Friday, November 8, 2013

Finding a Niche(?)

I was listening to the You are Not So Smart Podcast on culture and at 18:30 the guest shares an interesting story about the difference between the Middle-class culture and Working-class culture. You should go listen to the original source, but I'll reproduce the highlights here.

The guest Hazel Markus gives the broad definition of Middle-class being college-educated and Working-class lacking a college education. In general the Middle-class will tend to have more autonomous work, probably moved away for college, and develop a culture about what influence and choices they make. Their culture develops around autonomy and individualism. They are more likely to be independent and choose their relationships. In contrast the Working-class individual will tend to have more directed work, probably stayed local, have less control, and less autonomy. They have to be responsive to other people and pay attention to what others are doing and telling them to do. So their culture starts to develop more around conforming to others' view of themselves and collectivism.

So Hazel performed a study where the subject was given the scenario that they were buying a car. They had just spent several weeks or months doing the research and picking out the exact car they want. They purchase it and are proud and drive over to show it off to their friend. The next day they learn that the same friend went out and bought the exact same car. The subject was then asked how they feel.

They got two completely different sets of responses. (Surprise!)

The Middle-class group became indignant. "I can't believe you did that! You spoiled my point of differentiation! You spoiled my uniqueness! I wanted to have this car be something special that identified me!"

The Working-class group reacted completely different. "That is so cool! I would love it if my buddy got a car like me! We could start one of those car clubs!"

See the difference? Their senses of self are completely different. Middle-class independent college-educated pick-what-you-want people develop a sense of self that is based around uniqueness. To them their identity is borne out of them being special and finding their own niche. They like to exercise meaningful choices. Their friend getting the same car as them was crowding them out! Working-class individuals develop a sense of self that is based around community. They fit into a group and see themselves as identified by their peers and friends. Getting the same car wasn't violating their boundaries, it was validating their decision! They have an interdependent sense of self.

Since this was a podcast about the culture you are born into changing you (they also talk about how growing up Southern makes you more belligerent and willing to resort to violence in response to an affront to your honor), they traced it back to the kind of culture the two groups live within. A Middle-class person has more choices available and a society that rewards unique extroverted signalling. You think about your behavior in the context of being choices [1]. This lines up with other research and postulations about how we started selecting for extroverts as we migrated to cities. You didn't have time to figure out a person, so you latched on to the strongest signals you could find. The Working-class person one lives in a work environment where they have to be mindful of others, understand interpersonal dynamics a bit more, and has longer-term connections that they have to adhere to and maintain. They live in a culture where they have less "choice" in the matter and don't see common behaviors in a context of choosing.

The concept of a niche, which is what it appears the Middle-class group is creating, isn't noteworthy. Darwin postulated that a reason for speciation was populations finding new niches with unique resources for them to exploit. Instead of competing with other similar birds, if you are better equipped to find sustenance on a different food source or can do your nesting using different materials, eventually your population diverges to maximize the utilization of those unique aspects. In a similar manner humans specialize. You may be well equipped to be an athlete but not an artist, so naturally you specialize in maximizing your athletic ability in order to show fitness and earn income. And since you are an amazing athlete, instead of competing with you as a subpar athlete, someone else with a disposition towards being an artist will fill that gap and become an artist.

An interesting expansion of this has come about due to the higher density of interactions we have today. Not only do we tend to live in bustling cities but we also have the Internet to see the actions and niches others have carved out. So to "survive" increasingly many of use try to find a niche to call our own. Seems logical based on social evolution right?

But notice how this assumes you are competing for resources. The second Working-class group may compete, but they also allow their characteristics to form bonds and communities. You're an athlete? Awesome, I love being an athlete! Let's be athletes together! See you on the court in two hours. There is a stronger trend towards companionship and looking for things to share. You no longer compete for friendships, you live out friendships.

Obviously both parties will take on the others' traits. The first Middle-class group still gets together over beers in the pub or go out dancing together and geek out about random topics. The Working-class still utilize differentiation signaling often buying extraordinarily expensive articles of clothing [2]. But this is about how you conceptualize your sense of self. Your default majority perspective. Do you value being different and unique more? Or do you value having common interests you can share more?

Personally this thinking was a bit eye-opening since I belong to the former group. I'm college-educated, I've moved quite far from my hometown, I get to pick-and-choose. But I always wondered how some of these other individuals around me were able to invest so heavily in their relationships and have this strong sense of camaraderie even with seemingly disparate individuals. I once mused a long time ago on this blog that the strongest unifier is a common enemy. But other powerful forces help bind these communities together. Their very sense of self being entwined with community and peers shapes their relationships into ones of an interwoven braid.

I have built much of my sense of self in terms of my unique talents. I can list a million different things that I have sampled in search for unique identifiers and niches. Over the past few months on several occasions others have intruded on some of those aspects and I internally recoiled. That field was supposed to be mine! I am the resource and the harbinger and the authority! How dare this upstart crowd me out! Sounds silly in retrospect, but these are real guttural feelings. And looking back I can see how this mindset has influenced much of my actions. I shied away from things where there were already champions since I saw myself in conflict and only offering a subpar commodity. I didn't see it as joining them, unless as a disciple. I only saw the end-game as being the best in my own niche.

So I wouldn't commit. I would let interests wane. Only after feeling out the field would I try it out with gusto, either because I could accept being in the subservient position or because no other authority would challenge my position. And in fields that I enjoyed but still not the best, I would always defer and be demure about it, pointing people towards the true masters in the field and noting how unworthy I was to take their glory. And only in secret would I train.

I obviously have couched these in extraordinarily self-depreciating terms, so let us think about the upsides for a moment. I have an amazing repertoire of features and interests. I synthesize passions for music and the arts with science and technology within a paradigm of religion and philosophy. I have been referred to as a "know-it-all" in a reverent manner. I can share interesting conversations with almost anyone on almost any subject (except sports. OMG you guys are a whole extra level of geekery). That's pretty insane! This has taught me humility as I always understand many, many others are always better than me. I have molded myself into a crazy weird amalgamation of interests, hobbies, trivia, personality, and so much more. And being unique is good! I love being an individual who feels like they contribute a unique perspective and set of talents to my circle of friends. I also have the capability to step outside my buzz and analyze myself, tweaking components and planning my route to being a better person.

So as part of this charted course, I'd like to remove my sense of self that requires me to be a unique autonomous individual. I'd like to take on the mindset a bit more that shared interests and aptitudes are not a battlefield of competition and thus conflict for supremacy and hierarchy. I'd like to stop struggling to find a niche to call my own and a kingdom to defend. My image of the self should move towards one that is reinforced by my peers and shared experiences.

Wish me luck. =D

[1] Another weird study. They asked two groups to write down all the choices they had made that morning. The Middle-class group wrote down twice as many items as the Working-class group. They probably did similar things, but the former group sees behavior as choice!

[2] This doubles as signaling within their society that they have more means and resources while also flaunting individual style, and thus a niche, and as noted in the article signaling to those more well-to-do that they aren't like the other poorer individuals and should be allowed to participate in their exclusive world.

[EDIT][3] Another plausible source of the collectivism vs autonomy is cultural. I happen to know the cultures of Asia, Latin America, and Russia tend to be more collectivism-minded whereas Western Europe and the US are more geared towards individualism. So that's likely also a major factor, and not just job type. Something extra to chew on.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sanctioned Manipulation

We live in an extrovert-positive world. That shouldn't be too hard of a claim to believe. After all, is it Steve Jobs or some guy called Woz who really made Apple famous? Why do we have a compulsion to share everything we do, especially if we're having alone private time? Why do we remember the advertised items, sales, and coupons over the baseline prices? We are attracted to extroverted actions. We respond to the positive stimuli of someone taking an interest in us. We like the flashing lights and movements vying for our attention. We are heavily biased towards positive signals.

It's a simple result of how our society is structured. We interact with a lot of people and a lot of things every day. We need ways to differentiate who we should care about and trust. So we filter out the background noise. We filter out the mundane and absent. What is left is the colorful and active and bursting sparkles and rainbows. And this bias is only getting stronger. As we are connected to more and more people via the Internet and social media the stronger we select for the "best" and strongest signals. We also have a limited amount of resources to keep track of others, so we try to squeeze in particular people while shoving out others who don't measure up.

We know that is how we respond. And so it is natural to assume that others respond the same way.[1]

Thus, we are masters of manipulation.

It's almost too easy. We know that if we act a certain way we will tend to get certain responses. If we signal that we are smart, our reputation will increase and others may seek our advice. If we signal we are fun-loving partiers, we will attract partiers. If we reveal something special and secret, people will think we are being frank and vulnerable and act accordingly. We intentionally craft an image of happiness and success on Facebook. Or, even better, we craft an image of bitter pain; hoping someone reaches down to help and sympathize with us.

