Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: November, 2011

On Violence: Accepting What I Could (and Couldn’t) Have Done

As the tens of readers of this blog are no doubt sick of being reminded, I was the victim of a violent assault about a year ago in Washington, DC. It’s impossible for me to give you any meaningful explanation of the psychological aftermath of such an event in any brief form, but you can get a sense from a few of my posts on the subject under this tag. But one particular mental scar that I presume is common among victims of violence is the nagging question of what I could have done differently. Could I have avoided it? Did I bring it upon myself?

Perhaps most resonating and sensitive to me as a male is whether I could have fought back.

Somewhere down this way, the scene of the crime.

It’s an absurd question, really, because I know that I could not have. I was snuck up on from behind and hit extremely hard on the back of my head, which knocked me straight to the ground, after which I was pummeled mercilessly by two assailants whose faces I never saw. My neocortex knows there was nothing to be done but survive. My lizard brain, and a small handful of males in my life who I presume are well-meaning, tell me otherwise.

Hero-of-the-blog Sam Harris recently wrote an incredible essay on our responses to and preparations for violence, and as he does in all other subjects which he tackles, he offers stark, clear warnings and advice. The theme? “True self-defense is based not on techniques but on principles.”

Harris mainly focuses on preventable violence, or situations in which there are options (whether to follow the instructions to get in one’s car from a parking lot mugger, for example). But in a paragraph relevant to my own story, he reminds me to shut out the voices of macho egotism espoused by my self-critical R-complex and some “traditional” males in my life, some of whom have suggested that had I only been trained in martial arts, I could have neutralized the attack (with my own emphasis):

Herein lies a crucial distinction between traditional martial arts and realistic self-defense: Most martial artists train for a “fight.” Opponents assume ready stances, just out of each other’s range, and then practice various techniques or spar (engage in controlled fighting). This does not simulate real violence. It doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively,without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.

No one has spelled this out for me so clearly as Harris has, and I must say, it gives me some comfort, though I imagine many men would dismiss this in a huff.

I was also glad to read some of what Harris had to say about not allowing yourself to be placed in a vulnerable position in the first place:

You are under no obligation, for instance, to give a stranger who has rung your doorbell, or decided to stand unusually close to you on the street, the benefit of the doubt. If a man who makes you uncomfortable steps onto an elevator with you, step off. If a man approaches you while you are sitting in your car and something about him doesn’t seem right, you don’t need to roll down your window and have a conversation. Victims of crime often sense that something is wrong in the first moments of encountering their attackers but feel too socially inhibited to create the necessary distance and escape.

At my current retail workplace, I have begun to practice this with less and less feeling of apology. When a person enters the store and immediately approaches me too closely, I make a broad step back to create distance and frankly also to communicate that this degree of physical nearness is unnecessary (we can talk about what they need without being close enough to hug) and simply not going to be an option. In other words, in case their intentions are not benign, I’m not going to give them the advantage of proximity.

I may be behaving in a paranoid manner, and I accept that. But after what I’ve gone through, I just don’t see a reason to give everyone, as Harris says, the benefit if the doubt. I’m not a dick about it (I hope), but I’m not willing any longer to be a patsy either.


You’re So Smart! No I’m Not!

I tell my almost-two-year-old son Toby how smart he is all the time. It was said to me over and over when I was a kid.

Decades later, I know in hindsight that I believed my “smartness” to be innate and unrelated to effort or discipline. I therefore, in turn, also believed that when I felt challenged, that it was because I lacked a sufficient amount of “smartness” — that I was inherently flawed and unable to achieve a goal, rather than because of a lack of sufficient effort. I won’t go into it here, but I’ll just say that it’s perhaps the biggest psychological challenge I now face in the wake of all the other traumas with which I’ve had to cope of late. It’s a discovery I’ve only recently made, and it’s of enormous significance for me.

And then, as though the folks at Bloomberg News have been listening in on my therapy sessions, my too-smart-for-whatever-room-he’s-in pal Skylar linked to this piece in Businessweek:

People with above-average aptitudes — the ones we recognize as being especially clever, creative, insightful, or otherwise accomplished — often judge their abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than others do (particularly in Western cultures). Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable, and less confident, even when they should be the most confident people in the room.

The piece then cites a study on how well-meaning, shorthanded evaluation of children effects their performance.

Dweck and Mueller found that children who were praised for their “smartness” did roughly 25% worse on the final set of problems compared to the first. They were more likely to blame their poor performance on the difficult problems to a lack of ability, and consequently they enjoyed working on the problems less and gave up on them sooner.

