Doug Wyatt Guitars, from a few years ago

A while back, on a trip to Gatlinburg with my family, I came across a music shop called “Doug Wyatt Guitars.” As an avid guitarist who can’t, like, JUST PASS A GUITAR STORE BY LIKE MY WIFE WANTED ME TO, I stopped in – and was rewarded greatly.

For lo, not only was yon proprietor an actual luthier – yes, he makes guitars – but he had a collection of synthesizers just … not just on the wall, but EVERYWHERE. Stacked on top of each other. Synths I’d played and wanted back in the day, sure, but also synths I’d heard of… and here they were, in the flesh, either being restored or in working condition.

Doug and I talked for a while, and it turns out we shared musical tastes in a lot of ways. He was awesome – and apparently thought enough of me to let me play around with some of the gear, including some really expensive stuff that was way out of my league. Here’re some photos!

Doug Wyatt, showing his mad Rush cred
What madness is all THIS?
Note the WORKING Odyssey….
I don’t even know what some of these ARE!
Not enough room to actually mount all the history…

The Rush Political/Religious Survey Results

TL;DR Rush is awesome, and so is its fanbase. I put together a survey to try to figure something out about Rush’s career arc, but the author of the survey (me) didn’t get enough information and didn’t capture the right information to make the survey much more than pure entertainment.

Table of Contents

The Hypothesis

The survey was initiated by a shower thought: why, exactly, do people prefer the songs and albums they do?

To understand this question, let’s establish some basic information about how Rush’s albums are perceived. This is my view and isn’t necessarily the objective truth, so take it with a grain of salt; if you’re following along and ranting to yourself about how wrong I am, that’s okay.

Rush’s career can be thought of in terms of peaks (not valleys, unless you count “Feedback.”)

Rush, Fly By Night, and Caress of Steel are sort of foothills, with Fly By Night being a really good one, maybe a mountain. If it’s a mountain, then Caress of Steel is another one, but Caress of Steel’s “mountain” is full of potential avalanches and crevasses.

Then you hit an awesome stretch of albums: 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals, with two live albums thrown in for good measure. This is the “golden era of Rush,” if you like.

Grace Under Pressure is sometimes included in that golden era, but to me it seems more like a transitional album. It’s great – I love it – but it’s missing something essential that the six studio albums before it possessed.

Then you hit another stretch of albums: Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto, Roll the Bones, Counterparts, and Test For Echo (with another set of live albums in there) – all really good albums, to be sure. The worst of them would be a proud accomplishment for most other bands.

After that you had a long stretch while Neil Peart dealt with family tragedy… and when he finally got back to Rush – which was by no means his duty to the fanbase, but something in his own soul, hopefully – they hit another peak period, with Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and Clockwork Angels, with an album of covers thrown in and a whole slew of recorded tours (more tours than studio albums!)

In my opinion, these three studio albums had the “it factor” that the “golden era” had, in most ways.

So…

What was the “it factor?”

It shouldn’t be musicianship; if anything, later Rush was even more musically accomplished than the early Rush was. (If you asked me to play bass and sing “Turn the Page” at the same time, from “Hold Your Fire,” I think I’d cry. And I don’t really cry.)

The production values might change – but Rush generally tracked the current best practices, and if the older production was “better” then the industry wouldn’t have changed how it produced music.

Geddy’s voice got lower (at least, he sang in lower registers) and they added the “chorus of Geddys” – but given how many people chose to dislike Rush because of Geddy’s falsetto, you’d think that the later Rush would appeal more. Maybe the chorus of Geddys hurt somehow, but … I doubt it had that much of a potential effect. (I found it annoying in a lot of ways, but … not enough to say “gosh, enough of this.”)

That leaves a few remaining areas: song construction (which stabilized around the time of Grace Under Pressure into a song form of guitar-driven verses and synthesizer-driven choruses, although much of it debuted on Signals) and songwriting (i.e., lyrics).

The song construction might be a significant factor; Rush certainly used standard verse/chorus/bridge construction in their songwriting, but they’d been pretty progressive even so, mixing time signatures and choosing sequences that were often difficult to predict and were musically interesting. In the “lesser period” this seemed to be a trope of the band, so while the playing might be intriguing during one section or another, listeners could easily predict the next time signature or “feel” in a given song.

To my mind, though, song construction wasn’t the problem. After all, popular music (using the term loosely to cover most genres) has used similar constructs for a long, long, long, long time. Hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Rush didn’t create a new song construction; they created art, yes, but not some new way of constructing songs. They still used intros, segues, outros, verses, choruses, bridges, instrumental breaks, etc.

The possible problem, as it seemed to me, was songwriting.

When I think about … say, Hold Your Fire, I think that Rush is telling me how I should perceive things. When I listen to Permanent Waves, I think Rush is telling me how they perceive things. It ends up feeling like the “valley” period – the “lesser” period between Signals and Vapor Trails – is more preachy.