Mentalism is this taken to an art form. You pick up on subtle cues about a person, then weave a narrative around them that you know something special about them or have unique powers. Most importantly they play up their successful guesses and minimize the flops. They create the image that they have supernatural powers. They are master manipulators.

But you don't have to take special training to do it yourself. It's something we are trained to do from an early age. Around the age of two the concept of Crocodile Tears appears. The child will fake crying, check if there's a response, then commence crying again. We quickly make connections between what we do (crying) and what the response will be (comfort, attention). As we get older, we just figure out how to be more subtle about it and the different avenues we have available.

As we get older, we also develop very good bullshit detectors. If someone is too overt, we pick up on it and it undermines their credibility. We don't like being "manipulated." It's an interesting model to think of these interactions as a constant struggle of bullshit versus bullshit detectors, but I digress. Still, many times even if we detect it we graciously allow it. There are certain bounds within which we have approved manipulations. And these are what are interesting.

Easiest example to pull out is on Facebook. Thinking way, way back originally Facebook was only about individual pages. You manually navigated to someone's page to see what they were up to. Now Facebook provides a nice curated stream of posts, pictures, and Life Events to your Newsfeed. Note I said curated. An important part of the algorithm is figuring out if something should be shown to you. My post about pooping that no one comments on? Probably not important for my olde buddy from college to know about. If I get married? Maybe a bit more important!!! One of the sneaky systems in place is Facebook figures out what is important by how many Likes and Comments something has. The more that show up, the more it shows up in your social network. This used to be a little opaque, but now Facebook creates an entry for when your friends Comment or Like someone's status. Even if you already saw it and buried it several days ago!

So, how does this all matter? If people want attention[2] -- and Likes and Comments are attention, and thus push the rewards systems in your brain (thus why FB has the notifications when someone does it. They are tapping into your rewards system!) -- then you begin to tailor your posts to maximize Likes. And how do you do that? You already make connections about what you post in the past and what has garnered more, or less, Likes and Comments. Grabby things about OMG MY LIFE IS AWESOME or woe-is-me or Behold How Clever I Am are commonplace. And we happily add our thumbs-up. Because we feel like we are engaging with the poster. We feel like we are promoting, celebrating, and showing we are there with them.[3]

But this isn't confined to Facebook. Facebook just provides it in black-and-white. Think about your daily conversations. What is the tone? For me, I often joke with people, teasing boundaries and showing how agile my mind is. I can figure out the reference and the underlying absurdity, hurray! Or I interject with a piece of trivia or a story about what's going on in the world. Look how well-versed and knowledgeable I am! I analyze things and think big thoughts!

We aren't completely to blame though. Much of what we are is dependent on who we are around and our environment. In my college experience it was highly valued to be smart, a little sarcastic, and supremely overworked. So people played to that value structure, showing off their smart wits, and peppering their walls with the battle scars of loaded schedules and massive works of endurance. Pecking order was developed based on achievements. So you strove to play those up. In my church circles you are often scored by your faith, insight, vulnerability, and empathy. So it's not surprising when a lot of people show off their humility and what they've done for others (as perhaps contradictory that seems in writing). One of my common interest groups is purely social, so much of the discussion centers around catching up with what's going on and planning for the next event. Considering the amount of time we've spent together, no one talks about feelings or troubles. We just stay at arms length.

It all comes down to signalling really. I signal interest, you choose to respond somehow which provides me with more information. Arriving promptly or being late sends a signal of your values. We then work within the bounds of social norms to optimize our signals. We don't have time to throw around half-signals. Remember, we are in a packed world and if I don't send out good, strong signals that others will pick up, I'll be lost in the noise!

And thus a new arms race is born. Everyone is rushing to signal as fast and as strong as possible to make themselves stand out from the noise. Do it too much and you're "manipulative," or "needy," or "whiny." Too little, and you fall into the noise; you're forgotten and ignored. But toe the line just right and you're an empathetic, novel, unique, interesting human being (and I want to be your friend and/or date you).

I am not saying these things are bad. Gathering information about those around us helps us make informed decisions. So finding the proper boundary is appropriate. As is the act of acknowledging and responding to a signal. Subtly exploiting these mechanisms allow us to promote the good attributes in people. Much of it comes down to positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement applied to social interactions. I think people should ask questions of others instead of waiting for proffered vignettes, so I pay more attention to people who ask me questions.

Going back to the FB like/comment-farming behavior I described above, someone mentioned that if we assume this is a cry for help and attention, then we should be concerned and try to help them. Figure out a stronger, deeper method to fix the underlying attention debt that they feel they can only fill via FB. This is a perfect example of how a "bad" signal should cause us to pause and refrain from condemnation and instead turn to figuring out how we can help.

Interestingly other cultures have a similar balance of signal-to-noise, but at differing points. Us Westerners like to toe the line being both passionate, emphatic, but also composed. We adore motivational speakers who get riled up and elect leaders who are passionate but also controlled. The Middle East's balance point tends to be tilted further towards passion. The silent person in the conversation is losing. Asian culture it is about controlling yourself and withstanding blows with hidden inner strength[4]. A friend of mine is a missionary in Japan and has been having trouble getting people to open up since they keep their thoughts very private instead of blasting them out into the world. The Joy Luck Club's quote "strongest wind cannot be seen" comes to mind.

So what does this all mean? On one hand, I would like to advocate that we should stop trying so hard with our image crafting. Ideally your first impulse when something exciting happens isn't to post about it on Facebook and Twitter. It's to call those you care about, or to try to remember it for later. You shouldn't take time crafting perfect moments and perfect presentations of those moments for mass consumption. They are to be valued and treasured. Firing into the void depersonalizes it, and we will pick up on bullshit. On the other hand, image control is super important! We all play the game. To not play the game is to lose in this instance. No one is going to walk up to a blank wall and start tapping it in the hopes they find the sequence to Diagon Alley. Be interesting and proactive! Do crazy stuff, share it, and celebrate with everyone! Wait, I just advocated you to do polar opposites.

So really my point is pay attention. We are all being manipulated and manipulating those around us. Try not to use that power for Evil.

[1] This is actually a horrible assumption. See The Usual Error.
[2] Beautiful comic about this.
[3] Weird item, how come changing your profile picture is such a big deal? I can understand if it shows off something awesome, like one of my friends crossing the Finish Line. Or if it's extra witty, like several of my other friends. I only swapped out my picture with a more up-to-date one and I garnered more Likes than any of my other posts in recent history. *mind blown*
[4] This article on cultural differences between US and Japan makes a stark contrast of imposing control versus stoicism. I also see it played out in Chinese culture. Remember, you have to ask at least three times to get the full answer. Thanks Camilo.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Plip. Plip. Plip.

That is the sound of a viscous fluid hitting a metallic surface, I think.

Hm. And now why would there be viscous fluids landing on a metallic surface?

Slowly my other senses filter into my brain. First comes the sense of smell. Oily, musky, sweat, filtered, stale. Seems to fit the sounds I am hearing. Footsteps on grates. Sporadic muffled shouts. Slowly taste returns. Or, at least vague sensations of my mouth. Bitter. That's not a normal taste.

Spatial awareness slowly creeps in. My head is oriented vertically. Slightly cocked to the side, but supported from the back somehow. Torso also upright. Arms relaxed to the side, bent at the elbows. Legs lie horizontally along the ground. Right leg bent at the knee slightly. OK, inventory of my limbs, Check. I think I send the signal to my mouth to curl into a grin.

Sounds start becoming clearer. I can hear the hiss of some kind of gas exiting an opening. Maybe a leak or a rupture. Some minor scrapping noises. Doors whizzing open and shut. A low rumble in the background. I smell a whiff of ozone.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Eyes don't seem to want to open. But that's alright. I feel tired anyways. Just going to hang out here for a moment.

Sharper senses of feeling bleed in. There's padding pressing into my neck and the back of my head. My shoulders are rubbing something hard. As I shift my weight I hear a squeak of fiberglass on metal. There's also a dull sensation somewhere in my upper right arm. I flex it and a sudden jolt of pain pierces across my body and a bursts inside my brain's neurons.

ZIGNAUTS POLARIS OWOWowowow. OK, now I'm awake.

The rest of the world snaps into focus. Slowly I force my eyes open. I'm in my K-suit. The corridor is well-lit in a plain off-white hue, but a few of the lights are flickering. Normally clean blue walls have a few smears of something on them. Thin metal non-slip grates line the hallway on top of the simple non-rust sheet metal flooring. My visor's HUD indicates air pressure is a little below 0.8 atmospheres, but breathable. The hiss appears to be a small leak to my left somewhere of some colorless gas. A small line of holes dot the wall in front of me.

