The Illusion of Choice

ChoiceWe choose so many things every day. We choose what we wear, we choose where we go, we choose who we are with, and we choose when we do all of these things.

Sort of.

We work for a living, most of us, so the choice is whether we should work and get paid to pay others for other things. It’s a social contract born into, where we expend time and energy to get things that we need. We start with the basics, hopefully, of food, of shelter, and of clothing. Maybe we’re lucky enough to have those basics when we are small and defenseless humans, children, and maybe we aren’t forced down other paths to get those things. Then, when we are considered adults by society – and let’s be honest, some of us aren’t when society deems it so – we thrust ourselves into the world and stop depending on the elder humans to take care of our needs. If you’re reading this while living with your parents, I’m not judging, but others are because of the societal contracts we inadvertently signed with our first screams. 

Then we deal with our wants.

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’

ChoicesAnd here we are. So we decide what to do with this ‘free time’, with this ‘freedom’, and we are presented things to buy. We are presented with things to occupy our time.

A man, looking at those urinals, will see choices and after being a man long enough will pick one basically out of habit. A woman offered these choices will probably be dismayed, but that means they probably made the choice to go into the men’s room instead of the women’s room. By all means, I have no issues with that, so let’s not get lost in who has the right to use which bathroom. I’m just writing about freedom and the illusion of choice, and this image popped up in a search.

The choices we are given are largely decided by others, and they’re not really choices if we consider that. You could have gone and done anything else, but you’re here instead, reading this entry, which I’d say was a choice. I’d hope it was a good one. But without me writing this and sharing it, you would not have had that choice, without others writing things to compete with your attention, you would not have had that choice.

I didn’t data mine to write this, I didn’t tailor it for you, I didn’t do any of that. I simply felt like writing it. I don’t care about SEO or any of that crap here- maybe someday I will, but I doubt it.

The point is that I didn’t use any ways to induce you to be here. That gives you more of a choice in a world where you are presented things you like based on things you have liked, sticking you into a rut of thinking that you’re comfortable with, that you feel safe with.

If you’re comfortable and feeling safe, you’re not stretching. If you’re not stretching, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’re making the human race a monotonous affair.

Simplification

Digital Abstract Oil PaintingIn the context of social networks, I have found myself feeling feeling it as repressive – thus I have left them behind other than for broadcasting, really, and even that is debatable.

I’ve always been a proponent of simply creating content and allowing people to find it; I’m not sure shouting in the bazaar is useful when you don’t actually own the bazaar. It certainly doesn’t add to the appeal of the bazaar unless you love being shouted at by random people.

The Internet is my bazaar, not their social network. Their social networks are algorithmically cathedrals disguised as bazaars.

So, to simplify that part of my life, I am withdrawing. Even email has a new layer of obfuscation to protect me from the constant drivel of marketers and their marketing, of conversations with those who don’t want to have conversations but to shout at you as if your ear is their bazaar.

There is a poetic symmetry in randomly popping up in someone else’s bazaar and whispering, “Hey. I wrote something new.”

I have retreated to the Internet, the bizarre bazaar, the foundation upon which cathedrals disguised as bazaars are built. 

Undistraction.

Blue Bottle ExperimentationIt’s been 24 hours since I walked away from Facebook – and there are a myriad of reasons for that, but the one I’ll write about now is distraction. With roughly 1,200 connections – ‘friends’, in what Facebook has branded such connections – it got to be too much.

One of the problems with social networking platforms is that, as a business model, they cater content and advertising based on what you have done or liked or interacted with. It’s in their financial interest, and their bedrock of advertising forms a fatal flaw in the experience that most users don’t know enough to understand, and probably don’t want to understand in an age where social connection is as diluted or strong as the algorithms behind it.

I’m a big fan of strong connections. Of thoughtful discourse. Of wide and broad knowledge shared by people with depth and breadth in a world that doesn’t reward broad experience and only specialization. When one reads things, for example, that Richard Feynman said or wrote, you encounter an original mind, specialized in Physics, who spent time thinking beyond his specialty and into the realms of how what he was specialized in affected other things – and vice versa. In essence, he was connected to the world and whether conscious or not, it was a choice. I just read that he spent the latter years in his life working with Hillis on some great stuff, too. Interesting man, Mr. Feynman.

