The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On Finding Something to Talk About

... If not for this post, I would be missing my second week in a row of blog posts. Given that this blog has lain dormant for months in the past, it's not like this is a new problem to have. This time, though, as I considered topics to write about, discarded them, wrote and re-wrote opening sentences, and otherwise got exactly nothing done, it occurred to me that doing a bit of self-reflection on what makes this difficult might be an interesting blog post on its own. So here we are.

Finding topics I feel strongly about usually isn't the problem. I can think of two or three right off the top of my head, and I think the people I've interacted with in debates can agree that I don't like to abandon an argument. Also, given that each draft I've got in my blog's list represents something I thought might be interesting to write about, the fact that I've added plenty of those in recent days supports the thought that I've got topics to write about.

Then again, that increasing number of incomplete drafts I have lying around suggests that figuring out how to properly express my thoughts may be part of the problem. It's a bit of a balancing act between worrying about the mistakes or misinterpretations I'm leaving open and worrying about making the whole thing too elaborate and hard to understand (never mind the inconsistencies that show up when I start being elaborate). It's great for thinking about my ideas, but tends not to produce anything I want to show to other people.

Not much for that but more practice and more confidence, though. Hopefully I'll have something to show for it next week.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Entertainment and Value

So far today, I've basically wasted all of my time bouncing around my favorite corners of the Internet - checking all of my favorite blogs, reading a couple webcomics, refreshing my Facebook page incessantly, etc. So a pretty standard weekend morning with absolutely no hint of any useful work done, right?

Well, one webcomic for today (Schlock Mercenary) indirectly refers to a nice little philosophical question about the nature of one's self, consciousness, and death. So maybe that's not quite so useless as far as interesting material to ponder is concerned. One of the blogs (Ask a Manager) focuses entirely on work-related questions and has a lot of useful advice for managers or really anyone dealing with interpersonal issues at work. So that's probably helpful too, in the long run. And, of course, there's still plenty of ranting on my Facebook page both for and against the Electoral College, and some people are referring to some pretty good articles and posts on the topic. That's probably also an important question to consider...

I've addressed this point before, of course, but moments like this only reinforce my conviction that if you can't think of the value derived from a given activity, the problem probably isn't that the activity is useless; it's more likely that you've failed to figure out what the benefit is. There are some activities for which that's not true, some activities that don't provide any benefit, but they seem to be the exception to the rule.

Of course, inevitably people will claim that you're not correctly judging the benefit, or that it costs too much, or that there's a more efficient way to get the same benefit, and so on. Some of these claims are valid. Many of them are not, though, and there are two major pitfalls that they usually run into.

One is comparing the efficiency of a given activity to some theoretical ideal without considering the costs of reaching that efficiency. Yes, I probably could become a better philosopher faster by taking college courses or joining a discussion group instead of reading webcomics. But given the effort it'd require to set the former activities up, are they really a realistic option for me? If the choice is between doing something to keep my brain active and doing nothing, then the benefit is a lot easier to see, and it makes quite a bit less sense to blame me for doing what I can.

The other is using the wrong standards to judge the benefit of an activity. There are plenty of college degrees that rarely pay for themselves on the job market, for example. Then again, when you read a work advice blog, you run across plenty of stories about people that are getting massively overpaid for crappy work, or massively underpaid for great work. Or we could just reflect on the value of good journalism and the impact the news media has on the world, and ask ourselves how many people are willing to pay for it. So it seems fairly clear that there are other ways to think about what value something has, and it seems fairly shortsighted to dismiss something as valueless because it fails only at one metric for determining value.

I'd encourage everyone to take a step back, think about something they see as useless, and ask themselves whether they're really made the right call there or not. If nothing else, finding more ways to get value out of your everyday life is something that anyone can benefit from.

Monday, November 28, 2016

NaNoWriMo report

I think this blog going offline for the month of November has become a tradition all on its own. Hopefully I won't end up leaving it offline for even longer like past years.

At least I've got something to show for the distraction, since I just hit 50,000 words and won NaNoWriMo this year. I even actually managed to reach the point where I slap a "the end" onto the page and say that this is the last word in my novel! (In previous years, I've tended to stop writing at 50k and/or the last big climax and never actually finish wrapping up the ending properly.)

Perhaps better yet, the group of people I met while doing NaNoWriMo apparently will still meet for creative writing events even outside of November, so I've got a bit more hope than usual that I'll be able to keep some good habits going as far as re-writing and editing some of my older projects is concerned. (Or this year's. It certainly needs it.)