I rotate my head to the right and look at my arm. Sure enough, the yellow suit is covered in red blood. Puncture in the fabric, edges look singed. Clean hit right above the elbow. Damn.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Body doesn't want to get up. Everything feels heavy. Ache in the back of my head. And a nice steady leak in my right arm.

It's like a stupid vid. Just sitting here slowly bleeding out. Typical.

Most of my life has been marked by "typical." Simple milestones on an orchestrated trajectory to whatever my destiny was supposed to be. And while above-average, there was nothing particularly unique. No true niche to call attractive or passion that fired me up. Just a typical person living their typical life. A few hobbies here and there, surrounded by a group of friends. Went to social outings, had a job at a nice station, life overall was alright.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

I wonder where my friends are. If you could call them that. Mostly a long string of friends of coincidence and ease of access. One group while in school. Another at the academy. People who I worked with or orbited with. And as life moved on I would find new friends to replace the ones outside of convenience. I pondered if my family counted. Perhaps. Although really I couldn't talk to them about particular things. Couldn't break the image of their typical daughter. And my siblings weren't exactly the closest buddies.

After all, I thought, you can't rely on anyone but yourself sometimes. If you're not strong enough to tackle it, then get stronger.

And it served well. It helped insulate the pain of rejections. Just do better next time! It meant there was no one else to blame. Everything can be solved! It made me independent. I didn't have to rely on someone else; I didn't have to burden someone else. Everyone else around me was free to be their own person as I accommodated and nimbly side-stepped problem after problem. Things would mysteriously be more efficient as the little details would get scooped up. Drama was avoided; ruffled feathers smoothed over. And slowly up the ladder of skills and maturity I climbed with my own arms and legs.

Great analogy that's worth with a P-bolt hole in my arm. Can't lift the stupid thing.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

The pressure behind my ear from the edge of the helmet is slowly becoming uncomfortable. My ears start to tingle in the open air. That's a good sign. Finally able to feel my whole body. I wiggle my toes inside the boots. My left hand responds just fine and I tentatively push against the grates on the floor. The arm and shoulder feel solid, but the rest of my body isn't ready to get up.

A small wave of panic jumps along the neurons in my skull. Perhaps my body won't ever feel ready. The right forearm shielding is already streaked a nice shade of red, and it feels like all of the inner lining of the glove is wet. That's a decent amount of blood; how much can the body lose again? I think I skipped that lecture.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

If I do die here, I wonder who will show up at my funeral. A small part of my consciousness reels against the morbid nature of the thought, but the rest is intrigued. Family I suppose is safe. Family friends from when I was growing up should be there. "Life tragically cut short with all that potential" they'd say. "So proud to see them all grow up." Perhaps most of my current circle of friends. Will Jeff show up? I haven't talked to that guy in, what, three cycles? He did get busy, and he's stationed in a different facility, but I could have scheduled a link. Slight inconvenience to him, minor to me. Chat for an hour. Not too hard.

Could have. Should have. Didn't. Typical.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Still, in some ways, he also left me, I wonder. It is equally difficult, or easy, for him to reach out to me. And yet not a peep. Can't blame him. I wasn't the closest person in his life. He must be busy. And I can only really blame myself for the way things turned out. No use blaming someone else, you only have control over yourself. And now he's somewhere else and I'm here alone in this hallway sitting against a wall with a stupid bleeding arm. And wishing I had sent a link to catch up.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Now I get why people have a fascination with blood as a life source. Kind of poetic hearing it slowly drain out.

The visor indicates air pressure is getting low. My rebreather mask pops out of the chest and is fitted to my mouth and nose. The extra boost in oxygen pushes against the black periphery, but it's fighting a losing battle. My right fingers are now a muddled prickly sensation. I pull my feet towards my body and the hallway echoes the scrapes. Oddly quiet, I think to myself.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

The low rumble has stopped. Some part of my brain registers that was the engines. OK, time to get up and get this arm fixed up. I shift my weight onto my left arm and push against the ground, but my hips refuse to thrust upwards and over my feet. The exertion causes my breathing to spike and I drop back to the ground with a loud thunk. Not getting up? How silly. It's so simple. You get out of bed every day. How is this any different? My chest heaves slowly. I slide to my left and turn until I'm lying on my chest on the ground. I struggle to lift my body into a crawling position, my knee guards loudly scratching against the rough tiles. My right arm protests every move as I try to avoid banging it on the floor.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

A flash of panic sets in again. This isn't how I wanted to die. I wanted to die surrounded by friends. After making a difference. After doing... something else! Not just in a stupid metal hallway. I ball my fingers into a fist and pound the grate I'm lying on. It rattles a little.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

I can do this. I can still get up. I can find medical. I'll be OK. I can still move. I can do more.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Pay attention to the pain. Let it motivate you.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Don't close your eyes.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

Someone will come.

Plip. Plip. Plip.


Plip. Plip. Plip.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Picking Games for Game Day

Disclaimer: I primarily host board/card game days with friends. Typically it is a very open-door policy with varying skilled players playing a variety of games, often multiple ones simultaneously. These guidelines may only apply to my particular set of friends and the types of games.

Something I think I do well is organize events.

I particularly enjoy hosting board and card game days.

Thanks to the stigma of playing games as being inherently nerdy/geeky be lifted and now that Americans are slowly getting a taste of delicious Euro Gaming instead of just playing Monopoly and Risk, maybe you want to host one as well.

I could talk about setting up your house, or how to invite people, or the careful management of food supplies, or making sure you can competently and patiently teach the games you want to play, or the secrets of how to manage the mix of players so that the good ones don't railroad the weaker ones. Nope, instead I'm just gonna blab on about the games I have and how to figure out which ones to play with your group.

The overall goal is to maximize the amount of fun for all parties involved. Sometimes this is easy. I know if I rounded up a few of my hardcore fellows we'd tear through Agricola or Twilight Imperium. Sometimes the crowd all wants to play together so you need something that facilitates large groups like The Resistance (and other Mafia variants) or Two Rooms and a Boom. But don't be afraid to suggest games they don't know. Because the real fun is when stories are told. For my hardcore players we dissect what could have been done better and the twists and turns of the mechanics. For my casual friends they like inside jokes about that one time in What-If we all picked on person X or when we played Fishbowl and this one action was for Ghengis Khan. So, finding the right mix in your game can make or break the evening. Nothing worse than getting halfway through a game and someone storming out because they're bored.

First, partition your group. If you have a lot of players, they will naturally need to divide up into groups to play different games. Luckily this often solves the problem for you. Hardcore gamers will be attracted to Agricola while the casual ones will want to play Dixit and Anomia. Giving a solid ten-second pitch of what the feel of the game is like is crucial here. Don't just talk mechanics, maybe touch on the theme, but get to what makes the game fun. Agricola isn't interesting as a farming simulator. It's fun because you're jockeying for resources and growing your farm and doing tradeoffs. Pandemic is fun because you are racing against the game as a team. Dixit is fun because you get to tell stories and look at cool cards. Red-and-Black is all about brinkmanship and bluffing.

If you need to suggest games for a group, assess their abilities and what they want to play. Some people will play anything and get a kick out of it. But some people only enjoy particular types of games. Here's a few classic example:

Casual Fun: One of my friends only wants to play games that "make you laugh." I originally thought this meant I had to find games where humor played a major role, like how Quelf makes you do stupidly random things or What-If's absurd juxtapositions about other people are good for a chuckle. But then I realized she also likes Dixit and Anomia. Why? It's not that she wants to just laugh, she wants a smooth game that doesn't require too much thinking. She wants stories to be created. Look for light mechanics or "everyone wins" sorts of games. Also, if there's a large component of randomness, it helps even the playing field when they go up against more veteran players.

Theme is King: One of my friends was on a zombie binge. World War Z, Zombie Survival Guide, everything zombies he wanted in. He didn't care about the mechanics that much, just if the theme included zombies. So Last Night on Earth would work perfectly! But, Betrayal at the House on the Hill could also work. Broaden the genre a little and see how beholden they are to theme. Be very careful with these players though. I once described Agricola as a "farming game" and another friend's eyes lit up. But I happen to know she isn't as interested in interlocking Euro-mechanics, she was only interested in the theme. A good theme can also help create fun situations. Mascarade [sic] involves switching roles, so it's quite fun to declare "I am the King!" or declare "I think you're the Fool!"

Skullduggery: It has been said that games can provide a great means of building trust with a person. You trust they played by the rules, you learn that they have honor, a quick mind, and perhaps a sense of humor. Then there's these guys. You suddenly realize they can lie to your face without blinking and you are none the wiser. They revel in Mafia style games like The Resistance. They gleefully sabotage the team in Shadows over Camelot. Any time they can inject a bit of in-game treachery they are there. Granted, much of this is derived from a sense of secrets and holding exclusive information. So hidden roles games (2 Rooms and a Bomb) or systems with traps (CCGs) can also sate their hunger. Much of the fun is due to asymmetrical information. So Shadow Hearts plays into this perfectly. Not only are there hidden roles and powers, but part of the game mechanics is to use cards to tease out information about the other players.

