Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Society is Not Your Friend

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Society is not your friend..

The concept of a sui generis society - something that is literally *real* - has been out of favor for over 100 years. I think that the concept - if not the specifics of Comté and Durkheim can be revitalized. Further, that concept is the biggest threat to posthumans imaginable.

Rather than subvert individual humans to a less-important stature (an important feature of Comté and Durkheim's model), let us instead suppose that a sui generis society is instead an emergent phenomenon. That this entity comes to life literally as more than the sum of our individual parts and actions. If ants and bees (or flocks of birds) can mindlessly create emergent phenomenon greater than any individual creature, consider how much more a sui generis society would be compared to an individual human?

Such an entity need not be "conscious" or "self-aware" like we are; Peter Watt's antagonist in _Blindsight_ gives a good example where intelligence need not imply self-awareness or consciousness at all.

If you've read _Blindsight_, this is the point that you should be going "Oh, shit."

Because any such entity would be concerned most significantly with perpetuating itself. Anything that could threaten its perpetuation would be seen as a threat. We aren't just talking "clash of civilizations" here, folks - we're talking *anti-intellectualism*.

Consider the amounts of social handshaking that goes on around you, the degree of social ostracism. A sui generis society would not be interested in any one person's success any more than you are interested in promoting one cell in your body. If one of your cells were to get its own ideas, you'd take action to have it removed.

Comté and Durkheim wished (unlike some later functionalists) to steer the sui generis society towards a style that they felt would be optimal and just. This is probably not possible - or at least is extremely difficult. Any subversion large enough to be noticed by the entity will be itself subsumed and digested, unless it is large enough to fight and take over itself. Consider flavor-of-the-month management as an example of the former (many of which started out as very well-intentioned movements) and the Civil War as the latter.

Society - as an entity - has no interest in fulfilling your personal dreams and goals. It has no need to be more efficient, or to encourage altruism in gift-giving. Instead, it's set up to be a very nasty and mean self-perpetuating thing.

And here's the bit that started me in thinking of all this. The closest thing - aside from another sui generis emergent society - that would be able to challenge such a thing would be a posthuman upload or an AI.

Did I mention that the Sarah Connor Chronicles will be back on this fall? Or that there's a new Terminator movie next year?

We'll talk about it around the water cooler, okay?

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Do Not Want

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Maybe this should have been obvious, but apparently not.

  • I do not want your gift if it's against the rules for you to give it to me. Yes, I'm looking at you, sales reps. And giving it to someone else who "shares" it with me? Puh-lease.

  • I do not want your gift if I'm obligated to express my gratitude, even if it's a crappy gift. If you're wanting validation of your worth through gift-giving, then look elsewhere.

  • I do not want a bunch of things. I do not want a Kindle, for example, even though you might think I'd enjoy one. Nor do I want a new PC as a gift - I have very specific things I'm looking for, and when I look for one, I'll make sure it has it. If you want to give me cash for that reason, then so be it.

Yes, I'm an ungrateful bit of trash. But all you have to get me for my birthday is a card. Don't you feel better? No? You still want to get me something? Then I suggest you check out this site:

ReGift Receipts

While this year I received no bad presents (in fact, they were all awesome), there was an interesting moment at one of these events when someone recognized a "real" gift from a Christmas many years in the past re-gifted to someone else. This created some awkwardness on the part of the re-gifter, though the original gift giver didn't mind at all. This got me to thinking: we already have gift receipts. Why not take it a step further and include a re-gift receipt that establishes once and for all that once you are given a present, it's yours to do with what you want?
Why am I such a jerk about gifts? First, I hate it when I get things that I can't use - because then I both feel obligated to use it (since I don't want to upset the person who gave it) and resentful, since I have to use something that makes my life harder. Secondly, if you're giving a gift to get a warm fuzzy for yourself, then let me suggest that you're doing it for the wrong, selfish reason. Gifts are because you want the recipient to be happier. If your gift fails to do that, then why not let them exchange it?

And again, if you think I'm an ungrateful ass, then I suggest you take whatever money you were going to spend on a gift for me, and give it to someone who needs it. Because, you see, even though my finances would probably make an Enron accountant nervous, I also realize that I really just don't need much more in the way of stuff.

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Occupy - a 100 word story

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For this week's weekly challenge, I wrote a 100 word story on the topic "Occupy". As always, you may read, hear, and vote for all entries at the 100 Word Stories site. You may read my story alone below, and hear my story alone at this link. Thanks for reading and voting!

She adjusts herself on the sheet. The technician straps her in and steps out of the room. The table slides her towards the scanner's large ominous doughnut.

"Hold your breath," the computerized voice says. A whir, then: "Breathe."

They saw it first on the x-ray, the little dot now an invading force. "Hold your breath." Pause. "Breathe."

It colonized one lung, lymph nodes, spleen. "Hold your breath. Breathe."

This is what it must feel like to be Iraq, she imagines. "Hold your breath." Her bones ache with cellular Abu Gharibs and Basras. How much has fallen?


"Hold your breath."

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Pirates and Starlight

During the third day of the seminar (which ended up being more than vaguely useful - and a pretty good indicator of my organization's commitment to changing its culture) something interesting happened.

We had to choose a name.

Although we did it by consensus, two camps quickly emerged. We had spent several days together, shared things we wouldn't normally share, and agreed on shared goals. But choosing a name revealed something strangely different between us.

One group went for names like "Spirit Stars" and "Caring Kindlers"; the other group went for "Spirit Pirates - Yar!"

