Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Human bias: bug or feature?

It's time to come clean. I have a bias.

I'm not really proud of this fact, but it still intrudes into everyday life. And I've heard many times that the first part of getting over any kind of bias is admitting you have one. So, here it is:

I'm screamingly biased against people who drive late-model BMW, Mercedes and Lexus cars.

I don't know what it is, but whenever I'm out on the road and some doofus cuts me off in traffic, slaloms between lanes like it's the Auto Olympics, passes everyone at 30 miles over the posted limit in the slow lane, swerves in front of me only to romp on the brakes, and other random stupid human tricks, the offender is almost always driving a car from the Top Three Suspects List mentioned above. (As I have muttered to my honey more than once, "There's a reason why BMW stands for Break My Windshield.")

I have a pet theory why the operators of these particular makes of cars are so -- shall we say problematic? No, let's just call them total jerks -- and it's related to the cost of the cars. Specifically, mid-range luxury vehicles appeal to a certain kind of douchebag. There are plenty of bad drivers in junker cars, but there's a performance limit to the damage they can do. Likewise, the drivers of very fast, very high-end sports cars aren't likely to be foolhardy with precision machines that cost more than some people's houses. Which leaves the mid-range luxury cars -- just fancy and fast enough to be expensive, but not so pricey that they're beyond the reach of some entitled jackweed looking to show off to total strangers by driving slightly worse than a trained circus monkey.

"Rich kids toys" by Alan Farrow.
Public domain image as of 1 June 2020. Original image here.
Yes, OF COURSE I know people who drive BMWs, Mercedes and Lexuses (Lexi? hmm) who aren't total jerks. And yes, OF COURSE I have seen people driving execrably in other makes and models of cars. But they're the exceptions to the rule. Overwhelmingly, when I see a driver pull some jaw-droppingly stupid move on the freeway or a surface-street route, that driver is almost always behind the wheel of one of the Big Three Offenders.

Sorry if you drive one of these cars and my bias annoys you. But, y'know, if the shoe fits. Fight me.

* * *

All right, perhaps I write with tongue a little bit in cheek (but only a little bit). Still, I'm like a lot of other human beings; as a species, we're remarkably subject to biases. That might be because biased thinking -- that is, reasoning from very small data sets to determine our beliefs -- is hardwired into our brains. And while that causes all kinds of problems in a modern social context, historically speaking, bias might have been what kept our species alive.

Imagine Cave Dad, basking in the glow of a late evening fire pit, watching over his mate and small children. Suddenly, a wild saber-toothed cat appears! Cave Dad has never seen such a beast before, and he has little time to react when the animal seizes his smallest daughter and drags her away, never to be seen again. Cave Dad doesn't need to observe many saber-toothed cats, nor does he need to lose any other family members to predation, to develop a set of beliefs about these predators: that they are dangerous, that they will kill and eat humans, that they must be killed or driven away for the safety of the tribe. The ability to reason from small data sets gave early humans the evolutionary advantage of identifying and responding quickly to dangers in their environment, helping them avoid or destroy predators. In the context of simple survival, bias in human thinking was a feature.

Fast-forward to the modern era. There aren't many saber-toothed cats around these days, but bias can still be a useful tool in the modern world. (Raise your hands, technical support folk who have ever asked a customer, "Have you tried turning it off and back on again?" Works 90% of the time!) However, while bias may still have its uses, it functions far more often as a kind of mental computing bug -- a persistent, dysfunctional mental structure that keeps human beings from thinking as clearly or acting as compassionately as they might without the bias in place.

