Shannon Hale on genderequd reading habits

(via To Write Is To Live Forever on Tumblr) I had never heard of Shannon Hale before today, but now I'm absolutely interested in seeking out and reading her work.  She writes young adult fantasy and adult fiction, and she posted this on her Tumblr late last month:

When I do book signings, most of my line is made up of young girls with their mothers, teen girls alone, and mother friend groups. But there’s usually at least one boy with a stack of my books. This boy is anywhere from 8-19, he’s carrying a worn stack of the Books of Bayern, and he’s excited and unashamed to be a fan of those books. As I talk to him, 95% of the time I learn this fact: he is home schooled.

There’s something that happens to our boys in school. Maybe it’s because they’re around so many other boys, and the pressure to be a boy is high. They’re looking around at each other, trying to figure out what it means to be a boy—and often their conclusion is to be “not a girl.” Whatever a girl is, they must be the opposite. So a book written by a girl? With a girl on the cover? Not something a boy should be caught reading.

Continue reading...

This is the kind of thing that the gender binary does to people -- this is a great example of the ways that sexism hurts boys.[1. In case any Men's Rights Activists stumble onto this post, no, I'm not arguing that men are more/equally/similarly oppressed than women.  The problems men face in a sexist culture are best addressed by fighting for the social equality of women and breaking down the rigid gender norms of "manliness" and "femininity".]

The idea that boys aren't supposed to like 'girly' books, shows, or other narratives means boys are de facto not exposed to strong female characters, good female role models, and whole values-sets that don't mesh with the ideas of 'boys writing.'

I strongly recommend reading the whole post, because it's kind of tragic and very, very important.

Another climate change skeptic changes his mind

BBC News reports on Richard A. Muller's decision to switch sides on the Climate Change political smokescreen, favoring reality over politics.  Muller was a leading critic of the initial hockey stick results, one of the first people to cast widespread doubt on the issue and help stall a global discussion on what needs to be done to avoid killing billions of people.

In a piece authored for the New York Times, Prof Muller, from the University of California, Berkeley, said: "Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming.

"Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

In the New York Times piece, Muller insists that previous studies were insufficient and untrustworthy, but he makes it clear that his more robust research lines up completely with their claims -- the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group, the organization Muller organized to do this research, specifically repeated the experiments, accounting for all the popular denial arguments.

Our Berkeley Earth approach used sophisticated statistical methods developed largely by our lead scientist, Robert Rohde, which allowed us to determine earth land temperature much further back in time. We carefully studied issues raised by skeptics: biases from urban heating (we duplicated our results using rural data alone), from data selection (prior groups selected fewer than 20 percent of the available temperature stations; we used virtually 100 percent), from poor station quality (we separately analyzed good stations and poor ones) and from human intervention and data adjustment (our work is completely automated and hands-off). In our papers we demonstrate that none of these potentially troublesome effects unduly biased our conclusions.

(Emphasis mine)

DNS Malware -- Potential Internet Mini-Apocalypse

[important]I'm pretty sure this is a big deal.[/important]

(via Mental_Floss)

An Estonian band of hackers have spread a virus which, according to the FBI, has infected more than 277,000 computers worldwide.  There are apparently about 64,000 computers still infected in the US.  Computers still infected at 12:01am EDT, July 9, will lose their ability to go online.

Once again, for emphasis:  Computers still infected at 12:01am EDT, July 9 (Next MONDAY) will LOSE THEIR ABILITY TO GO ONLINE.

According to AP,

The problem began when international hackers ran an online advertising scam to take control of more than 570,000 infected computers around the world. When the FBI went in to take down the hackers late last year, agents realized that if they turned off the malicious servers being used to control the computers, all the victims would lose their Internet service.

In a highly unusual move, the FBI set up a safety net. They brought in a private company to install two clean Internet servers to take over for the malicious servers so that people would not suddenly lose their Internet.

Social networks have apparently been reaching out to their users, to alert them if their computer is infected.  and there are websites you can go to to confirm that your computer is clean.  Google and Facebook should let you know, but if they didn't, you might still want to check out DCWG, the company that is running the safety net.

If you're in the US, this link will take you to a check-up site.

Alanna Shaikh's TED talk on Alzheimer's

In this TED talk, that floats between chilling and optimistic, Alanna Shaikh hits the nail on the head.  When I think about Alzheimer's Disease, there are only two thoughts that usually come to mind. Thought A:  Denial.  I'm not going to get Alzheimer's.  I don't have to worry about it.  It won't happen to me.  Thought B:  Prevention.  I'll avoid it.  I'll do crossword puzzles, eat the right foods (is tuna good or bad?  I can't remember) and donate to study efforts and they'll cure it in time and even if they don't I won't get it.

I avoid like hell thinking thought C: me, with Alzheimer's.  Just writing that sentence is painful.  It's hard to think about.  Damn near everything I value about myself takes place in my head, and it hurts to think about that all slowly slipping, to think about my mind ending not abruptly but slowly, piece by piece, while the people I love and who love me watch me forget them, and forget myself, and forget nearly everything else.

In all that mess, it honestly never occurred to me to reach thought D:  How can I be a good Alzheimer's patient.  How can I not make it miserable for myself.

That's what Alanna's talk is about.  Her father, who has Alzheimer's, is her model for what to do when the near-inevitable fate comes, and what to do before that point.  Alzheimer's runs in families, so it's likely it will come for her.  I don't think I have any relatives who got old enough that I'd know if it's in my genetics.

Here's the talk:

A case study in Facebook privacy

I'm planning on quitting Facebook soon, and am currently going through the preparations necessary.  One of the major reasons is the way Facebook uses the default privacy settings to fudge people towards giving up more information than they really intended to. There's a great example of this fact in action at We know what you're doing..., a website that posts public statuses of Facebook users in four categories: Who wants to get fired?, Who's hungover?, Who's taking drugs?, and Who's got a new phone number?

