I don’t like the prodigal son

I’ve always had a problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a father with two sons, one of whom is well-behaved and does what he ought to do, whatever that might be.  The other is a wild child.  He goes out into the world, doing the local equivalent is of drinking, abusing drugs, partying, having lots of unprotected sex with people he barely knows, gambling, spending too much time playing computer games…that sort of stuff.  Eventually, so the story goes, the second son hits rock bottom, as one might expect, and loses everything.  Then he comes crawling back to his father, contrite, supposedly having learned the error of his ways.  The father, in response, throws a gigantic party, and everyone celebrates the return of the prodigal son.

The other son, understandably enough, is miffed by this.  He thinks it’s unfair that the return of the ne’er-do-well is greeted with a celebration, while he’s been there all along, doing sensible things, behaving good, being loyal, and there’s no party to celebrate him.  The father explains that basically he’s always happy about the good son’s presence, and that everything he has is his, but that the other son, who was as good as dead, is now back and it’s worth celebrating.

I’m really on the side of the good son here, precisely because the parable of the prodigal son is a good description of how we often behave toward our families, friends, and others. Continue reading “I don’t like the prodigal son”

NOT voting is voting for the opposition

For those of you who will vote today, or have already voted—no matter for whom or what you’re voting—I want to thank you, as someone whose right to vote has been stripped from him.

For those who don’t, I want to make a few points.

First and foremost, something you might not have considered:  If you can vote, but choose to abstain, you are effectively casting a vote for every candidate with whose platform you would be least likely to agree.  How does this work?  It’s very simple:  If you informed yourself and voted—even if you cast your vote along straight party lines, without any deeper thought involved—your vote would be counted and would balance some alternative vote for the candidates or issues you wouldn’t have chosen.  By not voting, you unmask a vote that would have been opposed the one you would have cast.  By not being present, by not voting, you are allowing those who disagree with you to put forward their side unopposed.

Perhaps this is as it should be.  Perhaps those who refuse to vote should have their least-favorite candidates elected.  Perhaps this is a form of justice.  But if so, it’s a justice that doesn’t merely affect you, but harms all those with whom you might agree about any issue.

People give many reasons for not voting, and some of them are understandable.  In many places, specific laws and policies have been enacted that preferentially discourage people of particular political dispositions from voting.  That this happens is reprehensible, and it is to counter just such violations of the spirit of America that it is urgent that all people who can vote take the trouble to do so.

But many people who choose not to vote simply make excuses for what is ultimately just laziness.  It’s too difficult, the polling places are too far away, the needs of everyday life get in the way, all the candidates on all sides are corrupt, my vote doesn’t make any difference anyway.  These arguments seem to carry weight—for those who make them—partly because there is at least a grain of truth in each of them.

It can be difficult to vote.  Depending on one’s circumstances, getting to a polling place can be a chore, especially if one doesn’t have a car.  Sometimes this circumstance has been deliberately engineered, and sometimes it’s just one of those random imperfections of reality.

Voting can also require taking time off work.  For those paid by the hour, this can entail loss of income which they are ill-equipped to bear.  Some will even face threats to their continued employment if they insist upon taking time off to vote, and that such threats happen is a travesty and an insult to the spirit of this country.

To change such things, however, the people interested in changing them must run for and be elected to office, and this will only happen if those who face difficulties find ways around them to the best of their ability.  This may require absentee voting, this may require advance time-off planning, including setting extra money aside to make up for the hours of lost wages entailed in exercising this crucial right.*

As for the point that both sides are corrupt:  even if true, it’s vanishingly unlikely that both sides are equally corrupt or equally reprehensible.  If you don’t vote for the candidate who comes closest to your ideal, then you’re voting for the one who is farthest away.  (See my post, “The good/evil number line.”)

The feeling that one’s vote is unimportant can be powerful; each citizen is just one of hundreds of millions in America.  The sense that by voting one is just spitting in the ocean can be oppressive, especially where Gerrymandering has ensured that in certain districts, votes for particular political candidates do have less influence on outcomes than they should.  But even Gerrymandering can be overcome by a strong enough voter turnout, and only by making that happen can it and other such injustices be overturned.

