The Gentle Art of Self-Deception

Riverside Park HDRsWhen we write our memories to our brains we write them twice. Yet we remember as we see the event, and how we see that event is subject to all sorts of biases.

First, we lie to ourselves – and we do it for a variety of reasons, most notably self-enhancement. And then we are lied to by our biases and how we receive information, and our biases are based on like-mindedness, on whether we as individuals are in the in-group or the out-group – even when we perceive ourselves to always be in the in-group.

Critical thought is supposed to be a part of all of this, guarding us from biased inputs or at least letting us stamp them as being potentially biased. In the broad strokes it doesn’t seem to, in the broad strokes it seems to fail even when individuals and groups experience cognitive dissonance. In individuals it’s part of life, but in groups it can be downright frightful.

We not only lie to ourselves, we allow ourselves to be lied to. We even encourage it, seeking out things that prop up our biases. This is why many reformed addicts talk about ‘hitting rock bottom’ – where they reach a point that self-deception can no longer be done, when facts rip away the armor of self-deception. Some trade one self-deception with another so that they don’t feel alone.

This is the foundation upon which we build our institutions. Democracy, as great as it is in theory, fails here (as do all other ideologies) not because of some sinister agenda of a group but because of self-deception. Where there could be dissenting opinion from dissenting perspective, we label the ‘other side’ as wrong and paint them with a broad brush. This is why committees rarely come up with anything innovative and are great ways to waste time – because of the commonality required to be a part of the group.

And this is why we fail to live up to the standards we give ourselves. We’re crappy witnesses to our own deeds.

The Reason, The Move

The Sunset Over The Hercules' GraveI have a simple rule in my life that may be right or may be wrong, but it has always been a guide. The rule is, “Don’t do anything for one reason.”  I’m a strategist.

When I decided to move to Trinidad and Tobago, I felt a little insulted by the idiots (ok, I felt very insulted) in the U.S. and in Trinidad and Tobago who made this into an issue about Trump winning the election.

A close friend asked me if I was sure it was the right thing when I told him my decision – “so many are trying to get out of Trinidad and Tobago, and you’re coming back?”

I responded, “It may not be a good decision, but it’s the right decision.” What does that mean? It means even though he may think it isn’t a good decision or isn’t sure, it’s the right decision for me. ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are subjective.

Politics

When I made the decision to move to Trinidad and Tobago, most people made a leap to this somehow being about the U.S. Presidential election in the United States. That had something to do with  it, but not in the way that most people thought. The harsh reality was that I did not like either candidate, and that whoever won I saw either a continuation of the mockery of the American dream or a new one being born that wasn’t what I needed. And that stemmed from other reasons, all of which revolved around the way you have to live in the U.S. if you want to, at the least, tread water.

And the American public insisted on having the debates that they were fed instead of discussing the actual issues. It was a sharp contrast of unrealistic idealism on one side backing a candidate who was not an idealist, and the unrealistic want for change by many who need change on issues with a candidate who was outright scary in his used car salesmanship. Where I was in Florida, it was a war between those who had met Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and those that were fighting to continue treading water in that arena. Some will argue that, and they have a right to, but in the end it wasn’t as much about skin color as it was about socioeconomic classes (though it wasn’t advertised that way).

The U.S. wasn’t what it used to be, and making it ‘great again’ was as vague a direction as one could have. It’s all crap anyway.

So, no, it wasn’t Trump. It wasn’t Hillary. It was about the decisions people were making and refusing to make, it was about the decisions being made about the economy and income levels with my years in technology – where the landscape is on the cusp of making a quantum leap that the bureaucracy doesn’t seem aware of. And my own life was changing, too.

And Trinidad and Tobago politics? That doesn’t even deserve mention because ultimately it’s a zero sum game. As the saying is in T&T, “Same khaki pants” – which is odd, because they keep voting for the same khaki pants.

I digress.

That Tech Life.

There are three key aspects to a job in technology for me. My priorities are:

  1. Doing things of worth.
  2. Getting paid adequately.
  3. Having a life outside of the technosphere.

Most of the work I’d ended up doing over the years was superfluous in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t immediately appear that way in my younger days but as I grew more experienced it grew more apparent. Being able to do something that was better had to become a business case, and the business case almost always took away from the value.

