Falling from grace and blind faith

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Down, down, down… own work, CC-BY.

The list of leaders who have fallen from grace due to various bad behaviors is long.  Recently, it was reported that Sogyal Rinpoche, the ‘most famous Buddhist after the Dalai Lama’ is accused of serious misconduct.   According to the article, he’s living in Tibet, and been disowned by the Dalai Lama.  It seems like these sorts of stories never end.   A quick search on ‘list of disgraced religious leaders’ turns up quite a few hits.

If there’s a silver lining to this, it is reported that the Dalai Lama not only brought this up, but maintained (again!) that you shouldn’t blindly follow anyone, including himself.  This, of course, is a core tenet of Buddhism – don’t take anything on face value, and do the investigation into truth by your own hand.   This is pretty much a basic thing, and one of the attractive qualities of Buddhism.

Are there any politicians or other leaders so brave and honest that they can say, “don’t follow me blindly?”  We need smart and capable leaders, and ones who know from day one that we shouldn’t trust them blindly.  Otherwise, they’ll eventually wind up on one of those lists.

 

 

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Measuring blame

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Based on commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scales_of_Justice_and_Wreath.svg, in public domain.

With the recent Kavanaugh hearings in an uproar over alleged events while he was in high school, it makes me ask – how much can we blame anybody for their past, and how much can we punish them for what they did so long ago?  Can people repent and be considered rehabilitated, or “better”? For some things, there are no statute of limitations (murder), but for others, if something isn’t prosecuted in a timely fashion, whatever was done cannot be prosecuted in a court of law.   Naturally, there’s always the court of public opinion, so this particular case may still have relevance, and it isn’t just a person’s criminal record that is being reviewed, especially for high office.

With regard to the Kavanaugh situation, there isn’t enough information for me to make an informed decision; this is all still ‘hot off the press’, and more data is coming down the pike.

Extending this to other realms, especially in the climate/overshoot/financial worlds, how much should we blame ourselves or others for their participation in driving, flying, having kids, investing in index funds (or in any individual company) that do questionable things, purchasing trinkets, eating fish or meat, or the myriad of things we do in our modern world?  How do we measure the blame or responsibility each of us should have for the collective mess we are in?

For environmental effects, knowing the carbon footprint of certain activities is helpful, but for things in the financial world, for example, how ‘good’ is any company we work for or invest in, and how can we even measure it?

There’s an appropriate quote from the Buddhist world that comes to mind:

“No person is entirely guilty or blameless.”

It may be a bit trite to say, “Do your best,” but given the byzantine complexity of karma, in the metaphysical and physical realms, there doesn’t seem to be any other choice.

 

 

Too much connectivity

Two roads, from left to right; the one on the right might have worse traffic!  Own work.

There’s an interesting bit in the world of traffic management.  One of the non-obvious tenets is that sometimes, adding additional connections between two or more points can cause traffic to slow down, rather than speed up.   In the picture above, assume traffic goes from left to right.  For the two roads on the left, if one side is slow, the other will be unimpeded, yet, for the roads on the right, when traffic is slow on one of the roads on the left, traffic may not be the same, as other people will try to switch lanes, and cause slowdowns due to merging traffic.  This isn’t to say that having the cross connections is necessarily bad (if traffic is light, having cross connections is a good thing), but having them open all the time may cause non-optimal behaviors.

In the same way, perhaps our hyper-connected social media world is causing our thought processes to decay, and our general decorum to decrease as well.  Internet trolls are legion, and many struggle with the ease at which the ‘net can get us caught in and endless rabbit hole of information, staying up late, and getting distracted by our devices and social accounts.   Too much connectivity slows our brains down, as our thoughts keep switching from “one road to another.”

One solution?  Spend less time on the computer; spend less time on social media; spend less time being connected.  For me, this means not reading certain email accounts during the day, using a dumb phone, and keeping computers out of the bedroom, kitchen, or any place else there is  something more important going on.   We do need those connections (of course?), but if they are connected all the time, the net result may be a system that is worse off.