Children praised for the effort, on the other hand, performed roughly 25% better on the final set of problems compared to the first. They blamed their difficulty on not having tried hard enough, persisted longer on the final set of problems, and enjoyed the experience more.

The conclusion, with emphasis from the original:

The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities — including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice.

Let me tell you from first hand experience, this mountain feels utterly unscalable. Only a lot of time and, well, effort, will tell whether I can traverse it. I’m somewhat gladdened, perhaps a bit validated at least, to see it acknowledged in this form.

My Atheism Will Not Save the World, Ctd.

Friend-of-the-blog Marty Pribble picks up on my lamentations about the state of atheist/skeptic activism, and explains my point about there being a deeper core of crisis than religion alone better than I did:

I feel we are lacking focus. The problems of the world are not caused by religion alone, rather abuse of religious privilege, abuse of political power, and pressure from those who have the money to quash the forward thinking ideas that could see us into the next millennium. As sad as it may seem, the role of religion in this whole debate is only a minor player. Rather than attacking the religion, we should be attacking the root of the perceived need to believe, and replace it with reasoned and rational thought. Religions can only thrive on ignorance, willful or otherwise, for when one starts to ask questions, the theistic claims start to crumble like chalk.

Steve Barry at Left Hemispheres takes the opportunity to look at his own work on this amorphous cause’s behalf:

I started this [blog] to have a voice and for fun. Somewhere along the line I started to take myself too seriously and treat this as a job. That was a mistake. I am hoping that this realization is a turning point in the blog’s existence and these conversations about “what’s next?” are the next step in the movement. . . . I can only tear apart so many HuffPo Religion section articles. I mean…it’s just low hanging fruit, ya know?

I do. And they should be torn apart, but there’s more. I hope we can soon figure out what.

My Atheism Will Not Save the World

After working professionally in the atheist movement, something about my passion for the cause dwindled. This happens a lot to me — I take on a given subject as my profession, and I subsequently grow disillusioned in said subject. Something about a thing becoming one’s job can spoil it.

But after putting aside theatre a few years ago, I rediscovered my love for it, and now I find all the opportunities to return to it that I can. I once worked on behalf of electoral reform, and though I eventually felt saturated by it, I now recall why it was so important to me, and my desire to see major reforms to our electoral system has been rekindled. Etcetera.

But this has not happened yet with the atheist/secularist movement. I still feel very strongly that theism and superstition are dangerous and silly, but I can’t live and breathe the atheist culture like I once did. I never visit the major blogs anymore, I rarely blog on the subject myself, and on the whole I find myself rolling my eyes at 90 percent of the online content generated in the atheist/skeptic genre. Yes, yes, I get it, a literalist interpretation of the Bible is stupid. Agreed.

Don’t we have anything to talk about after that?

Not much, it seems sometimes. The last time the atheist culture crept back into my attention was during the risible “elevator-gate” hubbub, and that was mainly because it included some unforgivable bile-throwing at my Bespectacled Blog Twin. This was not what I had signed up for.

What had I signed up for, then? As with almost any field I dive into, it is usually with the quixotic hope that it will save the world. Fix elections, give people the gift of great art, elect progressive candidates, etc. In this case, I wanted to save the world from dangerous beliefs, from the imposition of those beliefs in every corner of our lives.

But we aren’t getting anywhere.

So this has forced me to reexamine what I really believe to be the core issue. Is it really that theism and adherence to astrology is the problem? Of course not. It’s the mindset that brings so many people to those belief systems, whatever it is about our civilization that makes it fertile for a kind of foolishness that is nearly universal within the species.

Sam Harris is perhaps the only figure of which I’m aware who is beginning to get to that core, and that’s why he continues to be cited on this blog despite my waning interest in the greater atheist movement. He may have captured my feelings in his infamous speech to the Atheist Alliance International conference a few years ago, in which he admonished the movement’s members to stop referring to themselves as atheists, and to simply devote themselves to “destroying bad ideas” wherever they appear.

But that’s not quite enough. Bad ideas need to be destroyed, but we also need to do something about whatever it is about us that allows those bad ideas to flourish to begin with. I don’t want to say that the point is to eradicate all “irrationality,” because I feel it implies a doing-away with explorations and indulgences in intuition, feelings, and art in their appropriate contexts. It’s something deeper than bad ideas. It’s about our brains and our culture, nature and nurture, and how they create the conditions for these bad ideas.

