Choose Your Social Media Adventure

ChoicesWhen I was growing up, their were paperbacks where you chose your own adventure. You’d read a few paragraphs and the author would have you make a choice or roll dice to decide which part you would read next. As someone who grew up with much time to myself, I found myself ‘playing’ quite a few of these books and experimenting with things so that I could see the narrative twist.

Games at the time of this writing have become quite good at it.

It’s also what we do with social media. We make choices, decisions, whether consciously or not.

I play with it in what I once termed ‘Deep Writing’, but which I’ll now call ‘Deep Narrative Writing‘ because I think it suits it better and is less confusing than the tag for writing about deep learning (which some nutty people decided needed a tag other than ‘deep learning’).

The Conscious Choices

Everyone limits social media to a degree. It’s impossible to read everything, to consider every perspective, so we progress through our real world adventure by making choices. Some people are idiots, some are annoying, some are people we cannot stand for our own reasons, so we remove them from our networks.

Everyone also feeds their own confirmation bias to a degree as well – we pay attention to some people more than others, and this too is natural because to do anything, we have to decide quickly on how to progress.

The trouble is, invariably, what we ‘like’ is not what we ‘need’. Yet we do choose these (mis)adventures, and hopefully we learn things of value and also things that have no value if we have well developed critical thinking skills and a strong sense of self – a sense of self strong enough to have one’s own opinion that may not allow one to march in stride with the people whose arms are locked and marching down the information superhighway demanding, protesting, or believing what is best described as ‘nutty’.

I’m fairly certain everyone agrees so far on everything written – internalized, it should make some sort of sense. And yet everyone’s experience is different, and invariably, tribes form of like minds who… march down the information superhighway, demanding, protesting, and possibly believing something best described as ‘nutty’.

Somewhere in the not so distant past, whether something was nutty or not was decided by whether it was popular or not, which, if one pauses for just long enough to consider, is something best described as nutty.

Then we take sides and call each other nutty. Examples? Religions and politics are brilliant examples because every side believes that they are right.

Well, of course they are right. It would be unpopular to think otherwise, and therefore, people might describe that as ‘nutty’.

“You’re obviously right in what you think and believe as long as you agree with… me. Us.”, says everyone’s subconscious – the very definition of confirmation bias.

The Unconscious Choices

There’s an argument to be made that some of the conscious choices are for most people unconscious choices. By accident of the who, what, where and when of your birth, you may have grown up with a specific religion, grew up with a set of beliefs that shaped your politics, etc. This gets into the nature versus nurture debate to an extent if you drill down, but in the end it doesn’t matter. We all have similar biases.

That’s not what I’m writing about when I write of  the unconscious choice. I’m writing about the algorithms that shape what you see on the Internet, through social networks, search engines, and what you – simply put – simply like.

Search engines use algorithms to find what you’re looking for, and the key to them – the good search engines anyway – is knowing what you’re looking for. An example of this was while I was searching for television mounts in Trinidad and Tobago.

I wanted something that could hold a monitor 4 feet away from me. The trouble is most desks, including my desk which I do like, are 24 inches or less, which has the monitor too close for my liking with the bigger screen. I considered a wall mount, but I’m not a big fan of drilling into a wall when I may reorganize the space at any time. Shelving might be a good idea, but again – drilling. So, having never even seen a floor mounted television stand, I searched the internet for just that – not a stand with shelves, just a plain old floor mount stand that I could move wherever I wished and adjust as needed (something else to worry about with more permanent solutions)… and there it was on Amazon.com.

I didn’t originally know the right question to ask because I had to work through it. This is the failure of people who depend on only what they know asking only what they know about.

Then there are the algorithms across the internet which, because nothing is actually ‘free’ on the Internet, drives advertising revenues for websites (including social networks). So they record some information about you in the infamous cookies that no one has tasted, and they show you advertising based on what you view, as well as what other things on their collection of websites that you might enjoy. The downside of this is that it robs you of new experiences unless you try really hard – consciously – to explore. It’s gotten more difficult.

The social networks, though you have conscious choices of who or what you connect with, do not show you the choices. Facebook newsfeeds, as an example, would simply be unmanageable if you tried to keep up with everyone. So they, being ad-revenue based, guide you based on what you like, what you read, and you end up unconsciously in a cave of your own confirmation bias.

