Lonely

There is a boy who lives in my neighborhood, probably around 12, who talks to himself. Every day, I see him pacing our one-cul-de-sac isolation, sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting, sometimes casually conversing. Much of the time he has a stick held under his arm like an assault rifle, selectively firing invisible rounds at imagined enemies. He’ll even call for back up, but no one ever comes. From what I can tell, this boy is not mentally handicapped, nor does he seem to have any excessive case of social awkwardness. He is simply lonely.

I live in a part of the country where the biggest buildings are shopping centers, and the tallest spires cap Protestant churches. Neighborhoods are separated by miles, and sidewalks are almost nonexistent. People out here like their space, and they get more of it than they know what to do with. This little housing development is basically cut off. We are one dead end street connected to one 2-lane “highway” miles from the nearest community center. To get anywhere on foot requires traipsing through the grass along the highway or cutting through the thick underbrush of the forest. Neither are particularly enjoyable or safe.

This, however, is the embodiment of the American dream. We’re far enough away from the tyrannical government to live our stagnant, miserable lives in peace, and our kids will grow up to perpetuate this insanity. I don’t think the boy is psychotic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up that way. For children growing up in this area, there is no relief. I believe there are 4 people in this neighborhood under the age of 16, and three of them are rarely home. This leaves our little friend to become his own company.

I am just now starting a MOOC (massive online open course) on positive psychology. I haven’t had any formal training on the issue, but what I have learned is that most people need social interaction for mental well-being and proper childhood development. I pity this young man who, until he is old enough to drive, will have only occasional opportunities to have interactions with kids his age. Given that his parents (if they’re home) probably don’t give him much attention, he may be going long periods of time without any significant social interaction.

This, I believe, is what is wrong with America. We are so sick, tired, and afraid of each other, we build our lives around getting as far away from the community as possible. Yes, living in society is stressful. Yes, the myriad of differing opinions necessarily causes conflict. But, it is the way we handle this stress and overcome this conflict that makes us successfully human. It is easy to live in my own little world with my own ignorant thoughts, but to challenge that world is to grow. These Americans do not want to grow. They want to stagnate. They want to simmer in the glory of their successes and watch their days drift away while the world suffers on somewhere else.

Trust

Do you trust your doctor? Do you trust you financial advisor? Do you trust your business partners? Do you trust your professors? Do you trust your religious leaders? How can we trust any of these people? Why should we?

Our lives are based on trust. Without it, we would collapse in overwhelming anxiety of the uncertain world. We trust that we will not get mugged walking to work. We trust that our paychecks will be delivered on time and in full. We trust that our police officers are on our side (even if they pull us over for speeding). But how far does this trust go?

I have recently taken a great interest in the climate change debate. One side argues that there is not debate. 97% of climate scientists agree that anthropological climate change (man made global warming) is real and threatens our livelihood. The other side claims that all those “scientists” are fudging the numbers to get noticed and make a livelihood of this profession. Both sides seem to accept that the Earth has warmed up over the past couple hundred years, but one side refuses to accept that human activity has the ability to be the cause. I can empathize. We are almost a negligible presence on this planet when we consider only our physical size. The Earth is incredibly large in comparison, and its environmental systems seem infinite.

The biggest fact keeping me from going fully to the “global warming” camp is that predictions of climate scientists turn out to be wrong time and time again. First of all, scientists in the 1960s and 1970s believed that pollution was going to cause a catastrophic global cooling. That certainly didn’t pan out the way they thought. A 2005 prediction from the UN Environment Programme suggested that by 2010, massive flooding of coastal areas would cause thousands of “climate refugees.” 2010 has come and gone, and these areas are as thriving as ever. Good science is dependent upon the ability to make predictions. If this side of the argument cannot make predictions that even remotely reflect the real world, how can we call them scientists?