(In case you're wondering, I was very distinctly in the latter camp; I came up with that name. The rationale? We were hijacking the current spirit of the organization and leading it into bluer uncharted waters of humor and caring... No, really. Stop laughing.)

We ended up being called "Caring Kindlers", with a 2:1 split. sigh.

Anyway, it seems like these two names really label different styles. That's important - especially with efforts to transform a culture (any culture). Dungeon Masters may well be used to this difficulty in arbitrating between their lawful good and chaotic good PC's... but there aren't that many uncloseted DMs around as consultants.

As we form coalitions, as we work for change in the coming months, we must all keep these things in mind. Some of us are a little more... chaotic... than others. Some of us are a little more... lawful ... than others.

But maybe all of us can work together, to make things better.

Yaaar! The starlight, she be beautiful tonight, matey!


Structural Caring (Day 2 of the seminar)

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Just a brief note on today's session:

It was more good stuff - ways that we relate to customers and each other. We got direct feedback from past customers, and shared our own experiences from all sides of the transaction. Great, creative stuff.

What was missing - and missing at a planning level from the consultant - was the concept of how this was a structural problem as well. It's very similar to the problems of racism that I've discussed here before. There's prejudice, which roughly equates to people who are rude to customers and general jerk-offs. Then there's structural racism - which roughly equates to workers who are brusque not because of personal disposition, but because of overwhelming demands, or being sleep-deprived due to a needed second job, and the like.

It's always easy to see the Archie Bunkers - the "bad apples" of our society. Whether it's because of prejudice or simply being a jerk, they're pretty obvious. The harder - and ultimately, more important - issue is when the structures of our society are working against the values we espouse. We can espouse all sorts of caring initiatives and ways of trying to get people to value work - but if they're having to work two jobs to simply pay the bills, if they're being routinely asked to accomplish impossible demands... then the problems will persist, no matter how many inspirational seminars we have.

It was great, therefore, for me to hear the coworkers with me begin talking about this during the breaks, to begin plotting ways around the obstacles of structure. Ultimately, we will all have to realize that to walk the talk, we will have to alter our stride.

And that will be a good thing.

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Last Dance: My honorable mentionable story

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As I may have mentioned before, I got an honorable mention in the local paper's short story contest. The link to it is below, and of course, please stop by and read the rest of the winners.

Any resemblance to Catholic Youth Conferences I attended is, of course, entirely coincidental.

My story is here (the first paragraph is below); you may read the rest of the stories here.

The mixed crowd of the state youth conference danced and wound through themselves while I fought my way outside. After I uttered the last unheard excuse me, I was finally out of the makeshift dance hall. I savored the outside smell, the feel of the slight breeze through my t-shirt. The streetlight over the counselor's parking lot shone a brilliant blue. The chow hall door closed behind me. I had made it out. I had escaped from the noise, the chaos, and the bodies. I had escaped from the polite and final "No, thank you."

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Workplace Seminar - Day One

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I'm writing this at midway through day one of the seminar, and it's not so bad. (Note: I edited a little when I got home, but there wasn't enough change in my impression to warrant a full update.)

It's somewhat predictable, and a bit of old hat for someone who has had the training and experiences I have. Still, this seminar isn't exactly for me. I'm an odd duck, and know it. Case in point: The toys on the table are a nice touch; an obvious suggestion towards a playful and open frame. However, I did not find them shocking or surprising like several others did. And the assurances that we would not be doing anything "extremely radical" was a disappointment rather than a reassurance.

I recognize that I'm not the target audience - and that in some cases, I know the subject matter nearly as well as the facilitators (or better - the "you use only 10% of your brain fallacy" grates on my nerves anymore). But at the bare minimum it is three days to take stock of my own situation, to wear REAL clothes to work, and subvert the exercises for my own purposes. Not a bad gig.

And - here's the kicker - if management has signed off on this, then maybe this empowerment initiative stands a chance of not being subverted into another control mechanism. The old model of unions versus management has been left behind. This is an attempt at a Pauline kind of mutual support relationship – which I talked about some yesterday. I’m somewhat hopeful; the fact that management has bothered to expend this degree of personnel and effort so far ups the odds of them having bought in sufficiently to actually try to listen to the messages of change.

In addition, I made sure to insert the meme that "positive can include pointing out real problems" instead of the corporatespeak "positive means never saying anything not ... positive." This is a good thing; a failure to do that was a failing of the last initiative.

I also asked about one of the problems we’ve had so far – the “bad apples” problem. That is, if you’re in a mutually supportive relationship and one person out of a group fails to support it… well, Bad Things Happen. We’re going to talk about that tomorrow, I’m told.

They did talk about - briefly - the circles of concern and influence. This was interesting - something I'd only really heard of incidentally and sideways. The model and distinction between what concerns you and what you can affect (and trying to have them reach parity) is a nice model. Vaguely frustrated that one of the stock answers to dealing with stuff you can't influence is to "hand it off to someone else", which is awfully hard when you're near the bottom of the totem pole.

They're talking about this spreading through the entire organization, which would be a good thing. The culture of this place has been slowly changing, and it needs changing faster. But those doing the changing must not only be aware of their cultural limitations and assumptions, but those of being changed. Exhorting them to - keeping with the same example - hand off and delegate problems they can't directly influence isn't going to help Housekeeping or Nutrition Services. Or for that matter, learning that empathy for others has negatives (e.g. learning to not care about emotional pressure when you're already overworked).

Still, not a bad start. Winning my cynical butt over is difficult; that they’ve gotten this far is hopeful.