In their about page, they point out:

These people probably wouldn't want this info publishing, would they? Probably not to be fair, but it was their choice, or lack of, with regards to their account privacy settings. People have lost their jobs in the past due to some of the posts they put on Facebook, so maybe this demonstrates why. Efforts have been made to remove any personal data from the results, such as the actual phone numbers, surnames, etc. The data is still easily accessible from the API, the filters have been put in place to protect the site from legal issues.

The idea comes from a great performance by Tom Scott, which I'm embedding below:

A lot of the people on these sites don't know that they've left their Facebook pages this open.  And that's the problem -- it's not enough to protect people's privacy to say, "You need to look at the privacy settings."  Facebook buries them, and they set all the defaults to "Share everything."    As a result, people who are on Facebook not because they want to stay in touch with the cutting edge of social technology but because they want to talk to their friends (read: damn near all of them) are unlikely to protect themselves.

Thorium! A pretty awesome uranium alternative

(via SciShow) Of all the problems the world is facing in the Information Age, the energy problem is one of the biggest -- and, it seems, one of the most insoluble.  We have a tendency (whether as a culture, in America, or just as a species) to assume that resource problems are based on fixed proportion.

With energy, the proportions we imagine are cleanliness, quantity, and safety.  We imagine that we need fossil fuels because we need huge quantities of energy, and they're a bit safer than nuclear, but aren't clean.  Nuclear is too scary, and feels too unsafe.  And this mental comparison leads most people to assume that because clean energy is, by definition, very clean, and almost always also very safe, it must not be able to produce anywhere near enough power.

Fortunately the world doesn't work that way, and as a species so far we've been lucky to discover over and over again that there are easy ways to totally break the system and get way more quality out of the available resources.

For energy, this game-breaking fuel is Thorium.

According to Hank Green on SciShow, Thorium is about as common as dirt.  Miners literally throw the stuff out because it just gets in the way when they mine other stuff.

Thorium is more efficient and safer than uranium power, and the coolant involved isn't pressurized -- so the stuff that happened in Chernobyl, and more recently, Fukushima, must isn't possible.

It is radioactive, but it's not the same kind -- Thorium produces alpha waves, which are way safer than Uranium's gamma rays.  Thorium's waste is also radioactive for a much shorter period of time -- just a few hundred years.  So, compared to Uranium waste, which will probably still be a problem when humans aren't around to explain it, Thorium waste could plausibly be totally safe within the life span of the civilization that created it.

It's also super-hard to make weapons out of it, and can use up and eliminate plutonium waste as part of its running process.  Win.

China is already leading on developing Thorium reactors.  India is also looking into it.

TheWeek.com's article links to an article on thestar.com, claiming it points to criticism of thorium:

If "an endless, too-cheap-to-meter source of clean, benign, what-could-possibly-go-wrong energy" sounds too good to be true, says nuclear analyst Norm Rubin, it's because it is.

But that article, which points out that it's been edited from a previous version, has very little in the way of criticism of Thorium.  The only complaints pointed out are that (a.) it would be expensive to retrofit existing reactors, and (b.) engineers these days aren't generally trained in the technology for thorium.

But, come on.  Nuclear reactors and coal are going to keep costing us, they're not free once you've made them, and the climate change costs are going to keep going up the longer we go without creating a carbon-neutral energy source -- which Thorium is.

Besides, we're suffering a job crisis.  Get a bunch of the unemployed engineers to take a crash course, hire contractors to build the reactors, start new domestic mining operations -- these all sound like solutions to me, not new problems.

According to Kirk Sorensen's TED talk on Thorium, we could make fuels using these reactors by taking CO2 out of the air.  So, that's carbon-neutral carbon-based fuel.

The complaints apart from the cost seem mostly to be the same as the advantages cited by thorium advocates -- there's still nuclear waste, just a lot less, it's still radioactive, just nowhere near as dangerously so.

Complaining about Platonic Solids

  [warning]This post is totally just going to be me being cranky.[/warning]

(via theshoutinglegendoflife on tumblr)

I was checking my Tumblr when I came across this very pretty picture of some "Rose Quartz Sacred Geometry Healing Gemstone[s]."

I won't deny that these are very pretty.  But, sacred geometry?  Really?  According to the Etsy page:

Sacred Geometry is the blueprint of Creation and the birth of all form. There are five perfect 3-dimensional forms; the tetrahedron, the hexahedron, the octahedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. These pure shapes, known as The Platonic Solids are the building blocks of our Universe. Being and meditating with crystals in these shapes, allows us to access the energy vibrations and wisdom of our core-selves.

Nope.  Piles and piles of nope.

I don't know if I've mentioned before, but I'm pretty sure that Platonism is one of the major causes of everything that's wrong with society, and looking for a moment at these pictures makes it easy to see why.

The picture is beautiful.  But check out the Platonic Solids on their Wikipedia page:

Tetrahedron (four faces) Cube or hexahedron (six faces) Octahedron (eight faces) Dodecahedron (twelve faces) Icosahedron (twenty faces)
Tetrahedron.svg (Animation) Hexahedron.svg (Animation) Octahedron.svg (Animation) POV-Ray-Dodecahedron.svg (Animation) Icosahedron.svg (Animation)

They're kind of gross looking.  They look pretty unnatural -- what do you ever see in real life that looks anything like those?  To my mind, the reason the objects in the above picture are pretty is that you can see the patterns in the crystal -- the complex, irregular streaks and swirls of pink.  It doesn't hurt that they're on the even more irregular background of the ground and nearby plants.

Plato argued that everything in the universe, all the stuff we interact with, are imperfect manifestations of what he called "forms," which are sort of ethereal objects that totally literally exist, but not really in any sort of physical location, and which you could comprehend if you just spent enough time thinking about them.