Cave? Yes, eventually, you find yourself walled in within something that Plato himself described in the Allegory of the Cave when the world was significantly simpler. In the age of social media, Cavafy’s “Walls” gains new meaning:

Walls, Constantine P. Cavafy

Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.

And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the walls.

But I never heard any noise or sound of builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world.

But What Can I Do?

Simply put, be aware of it and be critical of your own media. Where you find walls, you also have the capacity to insert windows and doors in that cavern the world has built for you.

Should you step outside, you may find the world an interesting place.

Within The Chrysalis

Vancouver Public Library - Central BranchMany of us are practicing social distancing at this time. We get updates from those in authority once or twice a day, and the rest of the information is largely derivative of that – from actual analysis, which is rare, to rampant speculation. We sit, surrounded by the walls of a home many of us have not had the opportunity to become intimate with. Our mini-vacations at home have become a long stay.

We tour our prisons from the inside, these systems that are not working as we expected as nations, these walls that are uncomfortably close for many as individuals.

In our solitude, or being stuck with the people we only were for a fraction of the day, some of us try to escape into the speculation and analysis rather than face what’s at home. It scares us at such a subconscious level that we don’t even know we’re doing it. We fill our time with things that aren’t necessarily good for us.

We think little of who we want to be, or who we should be.

Covid-19_zones_of_humanity

There are others with more pressing problems, like the poor in India who are walking home. In the attempts of states to quell the virus, borders have become locked down. People staying inside takes away from the lower rungs of the economy, the people you see on the street.

A few days ago I watched as someone tried to clean the windshield of a Range Rover at a light despite the lady driver not wanting it. He had her pegged, thinking that if he started she would feel obligated to give him something, but what he failed to realize is that the virus is larger than that feeling of obligation she may have had. He’s hustling to make a living, she’s hustling to get home virus-free.
Heavy Duty Silver Duct Tape - 5 Roll Multi Pack Industrial Lot – 30 Yards x 2 inch Wide – Large Bulk Value Pack of Grey Original Extra Strength, No Residue, All Weather. Tear by HandWe have people who, unprotected socioeconomically, are at greatest risk for contracting Covid-19. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Chief of Police rattled his saber when on the first of the month people were not practicing social distancing at banks and groceries, even threatening to close them down – but the systems in Trinidad and Tobago lag, pensioners need to cash cheques because the electronic system fails them. Sure, maybe it’s available, but that they don’t use it is a failure – a design problem. No one seems to think that the businesses bear responsibility here. Of course they do. At the cost of a roll of duct tape, they could have social distancing easily visible.

Some businesses do this. In an odd way, the lines of tape meant to separate us are the very thing that will allow us to re-connect beyond this virus.

TriageWe are shocked at triage throughout the world, where the limits of resources are stretched beyond capacity. Doctors in some places have made choices, in other places they will have to make choices. In the U.S., the silent triage of health insurance that has been happening has had a virus demonstrate the flaws in the system, particularly when the measures to slow the virus have taken jobs away.

Many are alone, unpaid in a global economy that requires it’s pound of flesh to simply stay alive. There will be more.

Those of us who are at home read all of this, staring at statistics that are implicitly flawed for a variety of reasons, as if staring at the clock will allow the pot to boil faster. The majority of us will get this virus, and how our body reacts will determine which stack of numbers we belong to – and the vast majority of us will be in the stack that will be mourning the loss of loved ones and friends afterwards. That’s the reality and, as realities go, it’s not very different from normal life except for one thing:

Why.

So to give them their best chance, to give ourselves our best chance, we stay within our chrysalis as individuals, as states, and eventually may realize the wringing of hands has no positive effect – in fact, it can simply spread anxiety – and we watch, for it is important for us to witness this and see how we need to change things – and we wait.

Drift

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
-Haruki Murakami

 

Eventually we will make our way out of our chrysalis as individuals and as states, and after that as a species.

Calm Down.

Throughout my social networks, well intentioned armchair epidemiologists pounce on every tidbit they find related to Covid-19, depositing them in my newsfeed with the same level of pride a cat must feel when it drops a ravaged mouse for it’s owner. Some are recycled, some are not, and if it’s coming out of some countries, the media is so busy with the spin machine that they don’t seem to know at some point laundry needs to get into the dryer to be of use.

It’s tiring.