Questions:

  • Of course, too little connectivity, and you also get into trouble.  What is the optimum of connectivity/crosstalk for any system?  How does one calculate it, or measure the ‘best’ results of a system?
  • Was the Internet of old a bit “better”, in that because of limited bandwidth, it forced us to make better use of the online resources we had?  A sort of reverse Jevon’s Paradox?   Should we go back to dial up (horrors!)?
  • How would we reduce this connectivity, now that we have it?   If you were to have exits on a superhighway every quarter of a mile, the merging problem would be immense, especially in heavy traffic (essentially you get an avenue!).  Yet, if the exits are too far apart, the road become useless to many.
  • When we start to see glitches in our own systems (Internet, food delivery, transportation), and we think things are getting worse, might they possibly get… better, in the grand scheme of things?  After all, too much of anything generally is a big problem.

 

 

 

 

 

Red Pill Redux

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Venus and Mars, own work, based on public domain symbols

Just finished watching The Red Pill, a documentary made by Cassie Jaye in 2016, about men’s rights activists (MRAs).   It’s an interesting film, and worth seeing, although it does have to be accompanied by a bit of homework, and a bit of prep work beforehand.  A few things that jumped out out me,  after watching it (but without the prep work):

1) The louder you are, the less likely I’m able to take you seriously.  Some of the folks appeared to be loud, angry, and a bit heavy on cruder language.  Their opinions could have been heard far better (both literally and figuratively), if they turned the volume down.   None of the MRA folks appeared to be shouting down the opposition, but that, unfortunately, may be a trick of Cassie Jaye’s editing (and that may apply to the entire film, alas).  Whenever I find people trying to shout down a speaker, or shout down a talk on any topic, that makes me wonder if they don’t have valid arguments, and turn to ramping up the volume instead.  An old hippie I knew,  when trying to get my college to divest from South African investments back in the day put on a three-piece suit, went to the board, and gave them cold, hard economic reasons why the school should divest, as well as adding in the obvious humanitarian reasons.  Protests consisted of people holding signs (in silence) before the board walked to the conference room where they were to discuss the matter.  That was far more powerful.   There’s a great story about someone listening to two people argue in a language they didn’t understand; they correctly surmised that the person losing the argument was the one getting louder.

2) Money changes words, and what is discussed.  One of the women (a hero, to the MRA community) who started refuges (UK equivalent of domestic violence shelters) made the offhand remark that originally, the complaint was against capitalism, but it was changed to patriarchy so the topic would be more “fundable” (will have to go back and rewatch that part; but my memory thinks that was the point that was brought up).  That was a telling moment, and it was a shame more time wasn’t spent on that.

3) Lastly (and this could only be done with a bit of my own research),  if you make a documentary film on a particular worldview, you may wish to ask harder questions, or else the entire premise may fall apart.

There’s another element, which was mentioned in the Wikipedia article on this documentary, which bears repeating, because it brings up the topic of compassion:

Corrine Barraclough, of the Australian tabloid newspaper The Daily Telegraph, said “the message of The Red Pill is compassion” and the film made her “wonder why feminists tried so hard to silence this crucial conversation.”[28]

I wish the movie could have discussed things in more detail, only in the last moments did it try to make any points about differences between the MRA,  pickup artists, the Red Pill folks, and the MGTOW movement.

