea to have some idea what your intended audience will think you meant.  (That's where this post comes in!)

One popular topic for people to grouse about on Facebook is schools. Most of my friends have children, and there are a million things to complain about during the course of each year that can be laid at the feet of the school district.  Too often for my taste, these conversations end with an eye roll and a jab at "the government" - sometimes, they even lead into a soapbox speech about how the current President is trying to do something to our children (brainwashing, usually) through the Big Government apparatus of their local schools.  What is maddening and absurd about that sort of notion is that there are slightly more than 16,000 school districts in the United States with an approximately equal number of different school boards running them. And almost all of them are elected school boards.

But here's a sticky question: how many of those who complain about the Big Government brainwashing program have any idea who any of the people on their local school board are? How many complainers know when they last voted for (or against) any of those elected officials?

I could repeat this process for every kind of complaint I see tossed around on my various friends' and neighbors' social media, or thrown out in public.  Listen to yourself and those around you, and see how often you hear The Government being blamed for things over which the complainer actually *could* have some control.  (And if you want to pursue the idea of running for some of those offices, well... I Dare You!)

Of course, there is always the fact that there is a big, federal government that is doing things in ways that a lot of us think it shouldn't be.  There are a lot of contentious questions to argue about that revolve on the government's proper role. But even at the national level, I see people using their ignorance of complex problems to let themselves off the hook of doing basic critical thinking.

It's not enough simply to sneer, and blame the "government" for your problems.  First, you have to know what your complaint really means.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Call Me Maybe (Not)

This is a tale of a phone call faux pas. First of many, and just one reason why I cannot stand the telephone to this day.

My father was a firefighter. He had tried his hand at teaching, but it simply hadn't suited him. He had no patience for dealing with saucy high school students in the 1969 version of Glendale, AZ, so after only one year, he found himself a spot on the Phoenix Fire Department.

He started when I was extremely little, so all I remember growing up was the natural pattern of having daddy home two days, and him being at work for a third.  One 24-hour shift every three days isn't a bad deal, but as we got to that age (around 3 to 5) where we started to notice he was gone, mom started the tradition of calling him at bed time.

You know how those calls go; the kid is whiny & tired, but doesn't want to sleep, and you put them on the phone so they start to perform. We would make goony noises and tell him lame jokes, and he would tell us exciting tales from the firehouse ("Tonight, Fred tried to make chili and set fire to the cooktop!"). We tried to drag it out as long as possible, and mom would try to hurry us up. Every call ended the same way:

"Love you!" And a big, loud kiss - MWAH!

These routine phone calls tapered off, as they do when the kids get a little older. I still loved talking to dad, but the phone itself wasn't that exciting, and I knew he was going to be home the next day.  My sister was about 4 years behind me, though, so when I had kind of started to outgrow the bed time phone calls, she was just getting into it.  She would remind mom to call, or we would fight over who got to dial - and yes, I'm a dinosaur who remembers the rotary phones - then she would chatter at him until it was my turn to say good night, all rounded out with the obligatory "Love you! - MWAH!"

The only other times we would be on the phone tended to be special occasions like birthdays or Christmas, and it was usually talking to a grandma or grandpa. These were exciting events, because mom's folks tended to travel around a lot, and we didn't get to see them often.  We would blather on at them about whatever we were doing in our solipsistic lives, and grandma would cluck about the expensive long distance charges, and then eventually... "Love you! - MWAH!"

Sometimes it would be dad's folks calling for a birthday; or Aunt Ginny out in Florida; or (even more rarely) the relatives in New Jersey. I don't remember a whole lot about specifics, but you know how I ramble on trying to be amusing, and I'm pretty sure that's what I was like then, too - so I'm sure I told stories ranging from hilarious to awkward, mumbled about school and loving Jesus, and passed the phone to my sister before we ended with that habitual "Love you! - MWAH!"

But seasons turn, the tides roll in and out, and kids outgrow the easy sharing of casual emotion, and somewhere around the point when my age hit double digits, I started dodging the phone calls as much as possible. I'd still get dragged to the phone for certain annual rituals, but it wasn't what you'd call an "everyday" sort of tool.