The truth is – whether accepted or not – is that we have experts at the World Health Organization and through governmental health agencies all over the world on this and they are doing all they can.

Another truth: We have doctors and nurses and other medically trained staff, even putting their own lives on the line as the work without appropriate protective gear. At great personal expense and risk, they are the front lines doing what they can in the face of a pandemic.

Another truth: They’re learning as they go. An update today may not be legitimate tomorrow, what may be true in China may not be true in Italy, may not be true in the U.S. All the experts are learning as they go.

Another truth: A vaccine has to go through trials, which is about a year. So we’re in this now, no vaccine will come out tomorrow. Or today. You can stop looking for updates on that. If a vaccine shows up, it will be experimental, and that comes with risks.

Another truth: Media and social media are rampant with all sorts of things, but unless it comes directly from a legitimate source, such as the World Health Organization, consider it speculation.

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain

 

Do what the local authorities tell you to. Wash your hands. Don’t go around sticking things in your mouth. And wait.

Wait for the truths. Otherwise you’re just raising your anxiety and the anxiety of those around you.

Things To Do Online

Boredom definitionAs people get used to this ‘normal’ of being home, and as they run out of things to do and are tired of all the noise related to the pandemic (as opposed to the useful information from WHO and local health authorities)… well, there are things to do. Had this happened before the Internet… well… but it has happened after the Internet, so there’s so much more to do.

It’s amazingly easy to find things to do once you take a break from the social networks. They don’t enrich you. Only you enrich you.

I’ve broken it up into exploration and education… to me these things are not mutually exclusive, but to others…

Explore (Fun)

Maybe you don’t feel like exploring space with NASA and want something more grounded.

Try 500 online museums from around the world, courtesy Google, a stunning display of our world digitized.

You can go further and use Google’s Streetview to see other distant places on the planet, captured by Google’s nosy cameras.

Reading? Try the Gutenburg Project, where you can find all sorts of books that are legally free and yes, are available in e-reader formats.

I’ve been joking about people staring into their kitchens and not knowing what to do with them – which presents the opportunity for exploring recipes. Hit a search engine and see what you can find to cook.

Being a bit of a nerd myself, I sometimes explore Wikipedia and read up on random things as well. I’m that person that uses the ‘random page’ functionality.

Online Courses

Imagine 1,500 online courses you can take at no cost. You don’t need to. OpenCulture.com lists 1,500 online courses. Some come with completion certificates.

If you want to be more direct about it, here’s online courses by a few major institutions:

Networks such as LinkedIn and others have more professional certificates available as well, but those are (of course) at a cost.

 

The Hedgehog’s Hot Summer.

hedge-hog-fight-768Many of we humans that litter the planet aren’t used to this concept of ‘social distancing’. It will be tough for many; for people like me it is amazingly easy as we have been doing it for some time, for varying individual reasons.

You know us. Barely.

At best, you know us as well as we want you to know us, at worst, you don’t know us well enough to allow us to associate with you. And now, here you are, at home, working from home… if you have others at home, the rest of this may not benefit you. Or maybe it will. I don’t know.

There’s this guy – Arthur Schopenhauer – he died in 1860, long before I could meet him. He wrote about the Hedgehog Dilemma:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another…

…By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

What has happened around the world is, because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the quills have become longer. They have become longer much more quickly. People are scared, and when people are scared in a time when pitchforks and torches aren’t easily accessible, they apparently buy toilet paper and produce and share memes, and it’s hard to argue which of the two is more pragmatic. It’s always handy to have toilet paper, and it’s always good to laugh a bit when things aren’t as nice as we would like.

I could write something about mediation here, but this sentence should suffice for people who understand what mediation means.

That being said, as people adjust to the new normal, those who live by themselves will find themselves alone. For some, this is disconcerting.algorithmsfear

Being faced with the prospect of not having the usual suspects as distractions, new distractions will arrive. Algorithms tell social media that people want to read more and more about Covid-19, and the reality is that we do largely know what we need to know already and the constant barrage of updates will become tiresome – but the algorithms have to be taught that.

Algorithms cannot replace fear, but they most certainly enable it.

Step 1 to your new solitude is to understand that, and limit exposing yourself and the others connected to you to a bunch of stuff that will simply burn everyone out. Less social media.

