Decisions and Discipline

What makes us truly human? Or, put another way, what makes us different from all the other animals out there? (I see no need to explore what makes people different from avocados.) There certainly seem to be an overwhelming number of similarities; the differences are very few, but are they also significant? Since my goldfish has a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, I’m going to assume that the differences are significant. Besides, I’m the one writing this.

Fine. What are those differences? Inquiring minds want to know, dontchaknow? The two biggies, methinks, are the abilities to make decisions not based on the moment and the discipline to enact those decisions. Things like: no, I don’t want another helping of lima beans, I want to save room for blueberry pie. You know: important stuff.

‘Course, then there’s “identity.” Don’t suppose the dozen or so King Charles Cavaliers in the puppy mill next door quite understand why I don’t just adore their incessant chatter? But, strictly on the mano-a-mano level, I think there really are things about people that really are important and things that really aren’t. Which is why I am sorry that so many people I care about have abandoned letter-writing and adopted “social media” to share their lives. I should thank Facebook for all the photos my niece has posted of her two coast-to-coast trips this summer. I don’t think I will be so grateful for all the “idiotic prattle” that gets posted (and thanks to an old girl friend for accusing me of “idiotic prattle”; think she’d be happy to see I am still slinging the same old swill?)

Ah, so that is “self-discipline”? As opposed to the “I’m just sayin’” excuse for lack of self-control that seems to be an extension of Flip Wilson’s “the devil made me do it.” And, yes, I will just cleverly slip that in and not go off on a rant about the “inherent goodness of human beings.” Not this time. (So, you can heave a heavy sigh of relief. Just this once.)

So, why are decisions so damnably difficult? Part of it has to do with survival. Yeah, just staying alive. If we didn’t have some part of our brain tuned to the “What’s New?” channel we would quickly become food – we are already targets. So, we do need awareness of what is outside of our own comfort zone; but we also need to filter that awareness so that we obsess about the right things. And yeah, that begs the question of what are the “right things”? But, that includes the what as well as the why (not so much of a tangent as a four-lane off ramp). Let’s leave it as: “you get to decide”, ok?

Ah, the D-word, again. Decide. Pretty much, you have to move along Life’s road, you have to be able to sense the fork in the road, and fortunately, we can thank Yogi Berra for insisting that we take the fork. Or, we can choose to not decide, and stand there, and get run over. But, obviously, that was a decision. So, Life is all about making decisions?

Ah, yeah.

What do you do after the decision? That’s where discipline comes in. Discipline is the choice (“choice” is just a synonym for “decision”; but you already knew that, right?) to prove our decision wasn’t just an opinion. It is the chance to accomplish something, other than merely breathing, eating and fornicating (although, for some people, the order might be different). But, don’t all living things do those? Well, if they didn’t there wouldn’t be anything around to read about ‘em. So, we humans can decide to be just like all other living things, or we can decide to be different – from avocados, as well as other humans. We can be the same and just stare at the fork in the road until we get run over, or until the mass of lemmings pushes along the path that Robert Frost did not take. Or, we can be truly human and think about the consequences of our decisions (pretty frightening, huh?) and then do what we think is the right thing, or the best thing to do. You know: stand up on our hind legs and take responsibility for our actions.

Responsibility? Where did that come from? I think I’d rather be an avocado.

Because it’s there

I have enjoyed the wailing and gnashing of teeth (ashes and rent garments to come?) over the recent “revelation” that the NSA was “spying” on US citizens. The government – the GOVERNMENT – was spying on its own citizens (and presumably non-citizens?). Forsooth. What is this world coming to? Ask Angela Merkel (she grew up under the STASI); apparently, the present incumbent of the White House did not care for her inference.

This, after decades of rushing to provide personal information to thousands of strangers via so-called “social networking”. Isn’t this just a little bit of closing the gate after the horse disappears over the horizon?

Who hasn’t bought a house? What do you think is on all those pounds of paper that you rush to initial while the sun is still shining? (That is not supposed to be a trick question.) What about credit cards? Why do you think one credit card in your wallet seems to spawn solicitations for thousands more in your mailbox? There are three – not one – credit reporting agencies that somehow gather and value different information about you. Then compute a cryptic number (ok, a unique number from each agency) that tells them something about me (reading my palm might be better). I never thought I was that interesting. How do all those vinyl-siding salesmen get my phone number, anyway?

And you’re worried about the government? At least “the government” has a face. At least the guy on top has a name (I mean, the guy in the White House; I have no idea who is supposed to be in charge of the NSA). Why is it we laud the efforts of private enterprise to collect, mine, dredge-up trivia about us, but when the government does the same thing, we cry foul? At least the government says it is there to “serve and protect” us – I’ve never heard a bank say that. Ok, so financial institutions are more honest than the government (have we forgotten the “Global Financial Crisis of 2008 already?).