I think this is bull████.  Worse, I think it's particularly toxic bull████, because Plato encourages people to believe that if they experience a sense of absolute truth, a sense of insight into the intuitive, obvious nature of the universe, they're probably right.

He encourages people to simplify, rather than looking for answers in complexity.  He encourages people to take unwavering faith in the belief that their intuitive understanding of the world is best, and that people who disagree with them are not just seeing things from a different angle, but have been corrupted by a veil of deception.  Platonic thinking is the kind of thinking that leads people to believe that just because their views are unpopular means they're probably right.

If you read a list of cognitive biases, you're getting a pretty clear breakdown of the basic assumptions of the Platonic worldview.  And that's the kind of worldview that gets you to believe that if you carve rocks up into special shapes, they'll work like magic to heal your core-self with vibrations from the universe.

[Trigger warning] Texas possible murder case

(via SourceFed, CNN) There was an event a few days ago in Shiner, Texas, in which a man allegedly found a man molesting his five year old daughter.  The father beat that man into submission, and, it turned out, to death.

The question that both the CNN article and SourceFed raised was, should the man be charged?

I didn't know what to think about that -- and that bothered me.  It seemed like a pretty big deal, and the issues surrounding it make me feel like it demands a forceful response.  Certainly, a lot of people have the very strong reaction that the man should absolutely not be punished.

I'm pretty good at being dispassionate, but my gut definitely pulls me towards agreement -- I find it hard to justify thinking that the father should go to jail for this.  But I also feel uncomfortable with the idea of letting that line be drawn anywhere between acceptable and unacceptable killing between civilians.  Further, if there's any time when temporary insanity makes sense as a reason someone shouldn't go to jail for a murder, it's this.

But I think I've figured out how I feel about this, and what I think should happen.  My conclusions are below the fold.

First.  There should be due process regarding determining whether the accused deceased was actually molesting the five year old girl.  This could be difficult, and might ultimately be inconclusive.  But if the state comes to a conclusion, that should inform what happens next.

If the deceased is found guilty, then the father should be tried, but I would consider it a gross injustice if he wasn't found innocent by way of temporary insanity.  The circumstances of his crime are in that case so extraordinary that it's reasonable to expect he's not a continued threat to society.  (And I have no sympathy for anyone who might recreate those circumstances.)

If the deceased is found innocent, the father should be tried, and the severity of his punishment should reflect both what he believed was happening, and how reasonable his mistake was -- he might not be safe to go free if he flies into that sort of rage any time someone's in the same room as his daughter, but if by some extraordinary series of coincidences it can be shown that the deceased was definitely innocent, but that the father was definitely justified in believing he wasn't, that's probably roughly equivalent to the deceased having been guilty, in terms of justified sentencing.

If it can't be determined whether the deceased was guilty, the trial should proceed, and I would expect the father to be found innocent, and at worst suffer a very light sentence.

Continued thoughts on CISPA

As I understand it, I was wrong about CISPA -- it's apparently quite a lot worse than SOPA, not better but still bad.  Fortunately, Obama has explicitly stated an intention to veto it.  Unfortunately, there's talk that he might back down from that stand. I talked last time about why I think it's important to maintain information barriers between organizations, especially those with executive power.

Today, I want to address why the government shouldn't have the kind of power CISPA affords, and why it's not necessarily a good thing for the government to be too safe.

I want to start off by saying I'm not a libertarian, I'm not an anarchist and by most definitions I'm not a revolutionary.  I don't think that politicians should be afraid for their lives.  I do think, however, that they should be afraid for their jobs, if they're doing them poorly, and afraid of incarceration, if they're breaking the law.  Like everyone else.

That seems pretty boiler-plate to me.  But the other major reason the government shouldn't be too strong is that people often have bad ideas.  I'm sure I've got hundreds of bad ideas.  The history of society can easily be structured as the progressive exchange of bad ideas, building towards less bad ones.*

Often, it's a slow crawl of cultural shift from bad ideas to good ones.  And that's fine.  That's the way change happens.  I wish that everything could be made better overnight, but we've got only the tools we have and the world we live in.

That means that, at some point in the growth of every good idea, there are enough people who believe it to make a real impression, but the overwhelming majority of society still disagrees.

People don't like being disagreed with, so this is always a tense situation.  Which, again, is fine.  Not ideal, but we've only got one species with whom to negotiate for our collective wellbeing.**  We've got to work within the way they operate.

In a well-calibrated society, this means long culture battles, a lot of pain, a lot of mean things said one way or the other, but eventually, most people being on board with the better idea.

The risk with an overpowered democracy, though, is the fact that the majority has the influence to control the law.  So if they're in a position where they can get anything passed that ticks them off, painful but ultimately peaceful and reasonable civil change turns very quickly into revolution, insurgency, and, in extreme cases, civil war.

The U.S. and world governments, who are scared and confused by the sudden importance of the internet, are engaging in a power grab.  They're trying to grab the reigns of a system they don't understand in order to keep the control they have.  But what they're asking for isn't the same amount of control as always (which is already too high for my taste), it's significantly more control.

An underpowered government has its flaws, but the overpowered government that CISPA would create, that SOPA sought to create, that the copyright and digital protection movements are about, would be an inherent threat against the wellbeing of all oppressed, marginalized, or even needlessly inconvenienced people.  It's even a threat against democracy, which suffers every time it's shown to work poorly, the way it does when the democracy has too much power.

Best wishes.

*I won't go so far as to take the modernist position that this is the only possible narrative for history, nor make the claim that we're approaching some sort of species-wide perfection.  I just think that we've got a relatively higher concentration of usefulness to idea than we had in, say, 1400. **That's not strictly true, but for the sake of flow I'm not going to take this opportunity to hop up on the speciesism soapbox.