But what will you do? Ahh, it is a scary world, solitude, but it is ripe for use with books, with in home projects you never quite seem to get around to – and with sleep, with music, with movies… and yourself, perhaps the scariest thing in the world for most people. No matter where you go, though, there you are, and you can do things like reflect. Exercise. Think. Perhaps write, perhaps whatever, but the void you might feel can be bearable.

We know. We not only survive, we thrive this way – but it’s alien and scary for others. Yet, over the course of the coming year, at least for some months, it will be the new norm. And it can be ok if you let it.

Twisted

2010-04 Winnersh Dinton Pastures 027Systems upon conception start off trying to solve one problem. Slowly they grow, being twisted with as the solution to the problem is better understood… and as more problems are added.

We don’t get to see it every day; we only get to see the effects. Software projects probably contain the most dependable examples of this; where the time of twisted trees is counted in decades and even centuries, software projects twist brutally fast.

Those who have worked on them in often only get to see one part of the life cycle. Everyone wants to watch the project germinate, but eventually they become unwieldy trees unless they are kept in check, constantly.

It’s an odd metaphor for society, until you realize how much of society is now built on software, and until you realize everything we do with software is simply the culmination and implementation of all we have done before, all the successes we had seen, all the failures we have not, or refused to, or have chosen to ignore.

As we’re all seeing now… the world is quite different when something disruptive comes along…

One of the marks of maturity is the need for solitude: a city should not merely draw men together in many varied activities, but should permit each person to find, near at hand, moments of seclusion and peace.
– Lewis Mumford, “Planning for the Phases of Life”, The Urban Prospect: Essays (1968)

Undiseased.

flew-trunk

I’m flying through social media trying to avoid the pandemic as if it were the plague and it seems impossible to do so. It’s a bit frustrating to take a break from the book I’m working on to surface and be drowned in a sea of posts about the same things, invariably a matter of individuals being dependent on systems that they largely don’t control and at the mercy of the hygiene of the next person.

If only we could blame rats.

Being isolated is nothing new for me; it’s a lifestyle choice, a means of getting things done. Right now, though, there are parents at home with their children and parents and children alike suffer one another. Couples who may be used to seeing each other for a limited number of hours a day now find themselves staring at each other.

People are scared, and because people are scared they begin acting as tour-guides and narrators to the strange garden our lives have become.

strange-garden
Enough already.

So, when I’m not working on other things, this site – which admittedly has been dormant for some time – is where I won’t be writing about all of that, simply because the world most certainly doesn’t need more people jabbering away about Covid-19.

I’m not sure what I’ll write about. Feel free to comment and toss topics at me.

The Negotiation

MeaningAs a child, my mother would tell me to clean my room, something I often felt was a punishment or a way to get me out of her hair which was at least partly right given what I have learned as an adult. And so I would go and do things, largely unproductive, and then say I had cleaned my room.

She never thought I had. And after a while she seemed to realize she and I had very different ideas of what a clean room was and told me that before I told her that the room was clean I should stand at the doorway, pretend I was her, and see if the room was clean. This was a great idea, but poorly implemented in retrospect, as she never quite told me what she was looking for in a clean room. Suffice to say my room was never clean in her eyes, and in mine it was almost always clean.

Everyone has some sort of story like that, where in communicating we might say the same words with very different meanings, and this negotiation is something we end up doing every day.

Yesterday, someone wrote that gravity was ‘the way that objects were attracted to each other’, which doesn’t stand as much rigor as he was trying to demonstrate. There are other reasons that objects are attracted to each other, such as ionic and covalent bonding, and gravity by itself isn’t an answer as much as a question. Sure, scientists have learned a lot about gravity, but the notion of gravity itself as we accept it and how scientists deal with it is different. Gravity is an explanation, and more accurately, it’s an evolving explanation, as everything is.

Meaning changes. Meaning is constantly being negotiated between people, between peoples, and even within ourselves. At some point, we as individuals decide when we’ll just call something by a name, and collectively, society does the same based on how popularly lazy we are about it – after all, if we got muddled down in being pedantic about everything, nothing would get done – but underneath it all, we have to understand, everything is being negotiated.

Everything.

And everything we agree upon will eventually change.

Everything.

Seas of Humanity

_JMB6699LoIf I had been born a few hundred years ago, I would likely have been on a ship staring out into the horizon, my body rolling to the waves, heading to places not on known maps if only to get away from all that traps us.

