Red Devils

Cass street bridge

A few weeks ago, while meandering down our local river walk with my pre-teen son, we passed a well-known but dilapidated railroad bridge. It remains raised, looming over our heavily-invested, developing downtown area. As abandoned machinery often does, this bridge stands as a monument to the captains of industry that put our fair city on the map. We natives know it well, but it was the first time my young son had seen it.

“Mom, what is that,” he asked, pointing to the rusting metal that cut the afternoon sunlight into familiar geometry on the sidewalk before us.

“It’s a defunct railroad bridge,” I answered.

He paused, a reaction I know well as his processing behavior.

“What does ‘defunct’ mean?” I already knew he had a fairly good idea.

“Well, what does the prefix ‘de’ mean?”

“Not,” he answered.

“And the second syllable, ‘funct?’ What did it sound like?”

“Functional,” he answered without hesitation.

“Alright then, what do you think ‘defunct’ means?”

“Obviously, it means ‘not functional,’ mom.”

“Well, almost. It actually means ‘no longer functioning,’ which communicates that it DID, at one time, function. That is different from dysfunctional, which communicates that it never functioned properly. That’s an important distinction.”

Another pregnant pause.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. I do.”

Three important things happened for my son that afternoon. The first, simplest change was that he added to his vocabulary. The second was that he practiced his ability to discern ideas by reverse engineering other ideas, in this case, learning a new word based on his knowledge of its parts. The third, and most important, is that he increased his ability  to comprehend complex ideas.

What prompted this nostalgia, you wonder? Well, I had another tiresome discussion on Facebook today with another person whose reading comprehension was, shall we say, less than stellar.

Unless I am engaged in sophomoric banter with friends (don’t judge, everyone does it), I write comments thoughtfully, focusing hard on clarity. I ensure that I have made my point without insult, without false equivalency, without malice. If I read something I do not understand, I research the information, or I ask for clarification of the comment. In other words, I make sure I understand before I take the offensive. Today, I was not even mildly surprised when I was personally attacked for my “ignorance” as I openly discussed the idea that finding and addressing root cause will always provide the lasting solution, especially in an otherwise volatile situation. The person who accused me of “ignorance” does not know me. Calling me “ignorant” and my favorite, “pathetic,” based on a single, out-of-context comment was the width and breadth of her attack. I found it sad, and simultaneously, a revelation.

It was obvious that the woman who attacked me had not read the commentary elsewhere in the thread. Or perhaps she had and just short of true alexia, her emotions inhibited her. She did not appear to comprehend the conversation into which she injected herself, having only insulted me, addressing no part of the original post. She obviously did not understand the core of the discussion. Cognitive dissonance, I wondered. No, that would assume she’d read, understood and then formed a separate but competing opinion about the subject at hand. Perhaps this is the BIGGEST problem with social media.

I have found, in nearly every “discussion” thread into which I’ve reluctantly entered, comprehension decomposes quickly. Each thread is a microcosm of what is happening in our country. It usually begins with a highly emotional, hyperbolic post. Several people with similar feelings chime in, raising the temperature. The comments become more and more vile. If, at this point, someone with an opposing, or even moderate view enters the discussion, the pack turns, salivating, and begins an all out personal war. Trolling notwithstanding, it quickly becomes obvious that the mob is either incapable of or disinterested in truly comprehending the commentary they are reading. They are the Red Devils in the ocean of social media. I don’t want to think it is a willful disregard for facts and reason, but I must concede that that may be part of it. I have often said that MOST people want the same thing but don’t agree on how to get there. Now I believe that humans are decreasingly capable of the meta-comprehension required to live democratically. The rapid breakdown on a single thread is proof that productive debate and comprehension are now defunct.

Comprehension requires not only a grasp of language, and at least an average vocabulary, but more than anything else, it requires the maturity and reason to accept that we cannot know everything, that we must be receptive to the ideas and experiences of others and that we must ask questions when we do not understand. Most importantly, we must be introspective and accept that we may not understand.