Then one day, the phone rang, and my mom called me downstairs (because it was, you know, stuck to the wall down there), and Scott from school was speaking to me.  This was odd.  No one from school had ever called me before; and Scott and I had never been the closest of friends. He was asking me over to play at the park near his house. I was so very confused, I remember trying to hand the phone back to mom for her to deal with it. Of course, since we lived about 15 miles from the school, and my classmates almost all lived in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it, mom wasn't about to take me anywhere on a whim like that - so I think I thanked him for asking, but had to turn him down.

And that's where my relationship with the phone kind of started out: a mixture of that grudgingly dutiful family feeling with an extra dose of bafflement and sad confusion.

A couple of years after Scott's call, I had switched schools, and I was reaching that age where most of my peers were spending a great deal more time on the phone. I wasn't, but that was about to change thanks to a special group assignment for science class.  We were paired up with partners, and we were supposed to get together to build a model of the solar system.  I brought home a phone number for my friend and classmate, Tony.  (You might remember him from last month.)

I was pretty excited about working on a project with another kid.  Living so far away from the world, we really didn't get a lot of spontaneous play time with anyone outside of our church (and it was a small church, so kids my own age were a rarity). I liked Tony, so I was looking forward to hanging out with him.  But something had to happen first.  Something I hadn't ever really done before.

I had to call him.

The memory of making the phone call is pretty clear - I can still see the spinning plastic dial, and hear the static-shrouded clicks of the rotor.  I can remember the details of all the things sitting on mom's dresser in front of me as I waited for someone to pick up, and then as I croaked my well-rehearsed greeting.  (Mom had to coach me thoroughly on phone etiquette, you know; say "Hello," and tell them your name, then ask for the person you're calling.)  Once I got Tony on the line, though, it kind of clicked.  This was normal.  It was just talking!  I can do that - no problem!  We made our plans, set times, confirmed our transportation arrangements and agreed on materials. Before I knew it, we were all set.

"Alright, see you Saturday.  Love you! - MWAH!"

Wait.  What?  What the ... actual... did I just blow a big, loud kiss at my classmate over the phone?

Yes.  Yes, I did.

I think mom laughed the whole rest of that week, and she may have still been giggling when she dropped me off that Saturday at Tony's house. I was mortified, and not looking forward to this any more.  But I had nothing to worry about.  Tony hadn't even noticed. He had been so nervous about being on the phone, he'd hung up when I said "Alright..."

Still - this was such a harsh entry into the world of teenaged telecommunications.  At least I learned the ever-valuable Lesson #1:  No big, loud kissing.

But that wouldn't be enough to prepare me for the First Telemarketing Job....

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Penguin, a Sleazy Lawyer, and The Truth(tm)

I am listening to my two sons read to each other from my Bloom County books in the living room.  This is an uncomfortable thing.  Why? Because they are 12 & 13 (6th & 8th grades) and I remember being in middle school when my friend Tony introduced me to Bloom County.

Tony was my sidekick and constant companion during my 5th & 6th grade years at Northwest Community Christian school - he was the fabulous cartoonist in Fatman's Lament, and we both enjoyed the same radio that led to "The Thriller" incident. He also introduced me to Garfield, and secretly kept a stash of recent Mad Magazines which I borrowed surreptitiously until my dad caught me with one.

Clearly, as subversive literature goes, Mad Magazine was a "bridge too far" - it was what my dad called "sick jokes," and it was part of the culture my folks were trying to protect me from when they moved me from public school to NCCS in the first place. I wouldn't out my source, because Tony was the closest friend I had ever had, and I didn't want to risk losing access to him.  But dad kept an eye on my reading material for a while.

Strangely, he never had a problem with Bloom County.

Bloom County (for those who don't know, and couldn't be bothered to follow the link above) was a comic strip by Berke Breathed which ran from December 8, 1980, until August 6, 1989.  It examined events in politics and culture through the viewpoint of a fanciful small town in Middle America, where children often have adult personalities and vocabularies and where animals can talk. (thanks, Wikipedia)

Tony and I loved the hilarious send up of demon rock and roll that Mr. Breathed brought to life in the disgusting character of Bill the Cat (fine example here).  We disintegrated into giggles over the band, Billy & the Boingers, with Opus the penguin on tuba, and Bill playing his tongue.  And while we didn't understand most of the references, we were intrigued by the political humor.