That seems very negative as I write that and there’s no defense. I know I worked on things that mattered but they were few and far between all the things I had to do to get paid adequately. I had dangerous things called ideas. I continued to read more and more widely, understanding things better and better. And Thoreau’s quotation, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”, seemed more and more appropriate as the years went by. I tried brushing off the negativity, even thinking that I had become jaded, when in fact – no, empirically, it was getting more and more difficult to both meet (1) and (2), which left (3) hanging in the wind.

Well intentioned people told me to move to California. Specifically, to Silicon Valley, where things always seem to happen. But Silicon Valley had become the epitomy of what I believe to be wrong in technology (another post, sometime), so I stayed in Florida. And, paying attention to tech as I do, I had a sense that big changes were and are coming to the software engineering field in ways that people still don’t yet understand. AI using object oriented practices to write code coupled with poor human design and technophile narcissism is an indicator.

This will lead the majority of software engineers into a precarious existence, lacking in predictability and job security. This is precarity, and I saw myself as a part of that particular precariat. There’s a lot of denial about this in the field and it suits business because business will need software engineers until they don’t.

The long-hour sedentary lifestyle was also taking it’s toll. A visit to a hospital in 2015 had doctors extolling the virtues of not being a software engineer – indirectly. Exercise. Better diet. Less stress. The fact that my employer at the time ‘suggested’ that I take unpaid time off for my hospital visit, or we could ‘work something out’, highlighted the issue. It wasn’t that I was bad at what I did, or I wouldn’t have a job. It was because they were so bad at what they did. And they wanted me to pay for it. Again.

It was time to move on, but I hadn’t plotted a course yet – though I did have a general direction.

Personal

I had personal reasons to go and not to go. The personal reasons to go revolved around work, and the reasons not to go revolved around a surprise relationship that had formed in early 2015 and abruptly ended in late 2016. Untethered in late 2016, it was time to make a new decision.

Options

I’d somehow gotten the label of Business Analyst at one particular company I worked for. When I started programming, business analysis was a major part of doing the work – but it had broken out in the 20+ years, and I happened to be good at it – part natural ability, part medical background where leading questions were avoided and the art of listening was necessary, and part incisiveness. I am also good at documentation, because that was a part of formal software engineering and it had been a weak area that I strengthened to the point where I stood out.

I also wanted to develop something cool, so I worked on some Natural Language Processing code and, about to release, found Google had released something similar for Google Docs. I sighed. It wasn’t the first time a corporation would beat me to the punch, and I’m fairly sure it would not be the last. I have the ideas, but with only two hands to implement, I’m usually behind those with more capital and resources.

People were beginning to buy prints of my photography. This simply blew my mind, that I had gotten good enough for people to offer to by my prints. I’m still not sure how this will work out, but it’s something I enjoy, so I’ll continue that… but continuing that doesn’t require much for me other than enough money to buy cameras and lenses.

And… I have land in Trinidad and Tobago that is really the only thing I truly got from my forebears that is tangible. It has it’s challenges, but in early 2016 I found that work I had done between 2001 and 2010 would pay off well enough to fund my own projects, if only for a while,  and so I did. And then, seeing the market changes in technology and the oncoming precarity, I came to the realization that it was time to get back to working on the land.

Personal Level: Toska

Vladimir Nabokov wrote:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Toska best describes how I had come to feel about technology, the field I had spent decades working and playing in. I had grown bored. And this extended beyond technology since most of my life revolved around it in one way or another. I would watch people staring at their phones as I spoke to them, or reach for their phone to do simple math… it had become so mundane, and where once calculators and other devices were crutches it seemed like I was staring at a world full of people who upgraded to bumper cars and were busy slamming into one another with the wild abandon of teenage lust.

I should write about that. I digress. This ‘toska’ has been on my back for at least a decade, and it’s time to put it to rest by changing things and taking more control of what I have.

So, for you, gentle reader, this may not be a good decision. But it’s the right one for me.

Oh, That Russian Hack Thing

Dr. Andrei Dmitrievich SakharovThe Russians are being accused of affecting democracy in the United States. That’s the rhetoric being spat out all over social networks and social media.