What dictionaries do and are for

I should start keeping a record of arguments I have with people where, at some point, they look up a word in the dictionary, and on the merit of the definition there, declare themselves the winner and refuse to entertain any further conversation.  (Next time it happens, actually, I'll probably refer them to this blog post.) The thrust of the argument is generally:

ME [word] has certain subtexts, connotations or unavoidable connections which are relevant to its use in this conversation.

OTHER Nuh-uh!

ME It's hard to prove connotation, but having grown up in the same culture as me, you must have noticed it. I believe you're arguing in bad faith if you insist that connotation doesn't exist.

OTHER looks up the word in the dictionary.

OTHER Look, see? [Word] (n./v./w.e) [The definition, repeated verbatim, usually skipping over the full list to cite only the example most useful to their argument.]

ME The dictionary isn't the final say in word meaning.

OTHER presses his or her fingertips into his or her ears and hums loudly.

OTHER La-la-la! I can't hear you!

ME facepalms.*

I'm not saying dictionaries are useless.  They're a valuable resource -- we need some widely accepted touchstone for discussions about the meanings of words.

But that's exactly the point -- dictionaries are a starting point for discussions.  There's no sense in which it's acceptable to treat the dictionary definition as the final say in an argument.**

Dictionaries aren't created by the High Council of Words and their Meanings.  They're made by people, who look at the way words are already being used, and do their best to capture that in an easy and accessible way.  They do it in very small print, and in a very short space, because they're creating a general reference, not writing essays on each word's meaning.

Dictionaries change over time, and even words that haven't changed for centuries have context that isn't captured within the definition.

I remember in high school learning about Denotation and Connotation.  Words have their literal meaning, but they've also got inseparable baggage -- meaning that's there, lurking whenever the word is used, but which doesn't strictly adhere to the explicit meaning of the word.  That baggage is important.  It's often more important than the literal definition, and it's usually what sparks arguments about word meaning.

There's nowhere to look up connotation, and no one source you can point to and say, "There.  There it is."  It's the feeling you get because every time you hear a word in your life, it's surrounded by some or all of the same other words or ideas.

Connotation is the vehicle by which difficult issues, like racism, sexism or anti-intellectualism, pervade every form of communication even though they very rarely stick out in a clear way.

So, to anyone in my future with whom I argue about words:  if you try to end a conversation with a dictionary, I will hit you with it.†

*Yes, I do  feel weird about the fact that the format I chose for that exchange requires me to use the word 'me' incorrectly. **Unless the argument is, "What's the [specific publication of a dictionary] definition of [word]?" †Violence is never the answer.

Role Models

I have lots of role models, so I expect it shouldn't be too surprising that I think they're serious business. I've blogged about some of my thoughts on them before, so that seems like a pretty good place to start.

Your role models and philosophical heroes sort of have to tell you that it’s worth living.  That’s not what makes them special.  I mean, it’s what makes them special as human beings, but it’s not what makes them special among notable people.

We can’t all affirm life in the same way.  Walks in the woods make some people feel deeply connected with humanity.  For me, the thing most intimate and uplifting about a long walk in the woods is seeing the glow of city lights in the distance, knowing there’s a place close enough to see its aura where people have come together to live and cooperate.

The reason this comes to mind now is because Ze Frank is starting up a new show, and he's about as close as it comes to the quintessential internet role model.  His new video, "An Invocation for Beginnings," is inspiring in all the ways I need to get myself started working.  He seems to say aloud all the secrets that artists have to know, and have known throughout history, but which tended not to be mentioned, out of pride or machismo.

I learned about Ze Frank in more depth than the 'How To Dance' videos through another pair of role models, the Vlogbrothers.  And I've got other role models, too -- Neil Gaiman, Greta Christina, Tim Minchin, pretty much all the people I like to learn about, I do so because I'm inspired by them in some way.

That's what I mean to say when I say role models are important.  Plural.  Because it's important to have a lot of them.  Having just one doesn't really do much to teach you about yourself.

We develop our self-identity in relation to other people, but if you only rely on the people immediately around you you'll only rise to the standards of your immediate community.

Role models, if you've got a lot of them, provide the necessary examples to develop a sense of self that fits into the sort of life you aspire to.

Methodological Structures (2)

Yesterday I wrote about my own methods for structuring my life.  Now, I want to look into some of the reasons I've had to think so much about this, when it comes naturally to most people.

Religion

With all its ritual and taboo, religion is a fantastic source for lifestyle structure, if you're not too worried about the consequences of that structure.

With most major religions, varying levels of commitment allow you to take as much structure from it as you need, and let the rest slip away.  You can either be devout, going to Church every Sunday or eating Kosher or Halal, or you can celebrate the high holidays and keep a rough sense of moral expectations while you fit into the structures of your industry or community.

The main problems with religious structure are:

(a.) It has a false center of purpose -- the rituals aren't for god, they're for the institution, or the community from which they originated, or they're just OCD-style quirks that found their way in through the early years of the religion.  But they claim to be designed to please a god, so there's no way to check if they're working, or if you even want to be accomplishing the end they actually serve.

As a consequence, (b.) most of the rituals have long outlived their benefits, and even the ones that work are less than ideal.  In the bronze age, the dietary restrictions of a religion were good ways to keep from dying, and rituals like confession or prayer for others are good bronze-age substitutes for therapy and conflict resolution skills.

Government

Law provides a structure for a lot of behaviors, if you want to toe the line.  The main problem with getting your guidance from the government is that it's mostly restrictive -- laws tell you what not to do, not what you should be doing.

Society

Society has elaborate structures set out for everyone, and it's impossible not to pick up at least some of your lifestyle, probably most of it, subconsciously from the world around you.

The main problems is that they're invisible -- you don't tend to be conscious of your conditioning, and they're not organized around your own priorities.  Societal conditioning is where most racism, sexism and other isms.