I’m not going to completely discount their arguments though. Everyone makes mistakes. Science also thrives on the plethora of failed predictions that get weeded out as we learn and improve our methods. I won’t bother listing the predictions that came true because a simple Google search will return hundreds. The interesting thing is that a Google search for the opposite will return different facts about the same exact events. First off, 97% of climate scientists agree (according to the global warming camp), but there is no consensus (according to the skeptic camp). But don’t worry, 95% of the climate models accurately reflect observations, even though 95% of climate models do not accurately reflect observations.*

So who is right?

When I try to determine who is lying when I hear contradicting stories, I look for a motive. I assume that people generally tell the truth and need a damn good reason to lie. Let’s evaluate the global warming camp first. Skeptics say they are fudging the data to get more research funding and try to get their name published. First of all, anyone who knows anything about academia knows that getting grant money is brutal struggle. There just isn’t enough money being put into research for all the researchers to make a living on. Researchers often offset their income with teaching positions or other careers. On the subject of getting published, fudging numbers does nothing for you. Getting published is a rigorous process in which an elite group of people more experienced than you tear apart your work trying to find faults in it. Unless you are really gifted, you’re not going to fool these people. I am currently at a loss as to why climate scientists would fake the presence of anthropogenic climate change. The solutions are inconvenient for everyone, and they don’t get much out of reporting the news.

On the other side, skeptics don’t have quite the innocent background. By denying that humans are causing climate change, they maintain that the status quo is acceptable. It has long been known that energy companies have paid “scientists” to perform research that seems to always find the evidence to be in their favor. For these “scientists,” fudging the numbers does mean dollars. For the energy companies, it means their livelihood. If the debate were to really end, and people truly believed that burning fossil fuels was going to kill us all, BP, Exxon, Shell, and the like would be in serious trouble. Not to mention, nobody wants to hear that we need to drastically change our way of life, especially when the evidence isn’t plainly visible. People will look far and wide for a way to maintain the status quo.

That is why I am more inclined to trust the climate scientists over the climate skeptics.

*Links to the contradicting statements about models:

95% of Climate Models Agree: The Observations Must be Wrong

http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-models.htm

Fear

For me, it was a normal school day. I was 10, and the most important thing on television that morning was some episode of morning cartoons on Cartoon Network. The scene of a burning building meant little to me as I flipped past the news channels while slurping down a bowl of cereal. It was only when my mom called from her bedroom for me to come watch the news did I realize this was bigger than some plane crash. The second plane had just struck the south tower, and adults around the country realized that this was not an accident. America was under attack.

The events of September 11th, 2001 began a new era in American history, maybe even in world history. For all my young adult life, America has been at war with the Middle East, where the terrorists are hiding. For a young highschooler intent on joining the military, Osama bin Laden was #1 on the kill list, and the leaked picture of his corpse is still surreal. However, I have recently been questioning this reality. Al Qaeda has been unsuccessful in America since 9/11, despite the facts that military actions overseas continue to spur religious extremism and that independent tests have shown TSA inspections to be marginally effective at best. Is America really safer than it was 13 years ago? Was there ever really much of a threat?

I’m not going to go so far as to say that 9/11 was a hoax perpetrated by the American government. I think that would give them way too much credit, but I have reason to believe that the “threats” that continue to play themselves out in the Middle East and North Africa have been blown horribly out of proportion, and much of this is politically motivated.

If you have a credible critique to the 2004 three-part documentary The Power of Nightmares, please let me know. I have been unable to find sources any more credible than the ones presented in the documentary to disprove their theories.