Nonsense. The statements like that are vacuous.

Let’s forget for the moment that Julian Assange said it was a leak instead of a hack. Let’s forget for a moment that even if someone from Russia did anything, it doesn’t implicate the Russian government as much as an American spitting bile on the Internet doesn’t implicate the U.S. government of spitting bile. Let’s forget for the moment that the intelligence agencies, until the convenient ‘now’, have been accused of being less than dependable.

Let’s go with the theory that someone actively involved in the Russian government hacked the DNC email server. A hypothesis. To say that they attacked democracy by making the DNC transparent is to put the DNC on the level of the U.S. Government, which would make the actions of the DNC itself in the election as an attack on American Democracy. After all, the only reason that the DNC wasn’t accused of that was that it is a private organization and not a governmental institution.

So which is it? Is the DNC a government institution that sabotaged one of their own candidates to allow another to win – which is, in fact, affecting the democratic process that the DNC claims to have? Or is it a private institution, a ‘club’, whose emails were made public – thus making this a ‘hack’ of a private institution, along the lines of corporate espionage made open source?

See? That’s where that should lead a discerning thinker.

Hack or leak, what has happened was a bit of transparency within a private organization that alleges to be transparent – but was in fact, without denial, picking the candidate by affecting an alleged democratic process which, in turn, impacts the American democratic process.

Russian hackers? If they were, they were of the ilk of Andrei Sakharov. But really, this looks to be more along the lines of Cavafy’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’:

…Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

The Russians are hardly a solution for the DNC. More of a patch.

Thoughts On Independence Day 2016

4th of JulyIt’s Independence Day – the 4th of July, 2016, and I’ve been thinking a lot about things related to it. Here in New Smyrna Beach, the beach is full of people from all over Florida – mainly Orlando, I’d wager. I’m in a coffee shop writing this – a coffee shop open today. I had breakfast today at another place that was open – all getting the tourist traffic while they can.

The city of New Smyrna Beach is of more than 2 minds. Places on the main drag of Canal Street were closed yesterday and today because of the holiday while the town filled with people from outside of the city. On one hand, the wish for development and the want for tourist money for local businesses, on the other, the closed local businesses. Hibernating while hungry.

A table away, there’s a woman reading a paper on taxes in preparation for a conference. The irony of that is something I didn’t mention – part of our independence was about taxation without representation, and in my mind the representation we get for our taxation may as well be to King George. The gap is no longer the Atlantic Ocean, it is the bureaucracy and 3 ring circus of presidential candidates and the media whose journalistic integrity has decided to be below rather than above reproach.

I think of this even as I think of a friend messaging me today, thanking me for my service. My response was that we all do our part, and in turn thanked him for his, a matter of responding with respect to someone I do respect rather than a the shallow response I give to the shallow thanks I have heard at times. I think of those who did much more, paying the ultimate price, and my problem with thinking that our military does anything in recent memory about protecting our freedom. It seems a popular illusion, or maybe it’s something that isn’t what I think it should be.

We’re less free now than when I was growing up, less free than when I signed up with the Navy, less free than I wandered around dressed like a shrub, not quite tall enough to be a tree. Less free than when the Twin Towers were still standing. All throughout every election and the space in between the elections, I have heard fear given voice about terrorists, terrorism, and anyone that is associated with these acts.

Travel is annoying with the TSA, laws exist now so that moving from one state to another can be a nightmare simply to open a bank account or even a driver’s license changed – where the law requires it be done in 30 days of moving to a state, but it can take 90 days to meet the pre-requisites to actually change the license (something I learned in 2010 from Wisconsin). People talk quietly about whoever they consider the enemy to be and when I overhear, I can’t help but consider Cavafy’s, “Waiting for the Barbarians“.

Sometimes surrounded by those who have been well educated, I suffer many who are not well read. Independence Day, a day where we overthrew tyranny as an act of treason that we remember as breaking of shackles. Which is right? Both.

And these days, I see the tyranny of prejudice on the lips of almost everyone. Even those against one candidate who has become a lightning rod for those uncomfortable with those of pigmentation have their own prejudice that makes conversation between the two poles magnetically inconvenient for true social discourse. And those same who call others bigots have no trouble casting their own bigotry about this demographic at that, not realizing their own irony. There is no equal opportunity, there is ‘flavor of the century’. Some will say it’s getting better, but really, it depends on the flavor and how much of it is available.