Anyway, as to the question of why the government does it, well, that is truly a no-brainer. George Mallory answered that question back when he attempted Mt Everest. People are arguing about the government violating laws that may, or may not exist in order to protect us from terrorists – with over 27,000 laws on the books (apparently) who’s to say? People wonder at how detailed the information is: just phone numbers, or entire conversations? And on, and on, and on….

Frankly, the government can have my phone. For starters, I hate the phone. Secondly, I only ever call my mother. And third, my provider established and maintains the gold standard for the world’s worst customer service. Where’s Henny Youngman when you need him? Don’t get me started on “automatic license plate readers” (we’re talking about MILLIONS of pieces of “geo-located information” per month). And, you did know that another name for “cell phone” is “tracking device,” didn’t you?

A better question is this: does data collection by the government make you think of Kafka or Orwell? We can thank Daniel Solove for this suggestion in his essay “Why Privacy Matters Even if you Have ‘Nothing to Hide’. With millions of surveillance cameras (sometimes I think that is per building, instead of per city, or country), the data has already been collected for years and years. Technology has provided the means to collect it; government – and private enterprise – have just stepped in to take advantage of it (or, should I say “created a market” for it?). The better question is not what are they going to do with these mountains of bits or bytes, but how will it come to bite me in the ass? So, yes: I vote for “The Trial”; “1984” has come and gone.

I love this country

Where else in the world, if not the galaxy, can you have a single person talk for hours and hours (apparently broadcast live – if that is not a prime candidate for “Get a Life”, I don’t know what is), to prevent a vote on a bill, and then – and then – the talker says something like “Today was democracy in action.” No, Ms (didn’t that “ms” used to stand for “manuscript”?) Davis, what you exhibited was despotism – Uncle Joe would have been proud of you. (One website characterized her performance as a “one-woman effort.” Ya think?) And this got a lot of ink (ok, not really “ink”) on the airwaves (well, the internet, anyway). It was all the buzz, or twitter or something.

Maybe there was a reason she had to stand alone?

Hand-in-glove of course were the rulings by SCOTUS. Funny how people who don’t give the Supreme Court of the United States a first thought, let alone a second thought, are all of a sudden, experts on their rulings. Wendy Davis reminds me a lot of Sarah Palin: they are both quick studies (not that they, apparently did much of that). SCOTUS, on the other hand is in another galaxy; go to their website, read what they have written – I dare ya. Deep? The Marianas Trench ain’t in it. So, how anyone can crow about how wonderful SCOTUS is, just by reading one headline is beyond me (I mean, knowledgeably; baring that, how about with a modicum of understanding?).

Don’t get me wrong: I applaud the overturning of DOMA. Some 1,100 federal laws are affected. No, and it’s not because I’ve never liked Slick Willy. Asking if marriage needs to be defended or not is asking the wrong question. But, all the back slapping about the end of that (questionable) law is superficial and superfluous.

SCOTUS also opined on the Voting Rights Act. Everything I’ve read shows that the issue discussed was entirely missed: that of using demographic data that is 40 years old. As Chief Justice John G. Roberts put it: “In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat is as if it were.” Basically, for those who can’t be bothered with a little research: this country has changed just a tad since 1965. If you don’t believe me, I guess you weren’t around in the 60s. The complaint that neither Texas nor Virginia can implement their own state voting laws because the feds have yet to approve them flies in the face of Davis’ filibuster.

Sadly, the one bit of news that should have been discussed was the execution of yet another convict in Texas – its 500th since 1982. While the Me-Me-Me crowd was applauding the Davis hijacking of the Texas senate, not a word was said about Texas leading the country with about 40 percent of the 1,300 executions held nationally.

Oh, that convict was a black woman. Let’s hear it for equal rights.

Faces of Global Terrorism

Oh, puh-leez. These are faces of KNOWN, not imaginary, or hoped-for terrorists. It’s not “profiling”, it’s acknowledgement, U.S. Rep Jim McDermott of Seattle. There’s a reason your face is not in the line-up, for that matter, neither is a woman’s face in the rogues’ gallery emblazoned on Seattle’s buses: (a) you are not a known terrorist (while being really stupid is frightening, it’s not a crime…yet), and (b) known terrorists don’t look like you. Maybe you’re just jealous that your face isn’t displayed as a public-service announcement?

Let me put this another way: yes, if a 77-year old, white male moves in next door, I will think different thoughts than if I saw anyone looking like those 16.

But, this is Seattle, so what we really need is a poster with faces of women, 16 different (obviously different) ethnic groups, and some children. In other words, assume EVERYONE is a terrorist. Too hard?

Ok, try this: stick your head in the sand and pretend.

It’s not “fair”? How many dead and maimed at Boston would think what happened to their lives was “fair”?

