Sunday, April 7, 2013


What's the difference between convex and concave?  Mountain fold vs. Valley fold?  It's a matter of relativity - where we are when we look at it determines how it's described.  Sometimes we classify convex or concave based on a reference plane rather than our own position, but mostly it's about how we see stuff relative to where we are.

I was listening to NPR again and there was a fascinating talk on how our language influences how we think. (For the life of me, I can't find the link to the show which aired 2 hours ago, but this one will serve for now.)  From little to big, different languages make us relate to the world differently.  I think a large part of why we don't remember much from before we're 4 or 5 isn't because we don't remember.  It's because after that age, language overwhelmingly shapes our decisions and memories.  We stop using our previous memory pathways directly and overlay them with language.  Which makes us forget how to access those older memories because those memories can't be accessed with language skills.

But my point was rather different.  How we relate to the world is coded in our language.  In the last post, I mention an uncle.  All you know from that is that he was born a male sibling to one of my parents.  You don't know that he was my mom's brother or that he died.  In some other languages, you would have to know all that to be able to speak of him.  In yet other languages, you'd know even less - he might just go by the generic term "cousin" which describes all peripheral relatives.  Thinking about adding more detail or using less makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. I imagine the people who use those other languages feel the same.

The bit I found most fascinating was the culture (Aboriginal Australian, I think) who uses fixed directions for all scales of direction.  The researcher pointed out that even greeting someone uses directions.  "Hello" for them is "where are you headed".  The response is something like "SSW for a long distance" with a gesture in that direction.  Or, if headed to, say, grandma's house, you'd point in the direction she's at.  This is fascinating to me for two reasons, both covered in the interview.
1) Relativism.  Their directions are relative to the earth, not relative to themselves.
2) Direction finding.  It has long been assumed that people lack the ability to direct themselves home like a homing pigeon.  Turns out that we can, if we have the language for it.

Before this talk, I hadn't really though about directions being anything other than relative.  A lot of people taught to read maps from a young age always orient the maps facing north, but the rest of us think more in terms of "in front of me" vs "behind me" or "take a right at the 4th Starbucks".  The directions center around us, not around the landscape.  Thinking about that makes it sound a little absurd, as if Mt. Greylock or Lake Tahoe cares where I am at any given time.

Speaking of time, it turns our our representations of time are factored into our language.  English readers figure time left to right.  Arabic readers figure time right to left.  Americans figure the future is ahead of us and the past behind us.  Some other cultures gesture forward to the past and the future is in the back - because we can see the past but we can't see the future.  Yet another always gestures from east to west, because that is how time moves. That last one is fascinating to me because it's new, but makes a lot of sense.  It even carries over into unrelated thing - when we lay out playing cards, we lay them left to right.  The do the same if they're facing south. Facing north, cards go right to left.  Facing east?  They get laid toward the body.

And that's because they use the landscape as the basis for location reference and we use ourselves.   I think each has its place, but which one makes you feel more significant in the world, I wonder?  I happen to live on the stretch of highway 101, a N/S road, where it goes almost perfectly E/W.  So all the signs say "Northbound 101" but usually just "North 101" as you head directly into the sunset. That direction accounts for the whole road, not just the section, but it is rather weird but there's sense to it somewhere. (Massachussetts has at least one road sign with 3 directions listed on it for similar reasons, although I can't argue for sense when it comes to MA roadsigns.)  On a smaller scale,  I truly cannot fathom laying out my floorboard North to South - I'd say, "make them parallel to the central wall".  I wonder if people who bow to Mecca are similarly attuned to directions during the day.  My beef with that practice has long been "who can bother to figure out East from everywhere?"  Turns out that if you do it reflexively, after long practice, it's just something you do.

Most of what I just said is things you can find elsewhere.  But I ponder relative references rather a lot - and have since I first learned that  the center of a graph's axes is "where we decide it needs to be". That rather blew my mind for a while.  Maybe I was concerned that it wouldn't make sense for the next problem in the set, but hey!  New graph!  Problem solved.  So I try to think of things like convex and concave and how I'd explain them to kids.