In finding myself creating thoughtful comments on thoughtless posts and comments, trying to maintain a level of interaction, I found all too often that the lowest common denominator wasn’t static but dynamic – where someone who was thoughtful would be momentarily thoughtless without looking back. And then I wondered if I was as guilty. There’s a want to be right, of course – no one wants to be wrong. And yet, there are many right ways to look at the same thing and it’s the intersections of those ‘right way of looking at things that has a sweet spot. The sweet spots are not constant, they too move.

‘Right’ is built on a foundation of sand, and I found Facebook was a bunch of people trying to create sand castles on a foundation with sand while others, for no good reason, might come over and kick their castle. It’s like what happened when children stopped being raised by televisions and instead by networks that they could interact with – where they could easily hide what they shared with others from brick and mortar society.

How unappealing.

And yet blogs remain, where people can be thoughtful or thoughtless – but blogs err on the side of thoughtful, in my experience, when compared to social networks.

Now I’ll have more time to write. “Oh no!”, some social media ‘expert’ might say, “no one will see your content!”. Well, shucks, it’s not like people saw it when I posted it on Facebook anyway – and those who liked it did not see fit to share it, even when cracked across the skull with blunt words.

Facebook is pretty fucking useless to me. Why spend time on it?

The Lost B Sides Of Our Lives

VINYLVinyl. Some audiophiles still say that it’s the best way to listen to music as they don their rubber gloves, pull their records out of the cardboard holders (plastic removed to avoid warping of the vinyl), carefully placing the record on the turntable, adjusting the speed for a 45 (single) or a 78 (album) post WW II, and 33 RPM later on for albums.

Today, the MP3 reigns supreme – a compressed version of the music where the frequencies are kept only to that which the average human ear hears. Yet there was a time before this, a time before the 8-track tapes and later cassettes and the then ubiquitous Walkman cassette players, before compact discs (CDs) (Hat tip to Valdis Krebs on his correction through LinkedIn).

In the house I grew up in, a Sansui amplifier and tuner was the core of the sound system – 2 Technics turntables, a reel-to-reel system, and a dual Technics cassette deck with Dolby recording and playback ability. When alone, the wooden floors vibrated as only speakers made in the 1970s would make them. Every Friday, Patrick and I would look over the Billboard Top 100 to watch the trends, and I would go off and buy some 45s at the local record store.

I learned early on that what I liked wasn’t always popular. With music slower to come by than it is today, I’d end up flipping the record over to hear the other single that came with the record. A great example of this was the B side of ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears: The Big Chair. A mixing dream, really.

I’d end up exploring the work of artists other than what was popular. Sometimes it was crap, something that the recording company chose out of their discography that didn’t even make it onto an album, and sometimes not.

We don’t do that anymore. I’m not even sure that many people did it in the first place, daring to spend the time to see if they liked the song, but I do know that at least some hit songs came from B-sides. You can read about some here, and some others here where you can listen to themThink songs like, “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) and “Revolution” (The Beatles).

In an odd sort of way, we were allowed to explore the music of artists through their detritus on the B-sides of albums – the stuff that publishers ‘threw away’, not wanting to give a free hit single away with another. And yet, some of their greatest mistakes are treasures – some popular, some not, the listener deciding what was good or not simply by flipping a record over and checking.

Fast forward to today.

The Internet brought us the ability to get music like never before. I’d like to think most of us legally buy music, I’m certain at least some of us download without paying some service or publishing company. Artists in some cases have bypassed the middlemen in this, allowing us to purchase directly from them through websites. Some even make their music available for free here and there.

But the services, just like yesteryear, are about maximizing profit. There are no more B-sides; we are bombarded with things that are algorithmically decided for us as we stream music. Just as on social networks our digital shadow – what we do online – is used to decide what we see, so it is with our music. Alternative – how can something be alternative when it becomes mainstream? – is even decided for us. We are less consumers now, maybe, than we were before the Internet in that there is no conversation (hat tip to the Cluetrain Manifesto), decisions about what we get are decided not even by other human beings but by statistical and heuristic analysis of our data. We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Generations have passed having never flipped over a vinyl record, having never read something not decided for them…. we are become the algorithms of our algorithms, the ‘tools of our tools’ as Thoreau might write today.

Unless we find the B-sides of our lives.

