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Thursday, January 08, 2015

Thinking Like a Bully

I was contemplating a story a while back (not written, but that's another story) in which the viewpoint character was a bully, from childhood on up to adulthood. The problem is, I never understood them as a kid. I understand them a bit better now. What follows are my observations and educated guesses about how and why they operate as they do.

The central motivation in a bully's life seems to be obtaining power over others. This desire could arise naturally--some people are just born to want to be "the boss" in an aggressive fashion (as opposed to leaders, who have the same ability to get others to follow them but usually have more benign intentions). Others develop the desire to push others around in response to their childhood experiences. Either they were pushed around by parents or siblings or they saw one parent dominate the other one, usually with threats or use of physical force. Perhaps there are other explanations, but those are the ones that occur to me.

What's interesting and disturbing is to see how bullying plays out in the adult world. Just because you grow up in an abusive or threatening household doesn't mean you want to or have to emulate that in your own life. I'd like to think some don't. My home life while growing up was benign; my interactions with my peers, not always. I took a lot of teasing personally and mostly just wanted to get along and be left alone: "If you don't have anything nice to say..." The desire to control, boss around, or manipulate others just isn't a huge motivator in my life. I come at life with a notion of live and let live.

A bully doesn't think that way. A bully is paranoid, believing that everyone is out to get him/her, and the only way to deal with someone is to strike back at some perceived slight or to strike first before someone else gets the better of you. A bully "controls" his/her environment by fear--intimidating others through aggressiveness to prevent others from even desiring to "cross" them. Paradoxically, that effort to control through fear is born from the bully's own fears--sense a threat, attack it before it hurts you! It's a sad way to go through life.

Sometimes bullying takes different forms: back-stabbing, ostracism, gossiping, peer pressure, or "political" pressure, all of which are subtle ways of bending the will of the individual to the group: do things our way or you'll be sorry! Bullying works on individuals and groups. An individual with a group behind him/her is stronger and has more resources than a single person alone. A bully tries to get into the head of the victim and get them to imagine what will happen to his/her own skin, reputation, etc., if left standing alone. These dynamics are the same whether one is talking about a cult leader or a romantic partner who seeks to isolate and control another. Gangs, for example, usually don't jump other gangs or even groups of people, they usually assault a single individual and outnumber them.

"There's strength in numbers," the saying goes, and it's perfectly true. The converse of that is,  "There's weakness in isolation." Bullies play on those fears. They also tend to prey on the small, the weak, and the loner. These types of targets are unlikely to cause damage to the bully, are less able to defend themselves, or are less able to call upon others to help them in the event of personal danger. Bullies note those dynamics, too: they're opportunists, preferring targets of opportunity and seeking to dominate only those most easily dominated. Bullies are not exactly cowards, but they only push where they think they will get away with their intimidating behavior.

Some bullies operate on a broader scale and have a larger stage from which to work: crime bosses, armed gangs, even heads of governments. Again, the dynamics apply: isolate individuals, attack the weak, do as much as possible within what seems allowable. Sometimes they hit outside their weight to prove their toughness to others. Sometimes they do it because they sense that a stronger power will let them get away with bad actions. They will keep pushing the limits until they're forced to fight.

What is one to do with adult bullies? In the end, the choices haven't changed for thousands of years: you can either submit to their wishes, ignore them, or stand up to them. However, it's important to know that the first two options have consequences.

Appeasement or capitulation breeds reactive cowardice in the victim and leads to a situation where you lose control of your freedom of thought and movement. A bully, sensing surrender, will get MORE, not LESS aggressive because they now see someone who is not just weak but confessing weakness. Building on that, the bully will double down on their demands and misbehavior, figuring that if they push hard enough they'll get even more for their efforts. Appeasing a bully triggers a "reward" response, where they want and get more by acting in an aggressive fashion.

Ignoring bullies--regardless of the size--might or might not work. If they think you're an easy target, they will keep coming because they think they can get away with bad behavior or maybe they'll lose interest.

Usually a bully only backs off when they are confronted at a level that makes it clear their behavior will not be tolerated. You might yell, you might complain to HR, you might call the police, you might arm yourself, you might have to go out and take down the bully with all the resources you and your fellows have available to you. In the end, though, a bully is only stopped by another bully or by an honorable person with enough strength to make them stop. Such is human nature. I wish that it were otherwise.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Which Universe Do You Live In?