The part that comes from me, though, is how we think about newsworthy events.  Recently, every jackass seems to think that the way to get attention is to shoot up a school.  And whether they die in the attempt or not, they're right.  (Prior to that it was the post office.  Prior to that, I think people mostly took out their vague grievances on their darker skinned neighbors.)  It's not like someone couldn't drive a car quickly into the unloading zone of a school and do the same amount of damage in an equally short amount of time.  (Unless the school is wise and has the occasional barrier in place, and no place to work up a head of steam.)  Or crash a small aircraft into the kids a recess. (No fly zones over schools?)  Or just plain T-Bone a full school bus.  But people aren't focused on that, they're focused on the guns. Probably because people with vague but deeply felt grievances aren't looking to be unique, they're looking to be memorable and they get it.

More distressingly to me than focusing on the method of atrocity is having the News machine so focused on the perpetrator.  It's been said before me, and it'll be said again after me, but giving attention to the perpetrator makes them a celebrity. I could probably more easily identify the mass murderers of the last decade than my state's reps.  (The usual comparison is the supreme court, but I've got those mostly locked in these days.)  And Gabby Giffords is the only victim of a mass shooting (or in her case, assassination attempt) whose name I can come up with at the drop of a hat.  While I don't want to get all maudlin and in their business, wouldn't it be better if we knew the names of the victims and didn't get the names of their killers into our heads at all?  I don't want those shits taking up space in my brain pan, but I cannot get away from it without dropping out of society.

Yes, someone does need to know who the perpetrator is and figure out why they did what they did in order to seek justice and/or prevent future atrocities.  But the biggest thing we could do to prevent those atrocities?  Is ignore the asshat doing the damage.  Just refuse them credibility, refuse them celebrity, refuse even to utter  their names like an Amish shunning. If they're alive they'll be provided with food and shelter but they no longer get to interact in society and we, outside the small group who has to, hold no truck with them.

On that note, there are any number of crime shows on TV.  Bones, Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, and all the variants of "outside consultant helps the police solve mysteries with their special skills" like the Mentalist, Castle, Sherlock, Psych, Monk, Numbers, etc...  See, lots of them.  But I think I've figured out why I gravitate to Bones and Person of Interest.  Whose story do we hear, the victim's or the perpetrator's?  In those two, mostly we learn about the victim.  Sometimes that's heartwrenching - I can get upset over wasted potential in fictional characters too.  The focus on Bones is "who is this person and how did they get here?".  The focus in "Person of Interest" is "who is this person and how can we save them, or help them save themselves?"  As much as the new Hannibal looks like it could be cool, I don't need to spend 44 minutes every week figuring out how evil people think.  I'd rather watch someone be recreated in absentia, or saved.

Then, I'll go see how someone is living better because they have a better kitchen or bedroom design, can make a better dress, or find some better way to make food, make a duct tape bridge, or get grimy with folks doing their thang.  (respectively, all redesign shows on HGTV, Project Runway, Food Network, Mythbusters, and Dirty Jobs. )  Because there's only so much death and destruction I can take before I need to see something or someone put to rights.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bully for Q

Not sure why this particular idea broke through my content creation vs content absorption boundary layer when gay marriage is heating up the Supreme Court, but here it is.

Listening to the smooth voice of Jian Ghomeshi on his show Q on NPR, one guest tonight was an advocate for "initiation rituals". (wow, links are so much more pleasant on a PC that's not trying to autocorrect "href" into an English word. /tangent) I think the discussion of whether or not all initiations are hazing or in any way necessary is a good one. I didn't think any of this guy's arguments held water. The best thing I got from him was how hazing/initiation is distinct from bullying. It's about duration. Hazing is pretty much just bullying, to my mind, but it has an end point. At some point, you join the upper echelon and you no longer get hazed/bullied, and to some degree you are complicit in it. Bullying more generally has no signup sheet and no end date. It occurs to me that this makes hazing a subset of bullying behavior, not distinct from it. Even more, they all fall into the realm of torture, either wholly or largely overlapping it. And common or no, I can't support ritualized torture. Also, hazing is about reinforcing the existing status apparatus, and being someone who has always been a little outside the normal power structure, I have no love of the status quo nor the perpetuation thereof just for the sake of it.

In general I'd define hazing as something done to diminish, hurt, antagonize, or otherwise embarrass a person or group of people, with their complicity*, on the way to joining a presumably desirable, high status group. In theory, tough initiation rituals weed out the uncommitted or undesirable, acting as a "jerk filter", kind of like a tricky technical climb keeps novices off of prime climbing cliffs or tight squeezes keep drunk teenagers out of the cave beyond the pinch point. In reality, most initiation rituals are just ways to lower people who you should want to most elevate. You can probably tell by my tone, I'm not a fan.