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Awaiting Tomorrow

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It is with some degree of trepidation that I await tomorrow. That day begins a three-day seminar on "renewing the spirit of caring."

I am, at best, a cynical optimist. I'd love to see the best from everybody, but constantly suspect the worst. This is redoubled for the corporate world; I paid attention to the accounts of corporate robber barons and the way they treated their workers in West Virginia a century ago.

While such excesses still exist, they are comparatively rare. Now, control is exercised through more subtle methods and structural institutions (You *do* want that new TV, don't you? Better work hard...)

Add to this the simple fact that healthcare was an accident for me. Or rather, another person's accident at Basic training that opened up another position besides combat engineer when I suddenly had to reclass. I had no calling - whether through caring or monetary greed - into the profession I've found myself in.

This leads me to suspect (and fear) two things: That upper management is attempting to regain control over its workers, and that it is using emotional appeals to do so.

I am actually down with the whole "spirit of caring" thing, or the commitment to co-workers, or any of a dozen initiatives to motivate workers or change their behaviors. But I believe in these programs in the same way I believe in Pauline marriages.

St. Paul has gotten a bit of a bum rap as a misogynist. Truth is, the folks who usually talk about Paul should bear that label. Everyone quotes the part about wives being submissive to husbands, but forgets the next verse. In that verse, Paul exhorts men to be as Christ was towards His church - that is, sacrificing everything in its service. A true Pauline marriage is one where each partner is selfless in service of the other.

This is hard to do.

In one sense it's even harder in the corporate world. There is a lot of precedent that keeps the status quo going. But that formality provides the lack of attachment that permits change. The kind of mutual commitment that corporations are trendily demanding from employees can only happen between equals. It requires - demands! - a relatively flat structure. Demanding commitment and sacrifice from employees in an unequal relationship is not teamwork - it is extortion.

It will be interesting to see if my organization is finally realizing that, or if I will have to try to restrain myself from foaming at the mouth.

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The Voice - A 100 Word Story

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This week's challenge was: The Voice. As always, my story is below, and you can hear mine alone here (MP3 link). If you swing by 100 Word Stories you can hear or read the rest of the entries and vote for your favorite.

Like jasmine, nighttime soft and delicate, heard in the sudden pause of a dozen conversations.
Like curry, seasoning small talk into sublime soul sharing.
Like molasses, soft and comforting, though we're "just friends".
Like pure summer dew, innocent and clear kisses.
Like sugar, delicious and excruciatingly sweet.
Like butter, melting words enhancing our flavor.
Like yellow sliced cheese, once delightful, now blasé.
Like jalepeno, ferocious heat cursing stupid infidelities.
Like ice, a no-taste defined by cold, the absence of heat
Like copper, metallic aftertaste lingering long after the real thing is gone.
Like whiskey, hateful burning but never, ever enough.

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Books and Freedom

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I find them inspiring. They are some of my favorite books: Another Roadside Attraction, Cat's Cradle, Illusions: Adventures of A Reluctant Messiah, K-Pax, and now... Stargirl, which I devoured last evening in a single sitting.

There are common elements among these books. All of them celebrate both individuality and happiness. All of them give me a renewed sense of wonder and happiness. And that happiness rarely survives contact with other people. Of them all - with the possible exception of Cat's Cradle - Stargirl does the best of showing why that is so. It also suggests that there are ways to ... not fight that, but sidestep it.

Shortly after I finished the book and put it in her hands, my wife and I were sitting on the porch, talking and watching fireflies. A mutual acquaintance came up - one who constantly claims to be aspiring towards Eastern or New Age ideals... but ends up either mucking it up (wanting to live free without schedules AND pursuing a degree at a traditional university simultaneously is difficult at best) or falling back on Western consumerist patterns of behavior.

And I remember the sculpture downtown.

All of the toys, all of the stuff we have in Western Consumer culture, all of the attachments really do just hold us down. This is nothing new - but our society's twin desires to both be free while simultaneously having all that "stuff"... perhaps that is something different.

We see useful expressions of this - Cool Tools, Lifehacker (and lifehacking in general), and Unclutterer (and uncluttering in general) are all ways to minimize the crap. They are ways to let us be more free - without completely dropping out of society.

It still requires one realization:

Stuff Requires Maintenance.

Even books - which I love - create the mental burden of "I've gotta get around to reading that".

I'm not sure yet where I'm going to go with this in my own life - or where I'll be *able* to go. (You try explaining a Buddhist sense of "detachment" to my 10 year old!) It will require a lot of self-reflection, a lot of thinking beforehand so I don't have to think later. (Thanks to David Allen for that formulation.) But I am going to journey as best as I'm able, and go as far as I can.

Anyone else wanna come?

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The Dark Honor of War and Peace

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The oliphaunts were taking the field, and the Riders of Rohan trembled once again. The odds, seemingly insurmountable, had been beaten the first time. Would they do so again? The horsemen (and woman) prepared to charge despite the near-certainty of a painful death, and...

"I'd just dodge the elephants!"
"Yeah, if I was in that war, I'd totally go the other way first."

"Shut. Up." My growl was too late. The film went on, but it was just images on a screen again.

I used to like battle scenes. They were action and adventure, _Iliad_ writ both in fantastic and futuristic venues. Ultimately, they were tales of heroes and valor. Then I saw _Saving Private Ryan_.

Not only did its opening scenes illustrate the randomness of war, the lack of protection that valor gives... but I was an active duty soldier at the time. In the medical field, to be sure, but a soldier nonetheless.