A common problem associated with human bias is a particular kind of failure of the imagination. It's not failure to imagine the future you hope for, nor even the future you fear. It's failure to get inside someone else's skin -- the inability or unwillingness to imagine the life experience of someone who is markedly different from you, the first step toward feeling empathy. Let's consider a handful of common examples:
  • why white people can't understand black people's widespread fear of the police (though, hey, this is starting to change)
  • why men don't understand women leaving social media because they're sick of death/rape threats, doxxing, online stalking, being repeatedly called a slut/whore/cunt by complete strangers, etc.
  • why left-wingers and right-wingers mutually distrust one another
  • why trans women and trans-exclusionary feminists mutually distrust one another
  • why people of faith and atheists mutually distrust one another
  • why American Christians who have never met a Muslim are convinced Muslims are intent on destroying America (this bias isn't just about misunderstanding unfamiliar religious beliefs; some American Christians harbor the same fear about their co-religionists from Latin American countries)
  • why city dwellers don't understand why country dwellers don't give up their cars/trucks and just take public transit (hint: there aren't any buses or light rail systems in Back of Beyond, Montana)
  • why country dwellers don't understand why city dwellers can't move out of their cramped, expensive apartments and crime-ridden neighborhoods and just move to a cheaper place (hint: most of those cheaper places don't have the kinds of jobs city dwellers have skill sets for)
  • why young gay men wince when older gay men use words like "tranny," "dyke" and "faggot," and why older gay men think young gay men have no right to police their language choices unless they too survive a horror like the AIDS crisis
  • why my uncle, bless his heart, reflexively hates "blacks, Mexicans and people from Ohio" (yes, this is a direct quote) even though he knows very few people from any of these groups
  • why some people want to "make America great again" without deeply considering what that phrase really means, what makes America great, how the people who popularized that phrase intend to make America different from the way it is now, and how varied implementation of this idea might change their country -- and its people -- for better or for worse
  • why some people will absolutely not wear face masks, even though doing so greatly reduces the spread of COVID-19, protecting the people most at risk of dying from it
  • why folks who say they would never have tolerated Nazi concentration camps or the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII stolidly look the other way as generations of Native Americans languish in poverty and squalor on reservations, and refugees from Mexico and Latin America are separated and caged under horrific conditions at our southern border. (And why are there no similar detention centers at our northern border? Could it be that most folks who cross the border illegally from that direction are white English speakers who can blend into American society without being detected? They're still here illegally, though, so if you say you don't want ANY "illegal aliens" flouting U.S. immigration laws, better get busy building that northern border wall and cobbling together detention cages in Wisconsin and North Dakota, eh? Just a thought.) 
What we're seeing right now in the USA is a massive failure of imagination leading to horrific, society-destroying consequences. People who are well-treated under the current system of policing often never give a second thought to those who habitually receive terrible, illegal and occasionally fatal treatment at the hands of the police. Peaceful individual protests provoke the wrath of politicians and the systemic blacklisting of employers. Widespread peaceful protests are disdainfully described as "riots" and often escalated to violence not by the protestors, but by the police. Too many people in charge -- including a mentally-myopic, impotent president furiously tweeting from a bunker -- are intent only on quelling what they see as an irrational internal rebellion, and not enough are asking themselves why the protests occurred in the first place, nor how they became so widespread, so quickly. They cannot see injustice because they themselves never experience it, and they cannot imagine a world beyond their biases; all they can see are "weak" governors, mayors and police chiefs, and "thugs" that need jailing.
While political scientist Raymond Wolfinger once famously said, "The plural of anecdote is data," he was also constantly searching for better data. It's useful to remember, then, that the more anecdotes you collect, the more accurate your data should become. If you let your brain go on autopilot after collecting a few meager anecdotes about a person or group -- or worse, you let someone else feed you such anecdotes secondhand -- you are allowing bias to program your thoughts. But it's also possible to reprogram your thought processes so that you recognize your own biases when they emerge. For instance, if you hear about a particular group of people in a crisis situation and immediately respond with some variation of the phrase "Why don't they just" -- put the brakes on your biases for a second and consider why it might not be possible for the members of that group to "just" do what you propose.

Otherwise, you might just be letting your biases drive you out of control.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Pandemic: The Bully

I was having a chat with my sister Julie earlier this evening and she made a comment that stuck in my head. I mentioned that I'd heard so many people nonchalantly claim COVID-19 is "just like the flu," and she responded, "Yeah, it's like the flu... if the flu were a young Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids." ("And with 'roid rage!" I added, and we laughed.)

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that vivid mental image of Ah-nold on steroids, with full-on 'roid rage, connects to a pretty solid analogy. So here it is.

