Sturdley's Magical Mystical Blog

Musings on life, liberty, and the pursuit of derpiness.

Category Archives: Flotsam

Tales of the Lawn Nazi

You might have heard mention once before of the lawn nazi.  I will admit the man is meticulous, but that is entirely unrelated to tonight’s little distraction.  A bit of necessary background: the lawn nazi is surrounded on two sides by driveways, one to his house, the other to the neighbors behind me in addition to the back door to the lawn nazi’s garage.  That’s right, both his and his neighbor’s driveways actually go to his house/property.  This bit will be important later.

Tonight the lawn nazi ordered pizza.  I know this because just outside my desk window is the aforementioned rear-lot neighbor’s driveway and just beyond, Mr. Nazi’s house.  The pizza dude (clearly a high school student of average everyness) made the dastardly mistake of pulling into rear-lot neighbor’s driveway.  As he was getting out of the beat-up old pile he drove up in, I hear Mr. Nazi yelling from his front porch, “you’re in the wrong driveway.”  Pizza dude responded with something unintelligible, possibly because he had just scarfed one of Mr. Nazi’s breadsticks*, then proceeds to walk across the lawn to the front door of the clearly appropriate house.  I go back to my computer assuming the show is over.

Mere moments later I hear raised voices.  Quickly muting the perfectly cromulent light classical background music, I am just in time to hear pizza dude’s raised voice saying, “so you want me to move my car and waste my gas?!?”  The response was muffled by dense cedar foliage, but it was all too clear the answer was a resounding, “Fuck, YES!”  Pizza dude strode angrily across the lawn, empty thermal food luggage in one hand, two boxes of pizza in the other.  He entered his vehicle, reversed gear, backed out of the driveway, and drove 100 feet down the road to the next driveway.  Alas, the shining white visage of Mr. Nazi’s impeccably clean siding, and presumably equally clean inner house-guts, blocked all but a single brief muffled shout.

Pizza dude backed out of the driveway, clearly defeated.  He backed down the street to the front-center of Mr. Nazi’s house, I assume to capture the picture as a warning to his colleagues.

All this because the pizza guy had the “wrong” driveway, a driveway that technically enters the property of the entirely douche-tastic lawn nazi.  Yes, this really just happened.

 

*This is an entirely unfounded guess based entirely on the pizza dude’s sketchy appearance and clear fondness of junky foodstuffs.  No actual ganking of breadsticks was observed.

Using Yer Noggin’

My wife is fond of teasing that I don’t read any more.  This isn’t exactly true – I read a good deal, but my consumption of books, particularly fiction, is nowhere near the level it was before children, homeownership, and a growing list of hobbies gradually took over my free time.  The majority of my reading is now online: blogs, twitter, news, doctor who spoilers, a song of ice and fire theories, etc.  I have around forty blogs in my RSS feed plus a few others that I will pop in to read once in a while.  I don’t keep those in my feed simply because their enthusiasm about the subject matter results in prolific writing and I simply can’t keep up.  While I admit I don’t give all blogs in my feed the same level of attention, my lack of interest in some chosen topics is more to blame for this than the ability of the writer.

Here I am talking about my reading habits, but that’s not really the focus of this post, rather it is a setup for my main point: how we all select sources of our information, particularly related to contentious issues or topics with many alternative viewpoints.  As a student of science and practicing engineer, I have for years used the scientific method and the philosophy of challenging ideas from multiple directions as tools to solve problems.  A healthy level of skepticism in your thinking is useful in nearly all areas of life, and particularly important in the realm of politics where actual thinking is often is short supply.  This is a challenging notion for human beings, given the variety of quirks built into our minds.  I believe the saying goes, “the first step is recognizing you have a problem.”  Successfully assessing your position on any subject requires an honest and thorough evaluation of information that challenges your current thinking.

While I do read a good deal of blogs and news sources that comport with my worldview, I find it very useful to include some that do not.  There is always a danger in staying too close to your own ideological comfort zone.  Venturing outward is where new ideas are found and where existing ideas are refined.  Star Trek introduced the concept of the IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations) as the basis for the Vulcan belief system based on logic.  The simplified premise is that true knowledge only comes through the understanding of the infinite variables of the universe.  There is wisdom in this idea, even if it is an impossible exercise for a limited mortal being.