Since then, battle scenes have not been "fun", but I find them far more fascinating.

I now feel a sense of sheer horror and dread. Not grotesque revulsion, but deep horror. It is the horror of knowing that one's life, that all one's efforts do not guarantee survival, let along valor.
Yet these scenes also fascinate me, for the characters - as have so many in real life - face that horror and dread. They do what must be done, regardless. There is an honor and glory to combat, perhaps, but it is a dark, dark thing. It is the honor of facing utter nothingness, of knowing your inconsequentiality, and persevering anyway.

The children - as evidenced by their comments last night - do not realize that yet. They still see only the glory and valor and honor of smiting a ringwraith, or felling an oliphaunt with grace and dexterity. They do not yet empathize with the ultimate human condition.

Perhaps we could measure this empathy - it may have already been done. Imagine taking the virtual Milgram experiment and testing it on persons of different ages and looking for commonalities in stress response!

Regardless, this human condition is not solely found in combat. In all our endeavors, we fight for meaning and worth. We hope to be consequential, and face the hordes of time and entropy that scream that we are not, that we are dust. In these things, in both everyday goodness and world-changing movements, we shout back into the void.

And perhaps we can find some small solace in this (cribbed from elsewhere):

If what we do means nothing - if there is no great encompassing plan or meaning, then what we do means everything, for then what we do is all there is.

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Oil - A 100 Word Story

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This week's 100 Word Story challenge topic was "Oil". My entry is below, and you can hear me read mine alone here. If you'd like, stop by the 100 Word Story site and read (or listen) to the rest and vote for your favorites.

Jim nearly bounced in his cleansuit and waved the rest of the lab over. He pointed at the display, where the genetically modified amoeba was eating a grey dot and excreting a small black drop.

Everyone cheered, except Sandra. She was new, and was still learning names and projects. Jim saw, and his gloved hands grabbed the shoulders of her

"I've made an organism that eats plastic and excretes oil! It's a perfect recycler! The shortage is over!"

They were all so excited that they missed the black drop running down the edge of the lab's plastic air seals.

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Crosspost: Houses Like Mine

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Crossposted from Polishing the Gem City, my Dayton-area blog.

I didn't know what to expect, but it definitely wasn't houses like mine.

We were doing voter registration, and were sent to an area of town I was unfamiliar with. It was an area in West Dayton. Dayton - like Cincinnati - has become a de facto segregated city. It's very easy to just find yourself in "your" section of the city without ever thinking about it. I had never been in this part - this Black part - of Dayton, and I had no idea what to expect.

Sure, I'd been near the Dunbar house or the Wright's cycle shop. I've been at Urban Nights. But that "revitalized" area is visibly renewed, even compared to the rest of downtown. I suspected the areas I had been were not representative.

It wasn't until later that I heard it described as "the hoodiest of the hoods". I have no idea how true that might be, but have no reason to doubt it. If I had been pressed to imagine it, the little bit of surface knowledge that I did about West Dayton - predominantly Black, predominantly underemployed - might have led me to imagine something like movie depictions of East LA or Compton.

Not houses like mine.

It surprised me. Yes, there were signs of bad economic times: some bars on windows, some boarded up houses, some overgrown lawns. But by and large, there were homes that would fit in to my neighborhood. Despite everything that I had learned so far, despite the things I'd written on here, I had stumbled across an embedded stereotype I hadn't consciously realized was there.

I knew that this would happen, that I would find failings in myself. I'm sure that it will happen again. The important part is to learn, understand, and recognize my own fallibility. Maybe, by being honest about my own failings, I can help others with thier own.

And in the meantime, I can move forward realizing a little bit better that different parts of Dayton aren't that different after all.

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A public service announcement

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I cannot believe that the "confederate flag" issue still exists. It just utterly surprises me that there's anything to still argue about.

So let's get this straight, folks.

The rectangular "rebel" flag is not *the* Confederate flag, nor is it *the* Confederate "battle flag". It most closely resembles a naval flag used by the Confederacy or the *square* battle flag used by *some* units. As it exists today, it is a late 19th to 20th century creation. It never represented the Confederacy. Therefore, it cannot represent anyone's "Confederate heritage". It celebrates racism, not history. (Source: Both wikipedia and Cecil Adams)

If you want to celebrate your "Confederate heritage" (though, well, why I don't know), then you should fly an actual flag of the Confederacy, which you can find images of at Wikipedia.

As it stands, these "confederate flags" are simply symbols of racism. The lack of actual historical knowledge expressed by its proponents dishonors both themselves and the heritage they claim to have so much pride in.

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Adoption and acquescing to racists

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As an aside, Resist Racism has some great (and by great, I mean tragic and horrible) examples of the other side of the interracial adoption issue - the ones where it's gone horribly wrong. I don't think their examples contradict my position; the people they're talking about are clearly treating children as objects instead of as people.

There is one very worrisome quotation from a UK social worker, though:

"Unless you bring me a utopia when everyone is colour blind, then I’m sorry but deep down I think we as a society are nowhere near ready to have successful interracial adoptions, [in the UK]".

Maybe it is my white privilege talking, but isn't that the same excuse previously used to limit interracial relationships, gays in the military, gays in public, women in leadership positions, women as president, and minorities as president? Just a quick offhand list of institutional discrimination I've personally heard justified by that excuse.

And before we say "it's for teh childrens", let us remember that it wasn't adults that were escorted into newly desegregated schools. That any and all children in that position felt isolated and had a horrible time of it.

