Expanding these horizons

As a gift of my old friend Jen, I’ve scraped the online acquaintanceship of a very lively group of secularists… And it says a lot that many will shoot down that collective noun; these are the intellectual equivalents of the clan of Asterix the Gaul, who will cheerfully scrap with each other when there’s no one else around to scrap with, and woe betide anyone silly enough to try and conquer them.

I love it. Oink heaven. My memory still has Swiss-cheese holes in it, but my reasoning is not completely shot.

I was mulling a blog entry on “trying to remember there’s a forest among the trees”, given the way that we tend to get fixated on a tiny handful of things which, if we had ’em, would surely fix everything. Surely.

These thoughts have been rather derailed by an online conversation I got into about the mind/brain issue. It touches on neurology, history, philosophy and theology, with logic and info architecture as palette-cleansing interjections (or so my thoughts are trending.) Naturally, I’m knawing it like a rawhide bone, tail thumping.

In fairness, not everyone wants the erudite stuff; nor does everyone want the why-what-works pragmatism. Both are so closely linked for me (the blogger, here) that I’ve decided not to break out a different blog. I’ll get better about tagging, and I’ll use indicative titles.

Please come along and play. I hope this works out well.

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Balancing act: homeostasis and words I live by

A balance has two ends: when one goes up, the other goes down. As a metaphor for living, it lacks dimension.

Homeostasis is better. It has no end, but it does count every factor. With a balance, it’s possible to find a point where everything holds perfectly still – until the wind changes. With homeostasis, there is no still-point, because even the thing that pushes the wind is part of it. It’s always shifting.

Homeostasis is a puzzle to which there is no lasting solution, only a series of adjustments. There’s always something new to learn, something different happening.

I find that intriguing.

After living on the water, in the forest, by the desert, and in cities of all sizes, it also makes perfect sense to me. No change sets off only one corresponding change. All real things are clusters of changes, and in the end we can either adjust or be adjusted – and only one of those alternatives accounts for our own wishes.

Living, like homeostasis, is not about flattening the ocean. It’s about riding the waves.

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Julian Assange and Swedish herrings (red)

The Interpol-ation of Julian Assange, the most widely-known of the Wikileaks founders, is a thoroughgoing exercise in logical fallacies and predatory smoke-screening.

First, the fallacies…

Straw man: The sex was consensual, though it may have gotten out of hand in one case. Charges weren’t brought until the two girlfriends found out about each other. They backed and forthed about whether they wanted to press charges or not. (Whether large men in dark suits paid them furtive visits is open to debate.)

Selective memory: Sweden has a shamefully high rate of unexamined, unpursued, unprosecuted cases of true rape — that is, forced sex, nonconsensual sex, sex with minors. Why pursue this sexual “irregularity” over condom use and infidelity?

Entrapment: Why give him direct permission to leave the country, at his explicit request, then send the Rottweilers after him?

These charges are not designed to bring someone down. They’re designed to tie him up. How else were they going to keep tabs on someone who can afford to dress like that without having a fixed address?

The real harm was not done by Assange. That imputes too much leverage to a self-infatuated ho with mad hash skillz.

The U.S. was hoist by its own sloppy petard. The State Department and the Military decided to share records, without sharing precautions. Let’s look at that, shall we?

The U.S. State Department, whose core purpose is the pursuit and use of social and political information, has an educational requirement involving alphabet soup behind your name; a staggering array of tests; and a final examination for *entry-level positions* that takes days to complete. The computers are subject to high levels of security, including an inability to even accept removable media.

The U.S. Military has three things it wants to know: What’s your name? Got a pulse? All your parts attached? And some people scrape by on the third try.

The military develops some of the fiercest computer security in the world, but guess what? Removable media! Oh, and all that State Department data … accessible by anybody with technical skills. Guess what the Army and Air Force specifically teach? Technical skills, maybe?

Well done.

So here’s the setup:

Tons, masses, heaps of socio-political data …
– collected on the basis of strict secrecy
– sometimes at terrible personal risk
– on people and issues who remain viable and valuable;

Gets passed by the State Dept. …
– from graduate-prepared, carefully-selected, highly-socialized personnel
– in an environment with lojack and hijack protections in place
– with no meaningful guarantees of its continued protection;

To the U.S. Military,
– an organization with minimal entry requirements
– and a post-adolescent social environment
– staffed by technically competent personnel.