Looked at honestly, though, the character of many people’s reasons for not voting seems like a child saying that his dog ate his homework, when really, the homework was just difficult, and he had other things on his mind so he didn’t do it.

The homework may be difficult.  There may be many, seemingly more urgent, matters at hand.  But if you don’t vote, you’ve given a free vote to those who disagree with you politically.  They will get out and vote.  And their vote will count…all the more so because of the absence of your vote.


*We treat this right rather poorly here in the US, which is something of a puzzle when you think about it.  There are nations on this planet where voting is not merely a right but a legal obligation.  This may be carrying things a bit too far, but there are also countries where election days are national holidays, where workers cannot be forced to work on polling days unless they provide essential services, as with those who work in hospitals, fire departments, police departments, and the like.  It seems like an idea worth trying.

A Bare Bodkin

When exploring certain website discussions relating to depression and suicidal ideation (let’s say I did this for academic reasons), I came across a statement—not isolated in its character—that basically told readers that their life was a gift, and they shouldn’t throw it away.  The stupidity and arrogance of such nonsensical points is typical of such sites, such discussions, such forums and quorums, and it’s so terribly irritating because it makes me think that the people out there who are nominally trying to help people with depression—a worthy enough cause, and a positive enough intention—know next to nothing, perhaps worse than nothing, about the subject and at least about some of the people they’re presumably trying to help.

A depressed person who is seriously thinking about suicide doesn’t experience life as a gift, and it’s terribly pointless to assert to them that it is.  Even from an objective point of view, it’s ridiculous to say that life is a gift, just as it’s nonsense to say that life is a curse (though the arguments for the latter often seem more convincing).  Life just is; it’s something that happens, and the quality of each individual life varies, even from moment to moment within a given life.  The overall measure of a life—the integral of its happiness, the area under the well-being curve—also must vary across some Gaussian distribution, which means that there will be people who fall both well above and well below the mean, through no fault or credit of their own.  To tell a person two standard deviations or more below the happiness mean—perhaps just through an accident of neurology—that his or her life is a gift is frankly insulting.  It seems calculated to make such a person feel even more guilty than they often do already; it points to the objective facts of their subjective experience and tells them they’re not correct to feel the way they do.  Such a  person must either believe the statement and hate themselves more for being unable to appreciate a “gift” they have been given, or to spurn the point of view of the one making the statement as at best ignorant, at worst frankly malicious.

A similar problem occurs when help websites and crisis sources say things like, “Talk to your friends and families.”  If a person felt able to talk to friends or families about the problems they are having, they probably wouldn’t have quite the problems they have.  A person who has such resources—and, crucially, who feels justified in using them, in subjecting those who potentially love them to the burden of their irrational, depressed, depressing, event horizon thoughts, which may lead to further, perhaps complete, alienation—seems less than likely to reach a crisis where they’re looking for information or thoughts about suicide prevention…or about suicide methods.  Bringing up such things often serves simply to highlight to the seeker that they’re in an abysmal situation, one they probably feel that they deserve.  The message seems to be that most people who come to this resource—whatever it might be—have friends and family they can readily seek out for help, who know what to do, who don’t have problems of their own to deal with, and have the time, expertise, and patience to help a person who is already the scum of the earth.  Someone in crisis is going to feel that they must really be much worse (as a value judgment) than most of the others who seek this source of help, and that he or she is probably is not the target audience for this—or possibly for any—help source.