That does not imply that it’s not great music – to the contrary, looking at the lyrics for the “valley” period is an amazing experience, as a writer. Peart is an amazing lyricist; sure, there are a few songs where his effort shines through to the song’s detriment (“Dog Years,” “Virtuality”) but you also have beauties like “Bravado” and “The Pass,” “Alien Shore,” and “Everyday Glory” (a good example of a “preachy song.”) Even “Tai Shan” is a beautiful song even if it’s an awful Rush song.

But to me it felt like I should feel a certain way when listening to much of the music. You could feel Peart’s disdain for some modes of thought, and that feels unusual, when compared with something like Limelight – which should communicate disdain but doesn’t.

So from there we see my hypothesis: Rush’ fanbase preferred music that was less preachy, being a bunch of independent thinkers with fantastic taste.

How to validate that? Well, a survey, of course!

The Survey

Making the survey was really pretty hard. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to correlate what people wanted to listen to with their comfort at being told how they should think or feel.

But what does “comfort at being told how to think or feel” mean? How would I tell? And given the broad selection of songs in each era, how would I build a meaningful correlation?

Those are good questions, and I don’t think I answered them well.

What I did is obvious, if you’ve taken the survey; I collected information about “favorite studio album,” “favorite live album,” and political and religious leanings, as well as some very basic demographic data (i.e., educational level and geographical region). I wasn’t sure the latter questions would be worthwhile, but I thought they might be.

The problem is that I had to balance what I wanted to know with what people would be able to easily identify about themselves. If I asked what I actually wanted, then people might feel that I was being dismissive or intrusive, and they wouldn’t answer (or they wouldn’t answer honestly).

So I chose what I thought were neutral descriptions of political leanings, descriptions that I thought were pretty broadly understood: right, left, center, with right being concerned with upper class concerns and preservation of historical mores, left being concerned with lower class concerns and dismissal of historical mores in favor of change that favored the lower classes or minorities, and center being more independent or favoring middle class concerns.

Put in coarse form, right is conservative and Republican (if you’re in the United States), left is progressive or liberal (and Democrat), and center is more independent or Libertarian, choosing things on a more issue-by-issue basis.

This choice of representation was a mistake.

It’s far too coarse, and the truth is that the individual motivations about which I was concerned are simply too-fine-grained to be exposed through a “liberal/conservative” filter. My hypothesis centered around a core idea that said that the progressives were more willing to dictate and be dictated to, therefore more amenable to the “lesser” period, and the independents and conservatives were more willing to be more independent in thought.

While I was willing to happily concede that this isn’t necessarily a good mapping to political leanings, I thought that it would hold in the general sense, largely because of how I perceive the political parties in the US, which… don’t actually map well to “conservative” or “liberal” even though they might claim those labels.

So… let’s see the results, and then I’ll bore you with my conclusions.

The Results (i.e., the Fun Part)

I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to the Rush fanbase. I wanted 500 responses, and hoped for 100. I actually ended up with, at this writing, 436. That is freaking amazing.

However… the responses mostly confirmed how awesome Rush is, and how dominant the “golden era” is for the entire catalog.

298 of the 436 – a whopping 70% – chose an album from the “golden era” as their favorite. Moving Pictures dominated, with 81 (19%) choosing it; Hemispheres came in second place (with 65 votes, for 15%); the “least favorite” of the six albums was Signals (with 6%), and only two albums that were not in this period did better than the worst album in this period. Signals got 5.73% with 25 votes; Power Windows got 6.42% with 28 votes, and Clockwork Angels got 6.19% with 27.

I think it’s safe to say that the “golden era” was, in fact, dominant, despite people on r/java being willing to claim that Caress of Steel was their best album or whatever. The “valley period” only collected 86 total votes, for a whopping 20% of the overall votes despite having eight albums to choose from (poor Test for Echo got no votes at all!) – the “trailer period” starting with Vapor Trails got 49 (11%) votes all by itself despite only having three albums to choose from! (Feedback was the only other album to get no votes, which didn’t surprise me at all.)

(If you’re interested: Rush got two votes, Fly By Night got four, and Caress of Steel got nine.)

The live albums were more “interesting” than “relevant” for what I wanted to know, because I was trying to understand songwriting appeal. But with that said…

Exit… Stage Left is the clear winner. It got 113 votes (26%) for favorite live album; the two behind it in popularity (Rush in Rio and R40) got 50 and 52 votes, respectively. All the World’s A Stage was in fourth place, with 40 votes.

So even live, we see the dominance of the early “golden era,” with a resurgence around Rush’ return from Peart’s hiatus.