 

Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

Some of my family, friends, and acquaintances are perfectly willing to receive virtually all their information from a small set of partisan or heavily biased sources.  These same individuals are as dismissive of sources outside their small trusted group as they are accepting of those within.  Folks that go too far into this realm become intensely distrustful of anyone that does not meet their standard.  Often their own comfort zone must eventually shrink in order to remain a member of their preferred group.  Some can break out of this cycle, but not always.

Much like the muscles in your body, your brain will also atrophy if not properly exercised.  If you wish to maintain your mind at a high level of performance, it must be constantly challenged with problems and new ideas.  You might be surprised what you can learn about your views by analyzing a well-formed argument against them.  It’s not enough to simply go through the motions of listening to the opposition; you must attempt to understand the position and reasoning in detail.  This can be a particularly galling experience at first, after all, why would you consider the ideas of someone who is so obviously wrong?  It can also be tricky when opposing tribes use different language.  It is crucially important for this exercise to understand how their words are being used, and not to superimpose your own biases on their language.

By far the most important thing you must do is to endeavor to select a strong opposing argument to analyze.  Selecting a weak opposing argument does not challenge you because it can be easily deflected.  Selecting a weak opposing argument is intellectually dishonest because you are not responding to the most rational opponent.  If the purpose of the exercise is to bolster your own argument, then it is to your advantage to be able to respond to the strongest opposing argument.  If the purpose of the exercise is to objectively evaluate your own position, then it is to your advantage to consider the counter-argument most likely to refute your own.  You wouldn’t (shouldn’t – I’m certain there are assholes who would) play Monopoly with a 3-year old just so you can win, so why on earth would you approach a challenge to your political views this way?  Being right ultimately isn’t about winning the argument, fun as that may be, it is about having a fuller understanding of the issue in debate.

 

Fallacious Forms of Thinking

I’m a big fan of using reason and logic to arrive at conclusions, even if I’m not always successful in applying them to my own thinking.  It’s harder than it would seem, so much that there are groups dedicated to improving themselves through better thinking.  When it comes to evaluating sources of supporting and opposing arguments, it is essential to apply the same standard to all.  Above I mentioned the choice between selecting a strong versus weak argument in opposition to your own views.  The separation between strong and weak is more than simply being convincing or consisting of compelling written form.  For an argument to be strong, it must attempt to refute all principal opposing points using logic and reason.  This is a tall order in most circumstances, even more so in the realm of politics where there are sometimes no truly right answers.

There are a number of sites dedicated to the understanding of various types of fallacies.  I suggest reading them at your leisure.  If you are particularly adventurous, go back through your writings, tweets, etc. and attempt to identify where you have employed fallacies.  Understanding fallacies is important not just in evaluating the content of someone’s argument; it also plays a role in the consideration of that person as a reasonable source of information.

A few weeks back, I saw a tweet linking to an interview by Ron Paul of Glenn Greenwald regarding his reporting on the NSA.  One individual responded to the tweet asking why he should listen to Greenwald, who recently spoke at a socialist event.  The implied argument here is that if a person has any socialist leanings then anything and everything they might think or say is wrong or not worth considering.  Depending on your interpretation, you might call this Ad Hominem or Guilt by Association.  Regardless, I call it wrong.  It completely ignores the content of Greenwald’s answers, and instead attempts to use an unrelated bit of Greenwald’s views to dismiss him entirely.  I called him on it, as did one other individual, and we were naturally ignored (and I presume at least one more person in this world now views me as a socialist – I giggle at the irony).

The intent of telling this little story is to point out that in the quest for finding a strong opposing argument, you may need to read or listen to someone who holds some views you find to be odious or repugnant.  All too often, people view this as a negative.  It is certainly easier to be dismissive of folks on the opposing side of whatever issue is at hand, but it is not conducive to understanding the other side, and it is certainly not an effective way to form a rational counterargument.  While I admit to being guilty of this myself, I nonetheless view it as a failure in critical thinking and an opportunity for self-improvement.  As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.  The trick sometimes lies in determining the right time to listen.