There are still some very big questions about the entire MRA movement; even the Wikipedia criticism section notes that the film is considered a bit one sided. After a bit of reflection and research (and discussion with other rational folks), that became more apparent.  When seeing a film like this or any other ‘Topic X’, a good natural reaction is to go searching for “Topic X criticism”; a few reviews of the film do bring up a good many salient points which could have rounded out things.   Indeed, a bit of searching afterwards on Paul Elam turns up disturbing stuff, and it does make one want to immediately throw up your hands and dismiss his appearance and arguments.   Elam does bring up important points (the CDC says domestic violence against men isn’t insignificant), and serious points about child custody, but if you are going to say outrageous things (in 2010, before the film was made) like, “Should I be called to sit on a jury for a rape trial, I vow publicly to vote not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the charges are true,” then it puts your entire argument at risk, and makes people dismiss you entirely.   When hearing something like this, it has an even more chilling effect than having people raise their voices; when you vow to reject overwhelming evidence, it means you aren’t thinking, and you choose your pet worldview over the truth.   It is a bit troubling that this wasn’t questioned in the film, and it does make me wonder about the due diligence of Cassie Jaye in doing her homework beforehand.  An entire reddit discussion on this is here.

There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and the MRA worldview has been lumped in with the likes of the incel community (described by the always eloquent, even-keeled, and thought-provoking Contrapoints here), although Cassie Jaye says they are of different stripes.   After listening to Contrapoint’s explanation of the incel world (and oh boy, does the rabbit hole go deep), it makes me want to ask Cassie Jaye to make another series of documentaries on these groups, but with a lot more balance.   From the explanation given by Contrapoints, however, it sounds like the incel folks are quite far off into the weeds; they even have a term “the black pill“, which goes into some dark places.  To her credit, she does have a bit of compassion for them, and she does bring up a bunch of parallels between her world and theirs.

This topic may seem like a bit outside of the jurisdiction of this blog, but the issue of fairness on any topic, and the ability of anyone asking questions (writing a newspaper story, doing a piece on the nightly news, making a documentary, inviting people to a debate) is important.   If a filmmaker was to do a more charitable or favorable story on climate change denialists, in the same format, my reaction (since I know more about this topic) might be to denounce it on the spot.  Since I hadn’t read anything about the MRA world (but knew about other elements of the ‘manosphere’  very peripherally), it was only after doing some ‘opposition research’ did a fuller picture of their arguments and worldview (warts and all) become visible.   Part of me feels more than a bit shortchanged (and a bit suckered), because some of the topics the film brought up were eye opening, but it didn’t follow through on some important background information, like Elam’s previous comments.

It’s tough not to get passionate (and loud) about things you feel strongly about.  On climate change, sure, there is an urge to rage a bit, or get loud, when discussing things with people who flat out deny it.  But the surer path to victory over ignorance might be in the Socratic method (rather than getting louder), and be willing to ask hard questions, even though they might initially detract from your own argument(s).   Lastly, approaching anything with compassion isn’t such a bad idea (although, one must guard against idiot compassion, a topic for another day).

This is a tough thing; the Truth is something we’d all like to have, but muddying the waters on any topic is frustrating.

Questions:

  • Have you seen the film?  What did you think?
  • What other documentaries have you seen which have changed your mind, or at least made you see things from a different perspective?
  • What is the responsibility of a film maker/documentary producer to give an even handed view of things?
  • Have there been any books/films/articles that have made you question your most heartfelt beliefs or worldviews?  The question that always gets asked here is “Who is your best critic; who is the person who has an opposite worldview, but who you respect?”
  • How has your mind best been changed on any topic?
  • How ‘pure’ do the leaders of any movement or worldview have to be, in order to be seen as legitimate?  Elam might bring up valid points, but probably destroyed any legitimacy or ability to sway public opinion with some of his comments.   Do climate change proponents (or denialists) destroy their legitimacy in similar ways?
  • Can you have a Socratic dialogue with ardent neo-Nazis, or folks from the incel community?
  • Playing devil’s advocate – could Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” be considered one sided?   Do valid criticisms of his own lifestyle make the argument less believable?
  • Is there anybody in the MRA world who rejects Elam’s outrageous comments, and who has a more balanced view?   There may be valid criticisms of any “obvious” worldview or philosophy, from climate change to capitalism to feminism/men’s rights to racism, but if you are going to say/believe/promulgate outrageous ideas and ignore evidence, whatever shred of good points you have can be destroyed.