As I listen to my boys reading these old strips out of my battered copy of Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, I wonder how many of the names mean anything to them.  It was Bloom County that told me who Pat Buchanan was, and why he was ridiculous (and a little scary); it was Bloom County that made me question my undying devotion to St. Reagan by calling out his aides (like Jeane Kirkpatrick and one Richard Cheney) for their foibles; and it was Bloom County that formed my concept of what a "liberal" was as that became a term that increasingly used in the early 90s to describe anyone who strayed from the increasingly curmudgeonly conservative party line.

As I got older, and really started to struggle with what kind of man I wanted to become, Bloom County continued to be an influence on me.  I remembered some of those strips for the questions they raised.  I remembered some of the targets of those jokes, and went back to look at who they really were.  I wouldn't exactly say this comic strip was the formative influence of my political personality, but it did set me up to appreciate political humor and made me want to understand politics at least well enough to get all the jokes.

So I wonder how hard it will be for my children to "get" what I got out of the whole Bloom County experience. Part of me wants to step in and educate them not only on the who's who, but on the spin and bias that one has to take into account to understand what is behind the jokes. I want to help them make sense of it, and help them learn what I learned from questioning my assumptions about what was going on in the political realm of the day, and avoid some of the intellectual pitfalls and ....

But I can't do that.

The most valuable thing about these books, the reason I read them, the reason I still have them, is their ability to provoke thought.  They made me laugh, then they made me question.  And I see them making my boys laugh. The only way they will get around to the questioning is on their own. If I try to tell them what I think, then I'll turn off whatever is being turned on in their heads right now.

And I won't do that.

Sometimes, the hardest thing a parent has to do is step back and give a child room to figure things out for himself. I may not like what he learns, and I may not agree with the conclusions he arrives at - I know my dad feels that way about me, sometimes - but I won't accomplish anything positive by interfering.  I have to trust that I've done my job, and take the interest in ticklish tales as an indication that I have.

As for Tony... I lost track of him.  I hope he's still a fan.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Republican #SOTU Response

In 2011, I posted a musing after the State of the Union address which poked at a couple of the President's less stellar ideas, and panned the soon-to-be-VP-nominee Rep. Paul Ryan's speech as "feeble." This year, after seeing Sen. Rubio's performance out-limbo even Ryan's, I was moved to tweet:
I feel a little bad about ladling on the criticism all the time without really putting my own ideas out there, so I figured I'd take a stab at writing my own rebuttal. This isn't necessarily "what the GOP ought to say" or "what I believe projected on the GOP" - but it is a speech which, if delivered by an actual Republican, would have impressed me far more than the empty pablum they have been repeating for the last few years. No doubt, Real True Republicans(tm) will object to the things I have to say - I would be surprised to earn even the dubious honor of "RINO" if I were a real Republican giving a speech like this.  But this is what I keep hoping to hear, so what the hell.  (Pay attention to the links I've embedded along the way - they are there to help you understand things that I left unsaid in the text.)

My Fellow Americans -

I want to congratulate President Obama on his success of the last four years, and his recent electoral victory. It is my sincerest hope that together, the President and our Congress will be able to break gridlock and move out of the past.

I am convinced that this is possible, because Mr. Obama fought hard for so many Republican ideas in his first term - such as the cap and trade plan to control carbon emissions, the mandate contained in his health care bill, and maintenance to President Eisenhower's visionary highway system. Rather than re-fight the battles of the past, we should face forward and do the hard work of governing. That means keeping a single shared goal in sight, and benefiting from the tension created by competing ideas about how to get there.

The President speaks of job creation, and in today's job market we all want to see growth of good paying, middle class jobs - but the federal government is not the best tool for spurring the growth of those jobs. The American people would be better served by a reduction of rules and overhead - and a reduction of wasteful legislative practices, which the President promised early in his first term.

