Thursday, April 30, 2015

Change of Place, Change of Pace

Bit of a gap between posts...since this is a self-judgement-free zone (like Planet Fitness for your brain) that's totally ok. There's actually a really good reason for it.

I have a really cool work opportunity to work at corporate headquarters for five months on a few special projects! This means time away from my family and coworkers. It also means hours in an empty hotel room...for someone who struggles to establish consistency this is almost more of a great opportunity than getting selected to work on something at corporate headquarters!

I have big plans to use this time to structure my free time, make and meet goals, and study a lot of the topics I'm really interested in apart from the distractions of life and home.

The ultimate goal is to bring this stuff home with me later this year and have developed some more permanent habits.

I'm also getting consistent with health and religious practices like exercise, yoga, scripture reading and meditation.

I will most definitely be documenting these efforts regularly as I go, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hitler's Slow Rise to Power: Random Analogies

I often come up with my own analogies for understanding topics or concepts I'm reading about. I suppose it's in preparation for conversations I might have, or maybe just to have a nice concise version of it in my head. The reality is that these often don't go anywhere, they are just fodder for the hamster that runs on the wheel of my brain. So in the spirit of the blog...I'm going to start writing out some of my analogies, to get them out of my head, to refine my ideas, and maybe to use them later.


What if Adolf Hitler had taken 75 years to gain power and invade most of Europe instead of 30? What if he had been even more sneaky and secret and patient? Little by little he would have gotten power, and his hateful, violent predilections would have had even more potential for realization, but been even less on the world's radar. The way it is Hitler got pretty damn far and caused horrific damage before he was ultimately stopped. What if he had creeped along in the background more?

I imagine there are probably some political scientists and other leaders who still would have seen what was up. They probably would have brought pleas to the public and the governments saying, "we need to act!". Would they have been listened to? After all, life in almost every country would have been going on as usual. People would be waking up, going to work, hanging with friends and living their lives. The public at large wouldn't really see that things were changing, they wouldn't have statistical data to see any significant change in the political landscape of the world, especially a world a continent away.

Meanwhile as the experts grew louder in their warnings, maybe the public would begin to be annoyed, and even mistrust them. After all, some of the people who flaunted those opinions were tied to the defense infrastructure. They did have some power and money to gain if we went to war. After a while, wouldn't it seem like these supposed "experts" were just ringing alarm bells to feed their military cash cow? This Hitler guy had been around for nearly a century and things seemed pretty much the same, didn't they? Weren't the alarmists just trying to get Americans to pay billions of their hard earned dollars and give these generals and their defense hawks in congress clout and power never dreamed of? 

"These experts can't control us with lies"

Could that really happen? 


If the evidence of Hitler's potential for extremist destruction was kept a little quieter, would experts have struggled to convince the public of that reality and the needed action? Interestingly, Hitler didn't even get America in to the war, Japan did, only when they did something outrageous specifically to America. Nazi Germany is a more interesting example because of it's sneaky origins. It still did take America a pretty long time to put it's nose in that conflict. But once the dam broke it broke hard. We spent 40% of our GDP, made huge sacrifices at home and abroad. And we came out of it having achieved what was right. Germany is now a progressive country that openly acknowledges regret for it's past. Japan has come well around from it's Divine Wind philosophy and is an important partner in the global economy. Achieving that was an immense, but necessary and ultimately successful venture.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are going to be hard...and expensive, but essential. A really cool podcast episode I heard recently talks about how mythic stories can get people on board with this idea, as opposed to ineffective messaging such as "Just use better light bulbs and bike one day a week, it will work if everybody does it" or "your poor grandchildren will have horrible lives if you don't do anything". This whole thread of values-narrative communication is huge right now, and really cool. It also begs the question (for me at least), does favoring this kind of communication promote or at least do nothing to resolve science illiteracy? 

That's definitely a "more on that later", but with all of these questions rolling around, I started to seek an analogy for other difficult, expensive and essential efforts. I turned to history for this one, I am by no means a historical scholar or political scientist, it's just a narrative I formed, but I think we're eventually going to need some outrageous personal affront to American well-being for the dam of mitigation to break. Ultimately we can do it, but I hope we don't mistrust the experts and wait too long!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Mystery of Christ (or Happy Easter!)

This is going to be my first go on this blog talking about Christianity. I think it's going to turn out a little weird, but a lot of media and thoughts are converging for me today and I felt compelled to write them down. Since this blog is mainly fueled by compulsion, here I am!