Here’s the gist: the rise of neoconservatism in the 1970s was a product of Straussian philosophy that insisted upon a national identity based on a “good vs. evil” dichotomy. In the depths of the Cold War, the Soviet Union made for an easy candidate to play that evil, and America could rally around the idea of being its foil and the source of goodness and democracy around the world. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the existential threat, against which America had united, ceased to exist. Neoconservatives like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Dick Cheney would lead the charge in framing this new enemy. 9/11 served as the perfect catalyst, and all of these men were perfectly positioned to spread the fear. Since that day, “terrorism” has become a nebulous evil that pervades the world, and it is up to America to destroy it. It provided the impetus for the invasion of Iraq, a quagmire that has obviously failed miserably in its aims and was based on the scantest of a connection to terrorism at all; it allowed the passage of legislation like the USA PATRIOT ACT, which allows government surveillance of American citizens on an unprecedented level; and it allowed for the occupation of Afghanistan, which has become the longest single war in American history. All of these actions have been reactions because of American fear of “terrorism.” The film claims that al Qaeda and similar extremist organizations pose hardly any threat outside their local areas. I haven’t been convinced of that, but I have been convinced of the political agenda of American leaders.

We have become a nation that defines itself by its fear of the outside world. In the beginning of the 20th century this fear let to isolationism. In the 21st, it has led to desperate attempts to control an inexplicably complex world through military and political means.

This is what I meant at the end of the last post. I want to be part of a community that stands for something, not against something.

Politics

With a grin that captures the word “smug,” she strode out of the office, recognizing that her work was complete. The debate that she incited raged for the remainder of the dull afternoon with little input from those of us who actually work in that office. It is a military facility, and we liberals are in the small, outgunned, ostracized minority. Today, ravenous conservatives descended upon our undefended position to feast on our bleeding hearts.

Ok, that might be a bit dramatic, but the conversation did stretch most of the afternoon, and I got in hardly a sentence. It is very hard to defend the political left when the right has so much ammunition. Over the last few weeks, I tried to unplug from politics. I had heard that happy people do not concern themselves with such things they cannot change. Sadly, I feel so impotent and disengaged when I encounter these situations, I will forego my ignorant bliss for an informed anxiety so I will be able to provide a counterargument to those who have become deeply entrenched in their own ideologies.

Since I did not get to express my views today, all of you (since this is basically a private journal anyway, for all the attention it gets) shall be enlightened with my anathema of contradicting political views!

First thing’s first, I am a liberal. I believe in the protection of human rights, the principle of democratic rule, and emphasis on shared social responsibility. My ideal society is one in which elected leaders provide for defense as well as civil protection. I believe in an abundance of shared public facilities over personal property, but I do not believe that all property should belong to the state. I hope to one day live in a society in which people live in communal housing or in close proximity to one another out of desire to build social bonds. I hope to find a place in which the value of one’s life is based on their relationships and their experiences over their accomplishments.

I’m no economist, but I know this is a bit too rosy of a picture for a functioning economy. Somebody has to do the work, make the dollars, and put the food on tables. However, the ideals need not be abandoned for the sake of economic growth.

Given this ideal, you may think that I want to start an American revolution, get some socialist into power, and create the U.S.S.A., but that is exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I believe that the best policy for America is to embrace the fiscally conservative, socially liberal ideals espoused by the Constitution. Our founding document lays out more of what the government can’t do than what it can. This should indicate to those in charge of policy that the government should choose inaction over action whenever possible.

Now that’s a contradiction!

Allow me to explain: nations are formed by common values, not by borders. That should be pretty plainly seen in Africa or the Middle East, areas carved up by western imperial powers, perpetually pitting warring factions against each other. In the U.S., we have a wide variety of views, but ideals of personal liberty and individual responsibility pervade the common culture. A responsive government should play to these commonalities and build an American nationalism on pride for what we stand for, not fear of what we stand against.

And I’ll have to end it on that enigmatic note. Maybe I’ll explain tomorrow.

Honesty

Socialism. It has become one of the dirtiest words in politics today. Mention it anywhere near a conservative network in any way other than the fiercest of hatred, and you’ll be labeled a heretic and anti-American. But what is it about socialism that frightens Americans so much? Why are we so determined to be different from our European counterparts? They’ve had their fair share of economic woes, but 2008 should have shown us that our system is no less infallible. What I believe is at issue is not the system itself, but the way in which the participants must conduct themselves in order for it to work.