Persuasion is an art form. Tribalism, the opposite of debate and persuasion, is the natural human condition. As civilization has evolved, we have had to devise constraints that promote order and progress as we increase in number to many more humans, who are naturally self-centered. The last twenty or so years has seen a near complete abandonment of the intelligent application of systems that created the environment for innovation and improvement. “I am entitled to” has replaced “I will work for” and “I will contribute to.”

This is not an indictment of emotion. No great rock would move without the power of a good push. However, in order to move that rock, we have to push together in the same direction. We have lost sight of this fundamental idea. Many find more gratification in keyboard bullying than they do in solving the problems about which they spew their vitriol. I don’t want to believe that it is a devolution of human understanding, but after what I’ve seen just in the last few weeks, I can see that the Red Devils are increasing and all reasonable voices are being consumed in a melee of poorly written, myopic comments. The Red Devils are winning, Borg-like in their pursuit of group-think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them, and these days, that’s a very dangerous place to be.

(Original photo credit “Steve E.” No more information available, edited by me for composition and dynamic range)

Frankenstein Lives

“What causes you pain,” I ask my user. His aspect changes. First he looks a bit surprised, but then a very predictable thing happens. His body language, tone of voice and facial expression shows frustration. He’s been given permission; he commences unloading with considerable emotion, about what hinders his work.

“Well, um…I have to enter the same information on every invoice for clients. You know, um, shipping address…it takes too much time. I should just be able to pick the location and then all that stuff fills in. I do dozens of these a day. It would save me so much time.”

“Great example,” I say, “tell me more.” With each answer, his mood improves, his brow unfurls. He’s been heard.

It’s a fairly simple question, but it results in myriad answers, easily organized into only a few recurring categories: just like stories that fall into into one of the seven major plots. The users address process deficiencies; they identify, often in whispers and furtive glances, who they believe are ineffective managers; they even admit, on rare occasions, that they themselves are the problem, citing poor training, or in some cases, no training at all, which when fully analyzed, still points to a problem with their employers.

The most valuable project management skill is identifying and refining requirements, which are often gleaned from users whose expertise is process-based work. These users are constantly evaluated and compensated based on some form of tangible output, such as the number of pallets shipped or the number of orders fulfilled in a given period.

This seems like a simple process, doesn’t it? One would think that it culminates in a task list, which can then be completed step by step, which would in turn culminate in perfect conditions at the end.

However, anyone with any work experience agrees that no process improvement, big or small, is that simple. All the data gleaned from interviews must be catalogued and categorized, then the emotional responses must be analyzed for root cause and organized objectively as to their true impact to the company and the user. In conjunction with a team of subject matter experts, the project manager presents solutions to the project sponsors. I cannot count, for I long ago lost track, the number of times that the solution is education. In order for a user to be more effective, he or she must understand intimately, end to end, where lies all of the potential failure points, and more importantly, how to mitigate or avoid them. This is the nature of process dynamics.

Having honed this skill over many years, I have peripherally become good at analyzing political arguments. I “hear” what people are really saying, on both sides, and as they talk, I am forming potential solutions to the problems they are discussing. Keeping my personal feelings out of the debate is essential to what I do. I have often found that people do not “hear” reasonable solutions unless those solutions fall within their emotionally accepted range of possibilities. Emotional responses ALWAYS lead to “bandaids.” They want a fix now that they cannot understand will cause them bigger problems, later.

Designing information systems for humans is a unique parallel to solving societal problems. A user who cannot complete his or her tasks often has the same visceral response as those trying to solve a social issue. They become focused on how the problem affects their immediate existence. They make decisions based on the fear of losing their jobs. They are not concerned with root cause; they want an immediate solution, which is how bandaid after bandaid becomes the monsters that are poorly written solutions. Those same bandaids satisfy management in the immediate, because their key performance indicators stay within range in the short term. Sadly, legislation is a canon of bandaids that rarely, actually solves a problem, but it makes the public happy until they’ve forgotten about the original issue.

It is useless to have “feelings” about a problem. Long-term solutions require that root cause is identified and accepted without the chaos that accompanies fear and loss. Effective, feasible, long-term solutions are most often the result of small, measurable course-corrections. A well-placed ripple can become a tidal wave of change.