Now to the political leanings, where things fell apart badly…

First, the raw numbers. Most of the responding fan base was left-leaning with 43%. Centrists were close: 42%. Right-leaning and “other” were both pretty far back: right got 35 votes, and other got 28, with some identifying as “other” who might better have fit in other categories… but even then, most of the “other” would probably fit better in “left” or “center,” rather than as an even distribution.

The problem here is that everyone loves the golden era, regardless of their political self-identification. I needed to see larger trends, with something in the responses that said “someone who ticks this particular set of boxes is more likely to prefer songs from the later era to the songs from the ‘golden era.'”

I did not get that data; too many people preferred the golden era, regardless of political leanings.

Religion was interesting but not significant; that actually mapped pretty well to an actual cross-section of (primarily American) culture; 51% atheists, 17% other, 27% Christian, with a smattering of others sprinkled around. (I actually should have included agnosticism and “none” as choices here. I tried to add agnosticism, and “none” was wisely suggested by a survey participant, but it was too late at that point to change the survey.)

Education and region were red herrings for the survey as well. If you’re terribly interested in the results, I can write those up too, but honestly, they’re largely a cross-section as well and while it’s possible younger people would prefer the later stuff (with older people having more nostalgia for the ‘golden era’) there just weren’t enough people who liked the later albums to really generate correlations we could trust.

The Conclusion

The short form: Rush rocks.

My ability to write surveys… does not rock at all. It doesn’t even swing. Maybe it taps its feet out of time or something.

I don’t know if my hypothesis is necessarily wrong, because the data didn’t disprove it … but at the same time, my hypothesis received far too little data to actually be strengthened at all. So while it’s still my personal opinion that the songwriting got more “preachy” and that (along with nostalgia and a few other details regarding personal preferences) explains why I prefer the golden era to the more modern stuff. I think the bottom line is that Rush managed to resonate with people on a fantastic level during that period, with a noticeable dropoff afterward for a while, but got its groove back with Vapor Trails.

Rush is awesome, y’all, and so are you.

My rules for social media

Recently, a fellow I know on Facebook mentioned unfriending someone (for very good reasons), and it got me thinking a little more on the rules on how I use the site.

I find that I have four fairly simple rules.

Rule #1: Add People I Might Respect as Friends

I add people who I think I would respect in real life as friends, and follow them. It means I don’t have a giant list of friends, I suppose, but it does tend to mean that when I have someone on my list, it’s someone whose name I would recognize in real life.

I add them because I know them (in real life) or I came across them through their interactions with others (i.e., friends of friends) and would want to interact with them.

It generally doesn’t matter if I agree with them or not, although there are some simple metrics that would probably prevent my bothering with them, I guess. A friend of a friend who constantly refers to http://rawstory.com and http://salon.com as God’s given truth is probably not someone with whom I’d interact. (It’s not that those sites cannot say something true, but they’re so typically slanted that … ugh.)

It happens that I add people who I get to know better over time, and … who knows? Maybe I regret it, but I’m not a fan of surrounding myself with people with whom I do nothing but agree. I don’t want to be expected to comply with someone else’s ideology; why would I demand someone comply with mine? (See Rule #3.)

Rule #2: No “Likes”

I use Facebook’s “Like” feature very very rarely. The general rule for me is that if I might “like” it, I’ll choose to share it or comment on it instead. This goes for everything; posts, comments, whatever.

It’s not that “Like” isn’t useful – it’s been designed to show a response to a posting, after all, and it’s gotten more nuanced than it was.

In general, though, I don’t want Facebook altering my feed based on what it thinks I will respond to.

Rule #3: No Unfriending

I want a heterogenous culture surrounding me. I want different viewpoints. I want different opinions. I want people to challenge me intellectually and emotionally. I don’t want a horde of potential sycophants providing content.

If I thought enough of you to add you as a friend, regardless of what wacko thoughts you had rolling in your head, then I trust myself enough to keep you as a friend.

This doesn’t mean that I will never unfriend someone, I guess, but it happens very rarely. (I don’t remember the last time I unfriended someone.)

I will, however, stop following people under some conditions, mostly related to problems with Rule #4.

Rule #4: Avoid Discussions with People Ruled by Emotion

When someone shows that their decision processes are ruled by emotion, I stop interacting with them.

Facebook has a lot of people on it who seem dominated by rage and offense. (I don’t think they’re this way in real life – but on social media, some aspects of personality are emphasized to cartoonish levels. People who don’t recognize this really need to stay off of social media altogether, but that means 99% of Facebook would have to quit.)

The truth is that a lot of the rage is probably justified. In the last week, we had the “Stanford Rapist” – a rapist who received an outlandishly short jail sentence – and the Orlando mass murder at the Pulse nightclub.

Both situations were horrifying, in different ways; both deserved a visceral response.

Spoiler alert: they got their responses.

However, the nature of the responses – especially through discussion – tells me a lot about the person with whom I might interact.