Let’s take a pure socialist society, one in which wealth is distributed according to need and work according to ability. For this society to even begin, we must have a way to measure both need and ability. These are rather nebulous factors on which to base an economy, and supplying a government agency to tackle the issue would take an enormous amount of resources. The solution then is that the people must evaluate themselves. This requires that each person is honest about what they truly need and how much they can truly contribute to the society. If all citizens are perfectly honest with each other, we have maximum productivity at minimum cost, and we have just created the world’s most powerful economic engine.

That, as the Soviet Union quickly figured out, is not what happens. People are dishonest. Particularly when they have a stake in the outcome of their evaluation, people tend to overstate their need and understate their ability. Allow me to illustrate:

The other day I got a parking citation. I had been parked in a “visitor” spot at the university without having a visitor pass. I knew I was breaking the rules, but I didn’t want to pay for a parking pass for the remaining few weeks of the semester. I believed that I needed to save that extra money for other things. I believed that I was somehow entitled to parking on campus for free while the rest of the students, faculty, and staff were not. I placed my need above all of theirs despite the fact that many of the students or underpaid staff are probably struggling far more than I am. The simple fact that the university employs someone to enforce parking policy implies that without it, no one would actually pay for parking.

What if, though, everyone simply paid an honest amount for the service they are receiving without trying to cheat the system? What if I could trust my fellow citizen to follow the rules? What if the university didn’t need to pay someone to go check every parking space on campus to ensure it has a pass? How much would the university save? What more productive work could that young man be doing?

More importantly, how would we create a society like that? Trusting someone who is untrustworthy is how we get cheated, so no one will want to change. Someone will have to act first, but they will take a risk.

I’ll take the risk. Will you?

Stop

The lights shine bright comfort from their high perches overlooking the lot. The whir of traffic along the highway has become a natural backdrop of the modern suburban life. The evening is cool, and I am grateful for the respite from a summer of heat that I feared was going to persist until Halloween. Although the night of frights is just around the corner, I couldn’t feel more relaxed as I take a breath of the crisp autumn air that I had missed for so long. I stop as I return to my car, look up at the gray-blue sky, dotted with the stars gently pushing their way through as night falls. How many years had I looked past these moments? I feel a bit ashamed at the waste, but I come back to this moment, this beautiful, perfect moment. For a short few seconds in the middle of another restless day, I am here, and no where else.

But all good things must end, and my perfect moment is ruined by the feeling that someone is watching. My instinct tells me they are judging me. My behavior is abnormal and it must be mocked. I take one final deep breath and resume my pacing toward my car, digging in my pocket for my keys. As I open the door and swing in the bag of goods, I look over the roof, and I see the source of my unease. In the same stoic solitude, a young man stands staring. From a few cars away, his gazed remains fixed. We lock our stares for an unnaturally drawn out moment that says, “I saw you.” Not in accusing guilt, but in simple acknowledgment of approval. Our silent, motionless conversation confirms this common understanding. We know that this attention to the world is not normal, but why?

I pull myself away, expressionless, emotionless. I sit, turn the key, and listen to the hum of the engine, contemplating that question: why? Why is the act of experiencing the glory of nature so unnatural? Why would I fear that someone would stare as I reveled in the beauty of my situation? Why does it bother me?

In a daze, I put the car in reverse, and look to clear my path. I look to where the man had been, but he is gone. Whether he had driven off or gone inside I cannot say; I did not take note of his car. As my limbs take me through the familiar motions of transporting me home, the gears of my mind shutter and grind as I mull the issue. I have spent so much of my life oblivious to the wonder that surrounds me, myopic in my pursuit of petty contrivances and superficial symbols of status. What liberation is the mind free of such distractions! So simple, so natural, so beautiful is the night, its air that caresses my skin and sounds that sooth my soul. So wondrous is this planet and microcosms that we inhabit. It is only unnatural to overlook it.

Respect

“u got ne bulbs left?”