Doesn’t that seem kind of silly to you? I realize most of us are not masters-prepared, much less possessed of a law degree, but pure common sense would make that unthinkable. Wouldn’t it?

Now, as for the leaky boy …

While being accused of being gay is a common put-down these days, in the U.S. Military this accusation could lead to someone losing his job, his housing situation, his social network, and his entire career path. Feel powerless, much?

They’re isolating, freezing, and tormenting an idiot kid over the staggering, monumental idiocy of the Military implementation of secrecy AND the State Department’s lack of due diligence.

They’re hunting down and marginalizing a tired, aging hack who misjudged the value of his own charms, over his willingness to advertise that kind of collective stupidity.

There were a whole lot of much brighter, much better-educated, far better-informed people who fucked up on a simply staggering scale before Assange or that kid ever got into this.

Where are the courts martial? Where are the heads that should be rolling out the state dept. doors and down the steps — bouncing on the way?

The real damage, sadly, is to the wider world. The US has lost credibitlity and leverage on the world stage to a degree unmatched by anything since the initial invasion of Iraq. That, folks, is the real tragedy: we have demonstrated that we are poisonous even to our most important friends.

How many more will die for _this_ mistake, eh?

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B. C. E. takes on new meaning

Les was a chef before he was born. He helped with a BAADS Thanksgiving some years ago as a gesture of kindness, and found that — as he remarked to a friend helping out yesterday — “boy, these disabled people sure can cook!”

I laughed out loud, losing several points for coolness — but I regained them later with my Drunken Sweet Potatoes.

A weighty label like “disabled” sweeps everything before it. Literally, everything… before it. Most of us had full lives before we got a crippling illness or injury; we all have full lives now, even when much of that fullness has to do with how much harder simple things are.

But everything we did, or were, _before_ or _besides_ being [whatever] is still with us. Abled-bodied people rarely seem to think of that themselves: the term “disabled” makes our able-ness seem surprising.

Back in the late 1980’s, the socially-preferred term was moving from “disabled” to “handicapped”. This explanation from a kindly woman explained why: “It’s not correct to say I’m dis-abled, because I’m _able_ to do many different things. But I have to deal with added burdens to get the same things done that a normal person does, so I’m _handicapped_.”

Horses carry extra weight in a race, golfers get extra points on their score, and racers get penalties added to their times to handicap them. Though life isn’t a sport I entered with any thought of competition (and that’s where the analogy falls down), it’s true that I do carry a burden which makes it harder to complete the same tasks that anyone does.

But I can still cook one heck of a pan of Drunken Sweet Potatoes. Not everyone is, ahem, able to do that.

I’m definitely handicapped. I’m not sure I’m disabled. I can still write, and often remain coherent through a whole paragraph. That’s an ability!

B. C. E. — in my case, that means Before Crippling Event — I could play the flute pretty well, too. I can’t even hold the darn thing for more than a few seconds, now; the handicap there is too great to overcome.

Sadly, it’s still true that — whatever we call it — this is a nasty, harsh reality which everyone handles poorly sooner or later; the terms will continue to revolve as we try to keep from getting too stuck in our collective thinking.

As the next decade turns, I expect the terminology to change again. And then again a decade after that. And again and again, as people age and grow and try to loosen up their thinking. Rock on, I say! — We could all use a little more change.

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On weighing the evidence

My friend J’s husband called her from work today with the immortal words, “I’ve met someone else.” If he had been able to pick a worse time in life to tell her — say, when she was hooked up to chemotherapy or had just been knocked over and broken her spine — I suspect he would have. (I’d like to think I’m joking.)

I recently had another opportunity of my own to mull over the impact of emotional deceit and betrayal, but after the initial surprise I found those reflections boring.

Instead, I turned to thinking about getting so attached to my hopes and errors that it becomes almost impossible to look at the evidence and admit I was wrong. I _was_ misled, but also, for a year, I remained more attached to my erroneous assumptions than to the weight of the evidence.

So I’m reminded of the importance of being ready to notice, and own up, when I’m likely to be wrong. What someone tells you isn’t evidence, but what they do — or fail to do — certainly is. Sooner or later, you have to go with the evidence.

J and her husband had years of shared struggles, victories, and all the usual pushme-pullyou dramas and traumas that go with two different people sharing their lives.