For a multitude of reasons, I have friends and Facebook and follow people on Twitter who have philosophical views drastically different from my own. What's baffling to me--a person who occasionally can be overwhelmed by too much or too much conflicting data--is how all of these folks live in the same universe. If I believe all the opinions and "facts" put out by conservatives, the world is going to heck in a handcart under Obama. If I believe everything liberals say, they are the source of all that's good and right in the world and conservatives are gravely mistaken about everything. If I believe the folks who lean libertarian, the conservatives and the liberals are both screwed up and need to have their political power taken down several notches (no two libertarians, however, can agree on a method for such a scenario). And so forth. What's interesting is that all of them use "facts" to back up their claims.

One example will suffice: unemployment. Right now, official government figures have the unemployment rate at ~6%, which is well-nigh decent, and a big improvement over the 8-10% we had in 2008. However, if you take a different view of "the numbers," the unemployment rate is actually much higher because the labor participation rate (i.e., the number of people eligible for work who are not employed or not looking for work) had dropped to historic lows because people have simply "given up" trying to find a job. Then there's the contrarian view that a lot more jobs could be created if government regulations were drastically trimmed. And so forth.

Who do you believe?

What's at the root of all these opinions--and gosh knows I can only spend so much time reading political rants before I feel the urge to do something else, like laundry or cleaning the tub--is reality itself. Different groups operate from different assumptions and so interpret the "facts" of the world accordingly.

Do you believe humanity is basically good or, at worst, neutral? Do you believe that individuals are a product of societal forces and the specific circumstances into which they are born (nationality, wealth, race)? Do you believe that the "American Dream" (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) is admirable but unrealistic due to societal forces working to suppress minorities? Do you believe that human beings can be improved, either through individual effort or wise leadership from enlightened "right thinking" people? Do you believe that history is one of never-ending progress with occasional downturns? Do you believe that government's most important role is to ensure the social and economic equality of all? Do you believe that all moral systems are inherently equal because they're all aiming toward some sort of good but have some disagreements as to how morality should be enforced? Do you mistrust religion? Do you distrust big businesses more than big governments? Do you believe government should be the ultimate source of economic problem-solving among people? If you answered yes to the bulk of these questions, you are probably a liberal.

Do you believe humanity is basically "fallen" and that individuals are good or evil from birth? Do you believe that individuals have the ability to overcome their circumstances no matter how dire? Do you believe the "American Dream" should apply to everyone, regardless of birth? Do you believe that human nature is constant (essentially bad) and bad behavior can only be restrained through religious or governmental authority? Do you believe that human progress (freedom, technological development, enlightenment through inquiry and the arts) is a temporary phenomenon and that societies must guard against "barbarism?" Do you believe that some moral systems (e.g., Western) are superior to others due to their outcomes? Do you believe government's most important role is to ensure a nation's economic and political strength? Do you distrust big governments more than big businesses? Do you believe the marketplace should be the ultimate source of economic problem-solving among people? If you answered yes to the bulk of these questions, you are probably a traditional conservative.

Do you believe humanity is essentially neutral and a product of his/her birth and education? Do you believe individuals can overcome their specific obstacles in life if they are given maximum freedom from government and society? Do you believe the "American Dream" should be exported around the world peacefully? Do you believe that human nature, while bad, can be overcome? Do you believe that human progress is possible, but only through individual, non-government efforts? Do you believe that all established moral systems are valid as long a they don't try to harm others? Do you believe government's most important role is to ensure individual freedom and to allow individuals to achieve as much as possible? Do you believe individual choices and trades (the marketplace) should be the ultimate source of economic problem-solving among people? If you answered yes to most of these, you're probably libertarian.

The challenge, as I noted earlier, is that all of these attitudes--and more!--are at play on the internet and in our national dialogue. If you let yourself get overwhelmed by the babble and the back-and-forth, you have a few choices:
  • Tune out everybody and just avoid politics as much as possible
  • Listen to/read only those people with you you agree
  • Absorb it all and try to obtain a balanced perspective on how people think about the world
The benefit of the first option is less stress; the downside is that you become ignorant of matters which might greatly affect how you live and work.

The benefit of the second option is comfort; you can read or listen to commentators with whom you agree and become part of the cheering section; the downside is that you can have your viewpoint skewed to the point of ignoring or being unable to comprehend facts that contradict your isolated worldview.

The benefit of the last option is that  you get a clearer picture of what's being said about the state of the world/nation and how it might be interpreted; the downside is data overflow and a tendency to read more arguments than you might care to see.

