Fear in two flavors

Fear drives people in strange ways. Some try to placate the enemy, to grant whatever it seems to want. Others respond belligerently and indiscriminately, targeting not just those who threaten them but whole broadly-defined groups. We see two camps, each ridiculing the other, that have more in common than they admit.

Of course, I’m talking about the people who want to appease violent Muslims by curbing our freedoms, and the people who regard all Muslims as the enemy and want to curb our freedoms to get at them. Both ways, we lose. It’s harder work to keep thinking and recognize differences when someone’s threatening to kill innocent people in the name of their religion.

The people who want to censor speech that “offends religious sensibilities” are newcomers to the notion. I haven’t noticed their objecting to ridiculing Christian fundamentalists. It’s really offending the religious sensibilities of violent people that they object to. They think that if only they can censor speech that draws violent reactions, we’ll have peace, but giving in to violence never works. The goons will see they’ve won and aim for new goals. Other groups, a little less inclined toward violence, will see that it works and go over the edge.

The people who want to shut down mosques and ban peaceful religious practices also encourage violence by making Muslims feel they can’t protect their rights under the legal system. Both sides want to destroy liberty in the name of safety. It’s just the details that are different.

Terrorists, by definition, play upon fear. They can make use of any kind of overreaction. Broad-brush belligerence can win them more followers; appeasement encourages the followers they have. They want to keep people from thinking straight, because then people might notice how fragile the terrorists really are and how helpless they’d be in a world that values tolerance and freedom.

I may lose my Internet connection for the weekend, so I might not see comments for a few days.

Posted in General. Tags: , , , . Comments Off on Fear in two flavors

Evil, sociopathic and sociable

This is a response to Cat Faber’s song “Sociopaths,” on her new album The King’s Lute. I recommend the album, especially the title song, the very funny “All Your Songs Are Belong to Us” with Mary Crowell’s unmistakable touch on the piano, the 3-against-2 counterpoint of “Common Ground,” and the calm affirmation of “Atheist’s Anthem.”

It’s not that I dislike “Sociopaths,” but it’s an excellent springboard for discussion, and I hope there will be some. The song (which can be found in full in the PDF lead sheet songbook) begins:

Emotions are catching, I’m sad when you cry,
You’re cheered by the joy in a sparkling eye.
Sympathy sways us like music so clear,
That four in a hundred can’t hear.

So they no more can share in your pain or your glee
Than a deaf child can hear or a blind child can see.
Human their seeming, their speaking, their stride,
But they’re not really human inside.

The song goes on to compare such people to the Fae, the version of the “fair folk” who live by their glamour and have no sympathy for humans. There are certainly people who by the makeup of their brains are much less empathetic than most of us, perhaps not at all. But such people are nonetheless human and can’t be exempted from moral responsibility.

Conversely, destructive behavior isn’t proof of that condition any more than illiteracy is proof of a reading disorder. The last lines give these three signs of a sociopath: “Duty neglected, however it cries — Promises broken, and lies.” These, though, usually are just the signs of someone who’s trying to live by getting away with deception. It’s a learned approach to life, born of a desire for the unearned, emulation of bad examples, or refusal to acknowledge the consequences of one’s actions.

Few people are born as inhuman monsters. Many learn to ignore the reality of what they’re doing. Many populations in history, not just the “four in a hundred,” have learned to accept huge evils without blinking. Even if Hitler was a sociopath, he would have been just another beer hall bully without the support of millions of “normal” people. The contagious of emotions also applies to hostile ones, and if people follow them without thinking, they can become a destroying mob. When evil becomes socially acceptable, it may be the person who is less swayed by others’ emotions who recognizes what’s wrong.

The positive side of this is that people can make others better by the examples they set; doing good is also contagious. Every example of integrity and honesty can encourage the people who see it to do the same. When a bit of nonsense is repeated over and over, one person saying “no” to it can have an impact. If you assume that the people who do bad things are inherently not human, then there’s no redeeming them, but people always have a choice, even if it’s harder for some than for others to recognize what they’re doing.

The power of non-cooperation

I’ve never been called to be on a jury, although I’m eligible and have never tried to dodge a call. As a matter of principle, I oppose compulsory service, but if I had the opportunity I’d exercise it, since I might be able to help justice happen or avoid an injustice. I’m less susceptible to peer pressure than the large majority of people; that’s too obvious to count as bragging.

I might, in some cases, be able to prevent conviction under an unjust law, and I was pleased to read this account by a juror that refused to convict a New Hampshire man of marijuana possession. Reason.com provides an account of the nullification. Doug Darrell is a Rastafarian who reportedly was growing 15 marijuana plants for his own religious and medical use. These were discovered by a National Guard helicopter that was flying below the FAA-designated safe altitude to snoop on people’s back yards and get people thrown in jail for what they were growing there. The judge had instructed the jury that “even if you find that the State has proven each and every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you may still find the defendant not guilty if you have a conscientious feeling that a not guilty verdict would be a fair result in this case.” The jury acted accordingly.