There were times when, on the basis of the evidence, I told her she should leave. Maybe she should have, for the sake of her own soul. But she didn’t, and her husband would almost always call when we were talking, because whether they were getting along or not, he’d still call her every hour throughout the day and then ring off with a real, “I love you.”

So what do you do when the evidence itself is so confused?

Very few people wind up in solid marriages. Both my brothers did, so I sometimes think that I should, too. But I’m beginning to believe, down to my soul, that nobody will have my back that devotedly — and maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t come first to anyone, nor put anyone first, myself. Becoming that attached to something that’s so very rare in reality does seem to hinder one’s ability to see the evidence, and destroys the ability to admit that one is wrong.

I have congenital trouble with admitting that my perceptions are wrong in the first place. Perhaps I should just work on that.

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My contribution to the statistics

Here’s an anecdote to chill the blood.

On my 21st birthday (1987, so imagine the hair, shoulderpads & pegged
jeans), I went out with a mixed group of women friends — girly-girls,
tomboys, jocks; up & down the Kinsey scale.

After closing down the bar, we were talking over where to go to
continue the party. A drunk guy got thrown out of a car that pulled
over nearby. He eyeballed us — kissy noises, “mm-mmh!”, etc.; saw the
“oh f*ck off, you pathetic turd” implied by the way we closed him out;
then suddenly noticed we had no men with us.

That was a problem. Didn’t matter what we were, a bunch of women out
alone had to be evil bitches, or worse — lesbians. Verbal ugliness
ensued. It was disgusting.

One girl thought 2 years of karate lessons made it ok to give him the
fight he was looking for. She put up her dukes, moved him out into the
street, and they started in.

He was a shitty fighter, and drunk. But then something happened. He
went at her with an upraised fist, and another woman grabbed her from
behind and pulled her back — by the arms. WTF?

Somehow, in the midst of a sudden stillness, I got between parked
cars, moved into the street, and stationed myself between him and my
helpless cohort, in the time it took him to take 1.5 steps. I felt his
arm touch my upraised forearm, saw his face melt in shock… And
suddenly the sound came back on.

Behind me, the arm-grabber was screaming, “He’s got a knife! He’s got
a knife!”

Shyt-head and I took a careful step back from each other. Then
another. Then I took one more, turned and ran back to the bar,
screaming about a man with a knife — not realizing that my face was
pouring blood, flying behind me in drops and strings, drenching my
clothes, squishing in my shoe.

Drama, blanched faces, people frozen by shock — but behind my back,
two cute chubby poofters pulled themselves together, ran that crazy
sumbitch down and, unarmed but relentless, kept him penned up in a
dead end until the cops came by. (I’m told it takes balls to be a
queen. I agree.)

My testimony put him away. He was about to go free, even though this
was at least his 3rd such attack, until the judge asked if I had
anything to say. Once I finished, there was a long silence. The judge
sent him down.

He was out by my next birthday.

Let me reiterate: it didn’t matter who we were. He truly believed anti-
gay speech was a justification for murder.

It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s your issue, too. Nobody is immune
to the effects of hatred. Nobody is unkillable.

*The only way to make your world safer is to make hatred less
interesting, less acceptable, and less valid.* That’s it.

It’s astounding how much creative thought and social energy gets freed
up when that happens. Everyone blossoms — regardless of their own
bent. The most “normal” people remark on how good it is to feel so
free. Weird, unexpected, but true. I’ll dig up the studies about that.

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Living lean: mulling cost and value

I’ve gotten pretty good at the
fine art of stretching a dollar so tight that if I let go, the
rebound could snap my nose off.

It dawned on me that I’ve gotten good at living cheap, though it’s
hard to tell because I’m so often out of money. It’s not because I
don’t know how to handle it, it’s that I really am that poor. Poor in
money, anyway.

Apothegm for today: EVERYTHING HAS VALUE. ALMOST EVERYTHING HAS COST.

You’d be amazed at how little you can spend per ounce of enjoyment
when you separate the ideas of “value” and “cost.”

This is probably the first most important thing I’ve done: notice what
I enjoy. Fortunately, I don’t enjoy the act of spending money.

The first question pops up: “Why am I starting with noticing
pleasant experiences? Isn’t this about saving money? Isn’t saving
money hard? Like ‘ow ow ow stop it it hurts’ kind of hard?”

