Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

The Head, the Heart, and the Hard Work In Between

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions. Augusten Burroughs

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I want this blog to go; since I put a lot of myself in this blog, I’ve also been thinking about where I want to go. I’ve been thinking about whether I should listen to my head or my heart.
Allow me to explain.
Following your emotions is easy. Feel fear? Run. Feel hate? Fight. This is the trend I see the world following. On almost any video or article posted on the internet with more than a few thousand views you will see some form of ad hominem. The comment threads are rarely people citing sources or facts; almost exclusively they are people calling each other idiots and stating strongly formed opinions backed by personal experience instead of statistically significant data. There’s nothing wrong with having emotions or opinions, but few opinions formed in bubbles hold up to the wideness of the world.

Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge. Carl Jung

The political world seems to have taken on this flavor too. There is one US presidential candidate in particular that seems to feed on fear. Watch any videos of his followers and it isn’t too hard to see that fear often fathers prejudice and ignorance. Not too long ago Newt Gingrich was interviewed on the crime rate in the US. He stated it was on the rise because “he felt it,” despite the newscaster interviewing him citing a study conducted by the FBI that the crime rate had decreased over the past few years. Yet Newt continued to insist that crime was on the rise, and -- surprise, surprise -- the candidate he backed was the only one who could “save” the US from this heinous, mystical crime.
I have written before about how it is hard to follow the facts when feelings seem so overwhelming. I implored the world to stop and think about what they say before they say it -- that there are thousands of different viewpoints in the world, all based on millions of combinations of experiences, and each may be as equally valid as the next. People seem so eager to fight with each other based on emotions and personal experience; while emotions and experiences are never invalid, they don’t make the best basis for arguing about the future, which is often fairly unpredictable. If emotions were a sure way to predict the future, there would be many more people getting rich off the stock market. Certainly, emotions can be a valuable guide through many aspects of life, but using one person’s feelings to dictate policy for many millions is foolish for obvious reasons. Facts about the many millions are what is required to accurately establish the best policies.
Using facts is harder than ever nowadays because those facts are few and far between. Indeed, debates on complex subjects such as gun violence would be easy if we had at our fingertips all the relevant information -- what kinds of guns were used in every identifier possible, all distinctive information about who used them, how and when they were used and purchased (or stolen or borrowed), etc. etc. With information like this it would be much easier to draw conclusions such as, “95% of gun violence occurs with x type of gun acquired in y manner by z kinds of people, so implementing y+x+z changes would likely have prevented 95% of those incidents without impacting lawful gun users.” Not only would policies like these be much more effective than wide-sweeping, emotionally charged, inaccurate and ineffective ones like “banning automatics,” they would allow lawful gun users to continue on their way (note: I do not intend to argue gun control, this is for example purposes only).
Furthermore, the information that is readily available is often inconclusive or misinterpreted. Most researchers are careful to state how certain they are of a conclusion or that a given certainty is merely certainty of correlation (as opposed to causation). Uncertain conclusions and definite correlations, however, do not sell papers or get clicks. Emotion is what’s attractive: it’s why we love soap operas and characters like Charlie Brown, Bones, and Grey. It’s why we watch the Olympics, why the best movies have characters with crystal clear wants. So the media twists the words of legitimate research to better suit their needs (“Cut belly fat with this one weird trick!”). “News” means less “fact” nowadays than it does “a circumstantial thing that happened, but will generate ad revenue.” Sometimes it seems our headlines bring us closer to 1984 than any sort of utopia our modern technology might permit. Nobody has reported on the fact that you can order a week’s worth of groceries without getting out from under the covers (pretty cool, right?).
My greatest fear is being punished for something I didn’t do. There is indeed miscarriage of justice in the US, including execution of falsely implicated criminals. But it is not nearly so frequent as my fear makes it out to be -- the US has an incarceration rate of about 0.7%, and only about 5% of those incarcerated are miscarriages of justice. If I am innocent and the miscarriages are chosen at random, my chances of being unjustly imprisoned are a mere 0.03%. The real problem is that by commenting in public forums (such as the internet) more than the average person, I experience prejudice and ad hominem more than the average person. I tend to make myself more vulnerable in romantic relationships than the average participant, leading to a higher chance of suffering emotional injury. I experience emotions more than facts; furthermore, my emotions are distorted by my perspective. This is the process that leads people (myself, Mr. Gingrich, both sides of the gun rights argument) to believe their emotions are facts: nothing trumps reality.
Everything in our immediate experience supports the deep belief that we are the absolute center of the universe: the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our brains at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real. Excerpt from This is Water by David Foster Wallace
So Newt seeing crime on TV becomes his universe. My hearing news of miscarriages of justice becomes my universe. Stuffed ballot boxes having an impact on the election. Automatic weapons being used in mass shootings.
And so on.
All of our deepest fears are realized not by experience or statistically significant data, but by our emotions.
So when I say I’ve been thinking about where I want this blog to go, that is why the thinking has seemed so monumental. I’ve written very many well cited articles, and they seem, all at once, justified and directionless, substantial and empty, full of promise and lacking in purpose. Facts can influence emotions, but they don’t control them.
I guess, then, this post begins stage two: I’ve got facts. I’ve got feelings.
Now comes the hard work in between.

Picard: I sincerely hope that this is the last time that I find myself here. Q: You just don't get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did. Picard: When I realized the paradox. Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. *That* is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence. Star Trek: Enterprise

Books are people too

Monday, August 8, 2016

The essential work of literary art is to make us more human than we were before.

We need books because we are all, in the private kingdom of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend. Someone who isn't embarrassed by our emotions, or her own, who recognizes that life is short and that all we have to offer, in the end, is love.

Radical empathy isn't the fashion of the day. Late-modeled capitalism works overtime to keep us focused on the product, not the people.

Run towards darkness, and shine.
Steve Almond