COVID-19 operates a lot like an aggressive bully. (I know a little bit about bullies, as I was a target of their ire all through grade school). It's mean, it's relentless, and it's unpredictable. Most people are afraid of the bully, even if it leaves most people alone, because the bully has a way of elbowing through the crowd to pick on folks seemingly at random: the fat kid, the guy with the inhaler, the girl with diabetes, the skinny boy who has to sit out sports because he has a bad heart. Like all bullies, it preys on the weak -- and it pummels them. Sometimes it's a single harsh blow, but sometimes the bully's targets are beaten so badly they have to recuperate in the hospital. Some receive permanent scars from the damage. And some die.

Bullies can only get away with the things they do because nobody knows who they might pick on to hurt next. The unpredictability of the bully's attacks puts people on edge, makes them nervous. They might want to help those who are targeted by bullies, but what can they do?

This is what they can do. Everyone can band together to form a physical line of defense against the bully. Maybe they can't defeat the bully this way, but they can protect the kinds of people the bully likes to hurt or kill. In the meantime, they can formulate a plan to beat up the bully so thoroughly that it can't hurt people again.

Mask up.
COVID-19 homemade face mask. Image by Olgierd Rudak.
cc-by-2.0 license as of 1 June 2020. Original image here.

This is exactly why wearing a mask in public places is so critical right now. It doesn't necessarily protect you against the bully that is COVID-19, and it's certainly not a fun activity, but it keeps the coronavirus from elbowing through crowds to pick on others. When enough people do it, the bully can't operate -- it can't spread to cause more harm. Wearing a mask is a way of saying, "We can't stop COVID-19 right now, but we can protect vulnerable people from it until we find a way to kick its butt -- through a vaccine or other treatment that stops it cold."

And what of those people who boldly declare that they'll never, ever wear a face mask?

Well, have you ever noticed that real-life bullies have their -- what shall we call them? Retinues? Entourages? Hangers-on? Toadies? -- anyway, the sniveling little jerks who laugh at whatever the bully says, who cheer on whatever the bully does, because by allying themselves with the bully they hope not to be among its victims? I think of people who don't wear masks in just that way. By focusing on their own needs first and always, by refusing to do any little thing that in the least inconveniences them, by failing to protect the weak and vulnerable among us, they have chosen to ally themselves with the bully. They help spread the scourge. They are COVID-19's toadies.

And having seen what COVID-19 can do, I frankly wouldn't give them the time of day.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Pandemic: Robbed

20 years ago this week, Captain Midnight and I got invited to a goofy party at Rob and Marie Cummings' house in Bellevue. Rob was turning 37, so he decided to host a Monty Python-themed "Old Woman" party (watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail a few times and you'll get it) and he asked all partygoers to come dressed as their favorite characters from any Python sketch. If I remember correctly, I dressed up as the deranged chef from the Dirty Fork Sketch, and CM went as the random street flasher (with a large sign reading "BOO!" under his trenchcoat). It was just as silly and fun as you might imagine; I think everyone had a great time.

So today is Rob's 57th birthday.

He isn't here to celebrate it, though. He died last month of congestive heart failure.

As his widow, Marie, expressed it, "While he did not die directly of COVID-19, he delayed seeking medical help because of his fear of contracting it."

We didn't get to see him one last time. We didn't get to thank him for his friendship or say goodbye.

We weren't even able to attend his funeral service.

Let me put this in terms Rob might appreciate: if the coronavirus were Mr. Creosote, I'd give it a wafer-thin mint and calmly watch it explode. It needs to die, and it needs to die now.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Rethinking Titanic

[I first wrote this in... hmm, maybe 2002? earlier? I dunno. It's been sitting in limbo on my computer for some time, but I've decided to give it a place to live on the blog. Because reasons.]

NOTE TO TITANIC FANS: You may not want to read this. It's not pretty.

When first released in 1997, Titanic broke all kinds of box-office records. This love story between two people of different social classes, set aboard the world's most famous doomed luxury liner, seemed to resonate with audiences all over the world. Moviegoers watched the three-hour film multiple times in first-run theatres (some of them quoting lines right in sync with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio), teenage girls designed their prom dresses after post-Edwardian fashions, college students were compelled to change their majors. Most of Western society was seduced by Titanic; nobody seemed surprised when it swept the Oscars in 1998.