Coming up with your own

Personally,  I think this is the way to go.  It's an excellent route to self-improvement, and it lets you maximize your realistic adherence to your own moral values.

The main trouble is that it's hard.  And it makes you seem weird.  And it requires that you study sociology and postmodernism to learn how to unpick all the values and structures that have been instilled in you over the course of your lifetime.

But, hey, that's fun, right?

Methodological Structures (1)

It's 11pm and I haven't gotten around to coming up with an idea for a Srs Bsns post.  Or, that's not true.  I spent about an hour brainstorming earlier today, and I'm sure I had a good idea.  But I can't remember what it was. So, instead, I'm going to write about the methodological structures I use to maintain my life -- what they are, what it's like when they work, what it's like when they fail, and what it's like when I'm trying to do something without a structure.

What they are

A methodological structure is a broad category I just pulled out of my ass to attempt to capture the spirit of a variety of things I do to force myself to get work done.

Vows

Vows are my favorite form of methodological structure.  These are things I'm required to do, but for which there's no specific consequence for failure.  I have a few incomplete vows, but none in which I have officially failed.  (I have missed a couple of deadlines in the past, but I always caught up, and usually did extra work to make up for it.)

The main benefit of vows is that I haven't ever really failed at them, and I know that, when I vow something, I can make myself stick to it.  I don't vow things lightly, but I do it a lot when it comes to my writing.  It's good for projects where I know I'm going to lose my resolve at some point, because it forces me to keep going for the sake of the vow, even if I (temporarily) don't believe in the project.

Bets

Bets are like vows, except that I'm allowed to fail, but there's a consequence if I do.  I've found these to be a lot less effective than vows, because if it ever becomes particularly daunting, I always have an out -- the bigger the bet, the harder it is to rationalize failure, but if I'm in a really bad place, I can convince myself that it's not worth it.

One of the main advantages of these structures is that they give me the ability to plan around my predictable failures.  Bets aren't actually very good at doing that, and I should really stop using them.

Lists

To-do lists are a great form of structure when putting together complicated plans on short notice.  I generally make them when I start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do, but still have enough energy to do something.  I find organizing your time in a list can make completing tasks energizing, rather than draining, as long as I don't think too hard about why I'm following the list -- I trust the judgement of my list-making past self, and zone out into the task.

What it's like when they work

I've finished three novels, kept this blog going since September, and maintained reasonably good grades in school using these methods.  They're the primary means by which I feel capable of achieving self-improvement.

What it's like when they fail

Today is a good example of what happens when they fail.  My current structure for blogging involves three scheduled days a week, but there's no structure in my life outside that to prepare me for the work that's coming.  I don't start the Srs Bsns blogs until Wednesday, sometimes not until 11pm.  A few of the Africa posts were researced and written all in one day.

I need to improve the structures I use to compel myself to write well for this blog, but I don't know exactly where to start.  It's difficult to fit things like brainstorming and drafting into my turbulent daily schedule and I don't know how to make clean, coherent vows out of them.  Tasks with no clearly defined end-point are hard to plan for, so I need to learn some new time management techniques to improve in that area.

Trying to do things without structure

I haven't yet found something I can really succeed in without some kind of structure to it.  But I think that's true of everyone -- in many ways, structure is built into every element of our society.

But I grew up with almost no structure at home, and poorly enforced structure at school.  It wasn't until I hit my twenties that I started to seriously work towards creating something resembling a lifestyle -- a word I'd like to explore more later.

I'm going to continue this section of the post tomorrow, exploring how structure is embedded in human cultures, religions and governments, and some of the reasons to shirk that structure and attempt to construct your own.

Art Matters

I've heard a lot of people, in my life, say that art is not terribly important.  That, for example, if we need to cut the budget, the thing to do is to cut down on arts -- that all the essentials need to be absolutely satisfied before we even consider spending any money on art. I wish I had some sort of magic power, by which I could show them a world entirely without art.  There would be no written histories apart from farming records and ledgers, where there was no music, all forms of media (if they ever came to exist) present nothing but dry, boring news.  Houses would have no aesthetic flourishes, being made out of a sturdy shape with no unnecessary paint on the walls (the outsides might all be barnhouse red, because it prevents rot) and the cabinets would be boxes with flat, planklike doors.

After a long day at their painfully boring job, unlightened by jokes, music or interior design, they'll come home to their show-less TVs, no books, no games or interesting bits of wall to stare at.

Even that's not far enough, though.  There are always decisions to be made about making things that come down to more than just what's most functional.  Those decisions are aesthetic.  Still, I think no one from this world who were moved to that one could handle it.

***

It's hard to say what art is for, exactly. It's easy to see, if you're not trying to deny it, that art is necessary for positive life experience.  But it's very difficult to explain exactly why -- and, for critics, it's very easy to refute any proposal, because all you have to do is find one niche piece of art that, for most people, contradicts the claim, and you seem to have a case.

You don't, actually, because one of the important things about art is that it varies hugely in appeal.  Soccer, dance and civil war reenactment aren't my cup of tea, but they're all activities that require a lot of work and culminate in the putting on of a show.  I don't think a sane definition of art could exclude them.

Meanwhile, hyper-ironic, self-referencing social commentary humor (like A Softer World) is right up my alley. When I show it to people, they'll often insist that there's absolutely nothing remotely funny about it, and that no one could possibly find it entertaining.  At the time, they're generally blissfully unaware of how uninteresting I find football to be.

The thing about the majority view, though, is that there are plenty of people who are totally cool with the idea that art is useless, because they see "art" as that weird stuff with the squares and a bunch of old paintings that people pretend to like to seem important.  But grounding a definition of art in personal preference can't possibly build a usable definition.  The definition of art can't be "Frank from Baltimore likes it."