Roleplayer: It is super fun to take on a character and act out what they'd do. These players don't care that Flash moves far as a stat in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. They care that Flash RUNS REALLY FAST. Any sort of RPG elements can help. BANG! is a perfect hit, as is Cosmic Encounters or anything where you uniquely can screw with the ruleset. Note this also plays into persistence in other means, such as building how your faction plays in Risk Legacy. But this is also tightly tied to theme. 7 Wonders you're "building" a civilization, but not really embodying or roleplaying said civilization. Dominion sorta works since you are "building" your kingdom and then use those cards later. However, Thunderstone does feel like you're building an adventuring party that goes out and slays monsters, and it's uniquely yours.

Puzzles: These are the ones who approach the game like a puzzle to be solved. Thus, they tend to enjoy more co-op oriented games with deep systems. But they also have to be transparent and solvable. Pandemic as an optimization puzzle or figuring out the nuanced timings in Agricola fit these players. These trend towards the Euro-style games. They tend to dislike dice.

Brinkmanship: A very close cousin to only caring about winning, these people like the stakes to matter. So you have the Poker players, the gamblers, or people who like to play at the edge of what is safe. Red-and-Black is a great bluffing and reading game where you have to just overreach what is safe to win. Persistent tangible rewards, like in Risk Legacy, also help.

Competitive: Really all they care about is winning. Games that involve direct conflict like Risk are good. But also there has to be enough skill involved that it feels like they can control their fate (i.e. a Risk variant like Risk 2210AD). You can tell who these players are when they lose and complain about some random element screwing them over (dice in Catan are permanently cursed I tell ya). So they will trend towards skill-based games with clean mechanics they can exploit. Euro-games are a plus. But they will shy away from complex games they don't have mastery in since it's less likely they will win.

I probably missed a few archetypes, but you get the idea.  And obviously lots of these overlap. Theme players usually enjoy Roleplaying. Competitive players usually like Brinkmanship and Puzzles.

So go out and game!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


I don't want people to get the wrong impression about this blog or my personal philosophy on life. While much of this blog (perhaps too much, back to game design?) is dedicated to thinking through proactive actions I want to take towards being a better person, there is a nasty downside that must be addressed.

By reaching towards action -- by being predisposed towards feeling like if we do nothing we have failed -- we develop a very strong feeling of Meritocracy and Just World Fallacy. We, in essence, start to believe that through our own actions, on the other side of struggles and depressions that there is an inevitable payout. IF I am careful with my money, THEN I will have financial security. IF I am always honest, THEN people will believe me and I will have a good reputation. IF I love someone, THEN they will love me back. IF I am a good person, THEN good things will happen.

But, quite honestly, the world doesn't work that way.

I'm sure we all know this to some degree. You just have to check the news and see all the pain and suffering in this world. Random natural disasters change lives indiscriminately and without warning. Charlatans roam the streets taking things away from the good and honest. We like to say that "crime doesn't pay" and yet plenty of criminals safely hoard away cash. Otherwise healthy people mysteriously get cancer. Loved ones get in an accident and are suddenly gone without warning. Reputations are sullied by slander and never restored. It is no wonder many are bleak and cynical; seeing the universe as uncaring and random.

But just like the Gambler's Fallacy, we expect things to eventually even out. A kind of Westernized Karma that eventually people will get their just rewards. We like to think if I just prepare hard enough I will be ready. If only I had done X, then Y wouldn't have happened. We prefer to feel like we have agency in our lives and control, especially when things seem to spiral out of control. On the flip side, successful people must have done something special to make it. CEOs spew out books of how to succeed, and people gobble them up (even as they contradict each other). Biographies of stars give prime real estate to particular mantras they lived by and millions quote them trying to graft them onto their lives.

I approve of this mindset. Most of this blog is about me working through active motions towards a better me. But this world-view has a costly downside. As discussed in this TED talk, meritocracies tend to have a strong correlation with rates of depression. The more you feel you have agency over your success, the more dissatisfied you become with your current state. Some argue that this may be OK, and people merely need to toughen up and keep striving. But eventually the world will come crashing down, and you will have no agency whatsoever over the circumstances. What then?

I propose that we practice the concept of surrendering.

First, let me break down what the word means. It is an active word. I do not propose you "give up" since that is resignation and has passive connotations. I argue surrendering is the active motion of intentionally surveying the situation and choosing it is better to surrender than keep fighting. Also, surrendering typically has a second-party component. You always surrender to someone -- or something -- else. Armies and nations surrender to one another. You can surrender to your circumstances or emotions. Someone or something else will accept your surrender and occupy the dominant position.

So, what do we surrender to? I could probably write a series of posts on this alone, but let me run through a few examples briefly.

First, be able to surrender to your emotions. The Usual Error uses the phrase, "We're made of meat" to describe how we as humans are giant barrels of needs and sloshing chemicals. We are not perfectly rational creatures, try as we might to pretend otherwise. We irrationally desire affirmation, even when we cognitively know we are secure. We will feel depressed and lonely, perhaps even after a rousing party with family and friends has just ended. And I think that is OK. I try to allow myself to have feelings and not rail against myself for feeling them. Instead of fighting them, and more importantly instead of wallowing in them, you can try to process them. The act of surrendering also means not going down the rabbit hole of understanding the why of the emotions. You Are Not So Smart's article Misattribution of Arousal details how terrible we are at deciphering why we feel the emotions we do. So surrender to them. Be able to feel them and don't fret over the reason.[1]

Surrendering to circumstances is also important. This is perhaps very obvious in most situations. As a given I don't own a house nor have a million dollars, so I act appropriately. But this is also important when thinking about other things. As much as I may love milk products, if I develop lactose intolerance due to my genetics I can no longer enjoy them (at least without buying medication or suffering lots of gas). I can fight it all I want, but my body and genetics will say otherwise. If circumstantially someone has to move away for perhaps a job, it is important to come to terms with that. Missing them is natural (see previous paragraph) but you can't pine over them forever. To a small extent we can control our environment, but at the end of the day you have to accept what is around you.

I would also argue we need to work on surrendering to others. Too often we think of ourselves as the most important thing in the world. I am right, I am important, it's My time you are wasting, the list goes on and on. But service and humility are huge in my mind. From a practical side it helps realign your perspective to focus on others instead of yourself. Turning in on yourself is perhaps the most surefire way to become depressed. This also encompasses a broad spectrum, including submitting to others' advice and accepting help. At the very least be able to concede some measure of pride, ego, and control. This comes up in debates all the time. Fred Clark write that debates end up being about winning and showing yourself in control and right. Being able to concede to superior arguments and seek truth is extremely hard to do in our bubble-echo-chamber world. We would rather temporarily concede and come back with more arguments in our salvo. Instead, submit with respect when beat.

As a Christian, I would say the greatest surrendering is towards God. In his post trying to detail what Sin is, Zack Hunt writes, "The sin of Adam and Eve was their attempt to become God. The sin of Adam and Eve was idolatry... We grasp at divinity." In this context, Sin is not from legalism or "missing the mark" as much as rejecting God and putting ourselves in his place. We think we know better and can do better and go trotting on our merry way towards death. The cure? Surrendering to the will of God. Taking on His goals, burdens, and values and trying to live life with His mindset. This is also a form of extremely active submission. This is not about just giving up on certain actions. More often it is being prodded towards particular other actions. Submission here is more about doing the actions God calls us to do. And, if you believe the Bible, it also means God will use His power to work through you and empower you to things you couldn't do on your own.

Practicing surrendering is not the same as giving up and crawling into a shell. One piece of poetry I find impactful is "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" (Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas). I don't think we should just float through life. We can swim and aim for goals. But don't be afraid to let the currents take you somewhere else. Find a balance, or else you'll just tire your arms and legs and drown. And just remember, life will always go on. Some would even say "It's just a ride" (Bill Hicks). So stop micromanaging everything. It's not your fault. You have permission to feel, to stumble, and to give something else power over you.

[1] While most of this post is very bleak and on coping with negative things, surrendering to emotions is a great example of the flip side as well. When you feel joy and happiness and contentment, surrender to it!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Missteps and False Starts

A friend of mine recently (OK, several weeks ago) had a rather amusing post on how girls tend to think and puzzle out if a guy likes them. In short, humans be freakin' crazy and confusing.

So, here's some totally super surefire ways that guys like me let you know we're interested.