 

On rules and hypocrisy

Hypocrites_1915_Naked_Truth.jpg

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hypocrites_(1915_film)#/media/File:Hypocrites_1915_Naked_Truth.jpg – in the public domain

If there’s anything that has been echoing around in my world for the past week, it has been stories and complaints about hypocrisy.  Some of the stories are recent, and some slightly dated, but they all have been popping up this week, either a news feed, or by comments from friends and family.  They’ve included:

  • The usual comments from friends on the right about the pursuit of Trump, while the Clinton camp was let off the hook with regard to private email servers and mishandling of very classified information.
  • So-called “environmentalists” who chose to fly, and have big houses, families, or extravagant lifestyles.
  • Complaints by big companies, which won’t pay for technical talent when their back is to the wall, yet would be the first to drop or underpay an engineer if the employment situation wasn’t as tight as it is now.
  • Folks in the #MeToo movement who have done questionable things in a personal sphere.
  • People who rail against guns, but surround themselves with private armed guards.
  • “Capitalists” who get corporate welfare (and of course, preach “free markets,”) while having governments (or government-sanctioned organizations) set the price of money by fiat (interest rates), the key to any financial and investment calculations.
  • Republicans who rail against abortions, except, of course, for their pregnant mistresses.
  • And of course, the long list of Republicans who voted against same-sex rights, while actually, you know… being gay.
  • Revelations that a bunch of Catholic priests were doing very un-Christian things with children.

This isn’t new, of course; it’s just that it seems to happen with astounding regularity, and that the hypocritical acts and behaviors seem to amplify with time.  If there is a silver lining to all this, it seems like some in the world are quite literally walking away from groups that are hypocritical, or that have hypocritical behaviors.

The real killer bit for me is that these behaviors aren’t tied to the any political ideology; folks on the left, middle, and right are all guilty here.   Nobody is perfect, for sure, but very few are even admitting up front that they could be wrong in the first place.  If you can admit you could be wrong while making your case, and living a life in close alignment with what you preach (nobody is perfect), then you are far more likely to make converts, and have people take you seriously.

Questions:

  • Who are some of the most hypocritical institutions, politicians (left or right), you’ve dealt with?
  • Who are some of the most unhypocritical, even if their worldview doesn’t match ours?
  • Nobody is perfect; we all can be hypocritical to some degree, in some parts of our lives.  When does this become problematic?  One possibility is that it becomes problematic when you don’t recognize it, or don’t try to remedy your hypocritical behavior.

 

A gram of prevention…

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The lever arm might need to be longer, but a bit of prevention is always worth a lot of the cure.  Own work.  CC-BY.

Yes, the traditional saying is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but my engineering mind dutifully reminds me that we should be working in the metric system.

A recent story, about a whole face transplant, made the news recently.   A girl who shot herself with a hunting rifle and survived, got a face transplant (paid for by the Department of Defense).  So many questions and ideas came to mind regarding this miracle of science, and the entire event itself.  Some of these:

  1. This woman tried to commit suicide; was there help available to her before she did this?  Did someone recognize that she might have attempted to kill herself?
  2. The Department of Defense is willing to pay a great deal of money to reconstruct the faces of soldiers who are severely injured in combat.  What of the money given to folks say, in the State Department, or in international aid, that might prevent us from going to war in the first place?  We go to war to secure resources (fossil fuels), while telling ourselves we are ‘fighting for freedom’, when the real story is far different.

The essence here is that ‘a gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure.’  We’ve got all this technology, we pursue cures that have amazing costs, but when it comes to the boring prevention stuff, as a society, we generally don’t take notice, or want to pay for the ‘few grams of prevention’.