How about photos of missing kids on milk cartons? Don’t like that either, huh? Obviously, most missing children tend to, um, well I guess they pretty much don’t resemble you, do they? Probably look rather much younger? Ah, but isn’t that profiling?

I suppose advertising needs to be more sensitive, too? I mean, how many cars or boxes of laundry detergent would get sold if the models looked like those 16? You’re right, it’s not fair that no one who looks like a known terrorist is depicted driving a, a what? Makes you want to rush right out and buy one, doesn’t it?

Well, ok, so posters on the sides of buses and in post offices is too much “in your face.” I understand: it makes you uncomfortable, it makes you doubt the “not in my backyard – never happen to me” attitude you cherish. I see your point. So maybe you shouldn’t stop there? Maybe you should tell Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI, that you don’t like his website with information a lot more detailed than just a mug shot and a name (check it out: http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists/). You can even print a PDF poster of these most wanted, so you can paper your bathroom.

But, back to your “profiling” thing. Look on the FBI website: not a single name like “Bill Smith,” or “John/Jane Doe”. Jim, nobody on that website looks like you, or has a name like yours – so, why would I ever give you a second glance??? And, it appears that there is only one woman, and (are you sitting down?) no children.

Some say that the bus posters are “fear mongering.” I agree. I am very afraid. Very afraid people like you, in such heavy denial about the state the world is in will convince people who think that the world is flat, the moon is made of cheese, and life is “fair.”

New technology, new questions

Usta be, you didn’t wanna be found, you didn’t give anyone your address or phone number. And that was that. Now? It ain’t upta you.

When I was living in Europe, I had to do the usual things, like open up bank accounts, get telephones, the usual hassles that I never got used to, but were part and parcel of my life. One of the things I discovered there, thinking one bank branch was as good as another was that it wasn’t. Why? Simple: your personal information belonged to you, not the bank. So Branch A couldn’t do business with you, even tho the name on the door was the same as Branch B. Really? Back in the Good Ol’ US of A, everybody knew more about you than you did. Why? In this country, the person does not own his personally identifiable information, somebody else does, and that somebody else can buy and sell it – but you can’t.

So, now, you can’t hide – unless you’re “off the grid” as they say (I have no idea who “they” are, but I hear this a lot so, there must be a huge group of “they”). But, if you are incognito (maybe “incommunicado” is the right word there?), then you’re not reading this blog and a few other joys of modern life (I mean this blog is a joy, not the inability to read it – but you knew that, right?).

I have finally succumbed to new technology, and I am very much “on the grid”; and spend an awful lot of time “housekeeping” all of this wonderful “connectedness.” I think I might have finally gotten to the point where I am pretty much up-to-date on things, and I went looking for old friends. Just curious, y’know?

And I found an old “flame”. Pretty hot flame for a short time, too. But, that was then and this is now. Great, so now I’ve found her, what to do?

Like I said at the beginning (I’ll wait while you look back at those unforgettable words), it is pretty difficult to hide these days, and since “networking” has become synonymous with the internet (this blog being just one miniscule example), if you value your career, you hafta be on the grid. Why? ‘Cause that’s where people look, that’s why. And you want them to look. Look, look, look.

Maybe. Unless it’s an old flame. Then, maybe not.

Thus the quandary: Do I take full advantage of the technology to say “How ya doin’?” or do I keep my distance. After all, since I’m on the grid, she could find me (maybe already has) if she wanted. So, since I haven’t heard from her, she obviously doesn’t want to resume any sort of contact (hell, she was great friend – she’s the reason I passed my accounting classes when we were both studying for our MBAs – “left drawer assets, right drawer debits” – or was it the other way round?)

What I don’t need is another Facebook Friend to tell me what they had for lunch, or how long they slept last night. What I would like is a friend of the old-fashioned persuasion: somebody to talk with. Yep, that’s it.

I know, I know: what’s the worst that can happen? It’s not like I can damage a relationship that no longer exists. But, I am “traditional” enough to respect her right to her privacy; after all, I’m not selling vinyl siding (or whatever the daily phone calls from Area Code 702 are about – I don’t even know anybody in Las Vegas).

Tobacco-use verification

The Very Large Company that I work for has just put this on the employee website:

New this year! Tobacco-use verification
To avoid paying an additional $50 per person each month for 2014 medical plan benefits, you need to verify by Dec. 3, 2013, that you and/or your covered spouse or eligible domestic partner does not use tobacco products. If you verify that you and/or your covered spouse or eligible domestic partner has used tobacco products in the past six months, and do not satisfy a reasonable alternative or receive a physician waiver by Dec. 3, 2013, you will pay an additional $50 monthly per person contribution for 2014 medical benefits. To complete the tobacco-use verification and to learn more, visit the Your Benefits Resources website.