1) We want to talk with you. A lot. Like, every single moment.
2) We only talk to you once a week. For a few minutes. At a group gathering where we're conveniently together.
3) When we go dancing, we ask you to dance more times than the other girls.
4) We make sure the other girls get to dance a lot 'cause we're nice guys like that and don't want you to figure out #3.
5) We ask for your number.
6) We commence to never text you for fear that we'll screw up.
7) We want to "make you feel wanted" like that one song. Heck, we might even sing it to you.
8) We never ever EVER let you know we objectify you. 'Cause, you know, lewd jerks do that. And I'm an upstanding awesome respectful kinda guy.
9) We like hugs. Especially from you.
10) We like hugs in general. And not just those silly Christian side-hugs.
11) We tell very private things to you. Either from our childhood or stuff that's going on.
12) We never tell you private things. That's reserved for people we're dating or in accountability groups.
13) We give you stuff with no regard if you'll repay us.
14) We're generous dudes in general and treat everyone out.

So there you go. A surefire way to know when a guy is TOTALLY INTO YOU. =D

Monday, July 1, 2013

Look For What's Missing

I remember when I first moved out to Folsom. It wasn't the first time I moved. After settling into work and a basic routine I started looking for groups to join. Near the top of my list was a Christian community for young unmarried adults. These are amazingly rare. Church after church mentioned their collegiate hangouts or their adult studies or a young married group, but no one seemed to have a young adult one. I was becoming a little discouraged. When I finally came upon one, I decided to put it to the test. I would see if they were genuinely interested in me. Who would greet and ask me to events? Would they care when I didn't show up? Were they truly interested in investing in me?

Lucky for Fusion, they have a few notable smiling people who take it upon themselves to greet and connect people to the community. I was soon awash with invites to random events from the official car wash fundraiser to more mundane picnic activities and birthdays. For a while, that was good. I slowly figured out people's names and had a full schedule of events. But doubt crept back in. The majority of the events seemed to be mass invites. When I setup an event I mass-invited the whole Facebook network. Was I merely building a large pool of bodies so I wouldn't have to stand alone in the party?

So I tried another set of experiments. If I intentionally withdrew who would notice? If I disappeared from Facebook would anyone comment? Did I exert enough "pull" on the social group that my absence of presence would register?

I remember a guest speaker we once had at Catalyst. I forget most of his talk, and for now I'll call him Wesley since I forgot his name, but I do remember one anecdote he shared. When he was younger there were the cool dudes of his youth group. They would hang out together and share stories about the radical things they did throughout the week. Wesley felt left out and always wanted to somehow get into the cool kids circle. He thought that perhaps if he became cool enough they would invite him. It didn't work. Finally he decided to make his own cool kids circle. He would invite people to events and make his own circle of friends to share radical things with. He switched from being on the outside looking in to building his own inner circle. He didn't need the "cool kids." He didn't have to wait to get invited. He just needed to reach out and make friends. That revelation sticks with me.

As humans we respond to positive stimuli. When we feel hungry we seek food. When someone is talking to us we devote our attention to them. We are much, much worse at identifying the absence of sudden stimuli. I do not spend most of my day noticing how not-hungry I am. It is in the rare case you are isolated in a dark and silent room that you realize how much ambient noise you are constantly filtering out in your everyday life. You focus on the road while driving. We notice the well-dressed or horribly dressed. The average, the normal, the background gets filtered out.

A few months ago my co-workers were playing Ultimate Frisbee. I put down my keys, phone, water bottle, and my silver ring on the field. People on occasion have asked about my silver ring. I wear it on my left hand on the middle finger. It is a Sterling Silver band with the word "Purity" engraved onto it. I've had it since High School. It's a great little reminder to myself and an interesting conversation starter with others. But on this particular day when we moved off the field I grabbed everything except my ring. We never found it in the field that day. So for the last two months I haven't been wearing the ring. No one has made a comment about its absence. Not even my family when I visited them. I'm not sure people have noticed.

We respond the same way to social stimuli. According to Facebook I have 577 Friends. I only interact with at most around 20 per day. But I'm not crippled with missing the other 500+ I don't see for months on end. We respond to active stimuli and filter out the absences. There are exceptions, such as missing one of my co-workers who shipped out. But eventually that subsides. We require constant incidental interactions to build up and maintain relationships.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. We can choose to be more aware of what's missing. In this interesting blog post the author Kristin notices we are driven to proactively fill the gaps and holes in our lives. But sometimes while trying to stuff ourselves full we don't take the time to truly understand why the gap was there in the first place. Or, as she puts it, "What’s missing quickly becomes buried under the ever-growing pile of what’s there." Common gaps include acceptance, love, recognition, and stability. Being aware of our bias towards positive stimuli can lead us to also look around a little more at what is lacking. Then we can pursue the root cause and not just treat the symptoms.

Taking this to a social context, this has two major implications. First, be active in making friends. Do not wait for people to "notice" you. Very, very few people have enough of a magnetic personality or such shining skills that they draw critical acclaim just by standing there. Instead, people get to know people who take time and effort to interact with them. This is much harder than passively waiting. But relationships take effort. Do not rely on people magically discovering you're a diamond in the rough. And yes, this will mean you will fail. People will turn down invites, or eventually you'll realize you're the only one putting effort into the relationship. But it also opens up so many potential great relationships with amazing people who invest in you as well.

On the flip side, don't feel bad about being left out. Friends will drift apart, and sometimes you can't salvage it. Sometimes people will just plumb forget your appointment. It happens. It is not a slight towards you per se. So always remember to give a modicum of grace before firing off an angry spurt onto social media. People don't respond to neutral well, so be able to forgive them.

The second corollary is be aware of negative space. For example, look around for people who are a bit more withdrawn. They don't understand this bias yet, and maybe one is just waiting to be discovered. Be that discoverer. Also, be aware of your own negative space. If the only thing you talk about is negative things going on in your life, people will think you're a negative person. If the only thing you post on Twitter is trivial nonsense, people might assume you're full of trivial nonsense. This is completely unfair, but be aware of it. I personally only post interesting things I find to Facebook and rarely anything personal. Obviously this doesn't mean I don't have personal things to share, but I just don't like blasting it out to everyone unless it's important.

As in all my advice pieces, I caution you from taking this too far. There is a distinct inverse relationship between believing in a meritocracy and feelings of self-worth. I am not saying the more you do the more friends you will have. I am not even saying the more gaps you see the more happy you will be. And I know several people who are already aware of this bias and performing admirably at watching out for those who are absent. But I encourage you to take a moment to reflect and see if this is a blind spot you can address.

In closing, I leave you with the cliche phrase "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."* Be proactive, be that friendly person, go out and show the world instead of waiting for it to discover you.

* This was apparently never said by Ghandi. He actually said, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do." which removes the implicit that social change can be a result of solely personal change. Still means they go hand-in-hand though.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Re-Learning Snowboarding

Last year I picked up a season pass for snow up in Tahoe. Over the course of the winter season I managed to make it up to the mountains nine different times. By the end of the season I was thoroughly enjoying myself racing down the slopes at breakneck speeds in the cool air.

This was the first season back on the slopes in over six years. Back in High School I went up a few times, becoming proficient at carving to some degree. It was enough times that I bought boots (to make sure I never had to deal with rental boots) but I never got my own board nor would I have considered myself very good. Competent so I wasn't sitting on my arse the whole way down, but not good.

Starting out this season was, well, rough. Thankfully not sit-in-snow painful. I still remembered how to strap in and get on/off the lift. But pretty much any edge transition at any reasonable speed resulted in a face of snow. Well, except when it was ice. And there was a lot of ice early this year. Ow... Making life even more miserable was that I knew I used to be better and all my friends were WAY better than me. The first few times we went up to the slopes I had to sit out a few runs and let my legs recover from the wear while they continued to shred it up. And before you go "oh you wimp" it was burning-up-doing-wallsits-of-doom feeling in my legs. My main concern actually was "will I make it down the mountain before I collapse" late in the day on a few of those early trips. Talk about being out of shape. Talk about painful "ugh, this is annoying and frustrating" and being very, very sore the next day.

Eventually I got better. Like, noticeably better. I started falling a lot less. I gained endurance by leaps and bounds. I began to be able to read the snow to anticipate drifts or patches of ice. Slowly the safety margin I gave myself to make a turn or avoid someone shrank from several feet into a few board widths. On several occasions I decided to just straightline, no breaking, and let out a huge whoop as I reached maximum speed. Near the end of the season I was ripping down some decent slopes, tried out the Half Pipe, trekked through some serious backcountry with tight trees, and felt like I was having a blast from start to finish.

None of this involved mental thinking. Careful pondering sorta helped. But really the majority of the learning was pure muscle memory. Naturally catching my balance when I hit a bump. Getting the feel of a run or an edge. Intuitively saying "I want to be there" and guiding myself there perfectly. Sure I set goals and intentionally pushed my limits. We had a phrase "if you're not falling you're not learning." But 90% of the learning was all instinct and subconscious.