Today is Easter. I am not a traditiony person...holidays and traditions hold very little emotional sway over me. That being said, there is a strong case for some of the things that traditions can do:

- Remind one of worldviews or values
- Create unity and community
- Evoke positive memories

For me the first one comes closest to true and effective. As I've discovered practices like yoga and meditation, as I've sought a more objective view of religion, I've seen "practice" as an effective conditioning action to help the brain toward something good. This is supported in the research, I've been pointed to the work of Andrew Newberg by my favorite blogger, Mike McHargue. So regardless of where you came from religiously, taking part in religious practices (like any training) works to condition your brain to something, in the case of religion some sort of higher truth. Interestingly when I did introduce yoga into my life, I was not impressed by it's hippy dippy language, and convinced myself in advance that the only purpose for that was to get one to stretch better and that would be good for my tight joints. It turns out I found more indefinable truth there...but more on that later. The point is that doing things helps your brain think things. That being established, let's circle back to Christianity.

I have been a Christian all my life. I grew up with a pretty standard WASP lifestyle. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. My family attended the United Methodist Church regularly. My parents sat on committees, I went to Sunday School. I participated in all manner of music, including, of course, handbells. What was the benefit of all of this at that time? I'm not really sure...I was far, far less self analytical at that time, I just kind of meandered through life (I do, after all, have ADHD). There is a lot to be said for tribal psychology. There is so much research on this recently that I don't even know what to point to, just google it and enjoy sifting through the mountain of results. We want to do what the group does, it's how we evolved, it feels good and right most of the time. If anything good came from my participation in the WASP lifestyle, it was doing what we do, thinking what we think. That's not to say that I gained nothing from Christian Ideology. Throughout college and the years following it my religious involvement changed around a lot, but mainly stayed in an evengelical/protestant tradition, that story deserves it's own post so I won't spend time on it here. In any case here is the elevator pitch of how I view Christianity right now, and why I have maintained throughout my life (especially recently) that it is, at it's core, a good thing:

The Nation of Israel formed it's tumultuous history around a Deity that was held as creating and sustaining the universe*, though vast and complex, his character and command centered around a love that can justify one's self and be extended to others. The practices of that religious tradition were imperfect at representing this love. Out of this tradition a Teacher came who was so influential and powerful that he was said to be an incarnation of the Creator*. In his pursuit of a massive paradigm shift of that central love theme, he sacrificed himself to the entrenched religious authority. His character and teaching became the new core of a new religious tradition that split off from the old one.

I will come back to my own religious life, and eventually Easter, but first a few pieces of media that are rolling around in my head this weekend.

One is the TV movie that was broadcast by Fox News and other networks called "Killing Jesus", a historical drama about Jesus' life and death. It's not a great movie, it's a drama, it's not really a work of history academically speaking. It does, however, take a "here's what happened" approach, not a "Jesus is best because Christianity" approach. This kind of interested me as seeing my particular religious tradition more objectively has been part of my recent thoughts on it. My parents moved from the protestantism of the UMC to more evangelical traditions over the past decade or so, and while their worship style is the more modern guitars and bible studies version...they have still dived headfirst into the biblical fundamentalism and fox news that is considered "in-group" for this tradition. My dad was annoyed that the film didn't really represent the darkness, earthquake and ripping of the veil that are part of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion...these events point to the supernatural nature of Jesus. Objectively, the day of darkness and earthquake have been poked around at by historians and geologists and have found some evidence in the records, the veil thing isn't really reported outside the scriptures. It prompted me to wonder if the proof of these things happening is the important thing to take away from the crucifixion, or if radical self-sacrifice being at the core of Christ's character is the most important (spoiler alert, it's the second one)

The second piece of media I checked out this weekend is an article by Guardian science contributor Alex Rutherford called "Why Scientific Truth May Hurt". It points to something that has been a major theme in EVERYTHING I have been exploring lately. Namely that our perception and common sense, while evolutionarily beneficial, can't point us to objective truth. The classic example is the structure of our solar system. The truth of this is incomprehensible based on our observations, and seems almost absurd. Nevertheless, measurements and rigorous unbiased testing lead us to the truth, which was eventually observed when we finally escaped our gravity and atmosphere. Climate change, vaccination, evolution, the benefits of meditation (as opposed to a hokey foreign inviter of evil spirits) are all things that can be defined objectively by research, and are frequently misunderstood by our individual experiences.