Of course there are crisis hotlines and related centers available, where one can talk to well-meaning strangers.  These tend to be volunteer-staffed, and those volunteers should be cheered and thanked far more than they surely ever are, but unfortunately, one can have bad experiences with such resources (quite apart from the fact that many depressed people find it difficult to open up to anyone, let alone to strangers).  Such a bad experience happened to a  person I know who called such a center during a terrible personal crisis.  Precisely because that person was in such a severe crisis, the Palm Beach Country Sheriff’s Department was summoned by the help line, and that person in crisis was handcuffed and taken away to a shit-hole mental health facility, the handcuffs doing nerve damage to that person’s hand and wrist that lasted for over a year.  Someone who’s been through something like that is far less likely to try to use crisis lines again, even when in extremis, especially since nowadays it’s so easy to track a caller’s location.  How sure can a caller be that they are anonymous and “a-situ-ous” and won’t suddenly look up to see green-clad thugs from the barrel-bottom-scraping local constabulary come to take them away to a place that makes jail seem (reputedly) preferable by comparison.*

Of course, there are mental health resources available in the form of psychotherapy.  These are of varying quality, but most of them can at times be useful, and the practitioners tend to be well-meaning, sincere, and professional.  However, if one doesn’t have very good insurance—and I mean truly exceptional—let alone if one doesn’t have insurance at all, one tends to have to pay for such things out of pocket.  It’s not cheap.  It can also feel rather demeaning, in a subtle, strange way.  After all, if paying for sex would be potentially embarrassing, then how much more humiliating is it to need to pay to have someone just listen to one’s troubled thoughts…especially when one finds one’s own thoughts hard enough to bear when they’re not even spoken aloud?

This post is obviously more of a rant than it is a call to action or a suggestion of answers.  I don’t know that there are any good answers, and the people I’m criticizing probably deserve better.  But that’s kind of the point.  The world is neither just nor fair nor kind, and we are given no guarantees that there will be solutions—not just ideal solutions, but any solutions at all—to given problems.  Some functions are just non-computable.  Reality, via the unassailable mathematics of the second law of thermodynamics, makes only one promise in this life, and that is that it will come to an end.  There are times when this promise doesn’t have the character of a threat, but is actually the most reassuring, soothing offer of relief.

Is that thought a symptom of illness?  Is it a mark of enlightenment?  Or is it just another highly stochastic, directionless outcome of natural forces acting on very large, very diverse populations of nervous systems which exist in environments quite different from those in which their ancestors survived and evolved?

What is one to do when one is more well-aware of the processes that lead to depression than many of those one could seek for help?  What is one to do when one has heard and considered the arguments and points of, for instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and is well aware of all the mental pitfalls it is designed to circumvent, and finds it less than useful against the nihilism and pro-mortalism of one’s (provisional) philosophical conclusions?  What is one to do when one understands—as well as it can be understood so far, anyway—the function of SSRI’s and related substances, and has experienced their effects, and finds that the detriments outweigh the expected benefits, at least in one’s own case?  What is one to do when one understands, at an intellectual level, that one’s thought processes are maladaptive, but one still cannot thereby correct them, and one knows—at a professional, expert level—that we simply do not have adequate resources to correct them in any reliable, durable way (other than that final “correction” that is the bare bodkin)?  And what if these problems are further complicated by chronic, daily pain, and the parallel loss of essentially everything one had held dear?

I don’t expect to receive any useful, surprising, answers to such questions.  One tends to encounter trite nonsense such as the “life is a gift,” and “there are people who care about you,” tropes when one puts such inquiries out into the world.  The latter point might even be true, but it’s beside the point.  Is an individual ethically obliged to endure long-term and short-term net suffering because a modest group of people, with whom one has occasional, superficial contact on social media, will be transiently saddened if something happens to that individual, before the others all just get on with their lives as before (which is what they should do)?

I’m obviously not the first person to ask such questions.  I’m quite certain that I won’t be the last.  I expect no benefit to come from having asked them.  To be honest, I expect no net benefits from the world at all.  This is Iterations of Zero, after all…and the net outcome of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time…which is to know nothing.


*I’ve been in both, and to be honest, jail is worse, if only because, when they think you’re a danger to yourself in jail, they lock you in a very cold, small room by yourself, with only a flimsy paper gown to wear, no mattress, no pillow, and a hard metal bunk frame (with sharp corners, weirdly enough).

I wish humans would stop acting toward each other like monkeys hurling feces.

