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.