The Calculus Of Life.

butterflyPhoenixDoubleNova_wing_dotdotdot_corniaze_komFiGetSOME_mehrI found myself attempting to help someone with simultaneous equations on a Friday afternoon, scribbling equations on pieces of paper in response to some awful questions with what was reportedly an awful math teacher. But the questions weren’t awful. I’m not sure that the teacher was either.

And this is not about that.

Problems With Math

Because of the exercise, I was reminded of my troubles with math. In grade 4, I was actually placed in the slow class for math because of something I no longer remember. One week in the slow class, and I returned to the regular class and began outperforming everyone. Let’s consider that. I didn’t get something in a regular class, but taught another way, I completely understood it and internalized it.

Later on in life, I would find myself doing horribly in math – calculus, trigonometry, what have you – and I turned 4 years of poor grades into very good Ordinary Level (O Level) math – but this time it was different. I had the same teacher tutoring me. What I needed to do was focus and practice. Math, for very few people, is something that they can immediately grasp concepts of, and in my mind you really don’t do math – or anything, for that matter – until you are challenged to work. It takes a combination of knowledge, imagination and effort to truly get math – it was a rewarding effort for me, something that shaped a large part of my life.

Reflecting on that has made me consider how we approach so many things in life the wrong way. Maybe it’s because we’re in a one-way-fits-all class, maybe it takes us longer than others to grasp an underlying concept, or maybe we’re just too lazy to work at it.

In the great calculus of life where we must be able to differentiate so many things, integrate so many others, triangulate our way through dynamic systems, chart our course and measure ourselves in effective ways before we can think of doing so with others… we seem to fail not because the answers aren’t given to us, but because we don’t seem to understand we need to work for our own answers. The processes in math, in physics, in chemistry… these are not for rote memorization. They require understanding the processes involved, and that takes practice.

It takes effort. It takes working it out on our own. The guidance comes in as just this – “Welcome to this cave. Have fun.”

Like so much else, we have to work to get the results we want, we have to flip things around until we do understand them – bad teachers be damned, it’s not about them. It’s about what we’re willing to do, how hard we’re willing to work, and how resilient we are when faced with a problem.

No more. No less.

Reboot Stages

ReBoot SpriteIt’s happening again.

At times in life, things change so much that a re-evaluation happens – or should. I suppose for people considered normal in society, such times might be when they are getting married, or when they’re having a child. For me, it almost always  seems to have to do with supporting myself or some new knowledge that requires a re-evaluation of everything that has happened since.

References

It’s a minefield. We remember things sometimes not as they happened but as we want to remember how they happened – a fact that keeps lawyers and psychologists gainfully employed, where objectivity is as subjective as our memory. This is where objective notes can be of worth, disciplined writing that requires one to report to a piece of paper or other medium what happened in sometimes annoying detail. Writing logs in the Navy and with the Marine Corps prepared me for that, from security logs to SOAP notes in medical records.

Writing notes is important. Recently, someone griped to me about how their manager required full reports from them and, 2 days later, would ask them again. This has been happening for years, and he reported to me a conversation where the manager said, “I don’t remember 90% of what you tell me.” My thought was – think it with me, don’t say it out loud – “Write that shit down!“.

I have found in writing things down I do remember things in detail without referring to my notes; though admittedly if I write things for other people they read through a filter of their own reading comprehension if they cross the threshold of their willingness to read. You can’t document for people who don’t RTFM. Or, on the internet, follow hyperlinks or actually read the posts you share. Fair notice: I mock people who don’t do the latter 2 things openly, viciously, and with a great deal of annoyance.

So I have notes, scribbled into Moleskine notebooks, documents in manila folders, documents on computer systems (no cloud; it’s insecure, silly)… and I find myself perusing  these things and looking not at the way I wanted my life to go but how it actually went, from the sources of meals to friendships that lasted to those that did not, from ideas that are now rejected to ideas that have survived decades. I’ll gratuitously link Moleskine notebooks I use on Amazon.com because they have survived decades. 

Well written notes from other people can be awesome. Poorly written notes from other people should be printed on toilet paper and used appropriately. Must I draw it for you? 

Re-evaluation

Meditation in the Deer-ParkIf you have good notes, the hardest part is re-evaluating… everything,

Everything that happened. Everything affected. How it affected you. How it affected others. How everything was affected between then and the now. Everything.