Anyway, I am going to be doing that, and I'm also going to try and get back into the weekly blog post habit as well.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Analyzing the Ballot

Anyone who has been paying attention to my Facebook page or this blog probably knows or can easily guess exactly how I'm going to vote, so little of this should come as any surprise.

Still, in case anyone wants a quick look at how I'm deciding between the various candidates that will be on my ballot (specifically: Calvert County, Maryland), well, here you go. I'm drawing most of my information about the candidate's positions from the Baltimore Sun's guide and from the information available at www.vote411.org.


I probably don't need to belabor this one too much. I don't really like Clinton's character. I think she's demonstrated that she's not very transparent, is willing to say whatever she needs to, and is very good at coloring the truth without ever telling an actual lie. The email server, and the way her reaction to that has evolved, is merely the most recent instance of this.

Basically, she's a politician, and while I understand the pressures they face and the requirements of their job, I wish it was easier for that sort of person to be honest.

But she's very intelligent, is willing to publicly commit to positions I agree with on almost any issue, I want her to select the next Supreme Court justices, and my complaints about Clinton's character are minor compared to my complaints about Trump's.

US Senate

As I go through their answers to the Sun's questions, I was surprised by some of Szeliga's (the Republican). There were several points for which they were similar to Van Hollen's, mostly on minimum wage and financial regulation. Of course, she also supports increasing charter schools and vouchers, which I oppose. And her answer on Iran and foreign policy was not good - I don't understand why people are willing to uncritically accept what amounts to enemy propaganda when deciding what effect the nuclear deal has had.

I did also look at Flowers (Green). While she has some ideas I don't mind, many of them are too ambitious to be workable, and her anti-nuclear positions aren't good.

US House - MD District 5

In this case, there was a very clear winner - the difference in details provided versus empty rhetoric was incredibly obvious when comparing Hoyer and Arness. Or maybe that's just because I think the latter's pro-life, IRS revocation, and incredibly hard-line anti-Russia and anti-ISIS positions are poorly thought out, at best.

In this race the third party candidate is Summers (Libertarian). Who wants a complete withdrawal from all overseas bases, believes the free market can handle environmental costs, and doesn't even support any national effort for redistricting reform - all positions I disagree with.

Judicial Elections

To be honest... I don't know enough about any of these people to want them out of their seats.

Calvert County Board of Education

I can add another source to my list for this one - MSEA's recommendations.

The problem is that they're not very detailed regarding why a particular candidate was recommended, which makes it difficult for me to decide whether I'm willing to trust their word or not.

For District 1, I think Balinski's greater detail about what improvements need to be made and her experience makes her a better choice than Jones. For District 2, Highsmith and McGuire seem to be just about even in my opinion of the policies they promote; some issues present minor differences, but overall I like parts of both their stances. MSEA's recommendation for Highsmith ends up carrying the day there. And for District 3, the problem is that I have lots of information about Knowles' positions and none about McConkey's, but McConkey has MSEA's recommendation. In the end, I think I'm going to go with MSEA.

MD Constitutional Amendment

When I first saw the "require the Governor to replace the Attorney General or Comptroller only from the same party", I was wondering why the hell we needed a restriction like that.

However, given that the voters select those two positions, it seems reasonable to find some way to honor the voters' choice of party, at least. Maybe not required, given that the voters also selected (and hopefully trust) the judgment of the governor, as well, but not an unreasonable restriction.

And I do like the special election provision in the amendment.


... As I said, that shouldn't have come as any surprise. It is an interestingly annoying exercise, particularly since I'm sure I could (and probably should) care more and do more research on the down-ballot races, but either way, here's where I stand.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016

So, I'm doing National Novel Writing Month again this year.

It'll be an interesting challenge, particularly when I compare it to last year's victory. I'm fairly certain that being underway for the entire month actually helped me win. Making time to write might be a little harder than usual, but making it a part of an established, heavily regimented routine was much easier than coming up with a daily routine that included the writing. No outside Internet probably cut down on the distractions, too.

Also, last year's story allowed me to focus heavily on world-building and dramatic battle scenes. In fact, it now needs what amounts to a complete rewrite, since I completely ignored my nominal protagonist in favor of writing cool things about the battles going on around him. I debated making that rewrite my project for this year, but I'd rather write something new from scratch than wonder whether deciding to include entire paragraphs from last year allows me to add those paragraphs to my word count.