I am grateful that my friends and acquaintances are a bell curve of political viewpoints (minus the pesky, lunatic extremes at both ends, which I attribute to my limited tolerance for stupidity). The ONE thing I’ve experienced consistently is that when we have open and honest discussions (about anything), and listen without prejudice to opposing opinion, we find common ground. In the end, we all tend to want the same things. The arguments, the intractability, is in the how.

I understand that it is difficult to remove emotion from an argument, especially one as intimate as politics, but bickering based on how we feel about a problem is the intellectual equivalent of throwing cow manure at one another: everyone ends up angry and reeking. Is this really what we want to teach our children? Listening, maturity and reason are the prerequisites for effective and lasting change. If you, an adult, are not willing to hear opposing views and try to understand them, how can we expect our children to become good, informed decision makers? How can we expect that we ourselves can make informed, lasting decisions if all we ever do is talk into a mirror?

Lately, I’ve read too many op eds, posts and comments and seen far too many videos of people who cannot seem to assimilate that they are not informed, that they do not have a clear understanding of the “big picture,” that they’re unexposed, “small town” perception does not translate to a world view. They are busy with their heads buried firmly in the mountains of detritus shoveled out by the media, and then perpetuated by the even less informed. Most are too lazy to seek the truth for themselves. They simply accept whatever trash supports their personal agendas. We claim to be improving as humans, in better health and with greater capacity for complex thought. Yet, we’ve allowed an insidious anti-intellectualism to infect society. We  tolerate views that are virtually irreconcilable without our hard-won freedoms, so that we can say we are the welcoming, the magnanimous. We continue to create more problems than we can possibly solve because we cannot seem to operate outside the confines of our personal circuses and those we trust to implement effective solutions are not keeping their collectives eyes on the prize.

In order to move forward, we have to accept that the human race mimics exactly the animal kingdom. There are predators and there are prey.  We are an intellectual food chain of personalities. For society to operate, we have to minimize the impact of the predators and protect and empower the prey. Predators will always manifest destruction because that is their psychosis. This applies to every aspect of human existence, from the stewardship of our environment to the protection of both our loved ones and our rights.

The question is, how do we identify and eliminate predatory behavior without restricting the rights of the rest of the human race? What is creating new crops of predators? We have to ask ourselves hard questions, some of which make us very uncomfortable. Are we manufacturing predators as products of our behaviors? Have we, as a society, as a race, created the monsters we now want to contain? Are we collectively Dr. Frankenstein?

Thriving with ADD

I developed “failure syndrome” at a fairly young age, only, I didn’t know what it was, nor did my teachers. According to an ERIC digest published in 1998, it is a clearly defined pattern of behavior based entirely on lack of confidence. At the time, they treated children like me as lazy, especially when evaluating the results of frequently applied intelligence tests. I was tested three times before I was twenty-four. Each test revealed that I was more than capable of learning. In fact, I had exceptional processing speed and problem-solving skills. So, why couldn’t I learn like the other children in my class? Why were my parents consistently frustrated with my performance in school and worse yet, why was I descending into profound depression as early as eight years old?

Fast forward forty-plus years and one day, the lightbulb, nay, the nuclear explosion glowed brightly above my head. I was sitting in my son’s teacher conference when it happened. I was so surprised by the revelation that I actually began to cry, not just because I was experiencing the cathartic understanding of my life as a student, but more because at the same time, listening to the teacher describe my child’s classroom behavior, I felt the gripping fear that he too would struggle the way that I had. It had already begun, his turn at “failure syndrome.” Everything the teacher told me was a replay of my own school experience. Why was I afraid – actually, terrified? Because my child had been happy, social and confident until his eighth year, just as I had. In third grade, a major developmental period for children, he began to say the exact same things I had. “Why am I so stupid? Why can’t I remember? Why do I make so many mistakes?” The big difference is that he has a mother and teachers who understand him and who will fight for his success.

remember feeling complete despair at fifteen. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four, and had failed at college, that I was diagnosed as depressed, even after having been in some kind of counseling on and off for six years. At one point, I’d sought counseling through the college. As a matter of course, they tested my intelligence and processing skills, as well. They reported back to me what I already knew, but still could not transcend. The more I tried to learn like everyone else, the more I despaired. It just didn’t make sense. No one had ever suggested that I had a learning “disability.” In fact, quite the opposite, they couldn’t understand it either. They marveled that I spoke about my brain as though it were a separate entity, with a great weight tied around it. They’d even say, “you are capable” repeatedly, as though those words were going to magically turn on the part of my brain that can sit in a classroom and follow the industrial revolution’s idea of standardized education.