The bad ideas? Sexism, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, unfettered capitalism, the celebration of ignorance, and any institution, philosophy, or myths that form the foundations for oppression and suppression. How do we stop whatever makes those?

Getting the word “God” out of our national motto isn’t going to do it, as embarrassing, excluding, and absurd as that fact is.

I desperately, passionately want to see atheists treated as equally valued members of our society. But even if we get there, I don’t know what to do about the rest. Not yet. But that would be a movement I could join, that would be a blog I’d keep up with.

Those Delightful Social Media Squirts

Michael Erard tells the tale of his avoidance of indulging in the trope he calls the Social Media Exile Essay, a report never written of his exit from Facebook:

. . . I wrote a draft of an essay about writing about why I quit Facebook, which was clever but did not contain any of the things I have already said I didn’t write about. Plus, as the editor pointed out, I didn’t actually explain why I had quit. I hadn’t written about feeling like Facebook was a job. Like I was running on a digital hamster wheel. But a wheel that someone else has rigged up. And a wheel that’s actually a turbine that’s generating electricity for somebody else. That’s how I felt, which is what I should have written.

Now, first, I will say that I completely agree with him in one aspect; Erard returns to Facebook for one of the larger reasons I cannot seem to extricate myself: everyone’s there. It’s become a primary mode of communication with people who are important to me (or people who have become important to me, via Facebook).

But in contrast to Erard, to me, Facebook feels less like a job and more like — I’m ashamed to say — an addiction. Now, do me a favor and don’t overblow that word. Think addiction less in terms of, say, heroine, and more like, maybe, caffeine — not something that sends one to delirious highs, but helps keep one off the floor. You see, I’m talking about that dopamine squirt our brains get when we hear a new email notification or, more relevantly, see the little red notification balloon at the top of our Facebook page, indicating that someone reacted to something we’ve done. (By the way, here’s a good On the Media piece on the aforementioned cranial stimulant.)

As an actor and writer, I’m an incorrigible whore for attention, despite my real-world paralyzing social anxiety, and the Internet enables my tenancies. I blog, I make music, I make pithy comments, I take cute photos of my kid, and — I suspect like most folks — I eagerly anticipate positive reinforcement for my efforts.

So for me, Facebook is not like clocking in to load my 16 tons, as it were. It’s more like the living room where a 6-year-old Paul dons his old training potty as a hat, and pretends to be a magician for his parents’ amusement. Did  they react? Did they smile? Did they tell me how funny I am?



How to Diss Two Billion People

Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, penned an op-ed for the New York Times at the end of October, and managed to dismiss out of hand the imaginative potential of about a third of all living humans.

The piece as a whole is flawed, I think, as it seems to serve two fairly pointless purposes: One, to describe Steve Jobs as markedly creative and ingenious (as in “one possessing ingenuity”), which is a big “no-duh.” The second, it appears, was to remind the reader that Mr. Isaacson has written two other biographies, in case you didn’t know, and does so by going to some lengths to connect Jobs to Isaacson’s previous subjects (Einstein and Franklin). Along the way, Isaacson sort of makes the case that all these fellows were brilliant for their ability to combine intellectual horsepower with something like whimsy, and thus spawning innovation. Fine.

But then Isaacson, out of nowhere it seems, drops this on the planet’s Eastern Hemisphere:

China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences.

Wow. Hey, sorry all you billions of people in India and China. You may think you have your shit together, but Uncle Walt’s got some tough news for you: You’re a bunch of number-crunching, pencil-pushing drones. It’s only here in the U-S-of-A that real visionaries are born.

Isaacson never explains why the United States has this mysterious advantage to — what? — birth well-rounded, art-appreciating inventors? Is it our genetic pool? Our education system? Our proximity to Canada?

I don’t know how someone can make such a wholesale dismissal of more than 2 billion people’s innovative firepower, and not have something to say to back up the claim of America’s alleged superiority — nor am I satisfied that the Times‘ editors should not have asked this same question.

I’ve not read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. I am less compelled to do so suddenly.

Know Thine Enemy, Or Look Like a Damned Idiot

Might as well be Hitler.

Few things are as frustrating to do-gooder liberals like myself as when other do-gooder liberals go off the deep end. Whatever the cause, however so worthy it might be, crossing the line from passionate to goofy is so easy, and happens to often. Then, of course, the cause itself loses credibility along with the offending do-gooder. You know how it goes; public support starts to build around something like, say, the environment, and then some nutty hippie group pulls some embarrassing stunt, making themselves look ridiculous and hurting the cause.