Politics are not really my game...actually I BARELY understand them. But as I've explored climate change, the political representations of it are unavoidable, and one thing I've noticed, and then seen in other topics, is that conservative thought and communication relies on "common sense" to validate its claims...which really appeals to someone with less education in critical thinking, someone who's life revolves around the community and the family. Please, please don't take that as any criticism of those values, of a non-intellectual lifestyle or career. Those are not bad things. But...the conservative political base is made up of people who form their values on what's right for them and theirs...and common sense works well for that kind of approach. Here is my favorite comment from the Rutherford article.

"It's common sense" is just another way to say "I haven't really thought this through".

Maybe that feels harsh? But I think there's a lot of truth there. Our technology/economy/industry driven world requires a comprehensive understanding of everything we interact with. That comes from critical thinking. None of our tough issues can truly be boiled down into the buzzwordy headline, from either side of the political aisle. Weren't we talking about Easter and religion? I'll come back around.

Following Jesus, to me, means embodying the character of Jesus of Nazareth. Rejection of self, love of others.

That seems to kind of ignore the notion that God is actually a real supernatural being, in fact it ignores any supernaturalness at all. I don't think those aren't real...but defining my religious belief and practice only by it's observable truths is a starting point of finding my way to the supernatural truths. Scientific inquiry and critical thinking can lead us to an accurate construct of reality, but that doesn't automatically disprove the existence of "something more". Some call this the "God of the Gaps" idea...Mike McHargue rightly pointed out in a recent podcast episode that the literal reading of this concept means that God will eventually disappear as more knowledge is gained. So I'm not really trying to espouse specifically that idea. I think (and it's been shown) that good can come from religion, good for me, good for the people I interact with. Jesus is the main lens through which I seek that good.

The idea that He is the only way, truth and life is central to most Christian traditions, and I guess I would say objectively there's no way to prove that. If a Christian takes it as common sense or experience with the good of Christianity...that really comes from their own (limited) perspective. I don't think that either confirms nor denies the overall good of Christianity. I do think that centering all of your energy on the idea that Christianity is the best/only way when you interact with others can only result in either ambivalence or negativity. Which means you've helped that person on the path to missing out on any good that Christianity might bring. I'm ready to talk about Easter (sorry).

Today we celebrate a part of the story of Christ that leaves the historically verifiable territory. Another tentpole of Evangelicalism that my dad loves is the Ken Ham quote that we should insist on calling the narratives from scripture "Bible Accounts", not bible stories. I can't even, and I'll more on that later in a big way.

But the objective truth is that our information about Jesus' existence and interactions after he was executed come solely from eye-witness accounts. There is more historical research than I could quickly pursue on this. In terms of history, we have good account of this happening. In terms of empirical proof, we do not have that. But that is not at all the point...the resurrection is an essential part of talking about Jesus' sacrifice. It sets it apart from Him just being a martyr, but someone who not only made an incredible example of selflessness and love, but embodied it in some higher, metaphysical way.

I think that there are truths to our existence that an empirical understanding won't point to. I think it's possible that the real existence of a God could come from the collective positive effect of the individuals that believe in him and act accordingly. But I'm still that person who doesn't really get revved up about traditions. Today is another day for me. Another day where I continue to think about bettering myself, about seeking knowledge, about being a force for good.

The community I will engage with today will celebrate the possibility of supernatural wonder that comes from the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. The inspiration they take from that will push them to love and serve those around them**.

Wherever empiricism lands...this is ultimately a Good Thing for those who practice, and for those they encounter. Happy Easter!

These two statements come from Mike McHargues own axioms for faith. I'll probably blog about these in the future
** I know this is true for my church group specifically, but even the most judgmental and closed-minded of christians still takes messages of inspiration and love from the resurrection specifically. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cyber-Empathy (or Empathy armed with a keyboard)

I'm very intimidated by social media. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook are all varying degrees of confusing and overwhelming for me. Because of this I left them a while ago. It's a huge topic, and not the topic of this post, so more on that later. But I open with it because I recently did re-join twitter to follow people who write about the topics I'm interested in, and in a strange happenstance of interconnectedness, curator and climate scientist Gavin Schmidt re-tweeted this post by TED PR director Nadia Goodman. It's about comment moderation after the posting of a TED Talk by Monica Lewinsky.

This is absolutely not the kind of thing I would have found my way to on my own. However, I do love the content that comes out of TED, and Monica Lewinsky has such a magnitude of infamy that I checked it out. Lewinsky's talk and Goodman's resulting blog post are both fantastic, and you should watch and read them right away.