It doesn’t bother me if they’re emotional; these are emotionally laden events! Anyone who can read about a rape without emotion is a robot. Anyone who reads about 49 people killed and has no feeling of horror… that’s someone desensitized to being human.

My thought is: feel the emotion! Understand it – and then act rationally. Emotion is a perfectly valid stimulus for decision-making.

It’s a terrible sole source for decisions, though, just like “pure reason” would be.

The world’s not simple, folks. Emotion wants simplicity; the killer used guns? NO MOAR GUNS! FOR ANYONE! EVAR! The rapist was a white man? NO MORE WHITE MAN! ALL WHITE MEN ARE THREATS!

That’s stupid. That kind of insistence on trigger-laden decision making is something that I can’t deal with.

I recognize the validity of the emotion; it’s emotional, after all. It’s not that the person echoing these sentiments is unjustifiable, or invalid, or stupid. I don’t want to say “don’t feel what you feel” – that’d be wrong.

But reacting that way tends to lead to them telling me that I shouldn’t feel what I feel. That’s just as wrong as me telling them how to feel.

So once they show themselves willing to accept this kind of decision-making, I … simply … stop. I don’t tell them they’re wrong. I don’t inform them of their error. I don’t tell them that I’m not talking to them any more. I don’t unfriend or unfollow them.

I just watch and listen. I still (probably) value their expertise and humanity in other ways, after all. I just can’t interact with them without endangering their perceived safe spaces, and I don’t want to bother with their emotions. They’re not my emotions, after all, and if they’re not willing to treat me with rationality, well, I’m okay with that. I don’t want to inflict my views on them any more than I want them to demand that I comply with their views.

Conclusion

So there you have it; my basic four rules for social media. There are more, realistically:

  1. I try not to insult people (although it happens, because I’m sarcastic and have a very dry sense of humor).
  2. I try to avoid personalizing religion. I have no problem discussing religion, but it’s removed; I’ll explain religious orthodoxy but I won’t demand compliance to it (especially if it’s not, you know, my religion.) People have to make up their own minds. I despise ignorance; someone claiming a blood libel’s truth is going to get an explanation of the blood libel, but I’ll leave my own history with it (if any) out of the discussion unless it’s explicitly relevant.
  3. I try to write formally and precisely. This gets me in a lot of trouble, because people don’t know how to read precisely. (“My initial reaction was…” doesn’t mean “this is how I feel,” it means it was my initial reaction.)

How do you govern yourself on social media?

Facebook: good and bad… really bad

I find I have a difficult relationship with Facebook. I think Facebook has a lot of potential value, but with so many people using it so differently, it ends up taking almost as much as it gives.

Facebook: Some of the Good

The good of Facebook comes in the connectivity. It not only gives me a neutral environment to interact with friends from my distant past – people from middle school whom I still remember fondly! – but it exposes me to a wide variety of outlooks and experiences I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

It’s given me a chance to see old friends’ lives – as their careers and their children mature. It’s given me a chance to vicariously participate in the things that matter to them – graduations, successes, failures. It gives me a chance to commiserate and congratulate, even though years and miles separate us.

I’ve had closure for things from years and years ago – conversations with people who had tried to bully me, whether ignorantly or not, for example. It’s given us a chance to see each other as people, actual adults, as opposed to the caricatures created by first impressions of strangers.

It’s given me a chance to meet new people with common interests – the YYNOT “band” (they’re not really a band, but they create videos of cover songs for Rush, even though the people involved are separated by thousands of miles in most cases.)

It’s given me a chance to see others’ agony and interests – and question my own reactions. In some small ways, it’s helped me define myself, in how I see the world, in the things I value, and in the things I could do better.

Facebook: Some of the Bad

At the same time, it’s frustrated me. Facebook is excellent at fostering light connections, but such connections do a poor job of representing actual people – including me. On Facebook, an offhand statement, meant mildly and in context, appears as a core belief, a statement I am willing to defend to the death… and because of the nature of first impressions, no amount of context changes that impression.

People on Facebook don’t get to know each other – they get to know caricatures.

It’s easy to look at oneself in the mirror, and say “I know myself, I know what I like and don’t like, I know who I am,” and maybe that’s even accurate. The problem Facebook propagates is that the impressions formed by things people post on Facebook are perceived as being just as accurate as that self-image – thus, you might see my (hopefully) carefully worded statement advocating caution in judgement, and it becomes an erroneous impression that I defend actions that are, in the end, indefensible.

Those impressions are not accurate. They’re one piece in a puzzle that has two thousand other pieces. Even if that piece is horrifying (“I’m voting for Donald Trump!”) it doesn’t actually say all that much about someone – it’s just one piece of data among thousands. During the Cold War, the Russians loved their children, just as we loved ours.