Answer: because it works. Unless I win the lottery tomorrow, I’m
living lean for the long haul. That means 2 things:

1. I need a strong foundation. Most of us formed basic ideas about
money early on, and if it hasn’t worked out for me by now, it’s time
to build different foundations.
2. I need good habits. Spreadsheets, check registers, calculators,
even banking software have been around a long time. None of those
tools are rocket science. If they aren’t being used effectively by
now, no amount of “you shoulds” is going to make them work for me.

My Dad, a real genius about money, gave me two pieces of advice that
rocked my world:
1. Make time and money for entertainment. You have to have that. No
budget, however austere, should be without it for more than a couple
weeks.
2. Include a fudge-factor because, for one thing, costs always change
and for another, you’re not always right.

We’re concentrating on #1 right now. I want to figure out both how to
cost, and how to value, that supremely important item: entertainment.

This has taken time to evolve. My awareness shifts as I get
used to noticing what you enjoy. I find my tastes shifting,
since some “pleasures” are really a matter of programming or habit,
and don’t stack up well to things I naturally find pleasing.

No pressure, no expectation, no agenda — just freeing up my mental
habits so I can take a fresh look at seemingly ordinary things.

There’s a serendipitous realization that has been happening as I get better at
noticing happiness, beauty, flavor, pleasure and contentment: I get
better at feeling it, too. Don’t think about that too much right now,
though. I’m working on distinguishing between value and cost.

“No optional pain!” is my guiding
philosophy.

Keeping in mind that this is an intellectual exercise, and exercise
should happen now & then but not constantly.

Remembering to figure out associated costs, like transport, drinks, and
surcharges. I vary between being exact and giving a
ballpark figure — both approaches have their benefits.

With this, as with any skill, it’s all a matter of time — weeks,
months, maybe years. But that time will pass anyway; wouldn’t I
rather be better-prepared at the end of it?

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Scientific method & infant studies

Further thoughts on this article which revealed, to every parent’s astonishment I’m sure, that babies remember what upsets them and learn to hope for less in the future:
http://www.physorg.com/news201964561.html
My first, suppressed response was a huge internal “WTHF??? Who’d do
that deliberately??”
But I was a nurse for years — I know what people will do deliberately and I won’t go into it here, especially since I just had a tasty breakfast.
My second thought was the one reflecting my training, which tells me that if it isn’t repeated in a number of controlled scientific experiments, it’s not accepted medical knowledge (document, document, document!), and if it’s not accepted scientifically, it won’t be accepted as good parenting practice.
grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr… But I digress.
On the one hand, I’m glad that a few OBs might suggest that parents hang onto their infants instead of handling them like awkward, smelly little responsibilities to be managed with as little face-time as possible.
On the other, I find it profoundly, horribly wrong to tell young parents to walk away from their screaming baby and stay there while we stab or slash the kid to get a few blood samples, and then come back again later to do it all again.
Because heaven knows you can’t just watch the painful reality of life unfold naturally. That would require the assumption, antithetical to scientific method’s assumptions, that observation and empathy in a real-world setting (where sometimes kids get put down for real reasons) is a valid basis for drawing conclusions.
I could go on about psychogenic shock, neurological development, early bonding, the isolationist shift in child-rearing advice over 30 years, the current puzzlement among psychologists about the staggering proportion of young adults who are incapable of empathy, the weirdness of the fact that most of the world is toilet-trained by ~2 but here we’re rarely trained by 4… And so on.
But that could take awhile and my iPhone is starting to make my fingertips sting.

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Scientific method: a fragile prop

There’s an unalterable gap between scientific method and basic decency. This is one of several profound deficiencies in the former, like its rigidly Newtonian frame of reference, the circular logic of many fundamental assumptions, and the _unacknowledged_ reflexive trope, “If we don’t understand it, it isn’t real; if we haven’t tested for it, it doesn’t exist.”
How can scientific rigor possibly be equated with intellectual rigor,
when it cherishes this absence of basic intellectual integrity?
The combination of profound & pervasive logical fallacies, combined with a very weak attachment to the human context in which it’ll ultimately be used, make scientific method far too limited to base most of biomedical research on. It would be excellent as one of several methods, since what it does accomplish, it does very well.
For better and worse, though, it’s the “gold standard” of biomedical research. Astonishing. And very scary. It explains an awful lot.
… In related news, the US currency went off the gold standard under Nixon.

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