Two such items have come up of late. A few weeks ago, I was spooked into thinking that the Occupy movement would soon be derailed thanks to Occupy Atlanta’s treatment of civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (yes, I hate that the video comes from a conservative “gotcha” outlet). If you missed it, he wanted to address the assembly, but one dissenter in the crowd (who acknowledged Lewis’s invaluable contribution to society at least) piped up and insisted that Lewis not get to address the crowd because, as others in the crowd insisted, he was “no better than anyone else.” A long, maddening people’s-mic debate began, and it served to exemplify the worst stereotypes of liberals — over-thinking, over-talking, disrespectful, and stultifyingly beholden to arcane bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.

And sorry, Occupiers; I love what you’re making happen, but some people are better than others, and John Lewis most certainly is one of them. Rep. Lewis, who appeared to do his best to honor the procedures of the group, eventually left, I imagine rather confounded.

The latest example that has attracted my forehead to the surface of a desk at a high velocity comes from a common offender, PETA. I support the overarching goal of PETA, to, well, treat animals ethically. Already prone to knee-jerk reactions, PETA has chosen perhaps the most ridiculous target of its entire existence: Super Mario.

PETA . . . believes Mario takes a “pro fur” stance” because he “wears the skin of a raccoon dog to give him special powers” in the new handheld game released Nov. 13.

On Monday,  PETA illustrated its disgust with Nintendo in an online campaign called “Mario Kills Tanooki.” The page includes a side-scrolling Super Mario-style game called “Super Tanooki Skin 2D,” where you play an angry, skinless tanuki that must chase a bloody raccoon-pelt-wearing-Mario across a 16-bit world and try to reclaim its fur.

Yeah. That’s the message of Super Mario: Skin helpless mammals and take their strength. That’s certainly the lesson I learned as a kid when Super Mario Bros. 3 came out and introduced the raccoon suit. In fact, my brother and I would walk outside the house, bleary-eyed from hours of gaming, and seek out stray dogs and cats, force the removal of their hides (ignoring their yelps of pain, of course), and donning them in order to imbue ourselves with their magical powers.

There are real battles to be fought on behalf of animals. There is a real struggle for equality in our society where those who are not already powerful have no voice. Those causes are damaged when passion and ideology totally trumps reason, and then beats it to a pulp.

(Hat tip to Skepticality’s Derek Colanduno for the PETA link.)

Superiority over the Superior

David Brooks, from his fixed position as Moral Center of the Universe, bemoans our collective feeling of superiority over those who failed to stop the horror of the Penn State scandal.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Wrong. There are two proper questions. One is indeed the question Brooks asks about how we as a species can ignore the horrors all around us.

But I’d say that “How could they have let this happen?” is itself a pretty god damned good question too, and I hope people are asking the ever-loving shit out of it right now.

This is something that drives me nuts about Brooks (besides his expertise at the Douthat Twist), who I think is a well-meaning, thoughtful guy; he never wants to attack a specific problem or person, as he’s obsessed with more global or systemic failings, or really, “sin.” That’s fine, we are too short-sighted as a culture and need the wide view brought to bear far more often. But with Brooks, it’s so often either/or; ‘let’s not vilify wrongdoer X, because the “real” problem is everyone and everything.’

Yes, let’s tackle the overall illness holistically, fine, but let’s also make sure we’re not forgetting to cut out the actual tumors.

Rick Perry Presidential Campaign: 2011-2011

“Are we really going to accept an interface of the future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

So asks Bret Victor in a must-read essay on the limitations of what he calls the “Pictures Under Glass” paradigm of human-computer interface. He is of course talking about the touchscreens of smart phones, tablets, etc., and contends that current corporate/sci-fi ideas of what the future holds is far too limited to the stultifying idea that we will manipulate everything with one finger in two dimensions.

Writes Victor:

We live in a three-dimensional world. Our hands are designed for moving and rotating objects in three dimensions, for picking up objects and placing them over, under, beside, and inside each other. No creature on earth has a dexterity that compares to ours.

The next time you make a sandwich, pay attention to your hands. Seriously! Notice the myriad little tricks your fingers have for manipulating the ingredients and the utensils and all the other objects involved in this enterprise. Then compare your experience to sliding around Pictures Under Glass.

Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?