Plus, people don’t seem to expect growth and self-examination on Facebook. I am not who I was ten years ago – some would argue that I’m barely who I was ten minutes ago. I have no problem saying “This is what I believe,” and learning from that point on. For example, I’m a libertarian – but people, including many libertarians, associate libertarianism with an advocacy of anarchy! So when I participate in a conversation, I see it as a conversation in a continuum, where I start from one position and may change over time, refining, rejecting, accepting points as they arise. But Facebook readers tend to not recognize that continuum and its potential for growth and refinement.

I also find that I tend to de-emphasize conflict where I can. When someone says “This sucks!,” my modus operandi tends to be to try to identify with the author (the one saying “this sucks”) and the objectified target. For example, when news first came out of a controversial family advocate’s hypocrisy, my stance was caution – we didn’t know what the terms used meant to the people involved.

For example, “Personicus Frankus had an affair!” might mean that Mssr. Frankus looked at a woman not his wife in a way that he would say was improper a la Jimmy Carter’s “adultery”, or it might mean that he had conducted actual relations with her… you know, the traditional meaning of “had an affair,” which Bill Clinton might have described as “not having sexual relations.” But to the people accusing Mr. Frankus, there was far more outrage at the potential hypocrisy – even though the actions he was accused of undertaking wouldn’t have offended any of them had he not publicly stood against them.

I understand both points of view; the hypocrisy bothers me, too. (A lot.) But at the same time, in America we advocate innocence until guilt is proven – and Facebook ignores the potential innocence.

It encourages clickbait, snap judgements, and purely emotional decision-making.

(I also find it humorous that someone who rushes to judgement in one post might then suggest empathy and understanding in the next post – “Those evil Republicrats are all going to Hell because they want to take away a label on fat content of cofferdams!”, and then “Can’t we all just get along? Look at these cute cats. I love everyone.” One can only presume that “everyone” doesn’t include those who disagree about labeling fat content of cofferdams.)

I’m tempted to filter Facebook quite a bit – spend a few days looking at who posts most often on my feed, and what they post. If their posts lack nuance or empathy, then I might remove them from the feed… but this strikes me as a really sad action to take, largely because the action itself lacks empathy.

I don’t want to protect myself from those around me. I want to be open and strong. I want to challenge myself to grow, and I can’t do that with a chorus of voices agreeing with me in unison. (With that, I only exacerbate my flaws. I don’t like my flaws. I want to get rid of them. I want to discover my weaknesses, and address them, not hide them.)

But at the same time, I find my agony, inspired by the travails and protests so easily lodged in public, is hardly endurable. I want to encourage collaboration and healing, maturation and empathy… and I feel like I’m one voice, whispering in a crowd of screamers. What frustrates me is that I have no choice; screaming for moderation is… uh… a flawed action. And refusing to stand up for moderation is irresponsible.

Remove predictions from SwiftKey

SwiftKey is a swiping keyboard for Android, the one I like best. However, sometimes I want to remove predictions that I really don’t want, in particular a prediction associated with an adult site’s name (I used it to make sure Norton ConnectSafe is configured properly.) The last thing I want to do is give my kids or wife the impression that I’m checking out these sites, and since they have access to my phone, the completion is misleading.

My wife is aware that I check the ConnectSafe configuration every now and then, but I don’t want her to have any reason to suspect my browsing habits. (I can hear you now: “Suuuuuuure.” But it’s true. The only woman I want in my head is my wife.)

The Main Point: Changing SwiftKey

Anyway, I finally found out how to remove a prediction in SwiftKey, thanks to SwiftKey’s own knowledge base:

How do I add a word to the dictionary, or get rid of a word I don’t want with SwiftKey Keyboard for Android?

Basically, long-press the word in question (hold down your finger on it) and a dialog box will open up, asking if you want to remove it. Done.

SwiftKey is excellent. Highly recommended.

ConnectSafe

Incidentally, I’d like to offer a plug for ConnectSafe, too. It’s not perfect; if you wanted to find a way around it, you certainly could. But it’s a good start towards sanitizing the internet for family use, on the assumption that you actually want to filter out various types of sites.

It has three different DNS servers: one filters out malware sites (i.e., security risks), another filters out security risks plus pornography, and the third filters out security risks, pornography, and what I’d consider “sensitive subjects:” hatred, racism, suicide, and other potentially mature subjects.

We have our DNS settings set to the second level (security plus pornography), because the world is a cold and bitter place, and I’d rather discuss “mature subjects” than pretend they’re not there. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found ConnectSafe to be an excellent service.

Weasel Words Are Great

Weasel words are great. And yes, I know, I left out weasel words in making that statement.

Weasel words are words like “some” and “may.” Most clickbait authors – i.e., people on Facebook – are allergic to them, so you get fine headlines like “Conservatives hate the gays!” instead of the less-click-baitish and far-more-accurate “Some conservatives hate gays.”