 

I’ve rambled and meandered a bit in this post, a clear indication that I should write more often (yes, it has been more than a month since my last post – bad, bad blogger).  Still, I hope there are some small gems of good ideas in there for you to pick out, and I promise to attempt to be a bit more coherent next time.

A Listicle!

Or is it a linkticle? Whatever it is, it’s a clear sign of laziness on the part of the author. Happy holidays!

1). This Year in Bad Cops, Lucy Steigerwald. It doesn’t include all of my “favorites” from this year, but an excellent read nonetheless.

2) Perverse Incentives: Sex Work and the Law, Maggie McNeill, Ronald Weitzer, Dianne Post, Steven Wagner. An intelligent and civil discussion of differing sex work positions (I should feel ashamed of such a terrible pun, but I really don’t).

3) Vaccines and the Responsibility To Not Put Others at Risk, Ronald Bailey responds to Dr. Jeffrey Singer’s “Vaccination and Free Choice”. A discussion about the implications of mandatory vaccination.

Anti-vax Idiocy

In my very first substantive post I discussed how stories about some “thing” with extraordinarily improbable but very dire personal consequences will spread hysteria like wildfire, especially on social media sites. Today’s post is dedicated the sheer idiocy and scientific illiteracy of the anti-vaccine movement. Before proceeding further I must make a quick disclaimer: I am not a doctor and do not have any formal medical training, so before making any decisions regarding vaccination you should discuss both the risks and benefits with your doctor as well as doing some independent research through reputable institutions.

One motivation for this post is the Facebook post my wife encountered recently about the link between vaccines and autism. The participants of that discussion exhibited textbook examples of logical fallacies (post hoc ergo procter hoc and confirmation bias among the more prevalent) and active rejection in considering evidence that contradicted their views (a phenomena blogger David McRaney calls The Backfire Effect). I initially intended to write something right away, but other things distracted me.

Then a new study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine over Thanksgiving weekend and I saw a number of stories and twitter links about it. Orac, over at his blog, Respectful Insolence, wrote a most excellent post about the findings as well as a general discussion about the misinformation being peddled by the anti-vax movement, and evidence to rebut their claims. Go read it now, I will wait. Seriously, I’m not kidding, go read it. It puts a staggering perspective on the overwhelmingly positive impact vaccines have had in improving human health: Smallpox eradicated, polio on the verge if the remaining few troubled regions can be dealt with, and millions of lives either saved or improved by disease prevention among other points.

The basis of most anti-vax arguments is that some compound(s) within certain vaccines are a causal factor in autism and sometimes other conditions. Other dubious claims about vaccine effectiveness and the rarity of many diseases in modernized areas are also made. These claims often rely on pseudoscientific analysis, anecdotal evidence, and other abnormal argumentative techniques. Another “proof” often bandied about is the now thoroughly-debunked Andrew Wakefield study that attempted to link autism with the MMR vaccine. The problem with all of these methods is the rejection of rational analysis, because for something to be proven* there must be both an abundance of evidence directly supporting it and a dearth of evidence opposing it. None of the anti-vax assertions I have ever encountered have met both criteria.

Consider these two claims:

  • My daughter was diagnosed with autism thirteen days after receiving her MMR vaccine.
  • My son was diagnosed with autism thirteen days after eating a DiGiorno stuffed crust pizza.

The anti-vaxxers will swear by the first claim, but I’d hazard a guess that even they would be skeptical of the second. Upon critical examination, both claims are equally (un)convincing. Neither demonstrates any form of causation, only the correlation of two events close together in time (there’s that pesky post hoc ergo procter hoc again). Does going to the restroom cause autism? Does riding in a car? What about decorating a Christmas tree? Or getting stitches for that gash on your forehead? Or taking Tylenol for a fever? Did you feed your baby formula? Maybe that’s the cause. Did you breastfeed? Maybe that’s the cause. I could go on ad infinitum, but I expect by now you get my point: one can choose any number of events within a short window of time and form an irrational causal linkage between them.