But can we say that we should have just continued on with segregation because "we weren't ready for it"? That argument - even when used to protect children - is inherently bowing to bigotry, and admitting that it's there... and okay. You see, we also recognize that, say, shoplifting is out there. Or harassment. Or a ton of other socially inappropriate (to downright nasty) behaviors. But those people - well, we call them criminals and don't worry too horribly much about them.

Yes, we should do everything possible - including mandatory classes - for prospective parents of interracial children. It's simply good parenting. But that is not the same as giving up on interracial adoptions because of other people's bigotry.

No, life isn't fair. Ideally, adults should have to bear the burden of fixing society's blinders. We should strive to keep that burden on adults who choose to bear it.

But sometimes it just isn't going to happen otherwise. Without some people - including innocents, including children - suffering because of other people's bigotry, we will never get to a world where one's worth is NOT judged by the color (or colour) of one's skin.

[Note: Edited the last sentence. I had forgotten the "not".]

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Words matter

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Words matter.

Obviously we believe this - even as we deny that it doesn't matter to ourselves individually. We buy into (and pay attention to) advertising campaigns - which empirically work, too. Many of us think in terms of language - and that can shape the ways that we see the world.

We don't consciously learn or examine these assumptions; they're embedded in the culture around us. We learn them by seeing how others react, by seeing how people react to our reactions, and so on. That makes them both invisible, heterogenous, and horribly powerful.

They're invisible simply because they are assumptions. Recently, I was talking to a friend and referred to another person as "white trash". She surprised me with the strength of her objection. Okay, I admitted, we want to believe that nobody is "trash", and everyone has value. And then she pointed out that having to specify "white trash" strongly implied that all non-whites *were* trash.

I had never thought of it that way before.

They're heterogenous because of the haphazard way we are all acculturated. In the past, I've frequently referred to *my* kids as little monkeys. To me, it's cute and endearing, just another parent with a little pet name for thier kids. Now I've learned that it's not always meant in such a cute and endearing way. What about gay, or queer, or any one of a billion different terms? They get developed as fast as they get stamped down. Who gets the right to determine what's meant by that term? What about reclaiming of those terms?

Finally, the invisibility of these constructs makes them so powerful. Largely, that invisibility is our own fault - we don't bother to think about what is said most of the time. Most of the time - not universally, but most of the time - we operate like a "Chinese Room", translating response A for stimulus A, B3 for B3, and so on. We aren't - for example - used to thinking of factory workers as "creative", so it requires special effort to remind all people that they are part of the creative class as well. Explicit naming mechanisms - fireman, Black or female senator, white trash - also imply a specific structure and order behind them.

For us to succeed as a society, for us to be truly creative and innovative, we must be aware of the linguistic walls around us and do our best to demolish them all.

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Two Thoughts on Wall*E

Short Answer: A-. Great movie, some obesity issues that may make things unpleasant, depending on your take.

Mild to moderate spoilerage ahead about Wall*E, so You Have Been Warned.

First, obesity. While it's mentioned here and there, the short of it is: There's fat jokes in it. This isn't widely enough noted for me to have been forewarned - or I've just had my head in the sand lately.

My wife and I had very different reactions to this. She saw it as primarily ridiculing obese people, and laughing at them. She found the depiction of obesity to be extremely offensive, nearly ruining the whole experience for her.

While there were fat jokes, I thought that the obesity it was used as a symbol of the societal effects from WalMart Buy N Large. The difference for me was the reactions of the humans when their societal reinforcing was stripped away. Unlike Idiocracy - where the humans immediately go back to their mindless diversions - Wall*E's humans are surprised and indignant at the cultural wool pulled over their eyes. They've been manipulated, but they aren't either fools or stupid. (edit after talking to wife: Yes, I would consider the "talking to each other by vidscreen while side by side" bit to be societal norms and pressure rather than individual choice, for example.)

That is, the take on obesity in this movie can provide a chance to examine the societal forces that encourage obesity: The poor quality foods available to underemployed persons, the mass consumption ethos that leads to... well, mass consumption, and the advertising corporate ethic of pushing more and more high-fructose corn syrup down our throats. Or in other words - it's not a personal moral failing, it's a societal failing.

Okay, note two: (small spoiler unless you've not seen every Disney movie, evah, in which case it's a big one.)

Pixar threw away the best picture Oscar in the last two minutes of the movie, because Wall*E survives. The Best Picture ending, the one that would have taken this movie beyond "really good" to epic would be this: "Wall*E", that accidental sentience, doesn't come back. The humans begin to rebuild and heal themselves and the planet, EVE alongside them, as we occasionally see the small trash robot mindlessly pick up trash alongside the monument they've erected to the being that once inhabited his shell.

Oh, I'd still be crying at that one.



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Belonging - whether to a family, a "race", or a nation - is a place where the individual and the sui generis society meet; a kind of frission between two levels of reality. It is possible that our tendency to form groups has some sociobiological origin. (I tend to think so, personally.) Regardless, our habits of forming groups in today's society (even the "pre-modern" ones) goes far beyond that simple original biological tendency.

Let's take marriage, for example. The sociobiological tendency (if it exists) would be to pairbond for a practical reason. Fine - but that alone isn't enough to explain all the cultural cruft around it. Why the wedding rings? Why the ornamentation, the gifts, the dowries and dances and smashed glasses? Why the tuxedoes and the justices of the peace, and why do we care if gays have it or not?

It's easy to conjecture - and even demonstrate - lots of reasons for the above, but ultimately they *are* cruft. Sometimes useful cruft (wedding bands), or fun cruft (dancing and glasses), and sometimes pointless cruft (arguing over gay marriage). But it's all cruft.