Yet weasel words – sometimes seen as poor writing – aren’t poor writing at all. (See?) Weasel words allow you to describe things without being absolute about the description. They also allow you to temper a statement – which might even lead to more temperate statements, so instead of “Conservatives hate gays!” you might write “Some conservatives hate gays!” and then the ironically more-inclusive “Some people hate gays.”

Weasel words also create an allowance for error. Saying “Conservatives hate gays” means you’re liable to be countered by some conservative pointing out that he or she demonstratively does not hate homosexuals, which means your entire weasel-free claim is invalidated, since it makes no allowance for exceptions.

“Ah, but exceptions are implied,” you might be saying – but no, they’re not. Not on the internet. If you don’t provide room for the exceptions, the internet – which amplifies everything you write, since there’s nothing to temper a statement like body language or tone – makes it seem that there are no exceptions.

Nearly everyone is doggedly literal on the Internet. Acting like your audience is made entirely of people who are not doggedly literal is ill-advised.

So: Befriend the weasel words, folks. Really. They’ll help create actual dialogue, by allowing nuance.

(Reposted here from a Facebook post of mine, of all things, to preserve it.)

Conversation is the roar of the tide, not a ping from a radar.

One of the things I’ve noticed from watching Facebook is that the nature of conversation is being fractured. Facebook, Twitter, and other such mediums encourage the use of soundbites, basically snappy and memorable phrases. Conversations become about headlines, rather than content or context.

The thing is: that’s not how we actually exist.

Our conversations are actually built in a context; it’s the sound of the tide crashing on the shore. What Facebook does is encourage the use of one wave out of that whole tide, as a complete representation of everything that person says, while ignoring the impact of everything else that person believes or thinks or even has said in the thread of that conversation.

What you end up with is an endless series of snap judgements, not a comprehensive picture of what someone thinks or who that person is.

The result is a ruinous, judgemental, callous, libelous society of fools, a subculture built around extraction of tiny phrases to reinforce bias. We don’t look for reason, or balance; we only look for something we can use.

Witness one fellow saying that “no-one has the guts to allow poor people to wither and die.” (Warning: this link is from rawstory.com, and therefore is editorially suspect. It’s spun, folks, spun hard. I don’t care if you agree with them or not, but you should know the source material is intentionally tainted to encourage a political view. In general, people who quote rawstory.com and a few other such sites on Facebook are almost instantly discounted, for me.)

John Johnston, who is challenging Democratic state Rep. Chuck Moseley for the 10th District seat, said during a social media discussion on poverty that “no one has the guts to just let them wither and die.”

The Valparaiso resident told The Post-Tribune on Tuesday that his comments were simply hyperbole, and he told the paper no thoughtful society would allow people to go hungry.

I’ve mentioned hyperbole before:

Avoid hyperbole, statements that are exaggerated in order to illustrate a point, unless you actually know your audience is going to recognize it for what it is. The truth is that a public audience of virtually any size will not recognize hyperbole. Some in the audience might; maybe even most. But assuming everyone will recognize it is going to lead to you having misrepresented yourself.

Hyperbole is sometimes useful. Not always, of course, but sometimes. But the use of snippets of conversation as a basis for judgement makes hyperbole actively harmful, even though it shouldn’t be. The quote from John Johnston is a good example. He might have been laughing as he said it; he might have been deadly serious. It doesn’t matter – in the conversational mode of the day, the way the text can be spun is all that matters.

People – including reporters – should instead look at a person as an entire being. I don’t know John Johnston, but if I was reporting on this meeting, I’d try to look at who the man was, and what he actually did in life, before deciding that he hated poor people. Maybe he works at a food bank; maybe he’s lower-class himself.

What does he actually think? That’s pretty relevant, and no, a sound-bite isn’t enough. You can suggest that one instance of a crime has mitigating circumstances without suggesting that every instance of that crime has mitigating circumstances.

Imagine two men are shot by the police, for example. In both, the men were running from the police. One, however, might have been a 19-year-old kid, frightened by all the references in the news to young men being shot down without cause, and the other might have just robbed a store at gunpoint, allegedly shooting a store clerk.

Let’s say a person – “Sam,” who doesn’t exist – suggests that one of them deserved being shot. That doesn’t mean that Sam thinks the other also deserved being shot. But without understanding or characterization about Sam, we have no idea what kind of person Sam actually is. If Sam spends his time ranting about illegal immigration, flies a Confederate flag, and mourns the oppression of the Ku Klux Klan, well… those things serve as some form of characterization. Maybe they’re not complete – maybe Sam is directly affected somehow by illegal immigration, or maybe he’s from the Deep South and doesn’t have negative connotations about the Confederate flag, and maybe he’s ignorant as to what the purpose of the Ku Klux Klan really is – but these, too, are characterization points that serve to inform us of who Sam might really be, inside.

These things form the tide that serve as Sam’s makeup, whereas his statement about a shooting serves only as a single wave.