And I have to admit that, at least for a while, I was seduced right along with them. The movie does have its problems -- it's big to the point of being overblown, riddled with tired love-story clichés, and there's one hour of '70s disaster movie plopped right in the middle of the romance. And yet, somehow, the whole appears greater than the sum of its parts. While you watch it, the film works. Your understanding of reality is temporarily placed on the back burner while you are immersed in James Cameron's vision of 1914.

All this, despite the utter odiousness of Rose DeWitt Bukater.

The ship of Theory ramming the iceberg of Fact

It's true. When you step out of the narrative spell and really think about it for a minute, Rose is one of the most selfish characters ever articulated in cinema. We are clearly meant to identify with Rose and sympathize with her situation -- trapped in a rigid upper-class society, she yearns to be free but seems unable to break the chains of her social strictures. Yet Rose begins as a wholly self-centered creature, and remains so throughout the film. As my sister likes to say, "it's all about her."

From her earliest recalled memories as a 17-year-old girl, Rose is spoiled, self-involved and bitingly sarcastic to all around her. Brooding on her impending loveless marriage to Cal, a wealthy cad (and trust me, they would so deserve each other), she feigns boredom when first faced with the size and grandeur of the Titanic. All she can see is a prison ship, leading her away in the chains of unhappy wedlock. Rose has nary a good word for anyone, tartly smarting off to her mother, her fiancé, and the other wealthy passengers in first class. As we soon discover, Rose has been urged into this marriage by her mother, a widow trying to conceal her penury, who is saddled with her late husband's remarkable debts (Rose's selfish gene seems to have been passed down by both parents). Yet far from owing any real sense of duty to her mother, Rose soon decides to commit suicide rather than marry her odious fiancé. She is only pulled from the brink by Jack, who actually does have a strong sense of duty -- willing to save a total stranger from the icy water, even if it means risking his own life.

Once Rose falls for Jack, she flouts her mother and societal expectations to do just as she chooses with him. She even has him sketch her in the nude -- outrageously, while still wearing her fiancé's engagement gift around her neck. Then she further slaps courtesy and decorum in the face by taking Jack's sketch and presenting it to her fiancé as a gift. As the ship sinks, Rose makes the conscious choice to walk away from her family and friends forever in order to go with Jack. Yet Rose's selfishness extends even further, allowing her to discard the man she ostensibly loves in order to survive. When they find a piece of ship buoyant enough to hold one or the other of them, but not both, Rose does not behave as you would expect a woman in love to do -- wouldn't she have preferred to take her chances in the icy water, rather than watch her lover freeze to death beside her? Yet this latter is precisely what she chooses, and her lover excuses away her self-serving behavior even as he perishes. Rose's utter lack of principles is neatly summarized in her final scene with Jack. Only an instant after she promises, "I'll never let go, Jack," she in fact does let go, so Jack's frozen corpse can sink slowly and prettily into the depths of the Atlantic.

After her rescue, Rose continues to walk her chosen path of pure self-involvement. She never again attempts to contact her penniless mother, preferring to let her believe "Rose DeWitt Bukater" perished aboard the ship, and leaving Mom to her own devices. Rose marries a man without ever revealing to him her past life, and (as intimated in a sweeping series of black-and-white photos) continues to do exactly as she chooses for years. At the end of her life, when the salvage crew brings her back to Titanic, she gets to spill the beans about the whole event without betraying even a glimmer of guilt about her choices. Finally, the coup de grace -- rather than bequeathing the priceless Coeur de la Mer to her granddaughter, or giving it to Brock, the man who's spent years of his life and millions of dollars searching for it, she carelessly tosses the necklace into the ocean. She even gets to die warm in her bed, just as her sacrificed lover predicted she would.

Yep, it's all about her. And, human nature being what it is, chances are good that you were rooting for the selfish brat all through the narrative. Perhaps that is really what makes Titanic so remarkable as a film -- it features a thoroughly unlovable character who makes you care about her anyway.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Grammar Pedant: jealousy vs. envy

(Ye Olde Plague of 2020 is still going on, but I'm tired of writing about it -- especially since hearing an envoy from the WHO say that COVID-19 is likely to be a "constant threat" until such time as a vaccine is found, which is not likely to happen within a year. So to avoid gorily detailed thoughts of wrist slitting in the face of interminable social distancing measures, let's turn to lighter fare, shall we?)