My party worries a great deal about the size and intrusiveness of government, but that does not mean we do not share the same concerns the President has for individual consumers, borrowers, and independent entrepreneurs. It means that rather than creating new arms of bureaucracy to deal with past and future challenges - bureaucracies such as the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau or the U.S. Cyber Command - we should invest the limited resources we have in achieving our goals within existing structures. This could mean charging the FBI to more aggressively pursue fraud charges against the financial institutions who caused the financial meltdown; this could mean investing in computer security programs within our armed forces training commands as well as our public universities.

I applaud the President for finally taking a firm, public stance on the scientific consensus regarding climate change and the human activity driving global warming. There is little remaining doubt that something must be done, but much room for disagreement about what that something must be. As the President has stated many times, there is tremendous opportunity for job growth in moving to renewable sources of energy, but if this move is done right, it presents even more opportunity to expand individual freedoms. America's energy history shows that time and again, we build enormous, centralized infrastructures to power our homes and businesses, only to end up committed to maintaining them at public expense. We built the railroads partly to move coal to market, and then later built the grid of transmission lines to move electricity from centralized plants to even the most remote farms and communities.

The explosion in production of solar panels produced in the last few years - particularly in China - has presented the opportunity to cheaply embark on the creation of a system of distributed rooftop power generation where, for the first time in a long time, individuals can achieve the simple goal of capitalism: to own their own means of production. The technology isn't perfect, yet, but neither was electricity itself when our nation recognized that it should be available to everyone.

It should be easier to look inward and address our ailing infrastructure as the war in Afghanistan winds down. We should also turn our attention to caring for the millions who have served in combat for the past decade. They represent the core of our future defense on all fronts, and as a resource of knowledge and expertise, we should remain committed to rewarding their service with the dignity and respect of good jobs in areas where we have the most need. They have seen firsthand the best and worst of our massive defense apparatus, and are best able to help us choose and build the next generation of equipment, ships, and aircraft as we face our modern security challenges. Programs to help them retrain, retool, and recover from a decade of war are entitlement programs in the purest sense: programs to which they are entitled. We owe them no less.

The President makes some bold claims about deficit reduction, and if you look at the numbers a certain way, those claims are almost true.  America needs to have an informed conversation about spending and revenue. We need to face our spending obligations line by line and make some decisions about what is truly necessary to spend, and what should be shifted away from federal or even public funding.  Before we can talk about increasing revenues, we need to address the inherent unfairness built into our over-complicated tax code. We should take a hard look at ideas that have been ignored for years - such as flat-tax plans or simplified, graduated income taxes - and we should give them a fair hearing before raising any of our existing taxes.  In fact, rather than unrealistic pledges never to raise revenues, our leading parties should hold each others' feet to the fire and ensure that any increase comes with an equal or greater reduction elsewhere.

Reforming our broken and painful immigration system will help us face many of these challenges. Finding a way to bring the nearly 4% of us who are here illegally fully into the system will undoubtedly make us a healthier, richer society; encouraging more who want to come and work with us to build our future, help us care for our sick and elderly, and teach our children about the world is not only wise but noble. It is worth noting that as our largest generation ages, we will need more immigration to fill out the work force and increase our tax base. Increasing full participation in our economy is just one way we benefit from welcoming newcomers to our shores.

The last ten years have also left us facing some hard questions about who we are and how we protect and project our nation's interests abroad. Questions about our commitment to the rule of law and the protection of our own liberties have increasingly plagued us, and the answers we have come up with have only created more conflict while leaving us no safer. Promises of transparency have hidden the increased prosecution of leaks, and the President's record on humanitarian and civil liberties issues is no better than his much-maligned predecessor. Details we have learned in recent days about the President's drone program should give every American pause, regardless of party affiliation. We should all be asking who we think we are, and who we want to be.