The tide is far more important.

Look at who people are. What they say and do is relevant, of course, but their motivations are rarely as simple as “I hate white people” or “poor people deserve to die” or “shucks, she was asking to be raped.” (To my knowledge: no-one asks to be raped. Ever. If she asks, it’s not rape. If she thinks she didn’t ask, she didn’t ask.)

People are tides, not waves. Before rendering judgement, we should always look at as much of the picture as we’re able to.

We should read with emotion and reason, with reason having control. Sure, visceral reactions are fine, and they’re even necessary if we’re to consider ourselves emotional creatures… but visceral reactions are often based on primitive thinking. They should be tempered by reason and rationality. Fight or flight is not a decision to be made lightly, when you’re trying to actually learn something from someone else.

Be human. Read rationally. Sometimes rage is justified – but few people are all good, or all bad. Consider the context of the person with whom you’re engaged, and try to understand them – while there’s nothing saying that the person isn’t a total jerk, chances are that people have redeeming qualities even when they’ve acted inappropriately. (This is not the same as excusing inappropriate behavior; it’s still inappropriate behavior, and such behavior has legitimate consequences.)

Be human.

How do you promote an anonymous resource?

I have a blog that I keep anonymous, for specific reasons. I think it’s worth reading, but due to anonymity, I don’t know how to promote it. Any suggestions?

It’s not a blog that’s unethical, or immoral; it just deals with subject matter for which my authorship would be surprising, and my identity would affect the purpose of the blog.

But I don’t want to construct a false identity for the purposes of promotion. A pseudonym is not a problem (it has a username, but not my name, attached to it), but promotion on Reddit, or Facebook, or Google+, Twitter, or any number of other such sources would mandate my building of another identity for the purposes of redirection.

I have reasons for wanting to avoid doing that, mostly rooted in my own concept of identity. I can handle having no identity – having a different identity is not something I’m interested in.

So the question stands: what would you suggest for building traffic and exposure for a blog for whom the author needs anonymity?

Say What You Mean

Facebook has led me to see a lot of people who, while intelligent, don’t know how to communicate in such a way that their viewpoints have any strength or apparent merit. I’d like to see that repaired – because reading stupid stuff wastes everyone’s time. While I’m not the wisest person or the most effective communicator on the planet, I’ve been around enough to know a little.

To be an effective communicator in any medium, here’s my advice:

Say what you mean.

A corrollary to this is: know what you mean.

Avoid hyperbole, statements that are exaggerated in order to illustrate a point, unless you actually know your audience is going to recognize it for what it is. The truth is that a public audience of virtually any size will not recognize hyperbole. Some in the audience might; maybe even most. But assuming everyone will recognize it is going to lead to you having misrepresented yourself.

Avoid sarcasm, the use of irony to mock something. Like hyperbole, if you know your audience is going to recognize it, that’s fine. Chances are very good that as the audience grows in size, someone’s going to misunderstand sarcasm, plain and simple.

I’m a jokester – I’m very sarcastic in my internal conversations. I’ve had to learn through years of screwing up that my sarcasm’s main audience is (and should be) myself, and that others should be sheltered from it, if possible, rather than exposed to it.

I’m not perfect, by any measure – since my internal dialogue is very sarcastic, it slips through now and then.

It’s burned me before; I wrote a very sarcastic article on a website years ago that suggested that Java sucked, for a very (very) trivial reason – that “it couldn’t tell I meant x when I said y.” I thought it was an entirely laughable reason; surely everyone would see that it was a joke, even if they didn’t see the humor in it.

Boy, was I wrong. I actually amended the post to specifically say that it was an attempt at humor, but people still didn’t get it.

It’s okay. I learned.

Set Theory

Set theory actually informs a lot of how I communicate.

By the way, mathematicians will now proceed to scream at me about how poorly I’m representing sets here. Sorry about that, David.

Set theory is built around collections, and how those collections interact. A set interacts with other sets through the use of unions, intersections, and complements. Sets can be subsets or supersets of other sets, or have no relationships whatsoever.

A set whose members all exist in another set is a subset. Integers, for examples, make up a subset of real numbers. Real numbers make up, correspondingly, a superset of integers.

A union of a set is the addition of one set to another. Given a set of [A,B,C] and another set [D,E,F], the union of these two sets would be [A,B,C,D,E,F]. A union of sets [A,B,C] and [C,D,E] (note how “C” is in both sets) is [A,B,C,D,E].

An intersection of sets refers to the elements in common between the two sets. Given [A,B,C] and [D,E,F], the intersection would be the empty set: []. Given [A,B,C] and [C,D,E] (again, note “C” in common) would be [C].

A complement of a set indicates the members of one set such that they do not exist in another set. If we have set A of [1,2,3] and set B of [1,1.5,2,2.5,3,3.5], the complement of set A in set B is [1.5, 2.5, 3.5].