The juror, identified only as Cathleen, said:

We put the facts aside to give nullification consideration. The written definition was requested and posted on a chalk board. Some discussion occurred regarding what would be extraordinary enough to nullify. Several law and order proponents (not to say we all don’t want some law and order) had serious concerns about the precedent a not guilty verdict would set. What kind of chaos would ensue if this became common? Would finding this defendant not guilty give him a pass to keep on breaking the law? One by one the responses were offered and chewed upon. I fully expected a deadlock. One juror even felt relief at the prospect on the chance that the prosecution would retry.

The turning point was when one of the jurors declared that after reading the definition on nullification its reliance on “conscientious feeling” and “fair result”. It nowhere said extraordinary. And thus the last three jurors agreed that they could nullify.

One of the best defenses against a government that tries to ruin people’s lives is the simple refusal to give it your support. That’s what Cathleen and the other jurors did, and even if it made a difference only in one person’s life, it was worth it. The ripple effects could reach much further.

This is how I wish everyone would live. Don’t volunteer help for the destruction of freedom, either your own or another’s. Don’t use convenient but unjust laws to make your neighbors conform. Don’t turn people in for victimless crimes because you don’t like them. Don’t lobby to stomp on your competitors or to give you subsidies at the unchosen expense of others.

Laissez faire.

Fandom and me

It wasn’t that long ago that science fiction fandom was a place where people of different ideas could gather. The arguments were often acrimonious, but there was still a sense of common culture, a framework within which people could hold different views, argue and insult each other, and still be part of the same community.

Today I’m seeing a fandom in which that’s mostly gone, replaced not even by conformity to a single set of ideas but by allegiance to a single political party. The double standard is blatant; war, abuse of human rights, warrantless surveillance, and collusion with powerful private interests are greeted with outrage when Republicans support or practice them, but ignored when the Obama administration does.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. There are still a lot of people in fandom who hold fairly consistent views, even if they’re not my views, and will criticize any official who they think is in the wrong without regard to party affiliation. East coast filk fandom still has quite a number of people like that, and the culture is open to a diversity of ideas. The broader trend in fandom, though, is very much toward partisan conformity. Even people who by profession should be on guard against sloppy thinking are joining in.

I’ve been to only one non-filk convention this year (not counting Arisia, where I only worked at a table and didn’t attend any programming) and probably won’t be at another till the next Boskone, which I’m involved in running. They just aren’t offering me what they used to. (Correction: Two conventions. I’d spaced on Pi-Con.)

Posted in General. Tags: , , . Comments Off on Fandom and me

Building my business

The past week’s activity has been fun, but of course the trick is to turn it into income. I now have the beginning of a business strategy.

Things have changed a lot in the independent software contracting business since I was last in it in 2004. In some ways it’s gotten tougher, but it’s also possible to reach more people. I’ve tried some things that haven’t worked too well. Dice is great if you’re looking for regular employment, but it’s a waste of time if you’re looking for clients. LinkedIn may prove useful, but it’s no magic bullet.

The key is to have a specialty and to apply it flexibly. I can reach lots of people; so can everyone else. Making the new world order work requires reaching the right people in an intelligent way. Agencies, at least the ones that have been calling me, just try to hammer as many pegs into as many holes as possible.

I have certain specialties and I’m known in certain communities. These are strengths if I can reach the appropriate people. I’m doing that already in some ways, with my File Formats Blog and professional contacts on Twitter. I’m planning to attend some conferences. Beyond that, there’s another step which I hope will make a significant difference.

I’m now primarily responsible for the JHOVE open source project, and have put updates into a beta version in the past week. I’ve also been working on a project relating to linked data and file format registries. So far this has been interesting mostly for its negative results, but there’s enough to it to make available.

I like to write code, and giving it away, if done right, is a form of advertising as well as building my skills. These projects will be clean but limited demonstrations of what I have to offer, of some use in themselves but open to expansion, with my contact information clearly on them. The package won’t be just the software, but an explanation of what problem I’m attacking; it won’t have just a link to my website, but a reason to read it. Since this software is most useful to the people who would want my skills, it’s advertising with free distribution. Not free advertising, of course, but I’ll be paying for it in effort rather than money.

I’m considering moving garymcgath.com from its current cheap hosting (it’s sharing the rent with mcgath.com right now) to a virtual server, so that I can put demonstrable Web software up. It’s remarkable how little a virtual server costs per month.

It’s an adventure, and if it works out I’m finally doing things I really want to do.