So, here's my proposal.  I say that art is:  any act, or result of an act, which adds value.

A book is the product of an act of arranging words which has made those words, on that paper in that ink, more valuable than their component parts.  A sport is an interaction between groups of people who make their skills valuable.  A well-constructed bottle and label can actually make wine taste better.  Wine, by the way, is value-enhanced fruit juice.

Good art adds lots of value.  Bad art might only add value in your own eyes.  Controversial art might even decrease value in some people's eyes.

I'm tempted to add "or attempts to add" to the proposed definition, but I'm not sure it works quite that way.  I think there is such a thing as failed art.

***

By that definition, which I sincerely believe, art is definitely important.  I mean, it's basically the only important thing.

Which is why it annoys me when people complain about artists and art.

The concept of money

I'm not a communist.  I swear. I like money, as a concept.  I think it's useful.  I even think the free market is good for a lot of things. I am technically a socialist, in that I think there are a lot of things for which the free market is a very bad solution.  But that's not what I want to talk about.

I think that as an abstract premise, money is quite a good thing.  But I also think that the concept of money can be corrupted, and that's what we see a lot of in the version of capitalism we have in the United States.

I saw a commercial a lot like this one earlier tonight.  (I couldn't find a clip of the actual commercial I saw.)  It's for a gas card, and points out all the money you can save if you just spend enough at the right places.

It's common wisdom that "You can't get something for nothing."  The philosophical validity of that claim aside,* in our culture we're encouraged to try to get things for nothing.  The atmosphere presented by stock markets, gas cards, rewards programs, IRAs, and mortgages pressures us towards a view of money that suggests we should be trying to game the system -- that financial success means being good enough at 'money' to avoid providing full value in money for the goods or services we're asking for.

The fact that this is basically a description of the simplified version of an "economic bubble" we heard so much about in the 2000's is troubling.  But that said, this all does work out quite well for people who really are good at money.  There's a mind-bogglingly elaborate system that invites you to try to exploit it, and the more complicated a system, the easier it is to find an exploit.

For the rest of us, though, what's left is a culture that encourages us not to develop a coherent philosophy of money that suits our needs.  We're expected to want more than we can afford, and told that if we work hard enough in the right ways, we really can turn our low-income jobs into high-income lifestyles.

I don't think this is the only problem with the American economy or with American culture, but it's a significant one.  It's the same sort of problem as the cult-of-thin beauty expectations that encourage us all to look photoshopped.

I don't have an easy answer for this problem.  I don't have any sort of answer at all, really.  But, like I've been saying a lot lately, I think a big part of the solution to the problem is just understanding.  Exploring the issues with our systems and understanding that they're not the only option is ultimately all it really takes to make change happen.  Spreading that understanding is a whole task unto itself, and ultimately it's going to be someone's job to act on that understanding.  But that doesn't mean that, for the individual, understanding isn't something huge you can do.

Personally, I'm going to be trying to develop a more coherent philosophy of money.  Best wishes, talk to you tomorrow.

*I think that it's not so much a right or wrong statement as it is a close-to-useless, non-communicative statement that contains too much ill-defined presumption to convey a coherent point.

My hastily considered thoughts on the sudden notoriety of Joseph Kony

I've read a selection of articles about the KONY 2012 video since I watched it yesterday, so I'm going to take some time to write out the conclusions I've drawn so far.  This is sort of a thinking-out-loud piece, and I will definitely be following up on the issue more, and, if it seems like the right thing to do, continuing to blog about it. Kony and Hipsters

My first thought on the subject, a direct response to a lot of the Reddit complaints and general atmosphere in response to this sort of issue, is that it's really freaking annoying how many people's first reaction to activism is to attack their peers for sharing a video that indicates an amount of concern for humanity.

I'm not sold on Invisible Children,  because apparently their practices and finances are kind of shady.  I definitely want to look more into that.  But I don't see how any effort of consciousness raising could really be an intrinsically bad thing.  Even if the attention Invisible Children is getting from this will just enable their bad decisions, the appropriate response, if you have a problem with that, is not to get holier than thou about your preemptive apathy.  It's to research the issue and tell those peers what they can do to help.

Consciousness rasing

I think part of my problem with the backlash is that a lot of people seem to think that just knowing about the problems in the world doesn't help, or is even in some way counterproductive.  I do think that there's such a thing as too much consciousness raising, but that's not the case with the Kony issue. Two days ago, I'm 90% certain I didn't know anyone who knew enough about Kony to care.  Maybe some professors.  Certainly not any friends.

And this campaign is, if nothing else, a specific, concrete vehicle for the people of the most industrialized world to comprehend some of the horrible things that happen in some of the less industrialized parts of the world.

Deus ex Machina

As a community, the internet has a lot of power, when we mobilize well.  There's even more power in the government, and international governments.  I'm not saying the Kony issue is an easy one to solve.  But all else being equal, overkill wouldn't be such a bad thing here.  It seems like a lot of people have this expectation that we're supposed to play fair with the scale of the opposing armies with which we engage.  We don't really have to do that.

Caring about Caring

Another thing that really bugs me about the people complaining about the consciousness raising of the Kony 2012 campaign is the criticism that the hipsters jumping on board with it just want to be seen caring about things.  I can't think of a more shallow complaint:  doing decent things because you want people to see you doing decent things is not worse than being an asshole because you want everyone to see that you don't care what they think.  It's better.  There's no sense in which it's not better.

"I heard it first" -- the hipster mentality and sustained attention

All that said, there are real criticisms to be made of this approach.  John and Hank Green have raised the one I think is most relevant -- the internet's ability to focus intensely on a subject does not necessarily translate to the sort of sustained attention and pressure, over the course of months or years, that can actually help solve a problem on an international scale.