The anti-vaccine movement has gained momentum with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F Kennedy Jr. (and apparently now Katie Couric) taking more activist roles in the movement. There are people who actively push this snake oil on the public, and then there are folks that accept this garbage as truth without knowing better because it is being delivered by sources they trust. I am far more infuriated by the former than the latter for it is one thing to actively reject overwhelming evidence, but quite another to be ignorant of its existence. Ignorance is far more easily cured than stupidity.

Anti-vaxxers pose a threat to themselves and to others. Not everyone can be vaccinated due to medical conditions like allergies or compromised immune systems. Vaccines are also not 100% effective, meaning that even when vaccinated, you still have some chance of being susceptible to some diseases. When these factors are combined with a sufficiently large number of people voluntarily declining vaccination, the effectiveness of the whole system tips on its side and these previously rare diseases resurge.

Eradicating infectious disease through vaccination frees money, resources, and manpower to pursue other health issues like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Resisting vaccination based on unfounded fears not only puts those resisting at risk, it sets back the progress of eradication and future research into other problems. I suppose I should not be entirely surprised given the human predilection to act in ways contrary to our best interests, safety, and health.

I vaccinate myself and my children. I do so because I believe the benefits far outweigh the risks. I do so because I believe I have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading debilitating diseases to those that due to allergies or other complications cannot be vaccinated. I do so because I know that no vaccine is 100% effective and believe I have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading debilitating diseases to those people for whom a vaccine is not effective. Finally, I do so because I believe I have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading debilitating diseases to the children of idiots who refuse to vaccinate based on erroneous beliefs or irrational fears. After all, I would be completely devastated if the choice to not vaccinate my child resulted in the infection and subsequent death of the little girl down the street with a compromised immune system or the boy who is allergic to most vaccine compounds. Only a monster would believe otherwise.

*A technicality: nothing can be 100% “proven” in the scientific sense, only disproven. Once sufficient evidence is accumulated to support an assertion, we generally accept it as “proven” for all practical purposes, at least until evidence is uncovered that alters or confounds our understanding.

Links That Make Me Think

A couple of links that caused me to stop and think for a bit. I originally read both of these when they were first published, but even now they spring immediately to mind when related topics are in the news.*

The Brain on Trial

Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us – now apparently behind a paywall. Pay up or use your google-fu…

*Obvious disclaimer: linking != full agreement with contents.

Corporate “Training”

Today I spent two and a half hours taking mandatory annual “training” at work.  Said training consists mostly of a series of poorly designed web/Powerpoint mash-ups that basically tell you not to do stupid shit.  Ok, thanks for that, if you hadn’t told me I would never have known.  It’s not really training so much as a rehashing of all the paperwork I signed when I hired in.  I can’t help but wonder, though, why do people need this annually?  It must be a legal thing… I hope its a legal thing.  No wait, I work with these people, it is not a legal thing.

For the most part, it was all the same stuff that was covered in last year’s “training.”  An hour of droning on about record retention; keep these documents this long, keep those ones that long, a lunch invitation to celebrate Joe’s escape from corporate servitude is not considered a “business record.”  Integrity code: don’t accept gifts from vendors, don’t give bribes to government officials, don’t behave like an ass in public if you are a face of the company.

Then I get to the harassment portion of this franken-slideshow, same as last year except, wait, what’s this?  It’s a spiffy brand new section: Workplace Bullying.  Yeah, you read that right, I’m pretty sure I’ve just been downgraded from an adult to a grade-schooler by someone paid a lot more than I am whose job is to figure out the best way to convince other supposedly decent human beings to behave like actual decent human beings.  Now, watching that video is like a how-to-leadership guide for about half the managers I’ve ever worked for except it’s saying this is not acceptable behavior.  I’m sitting at my desk shaking my head in utter amazement when a co-worker walks by.  I point at my screen, she looks, rolls her eyes, laughs and continues on.  I wonder how many more years until this becomes company policy.

So the bureaucracy reaches new heights of absurdity.  Ho-hum.  I duly note how many hours of training I’ve taken so I can enter it into the system that tracks the time we spend on each project.  And the clock says I still have a third of my day left… #*$%!