As if the ADD component wasn’t enough, the depression that followed added a new wrinkle to the problem. While ADD is an inability to control certain brain waves (theta), depression adds a layer of seismic disturbance akin to snow in the television. With that much random brain activity, it is hard to focus on one single thing and as the anxiety increases, as it inevitably does, as students, my son and I stare at a page and watch as it actually begins to expand visually. Suddenly, twenty math problems is Kilimanjaro and we’re without cams.

After the meeting with the teachers, I began to read about how to help him and in the process, I learned how to help myself. I had always seen my mind as a handicap, a perception that really solidified when my son (and as a matter of understanding, I) was “diagnosed.” The more I read, the more I realized that ADD is not really a handicap as much as it is a type. We don’t learn poorly; we learn differently. The industrial revolution abandoned apprenticeships for classrooms, and in the process, immersive learning was abandoned for text books. For 150 years, we’ve been torturing highly-creative, kinesthetic learners, turning them into anxiety-ridden, insecure adults by forcing round pegs into a square holes.

The more I read, the more I realized that my brain is uniquely suited to the systems work into which I stumbled. My capacity to follow multiple threads means I can have several processes running on several computers in different rooms and not only remember each process, but switch between them quickly. My brain is not damaged; it is different, and that is a beautiful thing. I had, over much time and struggling, developed coping skills to get me successfully through my days. They were adequate, but often not perfect. I had already started applying those coping skills to managing my child’s learning, setting an example for him to someday manage it on his own. The more I read, the more I realized that my coping skills were among the items listed as best practices for brains like ours. It was hugely satisfying to learn that I developed coping skills that are documented as effective for my learning “type.” It was also an enormous relief to find confirmation that my understanding of how we package ideas is quite accurate, and the way in which I assimilate information is a teachable method.

So, if you have a child with ADD, consider yourself lucky. He or she is probably empathic. She has a mind that will spring into action to solve a problem before anyone else recognizes one exists. He will pinch a bleeding artery in an emergency situation. She will invent the lightbulb of the future or solve world hunger. Each is a free spirit and truly amazing.

It should be understood that even with this new understanding that my son and I learn differently, we still face the fear of sitting in a classroom all day. When I need to learn a new product for work, for example, I lock myself in a room with a computer and reverse engineer that product. In that way, I make it a reality by touching it, making mistakes, creating an end product. But on occasion, I HAVE to sit in a classroom, as I will in a few weeks, and despite my knowledge and new skills, I still fear that I will fail miserably. I understand what school looks like for my son. I hope that I can show him, as I venture back into a classroom, that with the right tools, we can adapt the classroom to our needs, instead of trying to adapt to the classroom. I send him to a Montessori school (see why here), which I highly recommend for children like him, but that will only carry him through elementary. He’ll soon have to move on to middle school, where everything changes.

Also of note is that a few weeks ago, I started drinking Bulletproof Coffee. Now, I am not recommending that this is a fix as I am not a health care professional nor a nutritionist. However, I personally have noticed a difference in my memory and most importantly, my motivation. It could certainly be psychosomatic, but I am rarely a victim of “suggestion,” so it’s unlikely.

I will recommend the op-eds Learn More in Less Time and Note Taking Study Skills, and a YouTube channel such as Mariana’s Study Corner. I had already started to develop some of these habits, and they are working for me. I will be incorporating more of them in my future learning. If you have a child that struggles to study, building a routine and materials that are unique to them will keep them interested in the process.

Rants About Ants

Firstly, thank you to my younger sister for brilliantly rhyming my pain.

Now that that is out of the way…

I must admit, I am somewhat Buddhist about the natural world. I will capture a spider and put it outside (although I learned recently that this practice is not exactly good for the spider, who chooses her environment based on her needs). I have saved a harmless snake from destruction by moving it to safer ground, or by staying out of its way if I’m in its territory.

