Archive for August, 2010

Get Lost

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

You’ve heard the expression “Get lost!”, surely, but have you ever thought about how hard it would be to do?

Think about it. When was the last time you were lost? I mean, totally, completely, utterly lost. Lost as in, there is no way to get back to where you came from, get on to where you were heading, or get somewhere at all where there is someone else or a indication of a direction lost?

I’ve been lost driving from one place to another, but that’s not really lost. I don’t mean lost as in I-don’t-know-where-I-am-but-all-I-need-to-do-is-check-my-gps/phone/map/ask-somebody-and-I’ll-be-okay lost. I don’t mean lost as in you don’t know where you are. I mean lost as in you have no idea where you are and no means of figuring it out, either.

You can’t get truly lost in cities, towns, highways, and byways. As long as you’re on a road, you know that if you follow it long enough, you’ll come across someone who can help you get to where you’re going.

It seems to me that the only way we can get lost in this day and age is to go somewhere that doesn’t have roads or signs or buildings or people. Someplace like the ocean, or the arctic, or one of those national parks with acres and acres without another human being around. Then, you can get lost. Until then, you’re just temporarily displaced.

So, there you go. Next time someone bugs you, put them in their place. Tell them to get temporarily displaced.

Cassandra, continued

Friday, August 20th, 2010
  Cassandra cried, and curs'd th' unhappy hour;
  Foretold our fate; but, by the god's decree,
  All heard, and none believ'd the prophecy.

The Aeneid, Virgil, Project Gutenberg

*This post continues a line of thought from the previous post, exploring how we as a society are reluctant to give credence to situations in which people bear witness to truths that we prefer to pretend do not exist. I opened the previous post positing that the original Cassandra could have been a woman or girl accusing someone of rape.

Even today such accusations are immediately met with doubt if not wholesale disbelief.

Why is this subject so difficult? If I told you my watch was stolen, you’d most likely believe me. You’d have no reason not to, and you’d have no reason to suspect that I was not telling the truth. In fact, I can tell you a true story about a theft I experienced.

I visited a friend of mine in Washington, D. C. several years ago, as I was passing through on a trip back to school for my senior year of college. My car was broken into, and my computer, suitcase, and backpack were all stolen. I filed a police report, but of course nothing was ever recovered.

Other than that incident, I’ve been fortunate. I can’t really think of any other instances when I’ve had something significant stolen. In any event, I’ve told you about the theft, and there you have it. Truth. You believe me.

But why do you believe me?

Maybe you believe me because you’ve heard of other people being robbed, so you know it’s possible. Or perhaps you’ve been robbed yourself, so you’ve had direct experience of it.

(I wonder, if you grew up in a society where there was no such thing as theft, would you believe me? You probably couldn’t even understand what I was saying at first, because how do you explain theft to someone who doesn’t know what theft is?)

When you think about it, believing someone is an act of faith on our parts. Everything someone tells us could be untrue, but we act on faith that it is true. We assume when people speak to us, they are telling us the truth: their name, their age, the work they do, the town they live in, their marital status, whether they have kids, etc.

In fact, when people don’t tell us the truth, we tend to get upset, because an important social system has gone awry. As a society, we don’t have time to fact-check everyone we speak to.

“Hi, my name is Bob,” says the person you’re just meeting.

You: “Hi, nice to meet you. Can you show me your driver’s license, please? I need to verify your name before I can call you Bob.”

Bob hands you his driver’s license.

“Okay, Bob, nice to meet you. My name’s Scott,” you say as you return his driver’s license and give him yours to verify your name.

“Hi Scott,” says Bob.

“Hi Bob. By the way, how old are you?” you ask.

Bob tells you, “Twenty-five.”

“Gosh, Bob, I’m sorry, but I forgot to look at the date of birth on your license. Let me see it again, will you?”

Etc.

Since we can’t verify everything someone tells us, we have to take it on faith that they are telling us the truth. Eventually, as we get to know someone, we witness or experience things that confirm the information we have been told by a person. We may also know other people who know the same person, and those other people may have information that confirms what we’ve already learned. Eventually, we develop a sense of how truthful a person is and we use that as a guide for how much to believe of what we are told by that person.

Truth and its companion, belief, are established socially as well as intellectually over a period of time. As more and more of what a person says proves to be true, you develop greater confidence that that person will continue to tell the truth. They are now “trustworthy”, or, they have “earned your trust”.

The difficulty comes when someone says something that challenges our understanding of what is possible. If someone you trust tells you something improbable, threatening your world view, you are faced with a dilemma. You must weigh the danger of your world being turned upside down against the potential loss of friendship should you disbelieve your friend.

Usually, our psyches react violently when threatened by challenges to our sense of the world. The choice between a friendship with one individual and one’s ability to maintain one’s world view is no choice at all for the psyche. It must protect itself at all costs, even at the cost of greater understanding, friends, morals, etc.