In the same way a lot of life isn't about the pondering we do at a desk or in a chair. Sometimes you have to balls-to-the-wall and get out there.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Internal Struggles

From Rachel: Jennifer, thank you so much for your music. It's been a big part of my life, and I am so grateful for you. I'll try not to fan out too much as I ask my question: I'm reading a book by pastor Jonathan Martin in which he discusses the fact that, in our current culture, fame and notoriety are treated as necessities, while obscurity is considered the kiss of death. He writes "Our society tells us that if and when we get "there"--the job or position or degree we've always wanted, the notoriety we've always dreamed of--that's when all the important stuff will start happening. Not so. All the good stuff happens in obscurity." Is this how you feel about your seven-year hiatus from the music industry? What are some important, valuable things you learned during that time away from the spotlight? Thank you!

Retrospectively, one thing I’d say is that while it is possible to learn from the experience of being ‘in the spotlight’; it is not the most fertile soil for significant growth. The spotlight is where we celebrate and commune with what we’ve learned. The growth, the creation, self-exploration and processing, I just can’t see how we can possibly do that effectively with an audience. It’s too exposed. Being observed inherently shapes the outcome. We usually talk differently when we are being observed. We perform. That’s not bad; it’s just not the entire purpose or the end game.

The spotlight is a fickle beast. It’s rewarding to find avenues to express our mastery over what we’ve learned. Reaching for achievement is a great motivator when you’re breaking your back perfecting your trade. To complete, sell, and talk about a book. Or sing, record and perform a record to a cheering crowd. I can’t lie. It’s powerful, fulfilling stuff to be able to be ‘the guy’ responsible for moving the room. But I think there’s a backside if you go into those situations looking to be the object that is celebrated. Being observed is often too great a temptation to imitate the style of characters we want to be rather than investing in the hard work of mindfully becoming our unique selves. Save the spotlight for the celebration, for the moments where connecting MUST occur to move forward.

Maybe it’s the difference between performing as a kid and getting older, but I view ‘the spotlight’ as a far more public property that I ever did earlier in my career. I learned that some things, you just have to learn in private. That what you say in those public spaces becomes a shared portion of our gathering together. It’s a public trust.

So what did I learn? I learned that I must find a way to nurture my spirit in solitude, away from the audience. It’s important for me to spend time in contemplation, discovery, and in practice, learning what I purpose or intend when I am afforded that sacred public space. The celebration, if there is any to be had, is simply being able to come to a point where we are capable of sharing that experience with the outside world without prejudice toward or fear of others. The personal journey evolves into an ability to be hospitable, if not hopefully, loving toward others. I didn’t know that I was learning anything while I wasn’t performing all those years, but learned to describe it later, when I tripped onto Nouwen’s depiction of the differences between loneliness and solitude. (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out) It is in those (thankfully) obscured places where we have the opportunity to objectively better ourselves, make peace with who we are without the fear of failure or judgment. It seems incredibly self-centered, but surprisingly, it can lead to an amazing reaching out toward connecting with others.

I'm sorry if that all sounds too esoteric. But it underpins so much of where I’m at today. On one hand, if all you want is some kind of recognition for how awesome you are at your particular skill or level of intelligence, then the only option is to be undeniably good at what you do. So yeah, practice happens out of the spotlight. You practice what you do until you are flawless at that one phrase, that one act--perfect in your descriptions of one event or area of expertise. But I think there’s more to life than just the executables.

The spotlight or the communal exhibitions of our human experience are necessary. It allows us to connect with others, build and reaffirm community. It can be a healing process or practical act of human expression in being ‘known.’ It’s a point of celebration of our achievements and passions. But it must be put into perspective. These are but moments-glimpses; a poem, a song, a photographic still frame in what is the long and rich story of our lives. To aspire to only that moment is to miss out on all the extravagance of life. It’s what we do into the lead up and aftermath to those moments that says more about us than fifteen minutes of fame ever will.
The rest of the Q&A is exceptional as well, but I wanted to focus on this particular answer.

It touches on a strong dichotomy that we experience every day. As a society we love and adore the public face. We all just want to be big rock stars. We want to win the prize and receive the recognition. We heap rewards upon those who are strong enough to stand in the spotlight and show their muster to the world.

This mentality has seeped into everything, even our private lives. We celebrate the honesty and transparency of video bloggers. We are driven to share every little aspect of our lives on social media. We want all of our accomplishments, everything from a piano recital to resisting the urge to eat a candy bar, to be laid out and celebrated. We clasp hands and encourage each other to share our deepest fears and desires; and upvote the ones strong enough to be vulnerable in front of all of those unknown judging eyes.

This is all very good. We should encourage sharing. We should encourage people to be courageous and honest with their peers. Sharing stories gives us waypoints in life. We celebrate the great moments and strive towards them with fervor. We get a glimpse into others' lives and realize how similar we are, providing comfort. We can be empowered that the great heroes of our age are human after all. We should walk hand-in-hand alongside our peers who suffer secretly just like we do. We realize we are not alone.

But still, I feel we are not made for the mountains. We are made for the valley. Our lives on display are for our performances. We build up the image of ourselves through our carefully crafted stories. We perform to seek applause. But it also means we have to interact with the audience. We are driven to fulfill their desires and conform to the advertisements. We select for stories of success and triumph. We prefer the postmortem that says it all turns out A-OK and everything is alright. We provide a kind of social public agreement on who we are and what we provide. We begin to conform.

But it is in the quiet and away from the brilliant lights that we develop. That is where the chores are done and endurance to persevere is required. Small incremental steps with tiny gains that no one, not even yourself at times, can see. In private we are allowed to unpack and examine the minutiae of our psyche, our beliefs, our accomplishments and talents. That is where we, alone, have to face angels and demons within us and sort them out. In the quiet mundane there is no celebration. There is simply struggle and peace.

When we step back out on stage we show the results of those quiet days. We show the new and improved muscles we built from tireless days in the gym. We dazzle the audience with a new turn of step that brings awe. We pound out amazing new tracks that sound like nothing anyone has heard before but instantly reverberates through their very being. But that is just the performance. That is the moment of inspiration and interaction. Perhaps we receive a high-five or an award. Perhaps all we do is get to share a bit of our life with those around us.

But in the end, those are just the waypoints. Those celebrations and bright lights are not a whole life. We consume them from afar from a million other lives and think "my life should be that." Never looking at the long journey it took, the days of mundane, the quiet growth in the background.

In private is where we can grow.

And grow we do. But it is not through sharing that we grow. Psychologically sharing our goals can reduce our motivation to accomplish them. We feel like we've partially accomplished something even though we have done nothing. Sharing about my struggles in life doesn't resolve that they exist. I may experience catharsis, and at best find sympathizers and accountability, but that does not resolve the underlying issues. We move under our own power and that takes private self-motivated actions.

I don't want to undermine the power of sharing. One of the greatest burdens and barriers to progress is feeling the insurmountable weight of the task upon you. This can be from the inherent weight of the plan itself. Or psychologically from the sense of going in alone. Or shame of past failures. Providing a stage to share and receive stories of success and rehumanizing those around us is a perfect way to get around this problem. Being able to release your burden is uplifting. Carrying another's burden eases their load and gives them the room to succeed. Lying down after a long week and sharing with a friend how miserable it was is incredible and healthy.

But sharing for its own sake is not enough. It doesn't matter how many self-affirmations you give. The story of your dark past is simply a story. To actually crawl forward requires time and effort.

It is hard, tiring, and many times you will want to give up as you crawl forward. I have felt many times completely drained and unfeeling. I would stand looking at the times that have passed and the trials that I put myself through and see no appreciable progress. I would ask why go through all this work for nothing to show. Recently I have been grappling with social connections and how much I'd like to improve them. For the past year a decent number of brain cycles have been devoted to understanding social interactions and trying to deepen friendships. But sitting at home alone it often times feels like nothing has changed.

This is where sharing does help. I was sharing this with a close friend and they told me they couldn't understand what I was saying. They thought I was a pretty awesome person. Gee. I would have never known. My little internal world said I was pretty cruddy and not going anywhere. Share to help realign your perception of the world.

This also is why it's good to set benchmarks sometimes. While working out a few days ago I was gasping for breathe and wondering if I had made any progress in the gym. Then I remembered moments like struggling to keep going after running a mile in Middle School or how much I could lift when I first started. These were measurable differences of the now against the past. Not everything has clear-cut metrics. I can't measure my likability and friendliness by how many Facebook Friends I have. I can't measure how good of a programmer I am by how many bugs escape my notice. But some things can be measured. Use those benchmarks to shatter the perception nothing has changed.

The work we do in private is rough. But it is important and necessary. Don't buy the lie of an always shared life as the best life. Live an examined life. Fight the internal struggles. Become awesome. Then share it with the world.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Respect: Demi Lovato

Required watching for this post:

I have to say I'm rather impressed with Demi Lovato.