Roman Catholicism is very similar as well. While it has the "core" of the faith - the Nicean Creed and the Bible - there is more beyond that. These other aspects of the faith - often condemned as "man made" by fundamentalist Christians - are logical extensions of the things already stated. For example, if the saints are with God, and if those in Heaven can hear our prayers, therefore it makes sense to ask saints to badger God on our behalf, the same way we would ask friends to "pray for us". It's a whole set of logical and reasoned thought built on the consequences of what is in the revealed text. (I understand Judaism's Talmud serves a similar role, and that there are commentaries on the Qu'ran, but I don't know enough about them to comment intelligently past that statement right there.)

That, however, is also where the problems come in. There are many Roman Catholics, for example, who disagree with the Church's outright ban on contraceptives or recognizing gays (yes, I'm avoiding abortion on purpose). I overheard one Catholic yesterday relating how her priest disagreed with the concept of suicide being a mortal sin (that is, one that severs one's link with God and dooms one to Hell), since that priest could not concieve of a loving God who would further punish a depressed person. (We're ignoring both the fact that Jesus could be concieved of as being sent on a suicide mission or the rather more internally consistent view of a suicide's Hell from the film _What Dreams May Come_.)

Yet these people (gladly, reservedly, or unabashedly) identify themselves as Catholic.

You see this in any group. It may be more suppressed in some (contrast the GOP's image of homogenous ideology with the Democratic infighting over the last 20 years), but this does exist.

This Is Not A Problem. If done skillfully, this can strengthen groups while simultaneously divesting them of rigid control issues. 9/11 (yes, I went there) shows our natural tendency to group together, especially when faced with a common challenge or threat - and the utter botching of that national energy. By rigidly proclaiming a "with us or against us" view, by insisting on homogenous thought, large numbers of people found themselves unwilling to even be associated with the USA over the last eight years.

No group - even one as small as a family - can be homogenous for any length of time. In a family, our feelings for each other are fluid as relationships deepen, change, and grow. The core - that identification as "family", that fundamental caring for each other - may lie underneath anything from affection to ignored neglect to irritation to intimacy.

Therefore, rigid expectations of a group - what it is like, should be like, and what is required of its members - can lead one quickly to thinking that one is no longer a member of that group. (Or worse, having another group member tell you that you're not a Real GroupMember.) That is a quick way to find one's group shattered by the side of the road.

Regardless of how good, bad, or simply uneven the surface may be, simply remember that the core identification remains. Work on the problems, but together, even as you differ. In that manner, we can pull together and accomplish so much more.

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Biology, Family, Race - only one matters.

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If biology isn't the basis for family, that makes a controversial subject even stickier: Interracial adoptions.

I saw a young Black girl dancing in an Irish dance competition with two White guardians. (I am presuming they are adoptive parents.) Was she being denied "her" heritage, or was she celebrating her family's heritage?

There's two aspects of this that bear mentioning.

The Visible Man clearly tackles one inarguable side: Regardless of who you are inside, society judges you by appearance. That is, society will treat my nephew as Black, no matter how many White relatives he has, no matter how he personally behaves, no matter how we would like society to be. It is vitally important that his mother understands that, and understands what kinds of experiences he will (sooner or later) encounter. That way, she can help him cope, resist, and simply be a better parent to her son. Likewise, White parents in particular need to learn about aspects that are based in biology: Hair care, for example, or that most people (other than Europeans) are lactose-intolerant after infancy. Barbara Kingsolver's Pigs in Heaven is a novel that addresses this, by the by.

But let's examine the other aspect: That there is some "heritage" due or required for any child *simply because of their biology*. I have to admit, I'm astounded this idea persists in the 21st century, simply because of the two assumptions required to make this assertion.

  • That family via biology trumps real-world experiential family. (Examined in this post)

  • That race is a real biological construct.

We know historically that the latter simply isn't true. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. The Italians and Irish were once not considered White in the US, for example. Every time we attack the stereotypes about physical prowess, sexuality, or behaviors, we assert it isn't true.

Yet when it comes to family - we suddenly pretend that biology matters. Suddenly, biracial children have to recognize thier minority heritage, or children adopted from overseas should learn thier "native" language or "meet their child’s identity needs". Sorry folks, we can't have it both ways.

I have a guess where the concern comes from. There is a *legitimate* fear that White culture - that unacknowledged 800 pound gorilla in the room - will simply continue to co-opt minority cultures. It is a concern that native peoples and minority cultures will no longer be subjugated, but instead simply subsumed. It *is* a legitimate concern, but attacking adoptive families as somehow illegitimate is *not* the way to deal with the problem.

And yes, I am presuming that adoptive parents are acting in good faith. In my experience, adoptive parents are willing and desiring to care for a child (or multiple children). They usually cannot have one of their own, or wish to help others in a sense of altruism. In some cases, there is ignorance - and I utterly agree with the Visible Man post in that such ignorance must be addressed. But ignorance is curable.

Are there bad adoptive parents? Absolutely. But that is a criticism of the adoption *process* letting them through, not a criticism of *adoption*. All of the ways that adoptive parents are "bad" are the same ways that biological parents can be "bad". Can the *process* become cynical and exploitative? Absolutely. But again, that's a critique of the *process*, not *parents*.

Ultimately, only one of the three things in the title matters. Family is what you make of it (or don't), for better or for worse. Your heritage is based on ideas and concepts, not genetics.