This was a text I received earlier today. The obvious answer was no, but I considered my response thoughtfully. Maybe I considered it too much given that my interlocutor had given no thought whatsoever to his message. I recognize that I know nothing about this person other than the simple fact that he or she wishes to purchase some light bulbs from me. From this position of ignorance, I courteously responded, “Sorry, I sold them all yesterday.” The response of “daaammmmn, thx” only served to raise my blood pressure yet again at this simpletons presumptuousness.

Alright, I was trying to use some big words there to show contrast, but one does not need to use fancy vocabulary to communicate effectively. I ask only that you use established vocabulary. I understand that I live in a part of the country that has not been a shining example of education, but is it too much to expect that people want the person on the other end of the phone to think they are an intelligent human being?

Rant complete. Let’s do this logically. I am browsing the ol’ Craigslist to find some unspecified gadget, and I find what I am looking for at a reasonable price. I pick up my phone to contact this person who, I hope, will give this gadget to me in exchange for money. When I contemplate what I will write/say, what are the things I should consider? First of all, I know almost nothing about this person. Their possession of the gadget could mean a whole host of things, and usually the brief descriptions give little insight into the personality or situation of the person. Secondly, I want this person to think favorably of me so that they will be more inclined to complete this transaction. It is wholly up to them whether or not they decide to give me their goods. Finally, I would like to open the door to possible future transactions. Given that I know nothing about this person, they could have significant ties, which could help me achieve unrelated goals. With all of this in mind, I want to formulate a request that is formal yet personable and shows them that I am a genuinely interested potential buyer.

To me, a request like this uses proper English grammar and full, recognizable words. When I see abbreviations in text messages or hear shortened slang speech in a phone call, it means only one thing to me: I am not worth your time. You cannot be bothered to spell out a full word. This call is not worth the effort to use your best speaking abilities. You simply assume that I am willing to come down to your level. I may be snobbish when it comes to language (and beer and movies and a few other things), but I won’t call someone out for improper English. I will, however, be less inclined to work with if you show me disrespect. That is what it boils down to: respect. I believe everyone deserves the respect of others, but you forfeit that right if you fail to show it in return. Disrespect me, and I may not respect you.

So, please, send a stranger kind, professional messages. When you speak on the phone, act as if this phone call is the most important thing you could be doing right now. If it’s not, don’t bother.

Gaming

Engine roaring, 12 cylinders of explosive power turning screaming tires, deftly maneuvered around the final turn, the first to cross the finish line. Serene satisfaction expressed with the clenching of a raised fist in silent defiance of a stoic foe. I count my winnings, take my prize, and prepare for the next battle.

Sadly, I’m not a race car driver. That would certainly be an exciting job, but the closest I get is a video game that I have obsessed over for years. It is Gran Turismo 3, and I needed to track down a half-broken Playstation 2 to justify my resumption of this game. According the the game’s progress meter, I am currently 71.1% complete. I fear will not be able to let go of this game until I reach 100%. I tried. I sold my Playstation a few months ago when I decided to make this transition to a new form of life. However, I would find myself thinking of it and even dreaming of it at some point each day. I convinced myself I needed an outlet. I was addicted. It doesn’t take much to get my fix, but three months without it was too long.

Why was I completely unable to let go of this silly contrivance of a challenge? I have a myriad of other challenges in my life that will surely lead to much greater satisfaction than the brief feeling of accomplishment that comes after showing an inanimate computer program who’s boss. The problem, I believe, is that the reward may be smaller, but I can get it much more quickly.

Those of us who have grown up in the digital age have grown up with video games. They pull us in by stimulating the pleasure centers in our brain by giving us a false reward for an imaginary accomplishment. In a similar process as taking a drug like heroine or cocaine, our brains release a bit of dopamine when we see that “You’re #1!” flash on the screen, and our brain tells us, “Yeah, that was good. Let’s do that again.” Of course it only works if there was a challenge, but not too much of a challenge. We can get too much of a challenge in every day life. We can make challenges as hard as we want, be it make a few more dollars than I did last month or become a millionaire. We can’t make our challenges easier, but video games can. They can simulate that feeling you get when you win a sporting event, get a job you really wanted, or take home a fat bonus with a fraction of the effort and in a fraction of the time.