Thus, we deny the truth when we hear it or even when we suspect it, in a doomed belief that by maintaining our ignorance we can hope to control our environment.

Cassandra’s difficulty lay in the reluctance of her audience to believe her words. A rape victim’s difficulty, beyond the sexual assault itself, is similar: convincing her/his listeners that something bad happened. Whereas Cassandra’s compatriots were compelled by the god Apollo to dismiss her warnings, we have no such excuse today. If we fail to hear someone’s cry for help or if we disbelieve that something bad has happened, then we have already abdicated the humanity and compassion we could offer not only to a fellow being, but also to ourselves.

Cassandra

Friday, August 13th, 2010
  Cassandra cried, and curs'd th' unhappy hour;
  Foretold our fate; but, by the god's decree,
  All heard, and none believ'd the prophecy.

The Aeneid, Virgil, Project Gutenberg

I think the original Cassandra could have been a girl or woman speaking of being sexually molested or raped.*

She speaks the truth, but, perhaps because her accusations threatened the fabric of the society and relationships of the people involved, no one believes her. This is still the case today. As a society we are trained to look to outside our borders–of our home, our town, our country, our world–for evil and danger. If we are told that evil and danger reside within our borders, we become deeply agitated, for what door can we close against an enemy who already lurks within the walls?

Cassandra’s dilemma, speaking the truth to unbelieving ears, points to an important element of living in a society: for truth to be effective, it must be believed. Belief (or faith) is critical to the effect of a truth. Society mitigates truth to suit its needs. All things being equal, we might exact retribution equally for every crime according to its nature. But all things are never equal, and so some voices and crimes we pay attention to immediately, while others we give less weight to or dismiss.

There are several ways to dismiss truth. Among them are two that we readily employ in society. The first is to question the event; the second, the speaker. The latter is by far the more effective, for if I believe the speaker but simply question the event, then an investigation will often corroborate or discount the claim. If the potential truth of the claim threatens something I hold dear, I am in a dangerous position, for it may be only a matter of time before the event’s occurrence is confirmed.

But if I question the speaker, then I have no need to study the event at all. I can attribute the speaker’s claim to madness, malaise, or discontent. Why waste time exploring the fantasy of a mad person? In this way I can continue to hold dear whatever beliefs might be shattered upon the revelation that truth was indeed by spoken by the person I’d cast as insane.

We could learn a lot about ourselves if we chose pay attention to what we downplay. As a society, which accusations do we dismiss out of hand? I would wager that paying attention to which accusations we dismiss immediately upon hearing them would shed light not only on what we value in our society but also on what we fear, for what we choose to avoid often threatens what we value.

*This thought came to me the other day, but of course others have thought of it first. Wikipedia’s article on Cassandra outlines a few works of modern literature that explore this idea.

Monkey Economics, cont’d

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Our post earlier this week linked to Yale scientist Laurie Santos’ research on choices humans make, especially the foolish ones related to money.

Santos and her team invented a monkey currency of sorts, to see how monkeys fair at the market.

In addition to studying how monkey make economic decisions, Santos observed that the monkeys had many of the same vices as human beings: they stole, they tried to deceive the humans involved in the experiment, etc. Furthermore, Santos noted, they didn’t put money aside for a rainy day.

However, I was thinking, if monkeys don’t have pockets and if other monkeys steal, how would the capuchins actually save? Where could they keep their money safe?

I know if I had a choice between spending money on myself or having it stolen by another to be spent by them, I might just spend the money myself.

Of course, according to Santos, there’s no expectation for me to act all that differently from my primate cousins anyway…

Monkey Economics

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Another intriguing Ted talk: “monkey economics” by Laurie Santos.

Santos is a Yale scientist researching why humans make poor economic decisions. She studied capuchin monkeys for clues as to why we may make the choices we do. (She also slams financial advisors a couple of times while she’s at it, for guiding the rest of us humans so poorly in our economic decisions.)

Watch this video for enlightening research. (Conclusion: our monkey cousins sometimes make decisions just as foolish as ours own).

Sit Down, Sit Up

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

English. What an interesting language.

I’ve heard that prepositions are some of the most difficult things to learn in a second language, and I can well believe it. Although “up” is the opposite of “down”, when I ask you to “sit up” I am not asking you to do the opposite of “sit down”.

When I was studying Spanish, I never could figure out whether I should use “para” or “por”. Both can mean “by” or “for”, as well as a couple of other meanings. Eventually, I came up with my own set of rules for determining when to use which, but I wouldn’t bet a plugged nickel as to their accuracy.

I started thinking about those crazy prepositions when I realized that I “backup” my computer before “updating” the software. Why does the combination of “back” and “up” lead to “backup”? While “update” may seem intuitive, who’s to say it couldn’t have evolved to mean moving a date “up” in the calendar?

All this to say that the site has been backed up and updated.

Now, on to updating the backups and backing up the updates…