I’ve expressed this general sentiment before, but it’s a problem that continues to muddle and befuddle the progress of humanity, and it seems to have done so for as long as civilization has existed—probably longer.  It also seems ever more salient, or at least more prominent in modern American political life, so I think it bears addressing again, and repeating ad nauseum if necessary. Continue reading “I wish humans would stop acting toward each other like monkeys hurling feces.”

Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria

Okay, well, as is obvious, I haven’t yet put into practice my proposal to stop using Tuesdays for writing IoZ posts; there are just too many subjects I want to address.  Skimming through my notes on those subjects this morning, as I considered writing something, I found so many of the ideas grabbing my attention that I had a hard time choosing what not to write.  Given that passion, I’ve succumbed to temptation and just picked a post.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Today I’ll address an issue of which the most irritating example (to me) occurs in a speech by Agent Smith in The Matrix.  In the film, Morpheus has been captured by the machines, and Agent Smith speaks to him while “interrogating” him to obtain the access codes for the Zion mainframe.  During that interaction, Agent Smith expresses a sentiment—shared by many environmentalists, and I suspect by many ordinary people who haven’t thought very deeply about the situation—that humans are like a virus, a disease of the ecosystem.  Whether or not it might be useful to characterize the global effects of humanity as such, one statement Smith makes during this speech is so fundamentally erroneous, and it represents such a common but uselessly misanthropic notion, that I absolutely must address it. Continue reading “Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria”

I need to circle the zero from a different angle

I must rethink my schedule for writing Iterations of Zero.

The reason I need to do this is that writing IoZ is interfering with the speed of my fiction writing, and fiction is my primary utility function.  Unfortunately, since I write my fiction in the mornings, and do my original blog on Thursday mornings, writing this blog on Tuesday mornings (as I am now) further interrupts my weekly fiction flow.  I have one day on, then one day off, then one day on, then one day off, then one day on for fiction during the working week.  When I go into the office on Saturday mornings, I also write fiction then, and that’s good as far as it goes, but skipping days during the week slows me down and breaks my flow.

Of course, I’ve said to myself, and to you, my readers, that I could write at least a page of fiction on Sundays, as well.  I said that writing fiction on Sundays would be easier than producing an IoZ post on Sundays, and I still think that’s true.  Unfortunately, “easier” is apparently not easy enough, and I’m not getting much writing done on Sundays, if any.  I aspire to the Stephen King/Ray Bradbury ideal of literally writing every day, of course, but when one writes in one’s spare time while also working full time, with a long commute…well, the time takes its toll on one’s will, and on Sunday mornings I tend just to want—perhaps need—to vegetate.

If I were writing full time, and only writing, then I think I could swing it, but unless and until I achieve that blessed state, I need to adjust.  “Know thyself and act accordingly,” great Socrates exhorts us, and I try to comply when I’m able.  Obviously, I don’t quite know myself as well as I should, because if I did, I wouldn’t have to keep reassessing and changing things, but hopefully I’m getting to know myself a little bit better all the time.

So, if I must prioritize, I will choose my fiction over my nonfiction, heartrending though that can be.  I need to maximize the continuity in my fiction writing, with as few instances of “day off/day on” as I can.  Therefore, at least tentatively, I’m going to switch away from writing IoZ every Tuesday morning.  That way, I’ll at least get in a good four to five days of fiction writing a week instead of three to four, even without Sundays.

There are, however, still numerous topics on which I want to express my thoughts, from politics to philosophy, to science, to math, to mental health and the lack thereof, and every random, walk-in topic in between.  Though the list of my stories waiting to be written is long, the list of potential Iterations of Zero posts is even longer (though the total volume of work will no doubt be much shorter).  I need to work out some method of getting it done without impinging on my fiction.

The inspirations for IoZ posts can strike me nearly any time, (though, amusingly, they often occur when I’ve had large doses of caffeine—I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing overall, but it at least gives me useful knowledge of one possible trigger that I can squeeze when needed).  In the past, I’ve jotted these thoughts down in the notes section of my smartphone—the list has lasted through three successive phones, growing as it’s gone along—and I need to get back into that habit.  Writing down article ideas both stores them and makes them concrete.  Then, when I review these ideas frequently, with new thoughts occurring as I do, the articles compose themselves in my head as I go along, usually making the eventual writing much smoother.