Those of us who experienced this throughout our childhood had a standard set early on that gave us a false sense of how much effort is required to achieve a certain goal. When we set a goal, we want it now. If it takes too long, we move on to find an easier goal. Video game developers know this, and they have designed games that fit right in the middle. Is it any wonder that the death of many a freshman GPA is the newest gaming console? I know that I should study for this exam, but my brain is telling me that beating this game will give me even more satisfaction than passing that test, and I don’t even have to study!

I believe there is a major difference in my generation, and it stems from the idea that we have redefined how much we should struggle to achieve a goal. I refrain from saying that this is a problem because I have seen some very promising things from my generation, and I recognize that there were many lazy members of my parents generation who eventually (mostly) figured things out. The difference is how we are figuring it out. There are millions of us who are refusing to settle into a career that will require most of our lives to achieve great success. Instead, we are breaking from the norm and reaching out to every corner of the globe to find a goal, which is worth all of that effort. Not only that, but far more of us are willing to change paths multiple times throughout our lives. The days of most people in a society choosing a profession and keeping it for their entire adult lives are quickly disappearing (if they haven’t already).

What does this mean for our future? I have no idea, but I’m sure we will figure it out just as our parents did.

(Although I’m really hoping we do a better job than our parents did. Not bashing that generation, but there’s certainly room for improvement.)

Communication

There were 7 of us in the classroom, including the instructor. I, the only native speaker of English, followed along politely as we worked together step by step through the basic reading workbook. I choked back a smile each time a student stammers, searches, and fails to find the word they want. I really must work on this reflex. I mean no offense, but I know how it looks. It is so easy for us to see these foreigners as unintelligent because they cannot communicate with us. I know this assumption comes from ignorance because I certainly cannot communicate with them in their native tongue. I actually respect them for doing something which I have continually failed to do. My smile is a reflection of the enjoyment I take from seeing them wrestle with their own weakness and insecurity.

Today was my first day observing the Intensive English Program at the University of West Florida. I will continue to sit in on three classes a day, a few days each week for the next two months as part of my training to become an english language instructor.

It is a passion I have only recently discovered. The idea that I will be part of a massive force opening up lines of communication across the globe excites me. Every person I meet has something to teach me, and by teaching them how to communicate with me, I am exposing myself to vastly greater numbers of people. While overseas, I plan to learn the language of my students, but they will probably learn mine first. Either way, their ideas will become available to me.

As I mentioned in my last post, I search for contention in the world. I can learn nothing reinforcing my own beliefs. I can learn from the middle-aged Brazilian woman who tried he best to express her distrust of vaccination. Skillfully avoiding the debate, the instructor pressed on with the lesson, but I was intrigued. I wanted to ask her to explain after class, but it became obvious that she simply didn’t have the vocabulary to do it. I speak no portuguese whatsoever, so the opportunity was lost.

When I got home, I turned on a documentary while making dinner. I try to get both sides of a story, but I recognize the there are thousands of documentaries on the Internet with zero credibility. I settled for a Frontline documentary from 2013 chronicling the debate. Their position became clear straight away, that vaccines do far more good than harm, but the ensuing 90 minutes convinced me.

Diseases like whooping cough, smallpox, and polio have been nearly eradicated because of modern vaccination. Unfortunately, there is a growing sentiment against vaccines because of inconclusive links to autism and other diseases. What the parents of this movement don’t see is the pain and suffering their children will experience if exposed to the diseases they would have been protected from. Vaccines have become a victim of their own success in that those diseases are now so rare, people do not fear them.

Ok, there’s no organization here. I’ll redo this one later. Got a couple ideas going on that need to be fleshed out independently.

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