I've tried all three options, sometimes within the same week, sometimes within the same day. Sometimes I'll spend a long stretch using one option. Occasionally I even throw in my own two cents. Therein lies the challenge: you can learn about what people say about the world from watching/reading the news/internet/etc., but you also have the option to participate. How do you see the world? Do you believe your voice can make a difference? I guess it all depends on which universe you choose to see.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas for Me, You, and Everybody

For the last few years (4? 5?), my Christmas "tradition" has been to fly to Orlando, spend a few days visiting my dad and stepmom, catching up with Disney friends if possible, going into one of the theme parks, and staying at The Peabody on International Drive. Following the advice of my father, a former Eastern Airlines sales rep, I'd try to pick the least-busy holiday travel inbound and outbound to avoid unnecessary crowds. As it happens, one of the least busy days to fly is Christmas Day, so I've spent several December 25s in airports and airplanes, heading away from Orlando to somewhere colder. Last year, I was on the verge of unemployment. I knew it was where I wanted to be, and made the plan to return to Florida. I've spent a year living in other people's homes, scrounging for work, but in the end, I got to a place where I think I can support myself, live in my own apartment, and (huzzah!) spend Christmas in Orlando. No idea what I'll be doing that day--dinner with Dad is the 23rd ("because Bart always leaves on Christmas Day"--ouch). However, I'll be in a warm place, near people and places I love and within electronic and telephone contract of those not so nearby. I consider that a holiday well spent.

I couldn't rightly say where my faith is at this moment, but Christmas has always been a special time for me. I love Luke Chapter 2. I love Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and the rest on the radio. I love the trees and the lights. I love gathering together with family and friends. It's always been a time to feel and spread goodwill, and that's what I try to do.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, I hope you find this season a warm time of good fellowship. Merry Christmas, one and all.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar


Let's get the bad news out of the way for those of you who don't have the patience to read an entire review: I really wanted to like Interstellar, but it just didn't move, entrance, or excite me like I thought it would. I give it three stars. Those of you with short attention spans may now move along to other parts of the internet. If you'd like to know why I gave the film this rating, feel free to keep reading.

Obviously I wanted to like Interstellar because I'm a space geek and because it's been quite a while since I saw an upbeat vision of space exploration depicted on film. And let me be fair here: that is what Interstellar provides. And the stakes are high: astronauts heading off to the far reaches of space--via a black hole, no less--to save the Earth. So you've got the broad tapestry we expect from space operas, as depicted by SF Grand Master Brian Aldiss:

Ideally, the Earth must be in peril, there must be a quest and a man to match the mighty hour. That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and Ships launch out into the louring dark. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than the Black Hole. And all must come right in the end.

Without giving too much away, I would say, again, that Interstellar includes most of these ingredients. Plus, as an extra bonus, the director got scientific input from an actual astrophysicist. Also on the positive side, the visuals of entering the black hole are amazing and worth seeing on the big screen. The space hardware, too, is believable. In fact, the spacecraft look very much like NASA hardware (which, in fact, they're depicted to be). Though truth be told, my favorite bits of screen eye candy are the closeups of the planet Saturn. And on the human interest side of things, we have people who are stock characters to serious SF fans: we have our plucky astronauts doing what they can for their own disparate reasons--the hot pilot (Matthew McConnaughey) flying off to live his dream and save his family; the scientist's daughter, out for reasons of her own and following in her father's footsteps; the robot with a sense of humor; and a range of characters who are either worth knowing or easily disposable.

So why does this film disappoint?

Let's start with the exposition--the "world building," as SF writers call it. We've got a future Earth that is dying from some sort of blight that is killing crops, eroding the oxygen in the atmosphere, and shrinking the world's population. The most obvious signs of this negative future are massive dust storms, which call to mind the nuclear winter parts of The Day After. In fact, a few aspects of Interstellar reminded me of The Day After, including the corn-country setting, the blowing dust, the air of despair, and the presence of John Lithgow, who in this film portrays a crusty grandfather instead of the scientific genius (that role is played by Michael Caine, who does much less crying in this film than the last Christopher Nolan Batman film). But the last thing that reminded me of that "epic" made-for-TV movie was the bad acting. Honestly, I can't recall the last movie I saw where I felt the actors just phoned it in, but this film had an abundance of it, including bad acting by a couple of famous actors whom I figured would know better. The best explanation I have for this bad acting is an unfamiliarity with science fiction and its unavoidable technobabble.

Next thing? The buildup. Interstellar suffers from pacing problems and is therefore too long, by about 40 minutes. There would be no shame in curtailing the exposition to get McConnaughey's pilot into space, but Christopher Nolan felt otherwise.