Some people are comfortable in what society dictated before we were born, where it is all well defined by those who came before, a world which worked for those that defined it and their descendants. So much of our world works that way, and as humanity grows older the clay of systems becomes brick, hardened, inflexible, immobile.

A child born today will find in adulthood that they pay taxes that were agreed upon by others long ago, that they may worship in a religion that while they may be faithful is an accident of geography, that they have more or less opportunity due to a socioeconomic status that they had nothing to do with. Even our bodies conspire against us in this way, subject to genetics that some deny even as they breed animals. Few, if any, break out of these shells, and as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to break out of them.

In fact, simply traveling without permission from authorities we didn’t create across borders we didn’t draw to see things in other places is illegal, something I myself was born into, but which I have watched become more and more harsh. The nomadic roots of our human past find themselves in shrinking containers and, when the container cracks under the pressure, someone dutifully comes along and mends the cracks with gold to make the container that much more attractive to those outside, but less bearable for those within.

We live lives where we dig coal, and for those few of us fortunate, we dig coal in ways that we enjoy, and at points when we look up from our task and dare to look to the horizon, someone or something cracks the whip to keep our noses down. And so we go, nose to the coal grindstone of ‘life’, in the hope that the light at the end of the tunnel will draw nearer as someone long ago promised.

A lifetime of slaving at something or the other, or many things, to be rewarded later when we are old. The 50 year old in the convertible corvette, what’s left of his hair blowing in the wind, the tired and empty joke of decades ago.

Nature reclaimsI’ve been left in this life rediscovering elder things, repurposing that which came before, exploring the abandoned as if it were new only because it was new to me, sharing it with others who found it new for themselves. Photographing things, writing about things, and watching parts of a past we romanticize only because it is abandoned, maybe because inside we feel abandoned by the gilded cages we live in – some more gilded than others.

I do not know. I do feel.

There is little rationality we find in such feelings in systems that tell us even how to feel – if we’re a bit too different, if you rebel just a bit too much against the system, we are either criminal or someone with some form of mental or emotional disorder, rarely both, and based on… things we find we are unable to control a few steps beyond the facade.

Any port in a stormWith all of this mind, I close my eyes at time and escape into the view of a bay with my gear packed, thinking of a world where I can sail away from what is established and able to push into the unknown, where the laws of nature outweigh the rules of the land, where it is unsafe and where one’s worth is gauged not by artificial structures but instead whether or not you are a good person in a storm.

And I open my eyes and find myself sailing through the artificial structures of society, dancing on the waves of what people have been taught to think and believe and how to think and believe, and realize I am sailing across the most dangerous waters we could create on maps that shift even as we cross latitudes and longitudes, having lost members of the steadfast crew as we moved to the horizon of humanity, and I find some comfort in that.

The Cheese

who moved my cheese?I was reading an article where a local student took the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Education to task about moving his cheese (and in finding the image to the right, I found perhaps another interesting book to read).

I’ve been reading David Epstein’s Range, a book I’m being particularly careful about because of my own biases. I am, after all, a neogeneralist, so I have been getting a lot of confirmation bias throughout the book which requires me to work that much harder to consider it objectively. So far, it has not disappointed.

With that book on my mind, and my own alma mater being the school that the student was in, I considered. For example, during my years at Presentation College, I hardly planned my future according to what I could get a scholarship for. Thus my first read of the article was one of, “what’s wrong with this person and why do they seek specialization based on scholarships?”. After some thought, the foundations already laid by Epstein’s book, I considered how much I detested those specializations… for example, why couldn’t I do Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science and English Literature at the same time? I was shoved into a rut. And this person is only guilty of embracing the rut.

It also struck me that this demonstrated the education system lagging society. When I attended DeVry, as an example, they were teaching the BASIC language (which I had already gotten 5 years experience in!), and was not object oriented back in 1987. So I tested out of that class and learned PASCAL and C/C++ during that time which I was not credited with… but which the real world embraced through providing me income.

It seemed a bit peculiar to me, too, that someone pursuing a scholarship had sufficient money to take the Ministry of Education to court. That is a bit peculiar, but not something that isn’t impossible.

There will be more on this sort of thing here… but I wanted to get this little thing out now as it may be a linked reference to the other things I write on the topic in between procrastinating about other things.