Which doesn't mean I'm completely abandoning last year. I'll finish that rewrite eventually (maybe), and I'd always intended to use the fantasy world I created as a setting for more stories in the future. So, I get to take one of the minor characters from last year and write a prequel that talks about their backstory... and adds more details about multiple universes, and the magic system, and other things that have always been part of how I looked at this world, but weren't relevant last year. That's the fun part.

The challenging part is that this is a much more character driven story than last year. Basically all of the conflicts I've got right now are internal affairs or personality driven - I doubt I can even get much in the way of personal combat out of this, never mind the fleet combat that drove up last year's word count. Writing about personal trauma and how people react to it is... certainly possible, but it also makes me quite a bit more likely to question how well I'm doing or agonize about minor details of word choice and reaction. Which isn't good when you're trying to get lots of words down quickly.

Also, is it too much to ask for my favorite authors to not release new books in their series during November? I don't need more distractions... (and I'll probably happily read them anyway).

Monday, October 17, 2016

Learning to Live with Others

I would say that a large part of developing maturity is learning how to interact with other adults in a reasonable fashion. There's a wide variety of different expectations, depending on where you are, who you're interacting with, and why you're interacting with them, but there are also some basic principles that will apply almost anywhere, and several general scenarios that can appear in almost any context.

One of those scenarios is dealing with someone who is being rude and offensive. Ideally, one can ask such a person to not do it again, and they'd honor that request... unfortunately, there are a lot of people who actually like being offensive, and don't care enough about what others think to even try to modify their behavior.

There are two ways to deal with this problem: Tolerate the offensive behavior in order to continue interacting with the person in question, or refuse to interact with them until or unless they act better. It turns out that neither is necessarily more mature than the other - in fact, I would argue that knowing how much you can tolerate and being willing to say something when you've hit your limit is more mature than bottling any resulting frustration up until you explode.

And it is entirely reasonable, when disengaging isn't an option, to note that you have a problem and ask those around you to help. It turns out that demanding other people unilaterally solve problems not caused by them is sometimes a bit much to demand.

That brings us to the other half of the problem: the person who's acting out in the first place. Does anyone really want to tell me that that person is being reasonable and mature in refusing to show consideration for the people around them?

A lot of the people that act offensively will react poorly when called out on it, and attempt to argue that the offended party's lack of toleration is indicative of a lack of maturity (or even mental stability) on their part. The irony of asking other people to show maturity and consideration when they appear incapable of doing the same is apparently lost on them.

Also, it may be easier for bystanders to try and get the reasonable, mature person to show more maturity... but that doesn't make giving up on getting the complete asshole to show a minimal level of maturity the right thing to do. It's also rather inconsistent to then blame the mature person for deciding that showing more toleration is too hard and not doing it - they made the same decision those bystanders did; it's just that the most reasonable action to take differs depending on how one is involved.

In the end, while some consideration for inappropriate or offensive behavior is going to be required, it is also not mature to repeatedly engage in such behavior, nor is it reasonable to demand that only one party in any interaction shoulder the entire burden for being tolerant and mature.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Choosing a Side

One of the common points one sees in a political debate is the equivalency between both sides. There's always one person who dismisses both major parties as hopelessly flawed - whether they call for a third party or for fundamental changes to our political system depends on the person in question, but that point is less important.

Of course, each side's partisans will quite happily blast such people for promoting what they see as a false equivalency. To them, it's quite easy to see that the two are not the same - that their side is better and the other side is worse.

I normally side with those that label it a false equivalency. Simply proving that both sides are flawed is not sufficient to prove that they are both equally flawed. The former is quite simple (and blindingly obvious, unfortunately). The latter involves digging through a wide variety of issues, scandals, and arguments to determine how many flaws there are and how much weight each should have. That's quite a bit more complicated, and very difficult to do without letting one's biases run away with one's judgment.

It's also very common to come up with some handy shortcut that simplifies the process. I don't necessarily disagree with the idea that once you've found an unacceptable flaw, or a benefit that you can't do without, then there may not be much point in wasting time trying to nail down more details. The problem is that not considering the rest of the data isn't a good thing; if there's more deal-breakers hiding in other issues, you might have to adjust your criteria for a deal-breaker or start figuring out who else you can turn to. It also makes it more difficult to defend your judgments if you haven't looked at some of the issues, of course (although given the wide range of topics, it's also going to happen at some point).