I was going to say nice things about the soundtrack, which has touches of classical Earth themes that will definitely remind audiences of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is good and bad. 2001 definitely has grandeur, and the Interstellar soundtrack manages to evoke that grandeur in some cases. However, there are a couple places in the film where the soundtrack overwhelms the actors' voices. At the time, I was frustrated because I couldn't understand what the actors were saying. Only later, like this morning, did I realize that the sound problems had been on purpose, which somehow made it worse. A little reminder to Hollywood directors: don't make your game-playing so obvious. As with good written material, you don't want to disrupt the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. If the reader or movie-going audience is made aware of the artifice of what's going on, they are no longer paying attention to the story but are instead paying attention to the storytelling.

Lastly, there is the plot, which is convoluted in places, messy in others, and in some places outright unbelievable. It takes too many steps to get from Earth to the heart of the plot (the "MacGuffin," which was also the name of the bar where I bought a bourbon before entering the theater). And when I got to the MacGuffin, I found that...well, I just didn't buy it. It was like a "high concept" for a science fiction film written by someone who doesn't read a lot of SF but thinks, "Hey, if we do this, it'll be really cool and deep," but it's not.

Which brings me back to my original three-star rating. I applaud Christopher Nolan for making a space opera with a positive view of science, technology, and the human future. And he delivers that...BUT: I didn't care about the characters. The story is too long. The central "high concepts" that resolve the plot make no sense or are muddled. So Interstellar gets three stars from me. Your mileage could vary.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Future of Electricity

I probably wrote too much on this subject in Facebook, so I'm moving my thoughts here. What started this discussion was a Popular Science story on how all those solar panels people put up to reduce strain on "the grid" actually aren't as helpful as they could be. My friend Angela referred me to a somewhat longer piece by the New York Times on the same subject. Here follows my response, with a couple extra links/comments:

Okay, so I went back and read the NYT piece. I don't know how various systems ARE handling electrical power, but here's my slightly more-informed take on the issue:
1) A useful electrical grid should be focused on demand, not efficiency, even if that
means redundancy. The general public is concerned with two primary issues when it comes to electricity: price and availability. I could be wrong, but my guess is that we're willing to pay slightly more for 100% availability.
2) The grid also should provide overlapping/surge capabilities to meet demand as required (e.g., regular business hours, the hottest part of summer days so people don't die of heatstroke, or during the coldest part of a winter night up north when temps drop to Antarctic levels).
3) Future solar panels can be built/added to the west sides of people's roofs/yards. If the government is serious about maintaining/improving electrical power during peak loads, they can offer incentives to help people pay to move their solar panels.
4) Another useful thing that could be done with roofs
(for addressing climate change) is to paint them white or reflectively to increase the amount of sunlight being reflected into space instead of being absorbed by the ground.
5) If individuals have the wherewithal to provide themselves with electrical power through solar, generators, etc., they should be allowed to opt out of the grid. If there's a major disaster, such as a hurricane, the individual would have an equal or better chance of having power.
6) Consistent-output power systems (nuclear, natural gas, coal), should continue to provide base-load power. Solar and wind are just too fickle to depend upon for base power. The sun might be shining just brilliantly or the wind blowing like crazy during a peak-load time--in which case everyone wins. If there's a peak load and a cloudy, windless day or night, all those solar panels don't matter much.
7) Capacitor technologies are improving, as are other energy storage technologies (e.g. flywheels). If those can be made to harness the energy collected by solar/wind as generated and dispensed as needed, I can see a better system evolving--one that keeps environmentalists reasonably happy while continuing to allow our high-tech civilization to function and prosper.

 
My $.04.



An Open Letter to Microsoft

[This message was also sent via the "Feedback" option in Outlook. The Feedback box had a character limit, so I'm completing my thoughts here. I am nothing if not persistent.]

Dear Microsoft:

In the past two months, your spam filter has turned from relatively reliable to nearly worthless. I now have 500(!!) word-search junk filters set up, and that is still not enough. I wrote to you because 500 filters is your "legal limit," and the garbage keeps coming in. I am not going out to a lot of websites to get my name put on special lists just so I can enjoy the attention of the world's online entrepreneurs. My name and email are in the public domain, so I am just getting bombarded. Your spam filter appears to have given up the ghost unless a junk message runs afoul of a rule that I set up for it. I am an independent contractor, and new business can come in from unknown sources, so I can't just block everyone who's not on my contact list and call it done.

Also, because I have my Outlook tied to my iPhone, I must ask: does the junk filter even work on iPhone? I ask because if a junk mail message hits my iPhone first (as opposed to the webpage), more often than not the message will go to my inbox, not the Junk folder. If the message gets to the website first, it's a tossup as to whether the message will go to Junk or the Inbox.