The reason I was even spurred to reference and write about these things are two quotes from the TED talk:

"The theory of minority influence...even in small numbers, when there's consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming up-standers...instead of bystander apathy"

This resonates with me because in a lot of my topics of interest (faith, public discourse, energy, environmental ethic), I see a large scale paradigm shift as necessary to move forward, or just a necessary result. I was struck by the idea that communication ethic, especially with the anonymity the internet can provide, needs a large scale paradigm shift. Crowdsourcing single voices can be part of that shift.

"We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let's acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention."

Not only do I love the language usage here, it resonated with me because I am often presented with the need to actively direct my thoughts and words about things into something productive and helpful. This blog is a part of that effort.

Cyber-bullying is not an issue I have ever once come into close contact with, not in my own life, nor anyone close to me. But the damaging effects of such interactions are being clearly researched and pretty well talked about these days. Here is an interesting write-up in Forbes of a recent study that interviewed children, and then re-interviewed them years later. (It's just after the infuriating "thought of the day"). I browsed the comments after reading as I often do, and I expected to find vitriol, I found none! The comments all related personal experience confirming that there are real, and negative effects of bullying. There was one interesting comment postulating that if your parents don't teach you to be tough (i.e. "weak") you'll become a liberal, and if they do, you'll become a conservative. You can't make this stuff up.

In any's absolutely true that an undue balance of online communication is vicious, hateful and damaging. A big portion of that is just trolling! People don't even feel what they write, they just have to type and stir the pot. It helps nothing, it hurts many. A lot of this nastiness is in sensitive areas such as gender and sexual orientation. Anita Sarkeesian both does great writing on these issues, and has been the bitter recipient of them.

A small note about comment moderation. As I've navigated the waters of a highly polarized and ideological issue like climate change, I've found that strict comment policies and good moderation make all the difference in the world in a website or blog being helpful. When the shouting is subdued, what's left over is thoughtful commentary, regardless of agreement, that helps understand an issue. While this brings up interesting questions of censorship...I feel that the productivity of communication once trolling and sloganeering are eliminated is highly important. Probably more on that later.

If we are going to continue to grow as an interconnected, digital species (and we are), we have to learn to communicate with each other as human beings. We need to reinforce equality and the value of everyone's thoughts and experiences. Monica Lewinsky's TED talk shows clearly that we need to get over the childish obsession with others' misfortune that the internet allows us to revel in.

We need to speak up with intention.

And we need to be up-standers for what the right paradigm shifts are.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Dataphobia (Do we all have it or just me?)

One danger I run into is forming an opinion on something and writing out my thoughts on it in great detail without finding data to support it, or assuming that the data supports it. That's probably how most of us think. I think there's psychology to support that...but where is it?

I want to get better at quickly finding the research behind things I think are true. But it's an IMMENSE task, and kind of scary.

I want to write about my ideas that the amount of work and waste that goes into a fossil fuel based industry/economy really take away from it's perceived efficiency and effectiveness. I'm sure there are some numbers to support that, or at least facilitate a discussion about it.

As someone who struggles with focus, details, memory, etc the prospect of finding, digesting and remembering that kind of information is really scary!! So much so that it normally paralyzes me from doing anything, or deciding that I'll do it later when I have more time. That later never comes.

I don't think I'm totally alone in this. We understand things in small chunks that apply to our lives and frames of reference, and communicators play to that. But communicators probably also use that to their advantage. And our own little frames of reference probably lead us to half truths or untruths.

The consensus project is pretty hotly debated and gets used as a sloganeering point more than a scientific resource. But any methodological issues it may have are overridden by the fact that several similar studies replicate its results. I like this post on that issue. But I use it as an example because it points to the significant disparity between perceived truth and empirical truth, a disparity likely to be found in many issues, moreso in controversial ones.

I've read and heard from a few sources I like and trust (more on that later) that this is a combination of the way our mind makes decisions (evolutionary science) and the way data is communicated and received in our political atmosphere (social science). There is great research for both. I had a lot of the psycho-social reserach condensed very effectively when I read Don't Even Think About It by George Marshall. And am about to dive more into data-interpretation with The Signal And The Noise by Nate Silver.