Better yet, it's possible for two people to run through the same set of data and justifiably come to two different conclusions. Just because I don't place the same weight on something like gun rights as a conservative person would doesn't make either of us right or wrong. That value judgment, like many others about the role of the government or the relative value of our rights, is difficult to adjudicate with reason. I can explain why I value something, explain why it matters, explain what else it affects... but in the end, it's still possible for someone to say that they know all that and point out that they still don't care as much about it as they do about other aspects of the issue. (For gun rights, the example would be me stating that more effort to reduce gun deaths may be worth increased restrictions on the right to gun ownership, while someone else might value the gun rights more.)

Even that is a point that can be argued, and it can be worthwhile to ask people why they feel that way, but such debates tend to stop being about data and start being about philosophy fairly quickly. In the end, the best way to answer the question about which side is better usually involves being specific about which criteria we're comparing.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Media Bias and Evidence

A lot of people who don't like the way the country is going tend to blame the media either for not mentioning the problems they see or for covering irrelevant non-problems in too much detail.

A similarly large group will refuse to believe anything from a media source they believe is biased - and their standard for bias tends to be whether it agrees with their view of the world or not.

Let's get one thing out of the way: The media is going to be biased. Which issues they cover, how they cover them, or any number of other things can all create a false impression without a single lie being told. Sometimes that can even happen unintentionally if the reporter feels strongly about the issue and doesn't think carefully about how they might misinterpret or misrepresent.

But there's another point here: attacking an argument based on the source and not the content is still an ad hominem - a fallacious argument. There's no exception built into that for untrustworthy sources, because even they can be right sometimes.

Sometimes acting like there is such an exception is a useful shortcut. I don't worry about taking apart every Breitbart article that disagrees with my views; the belief that they are biased and likely wrong is sufficient to maintain my confidence in my opinions.

If I want to prove that point, though - whether to myself or someone else - then a higher standard of evidence than "I think they're biased" is required. That's where I have to figure out how they misrepresented the truth, explain how their evidence also fits a different conclusion, or talk about the parts of the issue that they didn't cover and why they're relevant. That can easily turn into a debate of its own, with one side talking about other aspects and interpretations and the other defending their original characterization. It's worth noting, also, that stating that a media company or specific reporter could be biased or has reason to want a specific conclusion is certainly relevant, as it applies to a motive... but is not by any means a complete argument, until information about how they misrepresented the truth is presented.

Also, the argument that a media source is biased in a specific way or to a specific degree is just as much of a specific point subject to debate as any individual article or issue's coverage is. One can certainly try to treat it as a fait accompli, and given the way most people view even those sources they agree with, it might be accepted without complaint. But even that doesn't make it automatically true.

In the end, frankly, there's no easy solution for the problems that bias in the media represents. Any solution other than a well-educated populace that's committed to the truth and to defending it properly seems like a patch. All of us, ultimately, need to hold ourselves to that standard.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Deadly Force and Hindsight

... This news article is not a new story, but I only found out about it when a friend shared this update to it a few weeks ago... or I could mention this blog post as well.

My purpose in talking about this police shooting actually doesn't have much to do with any judgment-related problems. Rather, there's one detail here that jumped out at me: the update talks about one of the police officers involved being fired for not shooting at the suspect.

It turns out the first police officer to confront the suspect decided that the threat didn't yet merit the use of deadly force, and elected to try and de-escalate the situation. When the suspect turned away from him and started walking towards the other two police officers present, one of them killed the suspect. The police officer who didn't fire was terminated, on the grounds that he put his fellow officers in danger.

It turns out he was probably right in that initial judgment call. The guy in question was attempting to manipulate his wife by threatening suicide... then said he was going to get the cops to do it... and his gun was unloaded.

The slightly weird thing is that it still adds up to a justifiable shooting. There's no way for any of the police officers to know his gun was unloaded, and I can readily understand that someone further away might not have seen the same things that the closer officer saw, and therefore believe himself justified in opening fire. Also, frankly, if the police department wants to say that the termination had nothing to do with this specific incident and more to do with past incidents... fine, I don't care enough to debate that point.

But where the police department's termination letter (at the very bottom of this story) talks about his failure to react and shoot this particular person? It is quite badly wrong. Not employing deadly force should not be mistaken for a failure to judge the situation and decide. That decision is the responsibility we assign to those who have the right to use deadly force - and our society cannot handicap those people by telling them that one decision is always wrong. We can demand they hold themselves to a high standard, we can demand they be trained to the best standards possible, we can ask what they were thinking when we don't understand what happened, and we can track the situation on a larger scale to ensure that there aren't more general problems with training or judgment - but if all those factors are in place, then imagining that we know better than the experts we've had trained in this field is just as wrong as it would be for any other.