It has also become evident in recent weeks that our society is ready to rethink the way we handle personal gun ownership. This is an emotionally charged issue which the President has tried to handle as moderately and pragmatically as everything else he has done in his tenure. I have no desire to try to take away the guns that belong to my responsible friends and neighbors, or to stigmatize them because of the actions of a few disturbed individuals. At the same time, the laws we have on the books have not done the job they were intended to do, and it's past time we addressed loopholes and poor enforcement practices that have allowed tragedies to occur with such alarming frequency.  It's true that no legislation will ever completely eliminate the risk that a determined aggressor will be able to acquire a weapon and harm others, but we should pay as much attention to the Founding Fathers' intention to have a "well-regulated militia" as we do to ensure that the right to bear arms is not infringed.

I believe that the lion's share of our efforts should go toward improving mental health services and education. This means that we should not just focus on individuals who exhibit behavior we don't understand and single them out for suspicion and ridicule; instead we should build stronger, more attentive, and more nurturing communities. Most often, problems go untreated simply because individuals and those around them are not aware that there is a problem until it is too late. Education is the key to addressing this, not only because getting the latest information out to the broadest number of people is important, but because instilling critical thinking skills and creating an evidence-based approach to the unknown is so crucial to our society's survival.  Rather than continuing a federal system that attempts to standardize teaching while eroding those crucial skills, we should find ways to incentivize parental involvement and reduce class sizes. Doing so will present better ways to teach and learn, and make it easier to identify, treat, and integrate those with different needs.  All of this will do more to reduce bullying and stereotyping than any legislation against such things ever could.

Our world is in a period of drastic transition and change. Change is frightening, but necessary. We need to adjust our approach to meet it together. Together, we have the tools we need to steer that change in ways that will improve the quality of our lives, reduce tension in the world, and heal the damages wrought by the turbulence of the past century. We can do better, because we are better.

May you all be worthy of your own best efforts.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What Would You Trim From the Budget?

I am not an economist.  In fact, I try to make it clear to people that I'm generally pretty bad with numbers.  I *do* get the concepts that underly mathematics and algebra, and I can follow a lot of formal logic and calculus - but I'm really bad at arithmetic.  As a result, I tend to rely on others with better number foo to do the heavy lifting when it comes to money and finance discussion.

But I do know words, and I know that they can be slippery - and with the right words, you can wipe away all the careful work done by number-folk.

So, as our long national monetary nightmare drags on, we keep hearing certain words that seem to hold the promise of some kind of answer without ever really giving one.  It's literally like a nightmare, where you are running frantically and getting nowhere, while the deus ex machina hovers just out of the corner of your eye.  It's maddening, because the real answer is to just wake up, and start your day - but you can't help thinking that whatever the voices in the nightmare were whispering held some kind of important Truth(tm).

I think that nagging will-'o-the-wisp idea is what drives so many people to fall back on repeating the same things - those recurring ideas that sound so attractive but never really give you an answer. In particular, I'm thinking about the one that implies that our Federal government's budget should be run in a more "common sense" manner; that our spending should not be so much greater than the income from taxes.  My boss is fond of trotting that one out, and it's attractive to a lot of my libertarian friends - here's an example of their argument captured by one blogger.  In that piece, the writer deals with a rebuttal of that notion from economist L. Randall Wray. (The Wray's credit, he has also published a much more detailed/less combative paper on the subject.)

I won't speculate on which side is "right" and which is "wrong" - only point out that neither of them really seems to have The Answer. What I do wish is that those who argue so vehemently that "spending" (which is one of those slippery concepts when you start talking about the federal budget) should be trimmed would spell out what "spending" they really think needs to go.

You can find little arguments all over the place - the "Big Bird" controversy, the "99%" movement, and the perennial arms-flapping surrounding the Defense budget - but very few are able to single out and defend any cuts that would actually bring the numbers down.

And it's not like the U.S. budget is an unknowable mystery.  Here's just a short list of tools for tinkering with the budget, and understanding where taxpayer money goes:
What We Pay For
The Budget Simulator - from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
Budget Hero game - from American Public Media's Marketplace website
The New York Times's Budget Puzzle

My challenge to you: go, play, learn.  Balance the budget (if you can) using some or all of these tools. And then share your solution with the rest of us.  Let's do what our Representatives can't seem to do: have a conversation about what a real solution could look like.