Perceptions of Risk

I’m sure you’ve seen this: one of your friends shares a Facebook post about dastardly privacy setting changes, some plot by do-no-gooders to sneak into your garden shed and steal your kittens, or general evil deeds afoot in the internet.  These never cease to amuse and confuse me.  Let’s set aside the fact that some of these truly are hoaxes invented by internet trolls for the sole purpose of causing distress (this is why we have Snopes).  Even the true stories seem to spread like wildfire based on a skewed sense of risk, often under the guise of “spreading the word… you know, just in case.”

Take an example I saw recently.  The post suggested you turn off your location settings in your smartphone camera because bad people will extract the geo-data from the pictures you post on Facebook, find your house, and do nefarious things to your family.  On its face, this is a terrifying scenario with an extraordinarily simple solution.  Why would anyone not do this immediately?  Why would you not tell all your friends to do the same thing?  What kind of horrible monster leaves this setting active on their phone?!?  But things are not as they appear.  Let’s analyze the failure in logic:

  • You are posting images of yourself and/or family in the internet.
  • Your name is presumably on the account on which you are posting, also on the internet.
  • Your address might be posted in your about page, in a post you’ve made in the past, or even captured in one of the images you’ve posted of yourself in front of your house.
  • Your address is very likely available under your name on any number of White Pages directories or other lookup services.

If a bad person wanted to find you, they already have ample opportunity to do so without extracting image file metadata or even looking at your online pictures.  We haven’t even considered the likelihood that these bad people want to find you or whether they are the ones you should be worried about (publicly available data on crime suggests they are not at the top of the list).  See what I mean about skewed sense of risk?

We all judge risk every day, and even change how we respond to it based on past experience.  If you burn your finger on that hot pan once, you form a model of the world that informs you to not touch a pan without first determining its temperature.  Checking if a pan is hot is quick and easy with relatively low chance of permanent harm.  There are many decisions we make every day that involve far more complicated calculation of risk and much higher stakes.  I think this is where most of us end up deviating from the real risks based on our perceived model of the world and our biases.  That’s where we have the best opportunity to improve in our decision-making and responses, but it also means taking a moment to step back from the scary story and thinking about how you got there.

Going back to the example I introduced above, assume for the moment that one of these bad people wants to get you.  How do you prevent this?  You either keep them from finding you or you stop them once they do.  Do they know your name?  How?  Can they find out where you live?  How?  What could you reasonably do to prevent them learning your name or address?  If you fail this and they do find this information, what can you do to protect yourself?  How do these people typically behave when they’re about to come get you?  Do they announce themselves or are they sneaky?  How could they be sneaky?  How can you tell these bad people from the good?  If you ask these kinds of questions when judging the risk, you are far more likely to recognize your biases and avoid reaching erroneous or premature conclusions.

With this new perspective, I think you might agree that not only is smartphone image geo-data is not among the top concerns.  In fact, it is likely so low in risk as to be negligible compared to simply posting online at all.  Even that could be considered less risky than a listing in the white pages.  I suppose it is a comforting, if not misleading thought that a simple smartphone setting could stop bad people cold in their tracks, though.

So I suggest the next time you encounter one of these warning posts that triggers an immediate emotional response in your mind, stop and think for a moment.  Are you responding to a real risk or are you feeding into the sense of panic the author is trying to induce?  You might be surprised.

Welcome

You found my blog!  Since this is my first post, you no doubt think my blog is boring.  You are right.  Three sentences in and I’ve said nothing of use to anyone.  Just remember, there’s plenty more where that came from, and I do not intend to disappoint.

What can you expect to read here?  Whatever I find interesting and feel the urge to write about.  I expect to post about food since I eat at least a few times a day and have considerable opinion on the topic.  You might also see humor, gaming (video and tabletop), and various geeky stuff appear from time to time.  Politics is always an exciting topic on the internet!  You could even suggest something you would like to see, just don’t expect guaranteed delivery on all requests.  I have some other ideas for the future, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.

So pop in from time to time to see what’s new and leave a comment or two if you like.