REETINGS, PEDANTS. Let's talk for a minute about the important differences between two words that are often, but incorrectly, used as synonyms:


What do these two words really mean? How are they similar, and how are they different?

Well, first of all, both words have to do with an imbalance, real or perceived, in states of being between two or more people. Because of this, both words are sometimes (wrongly) used as synonymous with the rare-outside-Bible-study word "covetousness" (or the even older Latin word "cupidity"). Both these words indicate a strong desire for something, to the point of doing terrible things to achieve or possess it (which is probably why one of the Ten Commandments specifies covetousness as a thou-shalt-not activity). And both words have to do with enmity -- the act of declaring someone your enemy, or feeling a bitter hatred directed at another person or group.

But there are some subtle yet important differences between the two words. Jealousy (a word which began its life describing a kind of sexual possessiveness and the associated distrust that often comes with it) is fear that one will lose a treasured thing in one's possession -- youth, beauty, popularity, wealth, love. For instance, the wicked Queen in Snow White is jealous of the young princess's innocent beauty, fearing that she will soon lose the title of "fairest in the land." Envy, on the other hand, means hatred or malice toward another -- specifically because that other has something we intensely desire. You could say (and I will, because this is my blog) that some people look at "the 1%," the wealthiest people in the world, with a sharp sense of envy -- either they want the money and power that this group enjoys, or they simply want to destroy that money and power so no one has it.

While the two words are similar, there are also overtones of polar opposition in their definitions; one could say that jealousy is a feeling inspired by fear (of loss), while envy is a feeling inspired by desire (to possess or destroy).

Put simply: if someone else has something and you want it, you're envious. If you have something and you don't want anyone to take it away, you're jealous.

So the next time you're tempted to call someone jealous when that person is really envious, take a minute to reconsider your word choice. Words mean things!

That's all for now, and remember: the English language is a terrible thing to waste.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Pandemic: ephemera

OME minor odd things I've noticed regarding pandemic conditions, which may or may not be forgotten by history unless someone (say, me) writes them down:
  • Decluttering is tough right now. There's plenty of time to do it, but thanks to widespread states of depression or dysthymia there may not be much internal motivation to do it. And then there's the problem of disposing of all those unwanted but still-useful items. Due to fears of COVID-19 contamination, Goodwill and other secondhand stores aren't accepting donations right now. Unless you want to break out the bazillion Amazon boxes in the garage and start trying to sell items one by one on eBay, you're kinda hosed.
  • So. Much. Flour. With lots of free time on their hands and a strong yen for comfort food, many Americans have rediscovered baking -- which means that flour, yeast and other ingredients for baked goods have vanished from stores almost as quickly as face masks and toilet paper. (Fortunately for me, the chocolate supply is still holding up!) I'm no stranger to this activity; a few weeks ago I picked up some instant yeast online, and since then this household has feasted on homemade bread, cookies, calzones made from homemade pizza dough, and Swedish apple cake. (You know I can cook.)
  • I get tired of cooking all the time, and sometimes other family members spell me off, but every now and then nobody wants to take the responsibility and everyone's hungry. That's when we yell TO THE TACO TRUCK! and light out for Westside Park. Someone in our neighborhood cut a deal with several area food trucks, so nearly every weekday around lunchtime there's a truck parked at Westside, slingin' hash and takin' names. We've seen some familiar faces from the neighborhood while waiting in line for lunch (maintaining good social distance, of course).
  • I've noticed you can now tell where other grocery shoppers are getting their news. Most people around here wear masks. Above the face coverings, their eyes are concerned, resolute, occasionally friendly. They keep a respectful 6 feet of distance from other shoppers and apologize when they get too close. Conservative media fans, on the other hand, tend not to wear masks in public (though this will change in the coming week, as King County is making it a requirement). Their expressions range from confusion to frank disdain of their fellow shoppers with masks. They don't maintain reasonable social distance, they never apologize for coming too close, and they tend to get angry when people ask them to move away.
  • Last week I had a run-in with one of these clowns, an older man with no mask, at the grocery store. I was boxed into the produce section (another shopper was blocking the exit behind me) and I couldn't get past him safely, so I waited for him to back away and let me out. But Grampa Boomer wanted something next to me and wasn't willing to wait for it, so he got really close and started passive-aggressively coughing in my direction. I had to push past him to get away (with a single-word opinion on the status of his parentage, I'll admit), but if I had a do-over I would've gotten a closeup photo of his face. DUDE. Deliberately coughing at someone else during a pandemic is a form of assault. You are old and have lived your life, and if you want to play tiddlywinks with COVID-19 that's your call, but I have a family to take care of. How dare you put me and them in danger because you want your broccoli 5 seconds faster?
  • In the same vein, I'm continually amazed at the people who are out protesting life-saving quarantine measures for reasons I can only describe as frivolous. I'm not talking about protests due to concerns most people would recognize as valid (resuming needed medical treatments, financial assistance to get through lockdown, fear of increased domestic abuse, etc.). I'm talking about people losing it because they "need" a haircut, a manicure, a massage; they are demanding the return of summer camp and the reopening of Disney properties not because it's safe, but because they're already sick of their kids. *sigh* ... really? I know, I know, these conditions have never before happened in your lifetime. They've never happened in mine either, and I can think of hundreds of things from "normal life" that I'm missing right now and would dearly love to have back, but not at the expense of other people's lives. I don't think Patrick Henry would've been on board with milling around in front of the capitol building, yelling GIVE ME PEDICURES OR GIVE ME DEATH through a bullhorn.
  • Quarantine has been fantastic for Charlie-cat. I honestly think he's going to have some kind of feline nervous breakdown the first time all three of us humans leave the house at once. He's adored all the extra company, attention, toys and treats he's been getting for the last two months. (As I typed this, he hopped onto the computer desk, curled up next to me, leaned his head on my left arm and is now purring contentedly. D'aww, fuzzy beast.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Pandemic: on El Papagallo, hot sauce, Clorox and Lysol