This requires the hardest thing of all: Honest reflection. Being hard on one’s self, being realistic about results, and being able top hold multiple conflicting ideas in one’s head at the same time. It is, by no stretch, easy. It takes time, energy, time, introspection, time, questioning the introspection, time and… did I mention time?

Growing is hard, painful and has no patience for ego or dishonesty to one’s self. Being dishonest means atrophy or stasis – really one and the same – and dooming one’s self to the failures of one’s own history. Doors will remain disguised as walls, walls may be disguised as doors like a cartoon.

This part gets harder every time, I’ve found. The volume of what you have to process increases with time, and, if you have learned anything from previous re-evaluations, means a more assiduous process every time. Worse, as we get older our opinions can become more hardened and more difficult to change, making the introspection more difficult. Sure, someone out there might write a book about how it gets easier – maybe they know something I don’t – but it’s harder and harder every time for me, but more and more necessary as I grow.

Paths open, paths close, plans are experimented with… some make it through this process, some don’t. Which leads us to…

Decisions, Decisions

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

– Laurence J. Peter

“Whee do I want to be next? What do I want to do? What’s the next set of goals?”

Such questions were easier when I was a child, even as a teenager when I knew everything and felt the confidence people seek in politicians. More experienced, having put my hands on the stove burners of life a few times, it’s harder every time – and easier at the same time. As we grow older, we’re supposed to have more questions than answers but we’re supposed to be better at asking the right questions.

Or, at the least, we think so. In talking with people who seem to have their lives together, I’ve found that when they are honest they don’t feel that way. Life is a floor of banana peels, plans are order we try to push onto a canvas of uncertainty – misunderstood order we learn about as we grow, or we break. There are skeletons against the walls of Life, broken bones apparent – we see them in life as those that we somehow outgrew.

The rare ones we know are like us, figuring stuff out, maybe even leaning on each other. Statistically, I think that it’s fair to say that as we progress there are fewer and fewer people in these Halls of Life still navigating their way – some ahead, some off to the side.

We don’t really know what we’re doing. We just know what we’ve done and tried to learn from it – some better than others. Some have been afraid to get bruised and fall, they stand in place or even dare sit down in life as we trundle by. Some even grab our feet, drowning in their stagnation they try to hold us. The angry kick them, the strong pull away easily, the fearful slap at them and attempt to run away. Some might spend the time to convince them to get back up and face life.

Yet we must move on, and even undecided, we make our decisions with the best of intentions and hopefully with the best information and sincere re-evaluation, or as close to them as possible.

Slide.

In time, you will realized that’s all anyone is doing, no matter how far ahead or behind you think they are.

Snippets

Another time variation3The light flickers and shifts around me as I change again, as things around me change, and the world is re-evaluated. It is why I haven’t written in so long; I was not ready. And so, snippets.

Influenza

I lay in bed, shivering with fever, unable to sleep and unable to get up. My mother died recently of the flu, her body found only through her having left hot water running and leaking from her apartment – I imagine under the door into the hallway. Mortality. I think about that too much perhaps because I thought of it too little, but I do not obsess. It’s just a snippet, a landmark with new meaning.

Mr.

It’s hard to say when people stopped using my first name and started referring to me as ‘Mr.’. It bothered me. It stopped bothering me recently, I’ve fallen into an unfamiliar role as people pay me respect I am uncertain how I have earned from them in a world where the default setting has always seemed otherwise. What has changed?

I suppose I have decided, finally, that I am worthy of that respect. And that leads me to wonder why I didn’t think I was before, why it made me uncomfortable enough to crawl out of my own skin.

It doesn’t matter, but that it did does. It speaks of things I do not speak of, wounds never tended, fractures never set. They call the resulting sculpture, “Mr.”

Culture

A culture of one, a culture of many. I watch as people who identify with cultures war with each other by simply not communicating, shouting at each other. Once I would try to get them to understand each other. No longer; they are happy at war. Everyone who disagrees is a barbarian. As a person grounded in technology before and after the Internet, the thought that this was not the future we wanted to build sticks in my mind. We carefully moved Humpty Dumpty up one level of bricks every evolution of Moore’s Law, hoping he wouldn’t fall simply because he had not fallen yet.

The omelettes have begun.

Life washes over me differently now. Less of what used to matter seems to matter. I watch children fighting over their toys and no longer step in. They have to figure it out. If they don’t, it won’t matter. If they do, it will.

Life goes on.