Oh, and by the way: ALL children - ALL other people, for that matter - introduce one to and force one to face new things and, heaven forbid!, gain knowledge. At least, if you're not busy being completely snarky about them not being as sophisticated as yourself.

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Biology is not Family

Family is not biology.

Can we just get that out there?

Sure, many times biology is equivalent to family. Many - possibly even most - children are parts of family groups with their biological parents. But Western society - specifically that of the United States - needs to realize that it has a mythology surrounding biological families. It is a mythology - a model, if you will - that does not hold up under even the lightest load.

Currently, this prejudice towards biological families leads to a kind of institutional discrimination towards adoptive parents. It's easy to hear people talk about the "cost" of getting an adoption while discounting thier own hospital bills as "normal". These children are often objectified - usually not by the parents, but by people once removed. Friends, relatives, and acquaintances talk about "getting" a child as if they were merely objects. Therefore, let's quickly demolish the idea of biology as a special definition of family.

Biology does not connote some special "bond". Parents do not automatically recognize their biological newborns. We are predisposed (through socialization, probably) to see features similar to our own when we look at children we think of as ours. Quick real life examples: Depending on who has been looking, I either resemble my mom or my dad. My son - who is biologically related to neither my wife or I - has been compared to both of us at different times.

Further, biology does not guarantee any kind of special caregiving or affection. Every tale of a dumpster-dumped baby, every child with reactive-attachment disorder, every abused child begs otherwise. Clearly, being a sperm or egg donor - even carrying a child for nine months - does not confer some automatic soft-focus lens of "family".

But it's not enough to demolish a model. One must propose another.

So, I suggest this: A family is created by the mental and social self-identification of being part of a family. It is a recursive self-identifying phenomenon.

This explains both the idyllic families and the utterly neglectful dysfunctional ones. It explains unequal (and frequently abusive) relationships where one party has a self-identification that is exploited by the other. It explains both the higher rates of abuse in blended families (pointing to the need for aid in achieving that self-identification) and those instances where adoption and blended families work perfectly together.

S, my biological son, was neglected, emotionally abused, and probably suffered some physical abuse at the hands of his biological mother. He recieved care and kindness - in the face of his rage and mental illness - from his "step" mother... for longer than his birth mother was around. Calling the egg donor who gave birth to him the "real" mother is blasphemous and an insult to my wife.

Therefore, while biology may be highly correlational with "family", it *should never* be mistaken as the causal element.

(Side note: Yeah, this means that I have nothing against gay people adopting.)


Prejudice or politeness?

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Some of the racial prejudice I've seen recently (and locally) is excused by social and behavioral differences. Many Black people in this area tend to be louder and more expressive physically than the White people here. It is very predominant downtown near where the buses let people off. It's a little disconcerting - especially for someone like myself, who enjoys having quite a bit of personal space. Still, that behavior - while disrupting White social norms - is not threatening. It's prejudice, IMHO, because of the pretty consistent White interpretation of that behavior as both "rude" and "dangerous". It's the "ZOMG THERE'S A BLACK MALE!" syndrome, just writ much, much larger and much, much more generally. In turn, this prejudice serves as a justification for White flight to bedroom communities - and the construction of sanitized "safe" versions copies of a downtown.

Ones that are conveniently away from bus routes, and are all private property. That way pesky poor people can be kept out.

No, seriously. One of my wife's students did that as his "deviance project". He dressed as a (stereotypical) homeless WHITE person, and went to "the Greene". It's exactly what I described above - a sanitized recreation of a downtown in a more affluent (and White) section of town. While in his "homeless" costume, he was asked to leave an establishment where he'd actually bought food. He got to hold a "Homeless, please help" sign for all of five minutes on the street before security escorted him away. He did not approach anyone, he did not actually *ask* for any donations - he just held a sign.

On the other hand, we went to COSI Columbus on the third of July. There were several groups there as well, all in matching t-shirts. They were predominantly Black students (daycare kids, I don't know). While they were loud and exuberant - there were also a lot *rude* kids. Not "I talk louder than you" rude, but "pushing and cutting in line" rude. Coincidentally, Resist Racism apparently agrees that cutting line isn't a cool thing... so I think that means it's not just an artifact of White culture.

Only a small minority of the Black kids were rude - nor were only Black kids rude. But it did make me wonder where that line between general politeness and forced conformity lies. I've had several Black people (all happened to be men) tell me how they were called "oreos" for not behaving in a stereotypically "Black" fashion. Many of the behaviors they were criticized for are the ones the Black people downtown are criticized for *not* having.

Where, then, is that line between politeness and "acting White"? Is there a line? Does there need to be?

Unrequited Belonging

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There's something similar between Circvs Maximus, the Escape Artists forum,, any political campaign, Boy Scouts, and the Catholic Church.

They want you.

As I came out of my weekend "non-activity", I realized that I was checking for updates from some blogs and forums - but not others. Maura, Scalzi, Watts - absolutely. Forums? Not so much. [*]

I've had a spotty history with forums, really. I was very active in the old BBS community during the 90's, even during the time I was in Korea. I went to some local meetups, and even visited a few folks that I had only known online. Since then, I've tried to get involved with forums. All of the three above I've made forays into - and burned out after a while.

It's not them, it's me.

Thing is, I *like* all of those forums. But I realized that the thing that turned me off - and also turned me into a non-volunteer for the church, or my son's Cub Scout pack is the all-encompassing time demands they make. It's not the length of written material - none of the folks I name-drop above are overly terse - it's the encompassing sense of "community" that's practically required to participate.