Lying by misdirection

Earlier this week I read on Twitter about “that awkward moment when you realize Mitt Romney’s Slogan, ‘Keep America American’ was the same slogan used by the KKK in 1922.” This made me wonder what the context of his slogan was, so I did an DuckDuckGo search on it. It quickly became evident that he has no such slogan. He has said “Keep America America,” but that’s the difference between eating a Danish and eating Denmark. “Keep America America” could mean “Keep America a country that respects individual liberty,” though I wouldn’t count on it from Romney.

That tweet (which was retweeted from someone I don’t know) shows the technique of lying by misdirection. If it had said, “Romney’s new slogan is ‘Keep America American’!” then people might check if it really is. But treating it as a known fact and claiming to make a new discovery about it misdirects the audience from the key assertion. It’s an old magician’s trick: Keep them focused somewhere else.

Magicians, though, misdirect honestly (they don’t expect you to think they really materialized a rabbit) and with full awareness. The people who spread false stories often build them up through a series of evasions, operating not on an outright desire to spread untruths but on indifference to truth. The source of this particular lie may be an unsigned article on rt.com from December 2011. (But wait — that link no longer works! More in a moment.) That article says:

Among the little quips that the millionaire, wealthy, white former governor from Massachusetts has spat on the road to Washington is the urging to “keep America American.” Oddly enough, those three words aren’t all that original, as it looks as if ol’ Mitt has stolen the slogan from a group you wouldn’t normally think to cross — the Ku Klux Klan.

The article goes on at length on the history of the slogan, but provides no usable citation for Romney’s use. It claims, “The slogan has been muttered throughout his campaign and, as the Los Angeles Times reports, was used as recently as this week.” I did manage to find a correction by the LA Times indicating it had once attributed the expression to him but had misquoted the words. I can’t find them. Since the correction came later than the post, the author may have believed Romney uttered those words; but the lack of a specific reference and the assertion that it’s a “slogan” that “has been repeatedly muttered” by unspecified people indicate a mind that doesn’t care about the facts. (Update: Snopes gives its analysis of the issue.)

But— Here’s where things get complicated when you leave a draft lying around for a couple of days. The months-old post on rt.com disappeared since I wrote that. A search turns up the link, with a matching description, so I didn’t mess up the URL; that article was there not long ago. Apparently someone, whether or not it was the author, caught wind of the falsehood and yanked the article. Update: Never mind. The article’s back. It must have just been a glitch.

For all the detail I’ve gone into, I don’t want to give the impression that this lie as such is important. It’s an ordinary part of what passes for political discourse on all sides, and not a lot of people have repeated it. My point is how easy it is to sneak a “fact” across by assuming it rather than baldly asserting it. That makes the liar look informed and concerned with facts. Some of the stories portraying Obama as foreign-born or Muslim use exactly the same trick. On a few occasions I’ve suggested a hypothesis, only to find someone else taking my guess as a fact. I hope those didn’t spread any further.

Posted in General. Tags: , . Comments Off on Lying by misdirection

Techniques of focus

The Objectivist philosophy holds that the primary choice is the choice to focus one’s mind. People usually think of choosing as a matter of deciding whether to take some action or not, but really that can’t be primary. We don’t do things “just because” we decide to; we do them for some purpose. Is the choice of purpose the primary act of volition, then? Not really; we don’t pick goals out of the blue, but select them based on how we think about the world. The first act of choice is to direct our minds in one way rather than another, to think carefully or sloppily, to try to take in everything or to focus in on one object.

From a casual reading of Rand, it’s easy to interpret this as just the choice to focus or not. This would imply a very simple mental strategy: think as much as possible, except when you’re resting and recharging. A broader interpretation of the camera analogy is more fruitful, though. There are times when we need to be narrowly focused on something specific; in other cases this would result in our missing a lot. A simple example: When you’re driving a car, you should focus on the road and traffic; but if you focused on them to the exclusion of everything else, you’d become tense and wouldn’t enjoy the trip, and probably you’d be less safe than if you paid some attention to the scenery and plans for arrival. The ideal state of mental focus is a complex balance, not an on-off switch.

The ability to focus improves with practice and degrades with neglect. Good thinkers have a variety of techniques to use their minds to the best of their capacity. Aids to memory and habit can’t replace a commitment to thinking, but they can make it more effective.

As a personal example, I’ve formed the habit lately of using a diary application on my iPod to write down everything with calories that I eat and drink each day. I don’t try to count every calorie but just note what I’ve consumed in general terms. I haven’t deliberately eaten less while doing this, but I’ve lost some weight and am now consistently under 180 pounds. The practice makes me more accountable to myself; each time I think of eating something, I’m aware of how much I’ve already eaten and think about whether I’m really hungry or just want to munch something to pass the time. There are days when I know it’s hopeless to write down everything, and I just make a notation such as “too much con suite stuff.” That serves as a reminder to make up for it in the next few days.

Posted in General. Tags: , , , . Comments Off on Techniques of focus