The specific instance here was a group of mixed sex engineering students doing the "Slush Crawl" at a Canadian University for, of all things, an engineering society. A video made it online and slush hit the fan. Rightfully so to my mind. Why? Because it's hazing. Crawling through slush in underwear in freezing weather while being pelted by snowballs, squirted by seniors weilding water guns, and being smushed further into the cold? That can physically damage you forever, or kill you without affecting your engineering abilities one iota. Canadians may be tough in the cold, but hypothermia is no joke. You can lose fingers or toes. And you know it's no fun because the organizers don't take part in the crawling.

Compare and contrast to a "water party" I gleefully attended in college:
One, it was warm out.
Two, it was a fun exploration of ways to get wet on campus, not a barrier to entry for an academic or professional group. I could go home at any time and suffer no repercussions.
Three, while I was crawling around in not much (to save myself laundry... right...) dress was up to the individual choice, not dictated by the man.
Four, the organizers gleefully participated in addition to refereeing winners of moat races.
Five, I learned new things about the campus, like which water features were the most accessible. (The most memorable being that the moat around the chapel ramps up under the "drawbridge" area so don't splash down too enthusiastically there, you'll scrape your nose.)

If the Slush Crawl was just a campus tradition? Fine - if they get a first aid station and serve hot chocolate afterward, and have heaters or bonfires or homemade saunas set up. And if participation is in no way compulsory. I starred (*) "complicit" earlier because while you're playing along like you approve, your approval doesn't matter. If you're unable to safely say no, you consent is not consent. Kind of like going through the TSA search and seizure routine - not flying really isn't an option if I want to see family and participate in modern life without losing my job for taking too many vacation days. My consent is meaningless because there are not other *viable* options to flying. The problem is similar for hazing. If you object to hazing, consequences can be severe - not being in the engineering, or any, society might not sound like big shakes, but it determines your social and professional life for years, and possibly your lifetime.

For this specific instance, the guest made the following lousy and lazy arguments:
- this has been happening for years
- many people have it worse that that
- it doesn't "look" that bad
- no one complained about the event
- if she didn't report the complaint, she didn't mind the slap on the ass
- initiations are "highly calibrated"
- initiations are put you through experiences that will prepare you and your group of initiates to overcome "relevant" obstacles.

My rebuttals, one by one
- Conduct must be judged on its merits, not its prevalence (R. Cohen.)

-University students  students  soldiers  No one should be looking to clear the lowest bar. Especially since the argument for the hazing is holding you to a higher standard. Knowing that someone else has it worse is a call to help those people out, not descend into it yourself.

- How something "looks" has no relevance to how something feels or how serious it is. It doesn't look that bad to stuff someone in a small box either, but when you do it to someone (excepting magicians and performance artists who do it to themselves) it's torture. 15 minutes locked in a box can cause a psycotic break. Crawling over ice in the buff can cause permanent damage to fingers and toes in minutes.

- Complaining about the event is equivalent to refusing to participate, if not worse. Unless someone actually does become noticably disabled or dead, complaints are rare. You don't want to be a tattletale, do you? Now you've done the hazing for nothing, and become subject to bullying and harrassment. My uncle had some similar hazing event in college (being wet and cold in underwear running around) and the resulting pneumonia nearly killed him. My grandfather, a husky 6'3" and smart as a whip and kind to all, went on a real tear to the college board. He, my uncle and his friend were the only ones to really complain. They were no longer pledges. They didn't get to meet alums in high finance in Chicago. But they did get their dignity. And my grandfather was always proud about speaking up against hazing. He found it an appalling thing to ask of someone, and I'm right on board.

- Harassment isn't defined as "something that makes a person file an official complaint". You don't get to smack women on the ass without explicit consent; it's a straight up violation. Someone with equal or greater standing should see you being an asshole and take you to task, it's not up to the lowest status person, aka an initiate freshman, to call you on your crap. Even I might have let this one pass in the noise of "they were shoving and slapping at everyone" but (a) they weren't, and (b) it was given that no-defense reaction explicity, and (c) just days ago mass media was bemoaning the status points lost for two boys convicted of rape for drugging a teenage girl, dragging her to multiple parties like a hunted deer carcass, raping her all the while as people stood around and filmed it. And people felt sorry for the goddamned boys! So I'm telling you now, if a guy smacks a woman on the ass, you stand up and tell him to back off until/unless she freely volunteers that it's just peachy with her.