Since I have never smoked (or used any tobacco product in any way) I simply don’t understand why anyone would smoke. However, just running the hard numbers:

$50 per month, times 12 months per year, comes out to, um, 600 bucks, right? Oh, if you have a properly registered significant other, another 600 bucks could be coming out of your pocket. Potentially, $1200 per year. I don’t have a figure on how much the average smoker spends a year on his “coffin nails,” but I have seen advertisements for a carton of cigs in the neighborhood of $70 – would that be about a month’s worth?

There’s also a “health assessment” screening, that will cost $20/month/person if you don’t participate in it. That would be upwards of $480/yr for the typical employee for not filling in the form. So, for being really stupid, you could give the company nearly $1700/yr. Do people really do this? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun to take that $1700 to the mall?

Add the $50/month we are already paying for health insurance, and that looks like another $1200/year (no choice there, however; thank you Obamacare).

Then I went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Big mistake. Besides the billions of dollars that the industry is paying for advertising ($8.37 billion in 2011), “in 2013, states will collect $25.7 billion from tobacco taxes and legal settlements….” Are we talking real money, yet?

Quality of life? Forgetaboutit!

Great, a whole lot smarter and a whole lot dumber at the same time. Now I know some numbers, and now I am even more in the dark about why people smoke.

Temple Grandin – Connection

She seemed to relate to – understand, feel comfortable with – cows better than people; and I am sure that seems strange to most “normal folk”. She didn’t seem to have a close, personal relationship with anyone; and this seems to be a characteristic of autistics. But, I’m not so sure it isn’t also a characteristic of this modern technological age.

This technology that is said to bring people closer together. Really? Walk into a restaurant and observe how many people are on their “device” (I guess “cell phone” is already passé?). Maybe it’s the ability to be physically close to someone at the table, and “electronically close” to someone who isn’t? Is this the much touted closeness? Close to everybody, so close to nobody. What kind of connection is that? A distant one, at best.

Some people I know seem to be happiest when they are merely around other people, like at a shopping mall, a bar, even at a church service (see my posting, “The Edmonds Group”). And the corollary is also true: these same people can’t stand to be by themselves. So, they absolutely love the toys that keep them “front and center” (now, that term is passé), or “in the face” (a little more current, eh?) of others. It is no longer a matter of having only six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon (“Taking Chance” is one of my most favorite movies); it is, rather, a matter of how many “Facebook Friends” you have, or how people you follow on Twitter.

Do I need to say that I wish my cell phone did only three things? One, make and receive phone calls (the call screening ability I absolutely love). Two, send and receive text messages. Three, serve as my alarm clock (I wish I could program more than six alarms). No graphics, no internet, no photos, no games. And, I probably use the “silence” switch more than anything else.

My wife no longer asks how a certain feature works on her iPhone because she is tired of hearing me say, “I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s your phone, you figure it out.” I think she has the local Apple Store on speed dial.

In other words, what does “connect” or “connection” mean, in this modern social context? What value are hundreds, if not thousands of names stored in some computer? Will any of them care when you no longer answer your phone? Will any of them even notice?

In “It’s a Wonderful Life” (those of you who know me, knew this was coming), James Stewart discovers at the very end of the movie that, for the most part, everyone in the town of Bedford Falls was willing to dig into their pockets for whatever they could give him. Now, THOSE are connections worth having (and in the days of wall-mounted, hand-crank telephones, too).

I am halfway through the Patrick O’Brian series on Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin – the second time. The first time I read the 21 volumes, I just enjoyed the story. This time, I am trying to understand what it is about Jack and Stephen that I find so attractive. Since I have served on slightly more modern naval vessels (and the USS Nimitz is slightly bigger than anything Jack was in), I know in my soul-of-souls that I am most grateful for the, shall we say, “amenities” of ships today. So, it’s not that I wish I had been born in 18th century England (or, the US). Socially, I would have been one of those we now call “cannon fodder”; which is not very attractive, either.

What I believe makes me want to read the roughly 6,000 pages (twice) is the friendship that they enjoyed. I cannot think of any other characters, anywhere in literature, who connected so well. I know I have certainly not connected with anyone so well. While the story is a historical novel, perhaps the friendship is also fiction? Of course. But, is it also possible?

Temple Grandin didn’t seem to care whether she connected with people or not (please note that everything I know about Dr Grandin I know from the HBO movie, and her website). Do others more in the “mainstream” of society actually connect any better, or are they merely fooling themselves by accumulating connections (oops, contacts).

Yep, human beings are social animals, but then, so are cows. Do we, as a species, actually form bonds any more significant than other mammals? (Ask your cat – not your dog. You know the joke about shutting your dog in a closet for three days, or shutting your wife in a closet for three days? Which one will be happy to see you?) The need for social interaction is in our DNA, but I don’t think we’re very good at it. More toys don’t seem to be helping us connect.