I recently noticed an odd trend in break-up songs. It typically is an anthem of how badass you are. You are free, independent, and will rise above the hurt. See Titanium, I Will Survive, Part of Me, Wide Awake, etc. From the lyrics, at first glance, it seems like Demi is saying the same thing. She will rise up "like a skyscraper" over all of this while the other party just "runs away" from it all.

But the performance and music video undermine that theme here. It is a raw, crying voice that carries out those lyrics. There is real hurt behind it all. Her first few lines talk about teardrops falling into her hands. There's a line about the guy making her feel like there's nothing left of her. This is not a triumph song. The video takes place in a desert. She walks over glass in bare feet. She is wearing just a few flowing robes, showing how vulnerable, although free, she is. This has cries of pain, emptiness, and the raw feeling of being left alone.

This isn't about how strong she is. It is more an anthem trying to psyche herself up. She is not a skyscraper in the clouds just yet. She is still trying to pick herself up and rise to the challenge. This is more about her repeating the lines to herself in an act of protest and self-affirmation; that while it all hurts now she can rise above it all.

Major kudos. Break-ups are messy. And it is OK to feel the pain. That doesn't diminish who you are. It isn't a measure of your worth or strength how long you have to grieve. The pain is real, it will hurt, and people suffer. We are fragile like paper and glass. We get torn up and broken, and that is OK. But at the same time we don't merely sit in the pain. We crawl our way out of the pit towards a different place. Pain turns into motivation to move. We set our sights on triumph. We try to walk out of that pain eventually. In the meantime though, it all still hurts.

Balancing these two aspects of pain and triumph into a single song is amazing in today's bland clean-cut pop version of love. Hm. That's it for today's random thoughts.

PS Browsing YouTube, another song of hers that does a remarkable job of mirroring real-life a bit is Heart Attack. I was just talking with a friend about how sometimes we cover up, scared that if we let the person we like know how much we like them we leave ourselves vulnerable. Demi in some ways gives us a lovely cutesy crush song. But she also does a remarkable job of showing how much we play defense in our scared world.

PPS I think we all do the self-affirmation part. We like to post and repeat quotes not because we're living them but because they give us a waypoint or beacon of where we'd like to get. Many of these posts on this blog giving "advice" are not just for you as a reader but also to pound into myself what needs to change. We envision the change we want to be. We acknowledge how short we fall. Then we get to walking.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Initial Conditions

I was having a discussion two weeks ago and the subject of logic came up. Logic is a very powerful tool and the basis of sound arguments. Knowing, identifying, and calling out rhetorical and logical fallacies is extremely crucial to ensure a discussion stays on track and stays evidence based. However, someone brought up the fact that logic isn't sufficient. Otherwise we would have solved a lot more problems long ago by following Kant's Maxism philosophy. Most of what we talk about is based on logic built upon very specific, fundamental, a priori value systems. They are the input to the logical arguments, and the logical ramifications follow from them. And when your initial values logically lead to very unsavory or non-empirical conclusions, you can trace it all back and conclude that initial condition was wrong or misguided.

This got me thinking where else the initial conditions really mess with things. Obviously from math there's chaotic systems where the slightest deviation creates wildly different results. Plus there are the clear scientific chemical reactions. Wood + Gas != Wood + Gas + FIRE. Very, very different end results. Also the a priori postulates that we use to form the basis of logic and math, like Euclidian Geometry. Pick a different set of a priori constants, and the whole system changes.

But let's think about some other, more life applicable things. (OK, yes, making fire is super life applicable. Just went to a party and some people didn't know how to start a fire. *sad*) For example, there are two major ways to look at the transitory nature of life. On one hand you can become detached and say "everything will change anyways." Or you can grasp a hold of every unique moment as it comes. Or how children with two working parents who aren't around turn out so differently. Some become extremely responsible taking care of themselves. Others go a little crazy without the authority figures around to help rein them in. Or heck, look at political debates. Both sides can see the same set of data (assuming your pollsters aren't jerks and cherry-picking, but that's another rant) and yet come to completely different sets of conclusions.

Let us do a concrete example. A friend of mine was offered a part-time position at $32.50/hr. Doing the math, that's around $67,600/yr on a 40-hr workweek. That kind of yearly salary easily puts a single person in the top quarter of household earning in the US. Combined with a spouse at that same rate, you're in the top 10% (source). That is pretty awesome for the majority of people, and most of my other friends would kill for a part-time wage that high. But he turned it down. Why? Because he feels that he can demand a higher wage due to his profession; especially if he lands a full-time job. His initial conditions also include the fact this would be the second part-time job he took, and eat up precious time during the week. So while the majority of people might jump at the chance for that extra income, he places greater value in his time and potential income from a full-time position.

In math and science, these initial conditions are the postulates. We assume them to be true, and within that self-consistent framework they are true. For example, Euclidian Geometry serves us very well. Much of physics was based on this framework. Unfortunately, one of those postulates is the Parallel Postulate, or that if two lines bisect another line at right angles, they won't ever meet. (OK, he actually said, "That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles" so what I said is the converse) Unfortunately, it turns out this only works in a flat plane. Space-time turns out to not be flat. And so science had to figure out a new set of postulates to properly model the universe, and Relativity was born.

Not understanding initial conditions is the reason people often argue past each other. If you start with a specific initial condition, say you believe America is in decline, then you are strongly predisposed to evidence that supports that ideology. You reflexively agree with data that supports your position, and then go in and critique or rationalize away data and anecdotes that contradict. I have seen people actively seek out a small flaw in an argument whether it be tone or the person presenting is looks funny and conclude the entire argument is false (i.e. actively employ the Fallacy Fallacy). This predisposition to embrace incidents that support your theory and ignore counter evidence is called Confirmation Bias. And when someone challenges your precious position, they have to first navigate all the facts you've amassed that support your theory. Or you completely miss each other since you are working from totally different reference frames. In a better argument, you need to get to the core initial conditions, the basic postulates, properly define them, and work out their differences and merits.

One classic example of two sides talking past each other is the old thought fielded by some Creationists. The argument goes that the Theory of Evolution, since it prescribes order (life) from chaos (random chemicals+energy), violates the basic Laws of Thermodynamics which say Entropy must increase. This makes perfect sense to the Creationist and they can't see why people would support Evolution when it clearly goes against fundamental Physics. When you study the argument though, it's a misuse of what the theory actually says, which is local entropy can decrease as long as it is offset by external entropy such that the entropy in the universe increases. So the Evolutionist can't see with the Creationist would be so blind and support Creationism.

And this "misunderstanding" happens all the time in arguments. How many times have you looked at someone's stance and shook your head going "only crazy people would believe that." Have you tried to figure it out? In college I didn't know too much about politics except that there were two parties and George Bush (and later Obama) was in power. I heard about the Religious Right and started to wonder about a Religious Left. Turns out there is one (but they prefer to go by the name Christian Left). When I first looked at their Wikipedia article, I shook my head. I read about how they valued love, grace, and social justice more than upholding morality and justice. Being a very injured person myself, I thought this was extraordinarily naive. "Sure love is important, but Hard Love is still Love," I would say. "I want what's best for them, and without correction they can't see the light!" This concept of just loving people regardless seemed completely crazy to me. I read more of their articles written for their audience and was shocked at how they shook their head and called people like me buffoons, idiots, bigots, and misogynist jerkwads. It all seemed like a bunch of naive assholes, who didn't understand my life and my way of thinking, having a big old laugh at my expense in their ivory tower. But later as I dug into their core tenants I eventually found myself agreeing more and more with their concepts and logic. I finally teased out the core initial conditions and their implications, and came to adopt a few as my own.

Another aspect is shown when I previously wrote about how advice seems to contradict itself. This is not because the advice is inherently wrong, but different pieces of advice are for different people. Telling a very shy person they need to "tone it down and let others talk" isn't very productive. Or if someone already feels deficient, telling them that with hard work anything is possible they might think their poor state is because they've been lazy. You don't need to give advice to conservative individuals to stop being promiscuous. Telling your macho friend who ain't afraid of nothin' to "man up" isn't quite the same as telling it to the wimpy guy who's too scared to ask out a girl. You have to consider the initial conditions, see the goal, and plot an appropriate course when giving advice.

I don't mean to say these initial conditions are something we should question all the time. We build a working set of them as shorthand, allowing our brains to quickly make decisions without wasting conscious brain power. It doesn't suit me to second-guess if gravity works every time I take a step. Philosophically it is fun, but practically I take it on faith it is true. If I am ever in a fight, I will not take the time to think about the morality of punching someone's face in. I better be using every part of my faculty to getting out alive, which probably means running really fast. It's even been shown that often times our snap decisions serve us extremely well; better than our rationalizing logical arguments. There's a whole book on the subject called Blink. One of it's highlight examples is how quickly we can read someone's face. Or how intuitively archaeologists knew the Getty kouros was a fake before its evidence was dismantled. A highly tuned set of initial conditions is a huge boon.