So now that the lazy arguments are out of the way, we get to my buried lede. It turns out that enduring hardship together does make for strong bonds between people. But you know what? Hazing overwhelmingly makes people angry, embarrassed, bitter, and vengeful. Then if they're allowed to be vengeful, they don't take it out on the perpetrators, generally, they take it out on next year's initiates and give just a little worse than they got. And things snowball from there. Or become snowballs thrown at people crawling through slush to be... better engineers? That ritual makes no damn sense.

The real point where I lost my sympathy for the guest and culminated in this post was the "highly calibrated" and "prepares you for real tasks" comments.
  • Hazing is almost never "highly calibrated". Giving worse than you got is a recipe for evil.
  • Hazing almost never directly or peripherally prepares you for your future life challenges.
The obvious counter-example is Hell Week in SEAL training, except that *is* highly calibrated and *is* direct prep for their actual job. When they get the candidates cold and wet over and over? They've worked out the fine line between willpower and hypothermia, and if they cross it, there are doctors and warming baths on hand. They start out with simulated machine gun fire, run a lot, and stay awake for a week performing tricky tasks as a team. And some SEALs report that they've been through *worse* in the field. So while this could be hazing, it's more like overly enthusiastic job prep.

 Why would a group be made more cohesive when the relationships start out as bullying and embarrassment and negativity? What about needlessly risking hypothermia and toe loss makes one a better engineer? How is that better than having the initiates/pledges do a big project on a tight timeline? MIT Hacks come to mind. While those are mostly volunteer, some of them happened every Rush, and someone had to do them - why not initiates? That's a positive focused team directive that builds confidence and accomplishes something. Like becoming an Eagle Scout by doing a project for your community, have the freshman plan an outing or an event or a fundraiser - all these things put people to work doing observable life skills.

 Take party planning - the leaders can see who's a better organizer, who's a better "task doer", who sloughs off, who has good ideas. And they can either sort their pledge choices based on these skills, or decide to hold a skills class to get their pledges better organized. Maybe give them an inconvenient deadline - where pledges have to get their act together or fail to pledge or fail a class, but have available to them the tools needed for them to succeed at the pledge challenge AND their coursework.

 Myself, I only had marginal exposure to hazing. I did a week of AFROTC indoctrination, and there were a couple of physical fitness evenings that were just there to wear us out. I learned later that they'd planned all the insults weeks in advance, so no matter what happened, someone's uniform wouldn't be pressed enough, someone would be too slow, and that person or group would be yelled at. Most of the week was just honest learning and PT. But the very small parts that weren't? Made me dislike and disrespect the leaders. Most of them remain tainted in my mind to this day - and they weren't all that bad.

Why would we want to live in a world where people dedicate their time to making life harder for other folks? There exist tough circumstances already. While going through a trial together may make you some friends for life, hazing is more likely to bring a lingering enmity to your life that doesn't help you or anyone you know. Why not fill that initiation time with progressive challenges that culminate in creating something good or entertaining? It should be something a senior would like to do again. It should be difficult and can be silly and even embarrassing, if the goal isn't solely to cause embarrassment, like a musical done in drag, or making identical or themed costumes that get worn to class. More pledge ideas off the top of my head: make a work of art, make a music video of the latest meme, redecorate the living room, create a new dining room chandelier, run a fundraiser, hold a bake-off bake sale, hold a loft building competition, get another measurement of the divot created when a piano falls from a dorm roof. Imagine the results of onupsmanship in building a better movie room lounge or carving topiary trees instead of wasting your energy running around cold and wet.

So if you find yourself in a group preparing to haze someone, let go of any vendetta. Think instead of how you can make it be a potentially positive experience that benefits your group and your pledges. Instead of hosing people down, set them to achieve something difficult but delightful for the whole team.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Laguna outing

I've got a friend who plans outings. This is a wonderful thing for me because I don't enjoy organizing outings, but I do enjoy outings. Today, we went to the pacific marine mammal seal and sea lion rescue center. They do good work- about 4 of 5 rescued pinnipeds are returned to the wild after feeding and treatment. Today, there were a dozen seals in one of the "we're almost better" tanks who reacted to a little tiny dog being walked nearby. They lunged into and out of the pool to slip-n-slide across the decks, based on the completely oblivious dog's movements.