Face transplant technology could help a good many people, through no fault of their own, who find themselves with severe trauma.  It’s great that people are being given their lives back, and that modern medicine can perform these wonders.  There are so many other medical miracles that happen (premature babies being born way too early and surviving; people who get into severe motorcycle accidents and who get fantastic help in rehabilitation) that we almost expect them to happen.  Our society has emergency rooms for urgent care, and you can’t be turned away, yet the actual costs to a hospital have become so massive that some hospitals are paying for their ‘frequent fliers’ to get apartments, because it is cheaper for them.

Some of the commentariat would like to end these programs, since they seem to subsidize the poor.   Some sort of minimum ‘healthcare for all’, or providing birth control for free (to reduce the number of abortions) seem to bother a few conservative folks, but why?  If the net result of these actions (saving money, preventing abortions) is your final goal, then why the pushback?  Why the outrage?   There’s a classic counter phrase some may bring up; “Millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute.”  But resources spent on prevention are not tribute.

Any thoughts on why the objection to spending money up front, when time and time again, it appears that the gram of prevention is far more economical in both money and human suffering?

 

 

 

On not leaving America

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/United_States#/media/File:Statueofliberty.jpg –Nicolai Schäfer – de.wikipedia.org (original image has been color inverted)

As things go weirder and weirder, and even the Onion has trouble keeping up, one sometimes has to ask – “Should I/we/you leave America?” It’s not a trivial matter; many rich folks are getting (read: buying) second or third passports, “just in case” things go badly in the US.

My take is that there are some big objections to this; some practical, and some more ethereal.  For example, if you become a citizen of another country, and things go badly quickly, are you going to be able to get there in time? If things go badly even slowly, are you willing to uproot your life and adapt to a new culture and way of life?   These are not trivial matters.

As screwed up as America is, it is one of the few countries founded on a good idea.  Yes, we are probably a plutocracy; but are other countries so pure that they aren’t owned by the rich either?   And for any of you who point to the Scandinavian countries, are they as ethnically, linguistically, and sociologically diverse as the United States?  This isn’t to say all that diversity is a good thing; a bit too much, and you don’t have a common culture to rally around.  But as diverse places go, America is probably doing a decent job about having the space where people can get along and live their lives.   In spite of everything screwed up about the US, people are still, quite literally, dying to come to America; the list of people giving up their citizenship is minuscule.

My own joke/thumbnail sketch for coming to America is along the lines of:

  1. Show up ready to work.
  2. Stop any fighting with random groups you had back in the old country.
  3. Bring the best parts of your culture; a holiday or two; some great food, and integrate it into the fabric of the country.
  4. Send your kids to school, and don’t flip out if they intermarry with someone from another culture, or gasp, someone from your ancient homeland’s enemy.
  5. Call yourself an American; hyphenated or not.
  6. Yell at your grandkids for becoming “too American.”

You may say America is built on business, and continues to do lousy things around the world.  And you may be right.  But given the alternatives (based on your parents, caste, or some odd quirk of birth), life in America isn’t horrific.  America has changed over the years; the legalization of gay marriage in 50 states (and admission into the military) is one of things that shows that yes, even America can move forward.

Still, to the point at hand – some folks think (or plan) that leaving the US is a good idea.  My ancestors left Europe, as many others did.  They left generally not for trivial things- war, persecution,  plague,  and pestilence are all reasons many came to America, and still do.   Leaving America, if those things came to pass, might be a viable option.  But to leave, without trying to change things, or leaving because the “wrong” person or persons got elected?   It all seems a bit… shortsighted.  Leaving the US also makes me think that you are a bit of an armchair patriot, unable or unwilling to stand up and fight for your rights, which was done by countless other groups (women, blacks, gays).  In theory, they could have left, and gone to countries with “better” space for them, but by fighting, they probably made the country a better place.

Questions:

  • When would you leave the US, and why?
  • What is the ‘tipping’ point?
  • What do you do to make America a better place, a place worth staying for?