Provisional conclusions

I don't quite trust the Kony 2012 campaign.  I'm glad for the consciousness raising they're doing, but I feel I need to do a lot more research before I support them directly.  That said, it would be a waste not to take advantage of this massive, proactive interest in good on the part of the internet, and it would be nice to see the internet rally around a problem other than SOPA, which, though definitely awful, was ultimately about protecting the internet, not protecting innocent others.

Barring some very good reason not to, I intend to keep blogging about this.  I might set aside a day to keep news updates on the Kony issue, although I'll have to see how much energy I have to put into reading about it.  For now, I promise an update on my research on Kony this Saturday.  I'll let you know what further conclusions I've drawn then.

SLEEP

Sleep is really important.   I know that, because I haven't had any for about 24 hours, and it's seriously affecting my ability to think coherently.  But I promised you a Srs Bsns blog post, so today's will be about sleep. I think sleep is serious business for two major reasons:

1.  It's important for health.

Mental stability, physical health, weight control and healthy social lives all rely heavily on a healthy, consistent sleep schedule.  Of course, deficiencies in any of these areas can contribute to disrupting your sleep cycles, so, especially for depressed people like me, sleep disturbances are often part of a vicious cycle (a phrase which I hate but grudgingly use because it is, annoyingly, the best phrase for the meaning it conveys).

2.  It's effing interesting.

Sleep is, as of my most recent reading on the subject, some time around 2005, very poorly understood.  I mean, we do know a lot.  But we don't know anywhere near as much about sleep as we do about most other bodily functions, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that there are very few sleep-related phenomena not related to the brain.

So, there's sleep paralysis.  That's when your whole body from the neck down stops working, because otherwise you'd be flailing around in your dreams and in real life.

Dreams are really pretty cool.  Some people think they're kind of magic, which they're not, but they are, (according to me, and without any scientific consensus I'm aware of although I am pretty sure this is still a fairly open topic,) useful gateways into learning about your own thought process.

The problem I think interpreting dreams has is that they could only realistically reinforce the narratives you already build your life around.  You might, maybe, have a dream that subverts your expectations within that narrative.  But you don't dream in terms of the stories other people tell themselves about their own lives.  So while dreaming can be useful, especially if you're conscious of the meta-analysis, for understanding yourself, it's a terrible tool for understanding other people.  Your dreams do not impart secret wisdom about your boy/girlfriend's fidelity.  Only your own insecurity.

Anyway, I yawned three times in that paragraph, so I'm going to go and have some sleep. TTY Tomorrow!  <3 (I feel like this is the blogging equivalent of drunk-texting.)

Information Equality

Right now, as a world civilization, we don't have information equality, in the truest sense.  And, to be honest, I can't concieve of a world in which we have true information equality.  There are facts about humanity right now that make it impossible for everyone to have equal access to all information.  There are language barriers, and a breakdown of priviliged v. non-priviliged languages -- you've got much better access to a range of information if you speak English or Chinese, for example, than if you speak Karon.  There are also institutions, like academic and trade journals, that create high cost barriers to information.  Universities do this as well, constructing even higher cost barriers, as well as reinforcing cultural boundaries. So, instead of advocating for a sort of platonic universality of information, where we all just automatically know and understand everything, I'm going to outline a weaker definition for information equality, which I think is a lot more achievable, and that's what I'll be discussing.

Weak Information Equality: A state at which 99% of the world population has access to the current state of world knowledge, and to affordable educational structures which have a high success rate in helping their students achieve comprehension of that knowledge.

Affordable educational structure: For the purposes of this argument, 'affordable' is defined as (a.) within the price range of an employed person (my views on employment will come later) and reasonably workable within a 40hr workweek schedule, in any given area.

High success rate: This is possibly the most nebulous term in my definition, because what constitutes a high success rate for any given field will vary.  Like, a high success rate for basic algebra should be over 90%.  A high success rate for advanced physics would, I think, necessarily be lower.

I'm not sure whether it's possible to achieve even this weak version of information equality, but I think we're at a point where we, as a world civilization, have the equipment necessary to try.  I also think that it's worth trying as hard as we can manage, because this isn't the sort of thing where failure means it all goes away, or things go worse than they would have if we hadn't tried.  Up is pretty much the only way to go.

I believe the first necessary ingredient is high-speed internet for as many people as possible.  I believe the aforementioned 99% would have to have access to the internet, because that's the only way I can see to scale up education to the necessary size.

On the upside of that problem, the necessary scaling programs are already coming into existence.  Wikipedia provides a worldwide central educational source, Kahn Academy and series like Crash Course are already  experimenting with creating truly educational content online.  If this trend continues, and I don't see why it shouldn't, we could see a developed-world level basic education (K-12) replicated online, in every major language, in an engaging and accessible way, within our lifetimes.

In the process of pursuing that education, by the way, the next step towards weak information equality would be organically embedded.  Internet literacy, which would be a skill that would emerge out of pursuing that online education, gives near-universal access to the shared community of the internet.

Basically, just about everyone on earth would be, culturally, dual citizens of their home country and of the internet.  We can't (and probably shouldn't) eliminate the concept of nations entirely, but having one worldwide neutral ground, as the internet is and will hopefully continue to be, provides the necessary substructure for advanced education.

The cultural expectations and conventions of internet use emerged recently enough that I think they'll likely be a lot more universal* than expectations and conventions of face-to-face interaction in meatspace.  That provides a much smoother segue into higher education, oriented around internet culture rather than specialized to specific countries and then  exported with either an implicit expectation that the recipients conform to the cultural norms in which it was created, or loose and ineffective cross-cultural translation.

There are, of course, hundreds of other worldwide problems that this wouldn't solve, and hundreds of worldwide problems that get in the way of this.  But I think if the majority of the people in the  developing world have access to the same information and communication technology as everyone else, we'll see much faster progress, and much more attention paid to the parts of the world that need it.