I am not happy with this situation. I have been using Hotmail for 17 years because the service has been worthwhile. I might stop now.

Bart Leahy
Heroic Technical Writing
Orlando, FL

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Do It for the Children

Start by reading this article. Go ahead, I'll wait...


If you're not interested in reading about standard deviations and the like, the chart is pretty clear:



Per-pupil public spending on education has increased dramatically while test scores have remained essentially flat. I'm not saying stop education spending. Clearly we need an educated population. I am suggesting a little more rigor when someone argues that "We need to spend more! It's for the children!" Rather than just have a knee-jerk reaction and give in to avoid being seen as "anti-education," it might be more constructive to ask how much more someone wants to spend, and on what?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Generation Huh?

Just finished reading an essay in The Weekly Standard on Millennials, that wild, wacky, much larger generation after mine (GenX). The basic point of the article being that so-called scholarly articles making generalizations about generations are often a bunch of balderdash, poppycock, pick your standard term for bunk.

I guess I'd have to agree. Reporting from the anecdotal field of the real world, here are my own observations of Generation X:
  • Most of my peers are or have been married at least once.
  • Most of us have jobs.
  • Many of us have kids or, if not kids, pets.
  • We have a low tolerance for the foolishness imposed on us by Baby Boomer bosses.
Beyond that? Honestly, my observations become nearly useless because our friendships and work acquaintances are self-selecting. I've worked at Disney, which attracts one demographic. I've worked for the Department of Defense, which will bring in a slightly different demographic. I've worked for NASA and the aerospace community, which truly has a niche set of social attributes. In fact, the space community has been so monochromatic that I wrote a master's thesis on marketing approaches to bring in more women and minorities. Regardless, I have been drawn to and worked in environments that have very strong, very recognizable cultures. Disney is all about entertainment, perkiness, neatness, and guest-focused customer service. The military culture is predominantly male, top-down, honor-focused, and has a tendency to break things and kill people on behalf of our national defense. The space community is almost a mix of the two: very upbeat ("visionary"), top-down, and WASP male, with a few more hopeful women than the military and a lot fewer minorities.

I suppose it's instructive, then, to talk about Facebook and my 20th high school reunion, both of which provided me the opportunity to see how "normal people" in my generation have done. (Point of reference: I got a paper award for "Most Unusual Job" at the reunion.) My high school, situated in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, produced a lot of people with what my folks used to call "straight jobs": doctors, lawyers, contractors, nurses, teachers, what have you. As a writer for NASA (and now a freelance writer working for aerospace and non-aerospace clients), I do not quite fit that label.

In other ways, I'm right in line with the tastes of middle-class white males of my age and background: I watch the NFL; I listen to classic rock and pop music from my high school days; I drive a Honda sedan; I get annoyed by the foolishness of both major political parties (the left more than the right) and recently registered as "unaffiliated" in Florida as a mild protest. I'll probably vote libertarian in coming years.

The Generation X (born 1961-1975) peers I interact with most often are scientists, engineers, or technology-focused in some way. They're some of the best and brightest people I've ever met, and they give me hope that this nation can continue to do great things. While all high-achieving, very few of these folks to share common ideas about the future--they range from loud libertarians to confident conservatives to passionate progressives. The political battles we inherited from our parents will continue.

My peers who have become parents also have a wide range of beliefs and attitudes about the world; however, being parents, they have that common traditional streak that wants to see their children grow up well-behaved, mature, and capable of getting a job. Again, it might be a self-selecting reflection on my friends, but none of them has the attitude that their kids can't or shouldn't try to do better or that they should expect a check from the government to live.

Undoubtedly I'm not seeing the whole picture of "my generation." I heard a lot when I was in college for my B.A. and afterward about how expectations were being lowered for us because many of us graduated in the middle of the Gulf War recession. I heard similar things about the Millennials in 2002 when I got my M.A. and we were going through the second Gulf War recession. (Note to self--no more schooling: I keep graduating just after war-induced recessions.) The "low expectations" line is media BS. We work, we pay our bills, we'd like to have more money. How is that any different from the Baby Boomers? Who are the exemplars of Generation X--Elon Musk, President Obama, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bezos, Darlene Cavalier? Or are they Marilyn Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Len Bias, and Pink? (Okay, you have your lists, I have mine.) History will be the judge of our deeds.

In the end, about all you can say about a "generation" is that we had a similar set of world events happen around us and we all found ways (some better than others) of surviving them. The only advantage we have over previous generations is that we get to see a bit more of the future than they do. What we do with the knowledge and experience is, of course, up to us.