The tyranny of financial markets and algorithmic trading, of toxic financial instruments. The tyranny of the homeless and despondent, be they they veterans or not; the tyranny of a bureaucracy of poor treatment of those we have put into the harm’s way when they’re supposed to be back safe and home when they aren’t safe and whole. We casually call this the V.A., but it’s larger than that and it’s a fool’s errand to fix just the VA.

There’s the tyranny of those not making a livable wage, and the derived tyrannies of the unfair comparisons between groups that all need a livable wage – including our active duty military, wandering around protecting whatever freedom we have need of in the Middle East. I’m not sure that we need that freedom, but we apparently believe we do and send our younger men and women to go protect it at the cost of parts of their lives. The tyranny of 22 veterans committing suicide every day, with one likely having taken their own life while I write this. How awful. That’s a damned tyranny.

I see the tyranny of poorly informed people voting – sure, we could talk about Brexit, but let’s instead talk about stupid things right here in the United States, where even those who accuse themselves with intelligence mistake health insurance for health care, where they’ll do anything to support a candidate – even ignore their own issues. Like rowdy supporters of a football team, it seems we’re on the precipice of getting to the level that British football fans are still trying to either live up to or down to (I’m not sure). In this presidential election so far, we’ve had blood spilled.

We’ve had blood spilled by supporters of presidential candidates. People on the left and the right feel so disconnected with government that it’s amazing what they will say and do.

A month ago, I had two Trump supporters at a burger place tell me that Trump isn’t a politician. I said, “Well, he is now, he’s running for President.” Then they claimed him a great business man, to which I brought up the bankruptcies, and their response was that he himself never went bankrupt. “Fair enough”, I said, “so if he runs the economy into the ground, we can be certain he won’t be bankrupt.” A pause, then, “Well, he’s better than the other.”

I wandered across to a coffee shop and there sat a circle of Bernie Sanders supporters having an open meeting. I listened; they were desperately unhappy that Hillary Clinton had gotten their party’s nomination but generally stopped when it came to criticizing the party. One said he would vote for Hillary just so that Trump didn’t win, the guy after said, “no way, he was voting his conscience”. When asked about what he would do if Trump won, his response had me wondering if I was inadvertently a witness to conspiracy.

Those two camps  – and there are more than two – are so busy talking about what the politicians and media want them to talk about, they’re not talking about their own issues. I heard someone who claimed that ‘Obamacare is great’ complaining about having to go to Winter Park because their insurance didn’t allow them to visit a specialist in town. They saw it as inconvenience, but not an issue. Why? Frankly, because elections are not about rationality, it would seem.

Outside of the echo chambers of social networks and cable news networks where opinion is manufactured, people are stubbing their toes on all sorts of issues that they should be talking about but only speak of that which they are told are issues. It’s the tyranny of being lost from ourselves, lost from the reality so many of us live in.

I read this article on Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence – perhaps too high brow for most voters out there, at least partly because of an education system that needs more sense than dollars. The ending of that article:

…There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement. Instead of honoring our troops, whose chief virtues are obedience and aggressiveness, we could honor our great dissenters and conscientious objectors. And instead of blowing things up, maybe we could try building something.

It’s our choice. We make our myths. We show by our actions what our holy days mean. Forty years after the American Bicentennial, 13 years after I stood on a rooftop in Baghdad, and 10 years after getting out of the Army, I won’t be out under the fire, cheering our explosions. I won’t be watching “Star Wars” either. My America isn’t an empire or a rebellion, but an ideal; it’s not a conquest, nor a liberation, but a commitment.

I’d like a commitment for us to stop creating our own tyrannies, but I think that may be a bridge too far. The tyranny of the lack of self-determination needs to be the first thing to go, and it shouldn’t just be here in the United States but instead around the world.

But today is Independence Day, the 4th of July, so I think of America, and I think of the freedom from our self-imposed tyrannies, for their is no other group or nation powerful enough to impose tyranny on us. We’re fools to think otherwise.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.