But for two creatures, I am not so inclined to coexist. The first is the roach (except for the little guy in Wall-E, but in fairness, he’s animated). There is no reasonable explanation for the proliferation of the common roach, other than providing protein for the next link in the chain. However, there are no rodents in my home, so roaches need not volunteer for the position of protein-du-jour by crossing my threshold. When such a terrifying sight as a roach presents itself in my household, I scream like a banshee while running from the scene calling the name of the nearest person I know is willing to kill said intruder. Gentlemen, cue the heraldic fanfare as you enter, riding your mighty steed, sword aloft and save the day for the damsel-in-entomological-distress.

The second evil creature is the common sugar ant, an insidious and annoyingly persistent little bastard. I have tried all manner of discouraging the micro-beasts from entering my home as the rains embolden them to find every poorly-caulked baseboard in random rooms. I do not leave food out. I do not coax them with tiny ant treats. Yet, they have maintained a near persistent invasion, led surely by the ant-sized reincarnation of Ramses II himself.

Pharoah ants are the bane of my existence at the moment. I have tried negotiating, natural oil remedies, vinegar, borax and finally ant traps. They are the Borg collective and they are after my soul.

Finally, when they began biting me, I abandoned my Buddhist love of all things living and started smashing them. In any given sitting in my art space, there may be ten little mangled carcasses after I’ve basically exhausted my commitment to natural deterrents. Less than an hour later, I see ten more, drunkenly looking for a safe route around any chemical defenses I’ve laid out on my desk.

As I descend into madness, if you hear only the word “ant” on my lips, know that they’ve won, that I can no longer battle the force that has more fortitude than any other living creature on this planet.

I hate ants.

Update: I finally won! I found a recipe online for the best ant killer EVER. I doctored it a bit to make it more appealing and sure enough, the tiny creatures come in their hundreds to sample the ant-brosia I concocted. They carried it back to the queen and after just a few days they were gone! The recipe called for Borax, sugar, water and syrup. I raised the stakes with true maple syrup and unbleached sugar. Just a spoonful on a plate is enough to draw them out and tweet their little antennae like bugs possessed. And after about a week, no more ants! (PS, make sure that you add enough water that it’s still sticky but won’t harden.)

ant

Ugly…

I check my plants for new growth every day. That is the first indicator that they’re healthy and thriving in their new space, in their new pot. Am I giving them enough? Plants are complicated, but the one thing that is true for all species is that every new leaf means you’re doing it right.

Recently, I met a delightful woman with an artist’s heart and a green thumb. I’m certain that few feel the way I do about receiving the gift of cuttings, because in the back of my wannabe-naturalist’s head, even I can’t quite understand the delight I feel as I run my fingers over the new material, feeling its bumps and textures. I delight further in researching the growth habits, the soil acidity, the amount of light it needs. I’m no botanist, but I understand the mechanics.

So, when after all the leaves have fallen away and after weeks of wondering if I’ve managed it, I see new leaves sprouting and new roots reaching into the soil, I secretly squeal with glee that I’ve done a small thing to perpetuate the green in the world.

I am amazed as well that something as lovely as a frangipani begins as a terrifyingly clawed gather of leaves as it reaches for the sun. People are the same. Something very ugly can eventually become something lovely, but it often takes patience, and encouragement and a bit of instinct.

Always keep an eye out for just the tiniest hint…

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YoaHTs: “Thing” #70 – “Buddy Movies”

Ever wonder why we LOVE buddy movies? I didn’t, until today. I mean, I knew that I was one of billions that will rush to see a good buddy movie. I’ve always known that they’re a gold mine for Hollywood. But I never really thought about why they draw the public over and over. However, today, while watching a promo for the new Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart film, Central Intelligence, it occurred to me that something important has been lost on us. 

Buddy movies are entirely formulaic, requiring very little intellectual investment. They are predictable, and generally full of sophomoric, slapstick humor. Yet, we go in droves and Holywood keeps churning them out, year after year. Full disclosure: I can’t wait to see this one. 

Obviously, our need for humor is an important factor, but I believe it is more profound than that. In fact, I believe the answer is so deeply rooted in our DNA that we should truly understand it. 