When I was still in grade school, we had a fairly popular Mexican restaurant in town called El Papagallo, and one night it burned to the ground. Here's the gist of a conversation I remember having with my mother right around the time it happened:

Me: One of my friends at school said there was a big pot of hot sauce on the back of their stove and it got too hot and burned down the restaurant.
Mom: I don't think so, honey. I read in the newspaper that it was a grease fire.
Me: No, it was too-hot hot sauce!
Mom: I'm pretty sure the newspaper people talked to the owner of the restaurant.
Me: That doesn't make any sense. It had to be the hot sauce!

After several rounds of this my mother just sighed, said, "OK, honey," and allowed my grade-school brain to believe whatever it wanted to believe. And because she'd quit arguing, I was convinced I was right, because after all, my friend had said so and it made the most sense. What did adults know?

That same sense of rock-solid, absolutely misplaced self-confidence was on display during the President's press conference today, when he forwarded the ideas -- which he clearly felt were intelligent, well-founded and in no way insane -- that people should try to kill off a coronavirus infection by introducing bright lights into the body, and clean their lungs by injecting disinfectant. He has exactly the mindset of a stubborn grade-schooler who is convinced of his own brilliance and rightness, and no journalist, no epidemiologist, no scientist is going to tell him otherwise. It amazes me that he's gotten to this stage in life without ever getting clocked in the head by reality, but it seems money really can shield people from the consequences of their own stupidity.

Crowing rooster

The thing is, no one hung on my every word in grade school. Nobody decided Mexican restaurants were dangerous or started grassroots campaigns to shut them all down because of my personal, absolute belief that a batch of hot sauce had destroyed El Papagallo. My infantile beliefs weren't important to anyone but me, and my mother knew it, which is why she simply stopped arguing with me. But millions of Americans actually listen to, and believe in, this stubborn, unhinged moron's random rantings of the day. Somebody's going to go out and try gargling Clorox tomorrow because Trump was so convinced his homegrown hunches about COVID-19 were better than the lifetime studies of brilliant scientists working to find a cure. Somebody's going to start touting tanning beds as the cure for coronavirus. And somebody's going to die painfully because she injected herself with Lysol.

The only thing scarier than COVID-19 is realizing that the President of the United States is mentally unhinged, yet still convinced of his own competence... and that a sizable number of Americans are willing to follow anywhere he leads, even right off the precipice.