How This Matters

Set theory works fantastically well in mathematics. The problem, though, is that people apply it outside of mathematics, where the lines aren’t as clear.

For example, I consider myself a libertarian. That means I’m not a republican, not a democrat, not an anarchist (although some think libertarianism is the same as anarchism), and not a socialist. I even respect Ayn Rand.

Respecting Ayn Rand doesn’t mean the same thing as walking in lock-step with her ghost.

I’m in the set of Libertarians.

The problem comes when one applies a statement to “all libertarians,” because almost no such statement would be true, unless it’s a tautology.

An example of a statement that would be very true (but not always true) would be “Libertarians are those identify with libertarianism.” It’s mostly true, and is largely self-evident; however, there are people who call themselves Republicans or Democrats who would probably identify strongly with libertarianism, and there are also people who call themselves libertarians who are, actually, fascists or anarchists, for whatever reason.

That’s okay. The problem comes in as a facet of cardinality. When you say “All X are in the set of Y”, as the size of X or Y grows the likelihood of error becomes much greater.

Remember that “Don’t use hyperbole” statement at the beginning of this post? “All of my audience is in the set of people who understand hyperbole” fits in well here; as the size of X grows, the likelihood of the statement being true falls dramatically.

When you use cardinal referents like “always,” “never,” or “all,” you’re saying something real, with actual meaning. If you mean it, that’s great. If you don’t, then own that and don’t say it. Otherwise you make yourself into a cartoon, really, to those whom you’re afflicting with your words.

Vaccinations

I refuse to participate in the current flurry of condemnation against vaccination opponents. It’s ugly, it’s stupid, it’s wrong – not because vaccination is a bad move, but because the condemnation itself is ugly, stupid, and wrong.

Worse than being ugly, stupid, and wrong – it’s not effective. It’s cruel, in the end. If you’re one of the people throwing mud at anti-vaxxers, please stop – if only on behalf of someone who’s on your side.

I have a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s a great kid, and I’m very proud of him, but he struggles and he knows it. Having Asperger’s is difficult for him, and I’m especially proud that he doesn’t see it as something to use as an excuse, but he sees it as a challenge to overcome, instead.

When the original anti-vaccination wave came out (thanks to Orpah and Jenny McCarthy), I felt horribly guilty – had our vaccination of our son given him a challenge he’d have to face for the rest of his life? Why do they use mercury in vaccines, anyway? This sounds horrible – mercury’s a poison, we protest mercury poisoning in the sea, why are we using it for something we inject into every young child?

The truth is, of course, removed from that. It’s not mercury in poisonous form – it was denatured and served as a preservative, not as a poison, and the theory that it was causing autism was not, as it turns out, based on actual studies.

We know that now. Back then, we didn’t – we had Orpah Winfrey giving a platform to the idea that vaccines may not be entirely safe, with no metric by which to judge (all you had to have was a child), and a potential result that could be massively damaging to our childrens’ futures.

That’s the position most anti-vaccination parents have. A threat to their children, with voice given to where such a threat might originate.

Who can blame them for reacting?

I can’t. I don’t think they are reacting properly, mind you – the science behind the original anti-vaccination movement has been debunked (and retracted) – but I can’t blame them for reacting. When something threatens your child, you should react.

The problem comes to the way that vaccination proponents are popularizing their own point of view. What I see very often now is offensive and insulting: “What a dope you are for not vaccinating! How dare you! What are you, stupid? You’re endangering my children now, you freak!

It’s gotten now to the point where people are advocating removing any choice in the matter; the online magazine Slate posted How to Deal With Anti-Vaxxers, with the subheading of “If they refuse, we have to force them to vaccinate.” I’ve had numerous people endorse that view.

How sad! We reject the idea that ideas have to be accepted, except when it comes to certain topics – whether it’s Creationism, or vaccination, or Islam, or Common Core.

How ineffective, too. Forcing people to vaccinate will only force those people to work harder against vaccination – and the practice they gain in being anti-vaccination will only make their resolve stronger.

We can only convince people to vaccinate through reason and empathy. Anything else will work against our long-term goals.

Can this have a cost? Yes, it can. The war against mercury has a cost, in higher costs for vaccines.. but it’s a war that can be won. (We could always pay the higher costs, after all.) The war against anti-vaccinations has a cost, too, in that there’s a chance of more people catching these nearly-eradicated diseases. That’s… really not good.

But at the same time, do we descend to advocating state control of something that is, in the end, a very personal decision?

What happens when the state decides to enforce something that we are against, and passionately so? Should we too go meekly over the cliff’s edge?

I say no. I reject the idea of state control here. We are humans. We need to make sane and right choices – through our own faculties, and if our ideas are not strong enough to propagate themselves through reason and logic and empathy, then they’re not strong enough and we need to do better.