Every day life should be a buddy movie

The core theme in every single buddy movie is that opposites can learn to be friends, and in the face of a challenge, even teammates. It’s that simple. Two people, who approach a problem from completely different perspectives, still have the same goal: to solve the damned problem. In the beginning, they don’t understand one another. Hell, most of the time, they really don’t like each other. But by the end of the film, they have struggled together and that recognition, that common experience, destroys the bar that keeps them apart. 

It seems like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? But the one thing that complicates it is that many don’t seem to recognize what the common goal is. It doesn’t matter where you begin. It matters where you choose to go. 

I was in Dallas last week. From the safety of my hotel room, I watched news casts as the events unfolded. I saw solidarity as the police protected and supported the protestors. I saw people of every race protecting children together. I saw a sudden, innate, collective  reaction to keep people safe in the face of a terrifying experience. 

People became buddies. All of a sudden, people forgot they had differences. They shared the same need to be safe. Hundreds of different people became buddies.

It can be done, but in order to do it, we have to be honest about the problems that have brought us here, to this place in history. Everyone has to be intellectually honest. Neither side of every conflict can remain intractable. Neither can dig their heels in and say “we don’t have to understand,” because that is patently not true. The “other side” means the middle is at arm’s length. If everyone simply reached out, think of how much stronger the bonds could be. 

YoaHTs – Thing #71 – “Summers on the Beach”

I have a love/hate relationship with fireworks. I love the color, the noise, the spectacle of fireworks. But every year, I get more and more annoyed the morning of July 5th when I see the ridiculous mess left behind by amateur pyrotechnicians. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is “Summers on the Beach” in Florida. 

I wonder, as I stroll down the long stretch that is Central Florida’s gulf beaches, why people come to the beach year after year. I think about why I enjoy it, and then I look around at the miles and miles dotted by tents and umbrellas and think, no, it’s not the same

Somewhere in my DNA is a chain of chromosomes that are part sea water. According to ancestry.com my genome circles the Mediterranean, island hopping from Sicily to Egypt to Menorca in Spain. I find peace in the waves crashing. I am a human solar panel, recharging my psyche in the sun. To me, the beach has a soul, as do all of Earth’s great designs. 

So, imagine how utterly disgusted I am when, the morning after we celebrate how amazing our country is, I see how little its citizens care about their responsibility to her shores. I cannot fathom why, if you enjoy coming to the beach, you don’t feel compelled to keep it clean and safe. (See Figure 1)

Post-fireworks debris on Reddington Beach

Plastic toys, for example, become brittle over time and break into brightly-colored, sharp shards which the birds mistake for food. Necropsies on birds reveal that plastics fill their bellies, causing the birds to starve. Cigarette butts (my favorite pet peeve) are so numerous, that is gives the appearance that the beach is a giant ashtray. I pick up hundreds of them in a week, and it’s worse every year. Styrofoam from cheap coolers break into a million tiny pieces, which look a great deal like shells. My favorite this morning was a squeezed Bud Light cap which was so sharp, that it would do major damage to soft tissue. (See image 2)

Bud Light bottle cap found on Reddington Beach

The beaches here are highly commercialized, with miles and miles of hotels, and little to no flora and fauna remains. It has been replaced by thousands of people with seemingly little regard for the damage they do. Perhaps it’s ignorance. Maybe they don’t realize how, when those water balloons explode, little tiny blue pieces of latex end up in the sand where turtles and birds used to nest. Or maybe they think that one cigarette butt won’t hurt, ignoring the fact that it’s one of thousands buried by others. 

I hate to be THAT person. I prefer to be cheerful, and complimentary. But the human infection has reached a zenith and fixing it wouldn’t take much. In fact, if every person who visited just took five square feet and scanned the sand for plastic, cigarette butts, and styrofoam, we could easily keep it clean. In fact, get your kids involved. They love to hunt for things. There are organizations that help. IS Foundation (Ian Somerhalder of Vampire Diaries) has leveraged social media to keep kids interested in being good stewards. Just five minutes and five yards. I promise, it won’t hurt, and imagine that five minutes can do.