It was one of the first few beautiful days we've had in months, and I got to enjoy it with friends near a beautiful beach. And I was able to confirm that losing one of my nine gaspods in the carwash didn't wreck the mileage boost I get from using them. (They don't help on slow roads, but get me an extra 30 miles or do on a tank on the freeway.)

I was able to feel good about getting out without guilttripping over leaving Bruno because I found a Doggy Daycare that he seems to like well enough, and which wears him out. Both those things are key when he's not getting a big ol' hike with me. First, Bruno loves riding in the car. I offered him a snack as we were leaving and he spit it out because it was not helping get him in the car, the car!! When we got there for his second time, he went right to the dog yard. The attendant seemed a little stunned at how cooperative he was. So he got doggie socialization and I got people (and seal) socialization. All good!

My third good thing - after passing by a juice bar on my way home, I got a hankering for a smoothie. The juice place next to Petco let me (a) order a smoothie 3 minutes after they closed and (b) bring Bruno in with me to place the order. They didn't have to do either of these things but they did and I got my fruity blended beverage two hours after the urge struck.

Bruno's sacked out. It's time I get that way.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


I got a dog! Bruno comes from a rescue situation in Seattle, is probably about 6-7 years old and probably part Mastiff, weighing in at a svelte 104# as of last week thursday. He thinks he's a lap dog.

I will post pictures, but right now it's easiest to type blogs from my computer but easiest to upload photos from my phone. I will try to get a pic in soon.

This is a surprise to most people, but has been simmering for a while, probably since my Alaska trip. Everyone in Alaska has dogs. One night, there were more dogs than people at our dinner party! I grew up with a dog, and my allergies to dogs are mild in that I can breathe around them, unlike cats, who are little furry death monsters. However, I've always lived by myself and in small spaces. I don't get up well in the mornings, which is problematic if someone else is relying on me to let them pee outside. There's also the fact that I work full time. Not only do I not have sufficient time to make a puppy happy, I don't want a puppy destroying my house. But even homeless people in California have dogs. Surely I could figure something out.

I looked into small dogs, just in case. The lovely and talented author Catherine Mann who also fosters dogs in Florida, was kind enough to send me a primer on common qualities in small dog breeds. And she was evil enough to keep posting pics of her foster pups on facebook. I wanted some of them too. But again, no time for a puppy; no time for housetraining.

Then while visiting friends in Seattle, we met up with their friends who do foster dogs for a dog rescue. My friend asked about the foster dog who was so friendly and it turned out Bruno was still being fostered and the fosters didn't want to keep him and their two other dogs and a cat. Everyone loved him, but he was just too big.

But everyone also said he was pretty chill. A bit of love, a place to nap, some snacks and some walks and he's good to go. So I inquired. I met Bruno. He seemed a good sort - easy with strangers, hadn't knocked over the christmas tree or nativity, hadn't chewed through any cords, walked well on a leash, and clearly had been well trained at some point. He didn't make me sneeze. (He does, on occasion, give me a rash on my hands, but that's easily overcome. The breathing thing is the sticking point for me and he passed that.) How could I not love a dog sized dog who was happy sleeping most of the day?

We got him from Seattle to SoCal because his first foster family was able to drive him partway. I met up with them in San Jose. It was a little traumatic for him, but he loves riding in the car, so I figured it would be less unsettling than flying in a crate to a stranger. Now that he's here, I'm making it a priority to get him at least a 30-45 minute walk every evening - aiming for an hour, but if you hadn't heard, it has been freezing in SoCal. We're combing the neighborhood for walkable streets, mostly in the dead of night. Then on the weekends, I drive him to a hiking site. He loves riding in the car, loves walks and we wear him and me out pretty good.

I'm also coming home at lunchtime for the time being. I won't be able to do that always, but until he realizes that I am coming back and not leaving him, I think it helps. Being at his 5th home in as many months has given him some separation anxiety issues. This weekend, I tried leaving him more often for short jaunts so monday won't be such a shocker. We also had a doggie date with my friends in Santa Monica who have two tiny dogs. It went ok. The minpin realized there was little threat, even though Bruno's paw is the size of his head, but the Chihuahua need a little more time.

So that's me and Bruno. I've become somewhat of a hermit with a dog, but tonight's outing was a step in changing that a bit. Once he gets more settled, I'll feel better about taking him more places. And once he learns/re-learns "stay" and "come".

I'll work on the picture uploads. Next up is a visit from my mom to see the new granddoggy and help walk him after I get my hernia repair repaired next week.