All of this would be easier to accomplish if I could just master the art of getting enough sleep.  I’ve always tended to be an early riser, even when I was a teenager, but waking up at one or one-thirty in the morning—after going to sleep at perhaps eleven, and sometimes later—is just ridiculous.  It’s clearly not the case that I’ve simply had all the sleep I need; if that were so, I’d feel rejuvenated and enthusiastic when I wake up at those times, whereas normally I groan inwardly and curse my perverse sleep cycle.  I’m usually able to sneak in at least a little more sleep before morning, in fits and snatches, but it almost never feels like enough.

<sigh>

Oh, well.  No one ever promised that this “life” stuff would be easy, did they?  At least, no one ever promised me such a thing, and I suspect that if someone promised you such thing, they were trying to sell you something, tangible or otherwise.

I would welcome any advice, recommendations, personal experiences, etc. that might point me in a good direction with respect to writing my IoZ posts on a weekly basis without interfering with my fiction.  Any advice on getting better sleep would also be welcome, but remember:  I don’t really have trouble getting to sleep, just staying asleep.  Maybe I should simply meditate on those occasions when I wake up early…but thinking to do that requires a presence of mind that I often don’t have at such moments.

I’m certainly not giving up.  I mean to solve this problem or die trying, so I expect I’ll figure out something that works.  In the meantime, of course, you could all help by buying and spreading the word about my works and increasing their popularity to the point where I’m an international best-seller and can write full time.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Our public discourse could benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most frustrating facts about the current level and character of our political discourse—as typified by the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings for appointment to the Supreme Court—is the degree to which it amounts to so many gangs of monkeys hurling feces at each other.

And yet, in characterizing the matter this way, I’m indulging in the very thing that I’m decrying (and I didn’t do it just to make a point—that really was my honest reaction, and I only caught myself after the fact).  It seems to me that, more and more over the past few decades, we approach disagreements about policies, economics, and other social concerns with an attitude appropriate to children calling each other names on a playground, or to rabid sports fans supporting their team against bitter rivals, as though that enmity were etched into the very bedrock of existence.

Yet, even among sports fans, and certainly among players, there is traditionally an underlying ethos of good sportsmanship.  Pettiness, vindictiveness, name-calling…these things are not admired among serious athletes, those who love their sport for its own sake.

But the level of “discussion” between those who disagree about political matters simply reeks of the same cognitive biases and distortions that play a role in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and which such techniques as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been designed to counteract.  I long for the application of CBT to our public discourse, especially about matters of deep import that have a serious impact on the lives of many people.  We fall prey to fallacies of absolutist, Us/Them, good/evil, all-or-nothing thinking, of mind-reading, of catastrophizing, and to blind and rabid tribalism in areas where we would do better to engage the highest regions of our brains to make sound judgements.

One of the most refreshing posts I’ve seen regarding the Kavanaugh hearings was by a local, central-Florida-based, “libertarian” politician, who said that while he had mixed feelings about the accusations being made about Kavanaugh regarding past sexual assault, this didn’t really matter—at least with respect to the confirmation hearing—because Kavanaugh’s stance on the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional issues regarding Presidential power and accountability were already bad enough to make him a poor choice for the Supreme Court.  In other words, he wanted to focus on matters of substance relating to the specific qualifications for the job for which Kavanaugh was being considered.

This is not to say that allegations of sexual assault aren’t serious matters—they certainly are.  The fact of these allegations and the varying character of the reactions to them are reminders and examples of important issues that trouble our society, and which require addressing.  It’s not unreasonable to decide that the character of a man who would sexually assault a woman—if he did—makes him unsuitable for one of the most crucial positions in our national government.  But it’s also not entirely unreasonable to be at least a little curious about the timing of the allegations, and to wonder whether that timing ought to have any bearing on whether we judge them to be true or not.  These matters can be soberly considered in evaluating the candidate.