One great way to deal with large, complex and out of reach data is to get it condensed this way by an author you trust who has taken the time to examine it all and made it more understandable for you. But there is still that lingering fear for me, that if someone were to ask me to validate an opinion or reference to something, all I could say is "I read it somewhere", and not "well I've looked at all the data and the conclusion is valid". Maybe that's not realistic, there's certainly little time for every single interested citizen to examine ALL the data, and doing so takes a high degree of numeracy and statistical understanding to begin with...I'm not even there yet. I'm also a slow reader (more on that later). And when it comes to seeking out justification for an opinion or fear of being bad at focusing on details (even just the fear of reading something long!) stops me.

It leaves me with a lot of opinions that need exploration just free-floating around my head with fear, disorganization and being overwhelmed by the size of the information stopping me from ever doing anything about it. That's a big purpose for this blog, though I have yet to construct a post that comes from reading research on any particular topic. I'm not counting that as a negative because I'm letting the blog flow freely without any judgement.

Suffice it to say that doing research is a task that stimulates most of my most negative, fear based views of myself my mental process, but it's something that I REALLY want to be good at. It's something I think is the right way to engage with the world and important topics. But the fear is usually pretty crippling.

Is it procrastination to end with "more on that later"?

The Singularity Will Fix It (or Don't Worry, Be Techie)

I had kind of a silly thought today, which may bear some truth, or may just be a laugh for nerds. If you're not familiar with the work of Ray Kurzweil, he is an inventor, technology enthusiast and futurist. What's a futurist? It's exactly what it sounds like. Kurzweil is well known for discussing the technological/sociological idea of singularity, the point when technological development accelerates at a near vertical curve and it's therefore advances faster than its impacts can be understood. The idea of artificial inteligence surpassing our own is central to this concept, but singularity can be applied on a smaller scale can be applied to one area of technology too. For example, the fact that information will soon be unlimited and instant in its storage and exchange could be thought of as a mini-singularity.

This morning I was thinking about environment and technological advance and my own prediction that all-electric vehicles will be completely the norm by 2050 (more on that later). Thinking about that year reminded me of the year 2030. That year is a memory error, but I kept it in because documenting my own thought process is something I do here. The real year is 2045, I was thinking of this article about Kurzweil's prediction of the singularity, and particular, human/digital technology integration at this year. It is a really cool article, but talking any more about it will digress too far from my point.

Here is the silly thought I actually had. If information processing and humanity's bonding with it really increase on a kurzweilian of two things is possible in our approach/response to climate change.

1. We suddenly gain the (nearly artificial intelligence) ability to compile and understand ALL of the data so quickly that we are able to discern truth. My computer is already able to do something like this on a small scale. It can take ALL the data of voltages running in and out of my battery, and represent it as a REAL LIFE amount of time that my computer can stay running. With immense information technology acceleration and possible integration with human brains, it's possible that we could process enough data to make a real life representation of truth in climate science. If our interconnectedness allows this kind of result to be shared (and not just given from an authority), it's possible that a social consensus will exist. Is that too wordy and unfunny of a way to say all that? Probably. If Kurzweil thinks that the singularity will happen mid century, then before then we will know, and possibly know together if climate change is dangerous.

2. Technology will exist to modify the climate before we even know if we need to. Most of Kurzweil's predictions come from an understanding of Moore's Law, the speed at which processor architecture can be miniaturized and therefore the advancement of digital processing power. It's the kind of mathematical analysis that produces the idea that eventually that kind of thing will accelerate faster than our understanding. This kind of thing can clearly be observed in consumer technology. Today's iPhone is orders of magnitude more powerful, orders of magnitude smaller, and orders of magnitude cheaper than mid to late 20th century supercomputers. Infrastructure and large scale industrial technology, however, doesn't really increase this fast...even if it could theoretically. Sometimes it doesn't have to. India is leapfrogging fossil fuels in favor of solar. The same thing happened in Africa as it became clear that giving someone in the middle of the Serengeti Plain a cell phone  (I have seen this) was far cheaper and far more effective than running a landline there.  Regardless of the conservative bashing that renewables tend to's possible their beloved market might make them tenable anyway. So on the technology side, we might engineer something like carbon sequestration, or just develop clean energy way faster than we think we can.

As I write these thoughts out...they don't strike me as funny as they did when they first came to me. This was on a bus very early in the morning, and the thought wasn't this wordy for sure. It was more like "Electric cars at 2050? Well if we're going to be androids in 2030 we will probably either know with certainty or have solved climate change." And then I decided to write it up, which turned into more of a wordy speculation than anything, but that's ok.

It will be interesting to see where Big Data and Moore's Law take us as we contend with the ways our development and our planet intersect. Maybe more on that later.