In short, I urge you to take a moment to think about your own set of initial conditions. Take some time to poke and prod them from time to time. Identifying them, understanding what they are, and where they come from helps illuminate your blind spots. Understanding this effect can help you get to the root of an argument instead of clobbering each other with superficial facts. Once you have a good set, rely on them to get you out of tough situations quickly. These are extremely important, and you can't afford to get them wrong.

PS. I recommend you read about Short Inferential Distances and how to properly walk someone through an argument. Starting in with your alien conclusion makes no sense if the other person doesn't realize all the background thought you've put into it. And be ready to work this backwards so you can understand and perhaps adopt someone else's initial condition.

PPS. I highly recommend reading The Positive Programmer where the author talks about unlearning negativity and proactively getting yourself out of the self-depreciating rut. It tends to lead to depression.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Empathy and Encouragement

When someone is dealing with a problem, there seems to be two prevailing responses. On one hand, there's the empathy response. You come alongside and grieve. You feel the pressure and pain and help shoulder it alongside the bearer. On the other is encouragement. Phrases like "man up" or "you're better than that" point to pushing an individual out of the rut and on to bigger and badder things. It is a call to rise above the circumstances and show off awesomeness innate in the person.

These are both very, very good responses and trying to figure out which one to apply when is extremely hard.

Obviously the far extremes are pretty easy to pick out. Someone just got hit hard (breakups, job interview, failed project, missed the goal), you should probably opt for the empathy response. Grieve with them, provide support, and affirm they are still a good person. This is when cliches like retail therapy or having drinks is applicable. You sit beside and show you are there for them. You help shoulder their burden and empathize. You let them release their pain and grief.

Then there are those who seem stuck in a rut. So stuck they don't even try. So you should opt for the encouragement. Get them moving along. Get some momentum rolling. Pump them up to make them realize they can do it! Off your sorry ass and get CRANKING! The world doesn't care about your intentions, they care about actions, so go and get ACTIVE.

Those are easy.

I'm more concerned about finding the inflection point between the two.

Let's take myself as an easy example. I tend to have bouts of depression. They are mostly tied to concepts of self-worth, especially with respect to skills and achievements for my age bracket. On the downward spiral I find immense solace in certain music. Music that seems to empathize with my rage and pain. Trying to pump myself up with boisterous YOU CAN DO IT articles backfires. I wonder why I can't pull out of the spiral. I wonder why I'm not good enough and strong enough to be the badass everyone seems to think I can be.

But then there is the other side. As I hit rock bottom and start to turn around I pick up the pieces. On the upswing those same kinds of you-can-do-it articles that caused more grief start to resonate. Heck yeah I am awesome. It really is never too late to start. I have a strong skillset and can devote time to improve myself. I will make a difference. There is hope. And those self-medicating empathic items? They lose their usefulness, like a coat you throw off in warmer weather.

Trying to identify the inflection point is rough. Figuring out where you can shift to encouragement, thereby minimizing the downward slump, is extremely nuanced. Improper application of encouragement early only creates the opposite effect*. Especially when you are trying to provide that support for someone else and don't have access to their internal mindset.

Granted, you shouldn't try to cover up a proper grieving period. I was listening to a talk about break-ups and the speaker talked about how he once broke down crying and sobbing uncontrollably for several days. Why? Because even after several breakups throughout his life he had never grieved any of them, and suddenly it all welled up from inside. He became overwhelmed and had to just cry it all out. A proper grieving period is healthy for emotional healing. And providing that is something we can and should provide. Sit and listen. Don't try to correct, just empathize. Provide a safe place for them to be vulnerable and become free.

But I don't want to stand around providing only empathy and say "it's all right" all the time. That's a severe disservice to the individual. Your natural response is to stay safe and stay comfortable. But I want to see you be awesome and max out your potential. I want to max out my own potential. So sometimes you need to give a bit of a nudge, a pep talk, or even a hard kick in the nads.

Two sides of the same coin. But completely radical in their application. I'm still trying to figure out how to properly apply them to myself. And providing both to others is even harder.

* I think this is because encouragement tends to run counter to their current state of mind and view of the world. This cognitive dissonance results in uneasy bad feelings, potentially resulting in further depression or an antagonistic response. I'm sure you've experienced when you try to help someone by providing positive critiques and they just shove it all away in anger.

Friday, March 1, 2013

On My Mind: In My Mind's Eye

In my mind's eye I am a good man. I greet people with a sincere and warm smile. I am open and friendly. I answer all questions truthfully and earnestly. I take eager interest in what others have to say and think. I am an open book that people can trust. I exemplify the concept of honesty and transparency. I speak my mind, never holding back. I am authentic in all my interactions. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a judicious person. My eyes are keen and sharp. Nothing goes unnoticed. I pick up on tells and falsehoods, winnowing out the lies and finding the core of the matter. My mind quickly navigates through a loaded question to find the core. My face reads with impassive nature as I carefully slip through smoke screens and find true weaknesses and strengths. Truth reigns in my mind, and I can see when bad deeds are done with good intention or spy false flattery from a scheming heart. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a teacher. My glasses are perched high on my nose and my eyes sparkle with cheer. My brain overflows with connections and arcane facts. I philosophize about the abstract and the concrete; reveling in discussions and tempering ideas in trials of fire. I find joy in sharing facts and shepherding students through difficult concepts. I only view success as when they succeed. My crowning joy is their faces lighting up as they too get a taste of the joys of knowledge and making breakthroughs in understanding. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am the jester. I canter about in a mask. I jest and bring mirth to those around me. I gladly take on a farce to save the dignity of others. I lower myself into the deepest pits of silliness to make others happy. I take on insult after insult and respond with my smile. But from behind the mask I know it doesn't touch me. Behind the mask I know who I truly am, where my strengths lie, and so through the holes in the mask my eyes shine with glee at how little they can touch me. How behind all the insults and jests I stand with a straight back and a proud heart. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a cunning tactician. A stone face belies nothing of my intent. Masterful strokes of genius burst within my skull as deft and graceful orchestrations and machinations play out before me. I see the crossroads before myself and before others. I nudge a little here, I prod a touch there, and suddenly without their knowledge all play along to my grand scheme. Like little puppets people play to the tune and script given. And should someone see through the masquerade, there is a Plan B through Z. I rig the game so all endings benefit me. And no one is the wiser. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am the rebel. I see the sturdy walls built around me to confine me. I see ceilings and chains and holding cells to guide me on the "right" way. I grasp a hammer and beat down on the classical way. I refuse to walk the beaten path. I shatter ceilings and pursue a true world with true states and true feelings. I detest the games people play or the routes prescribed, forging a different path through rubble and society's broken promises. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a humble servant. I keep my face downcast. I scrub the lines and take orders. I gladly do what others scoff at. I eagerly scurry to my next task. I seek no recognition. That is not my place. I expect no accolades. The work is simple and coarse and badly done. I merely do the work. Silently. I quietly close my day. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I lie destitute. I do not allow anyone near, although I badly bleed. I refuse the offered blanket of protection and comfort; instead shivering on the cold slab. I try to scream but words dare not escape my chattering teeth. I grasp at wisps that float in the air before mine own eyes but never capture them. My feeble attempts at crawling only grow the blisters on my hands and knees. With scorn I stare through tangled hair at those who walk upright with companions at their elbows and fine colors adorning their brows. I wonder if I were to die how many would come to the funeral. I wonder if I would make a bigger impact in death than in this miserable existence. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a leaf on the wind. I dance playfully amongst the streams. I tumble with ease and go with the flow. I am at peace with my surroundings, letting the natural course take me where it wills. I take action with inaction, in perfect wu wei. Even as harsh current blow or tumultuous eddies form I seamlessly glide without a care taking is all in stride. But I cannot control my fate. For all my illusions of flight, I am still falling. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am an automaton. Graceful in form, elegant in nature. With abilities and faculties akin to a god. But no life courses through the wires. Only cold algorithms sucking in data and spitting out efficiency. Day in and day out a facsimile moves about looking at risks and rewards. Taking the opportune move and shying away from the disastrous risks. Thoughts arise due to pre-wired routines. Emotional responses are triggered by specific thresholds. Life rolls around me, but inside the gears click and the gyros whirl at optimum. In my mind's eye.

I open my eyes. I am standing in front of a mirror.

I see a tangle of inconsistencies. I see rough hewn edges. I see symmetry and clean lines. I see grand faith eagerly awaiting. I see meek humility hiding its face. I discern carefully laid plans. I spy wild hopes. I foresee terrible tragedy. I recognize gashes and bruises. I gaze upon powerful muscle and tendon. I evaluate form and function. I perchance at something more. I see a human.

What do you see?