But “sober” is not a word one would be inclined to use to describe the level of discussion on this very serious set of concerns.  Rather, we see a plethora of memes that focus on silly facial expressions of Kavanaugh, or of Lindsey Graham, or of Christine Blasey Ford, as though the transient set of one’s features as captured in single frames of video feeds has any bearing on whether a person is truthful or not, or whether they are of good character.  This is less convincing than phrenology, frankly, and should be beneath the dignity of those who judge these issues to be pivotal.

Important concerns have been and are being raised by this event, and they are worthy of discussion, consideration, and action.  It’s a serious issue to consider the various cultural forces that lead countless women—and men, as well—who have been victims of sexual assault to keep silent, rather than bring out accusations only to have them dismissed or taken lightly.  It’s likewise a real issue whether the timing of these particular accusations, by raising shades of political machination, weakens the gravitas of the “MeToo” movement and harms its broad acceptance.

It’s also of real worry that so many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a confirmation hearing and a criminal trial, and that there are different standards of evidence involved because the purpose of the occasions is very different.

And it is a very real concern just to what degree we wish to allow the potential undermining of checks on Executive power such as might be engendered by giving the lifetime Supreme Court appointment to someone who is soft on that issue.

To deal with any and all of these concerns is worthwhile, perhaps even absolutely necessary.  But we are not actually dealing with them.  Much of the discourse, even at the “highest” levels, about these matters, amounts to sheer rhetoric and attempted manipulation, of others and of ourselves.  Outrage is fun, or at least it’s exciting, and we seem to be growing addicted to it, at the expense of our ability to deal with important matters in a reasonable fashion.  In this, our discourse is reminiscent of our civil and criminal trials, which amount to jousting matches between hired champions, where the one most skilled at emotional chicanery, at engaging and making use of our many inherent cognitive biases, tends to win.

It shouldn’t be about “winning”.  It should be about the seeking of truth, the attempt to achieve the best possible outcome we can manage as a society.  One of the things I like most about the US Constitution is that it is, in character, a very scientific document.  It arranges a system of government as a starting point, but it ensures peer review in the form of the various checks and balances, and always leaves itself open, in principle and in practice, to the updating of its model, in the form of the amendment process.  I wish we could approach matters of national concern, that bear on the interpretation of that document—and frankly, all important matters—with calm heads worthy of the Constitution’s character.

The fact that someone disagrees with you on some particular point does not mean that they are evil, and the fact that they agree with you on some other emotionally salient issue does not automatically make them good.

The world is complex.  And while it’s true that humans are primates—so it’s not all that surprising that we fall into primate dominance display patterns rather easily, especially when our emotions become aroused—we should recognize that this is almost always a weakness when dealing with issues that couldn’t have been faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors over evolutionary time.  Complicated problems benefit most from careful, rational thought, and calm, reasonable discussion in which everyone recognizes their own fallibility and all are open—at least in principle—to having their minds changed.

We seem to have a societal mood disorder, some population-based depression/anxiety syndrome, that makes us prone to counter-productive thoughts and behaviors.  Given this, we should remind ourselves of some of the cognitive distortions typical of such disorders, such as:  all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; mental filtering; discounting the positives; jumping to conclusions; magnification and minimization; emotional reasoning; overusing “should” statements; labeling; and blame.

It would be nice if we could all be a bit more Stoic in our approach to public issues, especially ones of great import.  It’s precisely because serious concerns are so prone to make us emotional that we should defend ourselves against the distortions of our emotional reactions, and against descending to playground-level invective rather than engaging in serious conversation.  It’s when matters are most consequential that our passions are most likely to be aroused—but this is precisely the time when we should be most on our guard against succumbing to their every dictate.  Serious problems are rarely solved by name-calling and reactionary vilification.

We really need to do better.  We can do better, I have no doubt about that.  And the answer to the question of whether or not we will do better will have serious consequences.