*I accept and concede to any criticism that I'm a white male American making guesses about cultural universals, but even if I'm very, very wrong, I still think it'll only be a matter of degree.

Wikipedia, Youtube, and Information throughout human history

Why this is serious business The history of human civilization has been overwhelmingly shaped by the nature of, and marked by radical change on developments in, communication technology.  I would argue that communication technology is the main thing that distinguishes humanity from other species.  Because of that, I think that every change in communication technology is a significant event in human history.

The internet constitutes major changes in the way humans with access to it relate to information, and it's one of my favorite topics to think about.

Wikipedia

The thing people most frequently discuss when talking about Wikipedia is the fact that anyone can edit it, and I think that's important, but I don't think it's the most revolutionary thing about Wikipedia.  It's been a very long time since it was extremely difficult to get your information in print, and it's never been the case that the primary thing that got a person access to information production was that person's credentials on the subject.

Information aggregation isn't really done by experts in the subjects being aggregated about.  Reporters are almost invariably not experts on what they report on.  Wikipedia has an amount of bad information on it.  But I honestly don't think it's more bad information than newspapers or encyclopedias.  I sincerely think it's probably a lot less.

That said, Wikipedia is still more significant than just traditional encyclopedias, transposed online.  The wiki aspect of Wikipedia, on one of the biggest collections of information in the world, is really a huge leap.

The text of Wikipedia is thoroughly hyperlinked.  Most paragraphs in any given article have several key pieces of information linked to the other pages.  In this way, Wikipedia provides the maximum possible amount of context, presenting information much more in perspective.

YouTube

Video has been one of the biggest changes in the way humans can collect, document and distribute information in history.  It's much more immersive than text, and, for better or worse, it manages much more effectively to connect more directly to the subconscious and emotional thought processes than text is capable of doing.

But it's always had a major drawback -- or, at least, a drawback regarding its utility as a medium of information transmission.  With film, it's impossible to jump around in the stream of information.  On video, it's difficult.  On DVDs, it's clunky.

On YouTube, however, there's a little red bar along the bottom of the video.  The short-length format, the speed of streaming, and the clickable progress bar, creates the first major option in video communication for real random access, in the way books offer.

In this episode of CrashCourse, Hank Green explores the advantages in this format over traditional educational options.

Next week I'll be writing about information equality and what the internet means for the future of education and civilization.

Blogging about stuff I care about

Earlier today, I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Jen McCreight, titled Blogging makes a difference.  It opens with these sentences:

Blogging can be frustrating. A lot of the time it feels like we’re beating our heads against the wall, replying to the same misconceptions over, and over, and over again.

This is how I feel most of the time I sit down to try and write about something I care about.  Most of the time when I blog at length about something that's important to me, it's because I'm finally getting out in text arguments I've had, partially or in full, several times before.  And for me, there are the added insecurities that whenever I blog about something I care about, it's reaching a much smaller audience, and has been covered better by people all over the internet.  I mean, how can I possibly blog about copyright reform when there are such great Cory Doctorow videos out there?

And, running counter to this, in an absurd mental double-standard, whenever I have that sort of argument in meatspace, I wish I could just have that same argument on my blog, so I could put it up in a public forum where everyone could see my views, where the person who disagrees with me would have to say so in public if they wanted to get my input, and where I wouldn't have to feel like I'm wasting energy arguing with someone who isn't listening to me, and there isn't even anyone else paying attention to the argument.

Plus, I do sometimes wish that when people started fights with me I could just give them a list of required-reading blog posts that they had to get through before I'd discuss politics, religion or feminism with them.

Beyond that, there are plenty of other apprehensions.   I mean, what if I'm wrong?  That feels like a trivial thing to say, but I grew up under a presumption of maleness in a fairly misogynistic culture.  There were definitely times I thought and felt things that make me deeply uncomfortable to think about, and the idea that I might hold views now that will make me feel that way in five years freaks me out.

It's scary to stand up for your convictions, which is why most of the time I bring up the things I hold dear in meatspace, I disguise it in a joke.  I find it a lot more difficult to be funny online, mainly because it's not like there's anything for me to respond to in the format of a blog.

I have to go out of my way to say anything I want to say on this platform, which is fine because I like writing and I like sharing my opinions about most things, but that fact pretty much annihilates the possibility of creating an illusion of glibness and wit.  (I'm positing this as one of those rules that super-amazing expert authors are allowed to break because they're brilliant:  You can't be glib on a blog.)

So anything I write here has to be either (a.) something I take seriously enough to think is important to write about, or (b.) something I think my audience will like seeing.

(on that topic, I saw this picture on Reddit the other day, posted by user energydrinkgood:

which is amazing, and I do the same thing but when I do it I imagine it's the voice of videoblogger John Green.  Or Neil Gaiman.  Today it's John Green.)

And it's pretty hard to justify the implicit argument that I think my audience will be excited to learn about my views on the gender binary, so if I'm going to try, it's going to come across like I think it's serious business.  Which I do, but I don't want to make my readers feel like I'm giving them a paternalistic lecture just because I think society has seriously screwed up views on the requirements of personality re: gender, and I'm not very good at making it funny.

That said, I want to try to make more of an effort.  So, in the spirit of making every day of my week arbitrarily demanding, I'm going to make Wednesdays my serious business day.  That makes my current online content creation schedule:

  • Sunday:  whatever & NEW VLOG
  • Monday: whatever
  • Tuesday: whatever
  • Wednesday: serious business blogging
  • Thursday:  whatever & NEW VLOG
  • Friday: Philosophy through Film
  • Saturday: whatever

If you have any ideas about what I should blog about that I think is serious business, or any ideas on how I should fill up the other three totally empty days of my online content generation, feel free to leave them in comments, tweet them to me at @txwatson, or email me at watson@txwatson.com.

Best wishes!