This is already the situation the military finds itself in - public trust in that organization is consistently high (although not universally so, of course, and I wouldn't argue that the military has never had any problems of this type). We're not quite there with the police yet (whether that's because the public doesn't realize those factors are in place or because they aren't actually in place is a topic for multiple other blog posts), but trying to play games with specific problems isn't going to get us there.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Educational Priorities

I occasionally run into some Prager University videos on my Facebook news feed. Out of all the conservative media I get, they have a better than average chance of being well thought out enough to avoid obvious pitfalls. Unfortunately that's not the same thing as saying they're right, and it's also worth pointing out that the average is pretty bad, so it's not that hard to do a little better.

Anyway, I do occasionally watch them, and I usually have something to say afterwards. So today I'm responding to "Every High School Principal Should Say This". Mostly because I was curious what sort of ideas the right wing thinks might improve our schools. The whole thing is set up as a speech that a new high school principal gives by way of introducing himself and what he intends to focus on.

While I can see some good intent in some of the points, overall I don't like it very much. If I had to summarize... basically, I think several of the things this is trying to "fix" weren't problems in the first place, some of the others will make existing problems worse, and many of the problems we do have with are education system aren't made any better or worse by changing these things.

Now for specific issues with each point.

Point one doesn't start out too badly with its call for equal regard, but it quickly gets worse as he dismisses the value of any identity other than American. You can't make people just decide that the parts of their identity that have to do with their ethnicity, their sex, their religion, etc. aren't important. Trying to do so is mostly just going to damage their self-esteem and make bullying and suicide problems worse. And pretending that identity-specific clubs only have value to people in those specific groups is fairly short-sighted; they often serve as great places for members of other groups to learn about other cultures and other ways of thinking - which is an incredibly valuable thing to learn. (Incidentally, it's funny that he talks about learning language at the end of that part - because doing so without studying "national identities other than American" is a difficult and unhelpful way to study language.)

Point two I really don't have any problem with. Some schools might want to focus on international students and have classes taught in foreign languages, but that wouldn't define more than a relatively small handful of schools.

Point three... also no real problems. I think focusing on modes of address might be focusing a bit too much on the appearance of an appropriately formal relationship versus actually encouraging appropriate relationships between students and teachers, but that's more of a minor nitpick.

Point four I also have no problems with.

Point five... based on what I said about point one above I think my reaction should probably be obvious. But just to spell it out: This is an absolutely terrible sentiment. If you don't have any self-esteem at all, if you don't believe that your best effort will have any effect, then many people wouldn't even try. Lack of self-esteem therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the only way to break the cycle is to gain enough confidence to try, and to keep that confidence even if you fail. (In fact, that's a great skill to have throughout one's life.) So ensuring that your students have enough confidence and self-esteem to keep trying is one of the most vital duties an educator has.

In his defense, he may have intended just to repudiate the idea that multiple people can win and emphasize that effort is rewarded. But it's still phrased in such a way that makes it sound like he doesn't care about self-esteem.

Point six is simply irritating in multiple different ways. It's kind of amusing that he says he's going to reject politics and then goes into a discussion of issues that is a straight run down the Republican party platform. Any Democrat, of course, would tell you that allowing the school not to cover those issues would be worrying about propaganda rather than science. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Memories of Unity

As we remember the events on this day 15 years ago, one memory that often rises up is the sense of unity we felt as we dealt with a horrible tragedy.

Unfortunately, the contrast that memory presents with more recent events is one of the reasons why it comes up so often.

Of course, the next point that often comes up involves blaming one side or the other for the increase in polarization. Even if such arguments are true, correctly blaming people for what they've done wrong isn't going to foster unity.

Even as we disagree, we need to learn how to acknowledge why our opponents believe what they do, what they do right, and where we agree. Even if we don't agree in anything other than wanting the United States to be the best country it can possibly be, that's still better than nothing.

It's not going to make us always agree. It's not going to make the issues we argue about any less important; sometimes trying to work on unity is going to have to get in line behind advocating for people's rights and freedoms. And one side or the other can destroy the whole effort unilaterally; both sides have to agree that it's worth it and put in the work to make it happen.

If we can do it, though, I think we can look forward to a better country.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Once more

All right, let's see if I can actually maintain a steady series of posts here after... what, a year and a half of nothing?

I'll try to post something every Saturday evening. Starting today.