Again, it's not their fault. It is the way all of these organizations and forums are set up. But I simply do not have the time to be a "full-time member" of any of the many groups I'd like to be involved with.

Revamping Community

Yet I would like to participate. And this is something that designers, planners, and administrators seem to have difficulty getting their head around. Once you volunteer for one thing, it's presumed that you'll be available to volunteer for all things that group does. It's the sense of having to make an *exclusive* commitment to that group. While none of them actually state that up front, it quickly becomes apparently as threads pass you by or you get asked to do more and more things. While avoiding that total commitment isn't formally a problem, it quickly leads to de facto social isolation - while still within a group.

This is merely annoying when dealing with social groups. On a practical level, campaigns and other social activism groups need to be especially aware of this effect. Without a huge die-hard core audience, one relies upon people who are interested... but not commit-your-life interested. Even if your organization has dedicated itself to crowdsourcing, you'll have to overcome the baggage that people - like myself - have gathered over the years. We'll expect your organization to want all our time, attention, and effort... and I cannot give it all.

The challenge for modern organizations is create a social organization that can both operate like distributed computing and still be effective. The best example I know of so far? Progressive Secretary:

Progressive Secretary sends out progressive email letters to Congress, the President, and other officials on peace, ecology, civil rights and other issues. The letters are suggested by participants in the cooperative and are sent to you as a proposal. If you tell us to "send", then the letters are sent to your Congress people and others noted in the proposal over your signature and return address. A report is sent to you. If you like, you can send the letters yourself. Letters are not sent without your specific approval.

Highly customizable and responsive to users' needs. Good stuff.

[*] This effect also spreads to often-updated blogs like Shakesville. I like them (mostly), but I simply don't have the time to commit to reading it all the time. boingboing is about the only exception I'll tolerate, and I've gotten to where I read the post titles there first.

Popular Mechanics - a 100 Word Story

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This week's 100 Word Story Challenge was "Popular Mechanics" As always, you can read my entry below and hear it by itself. You can hear (and read) the rest of the entries there, and vote for your favorite stories.

The wrench flies from the engine, close enough that I taste flecks of rust. Grandfather yells, a balding series of spheres in the front seat. I already know I'm worthless, thanks. I wipe the grease onto my ruined shirt, he dabs a pressed handkerchief at his forehead.

The wrench and my hand slide back in. It - he won't identify it - must be held just so. The key cranks, washing the smell of exhaust and gasoline over me.

The car roars to life. He lumbers inside, shouting how he fixed the car.

The wrench smashes a beautiful music through the windshield.

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Wonder why fireworks are illegal?

Man loses part of leg in fireworks accident
Police said a man lost part of his leg when fireworks exploded inside his truck while he was parked outside a Riverside bar early July 4.

According to a police report, the 3 a.m. blast outside The Christy Club on Valley Street was so strong it blew out the windows of the man's red Nissan SUV.

Let's parse that out again. Fireworks. A bar. Three A.M.

Is there an outcome involving those three elements that does not invite disaster?
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Self-image's faultlines

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I’ve got a goodly case of “short-timer’s”. Today is the last day I am working until next Monday, which means that most of my thoughts are preoccupied with the concept of “getting the hell out of here.”

Not that my work is too horrible; while occasionally stressful it’s largely cake. And there’s frequently large amounts of time to think. I had the interesting experience yesterday of having two insights rather forcibly shoved into my consciousness, and that’s definitely forced me to think quite a bit.

First, I discovered that - DESPITE MY BEST INTENTIONS - I still have a visceral reaction to people who cannot communicate effectively. In this case, it was a TED talk which featured someone with cerebral palsy. Intellectually, I *know* that people with this and other types of palsies are just as intellectually aware as anyone else. But even though it was a recorded talk, I found myself getting impatient and having a viscerally unpleasant reaction to the (in retrospect) genuinely nice man. Johnson (Privelege, Power, and Prejudice) suggests that learned discrimination against handicapped individuals happens through socialization. I'm not sure if they were looking at physical handicaps, mental handicaps, or both.

Regardless, I've got this self-realization sitting like a steaming turd in my lap, and I'm not quite sure where to go with it.

Then, later in the evening, as my wife and I were talking about our respective mental issues, it suddenly occurred to me (because she pointed it out) that my own intrinsic mental issues (my term) were contributing to (or at least slowing the resolution of) her intrinsic mental issues. Another disconcerting realization. Probably more disconcerting than the first, really.

The first one is ultimately my problem, and can at least be "band-aided" by vigilance. Who would ever know about my internal problems as long as I can self-correct for it? But to be entangled with someone else, for my own problems to be causing another person - any other person - unnecessary difficulty... well, that's a huge pile of steaming turds in my metaphorical lap.

There's a social force at work here. (I'm sure Mead fits in here somewhere, too...) My self-image is being seriously challenged by both of these developments. In the former, my sense of non-judgementalness is called sharply into question, and in the latter my independence as a social actor is highly suspect. This happens at any time where our self-image is challenged... but it doesn't have to be resolved the way I want it to be.

I want to resolve my self-image, to make it coherent and consistent with the social reality - as much as possible. But is this really the choice that many - or most - people make? The other option would be to embrace deviance, to alter my self-image to fit the labels applied to me. I'm not really sure what makes people break on one side of that division or the other. Neither is particularly "easy" - changing your self-image is nearly as traumatic as finding out your own hypocrisy, but making efforts to change are just as hard.

How do we make it easier for others - and ourselves - to eschew hypocrisy and to live up to the ideals we espouse?

If you find the answer, let me know...

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