All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Author: Jim (Page 3 of 50)

Father of 4, Engineer, Social Worker, longtime blogger, #linux user. Opining on the internet? What else is it for?

So Covid-19’s from a Chinese Lab, huh?

Ok, it’s possible. I’m open to anything. If it happened it happened. Certainly, it is in the realm of possibility. State actors have done lots of verifiably bad things throughout the centuries.

So, where’s your proof?

Do you have any evidence that’s not the circlejerk of right wing talk radio and crackpots quoting each other?

Do you have any actual proof?

Oh, you’ll tell us later? Just like Obama’s birth certificate?

I’ll wait.

Now you say it is classified and that you shouldn’t tell us, but trust you?

Why are you even talking about something so sensitive then?

Seriously, America; three-card monte is a sucker’s game. How come you have not learned your lesson yet?

The President of the US of A, Ladies and Gentlemen

I flipped to the daily shit show yesterday – you know, just to see what’s happening, and because I’ve got some extra time. Of course, I always see the news media’s commentary after the fact, but I really really have to see this stuff for myself.

Do they exaggerate, edit, select out of context sound bites, or generally misrepresent what the President is saying?

So I tune in to see for myself to see that, no, they do not. make. this. shit. up. This gem from yesterday:

“I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute,” he said. “One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?” he said. “So it’d be interesting to check that.”

He added: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”

What? At that moment I turned it off. I couldn’t. I couldn’t watch such a cringe-worthy moment. It’s like the comedy of Mr. Bean. It’s just so embarrassing, that it turns your innards in weird and unpleasant ways. I couldn’t. New record today. I made it 5 minutes.

Hey you know what else kills viruses in like a minute… or even less, Mr. Good you-know what?


If only we could figure out a way to inject fire, or eat it or something. Surely that would kill the virus and SAVE US ALL!!!

Nobody Wants Radical Change

I like, Bernie. I think Bernie is pretty much absolutely correct in nearly everything he’s been promoting and fighting for for the past 50 years.

But he’s wrong about promoting radical change. Well, I mean, if he wants to get elected.

I think a lot of the current crop of Democrats have lost their way for the manner in which they address the people. People do not want to hear about how you’re going to change everything. They want to hear how you are going to make their lives better, easier.

Take healthcare, for example. Bernie wants Medicare for all. It is a noble aspiration. I don’t have a problem with it as an end goal, but to not talk about the intermediary steps is a mistake.

The level of push back from the insurance industry and Congress is going make it a non-starter. Look at how hard it was for Obama to get the ACA with a friendly Congress. It was a small change, just a way to make sure that the most vulnerable weren’t left behind, and the entire country went kicking and screaming like a toddler in a Walmart.

And Bernie thinks he can run on Medicare for all?


He should have run on the stories of those who fell through the cracks. He should have run on ways to amend, fix, extend the ACA to make sure that it was cheaper, more comprehensive, better.

Bernie should have acknowledged that the President doesn’t have the authority to make radical changes to the government. The President isn’t king. The President of the US works for the people. They respond to the people’s representatives in the Congress, and they do not wield unlimited power. He’s running like an inverse-Trump, same authoritarian style, different values.

Bernie is correct on so many things, but he got this thing very very wrong.

He needed to build bridges. He needed to work with others within the existing flawed system. He’s going nowhere if he’s going it alone.

Accessing Knowledge from Different Language Contexts

This evening, I was helping my daughter with some statistics problems in her college course. I had just taken the basic stats course less than two years ago as part of master’s program in Social Work, so I know this. I got an A, really enjoyed the class, and got to see how we can use stats to make sense of data. Of course, we must provide context to our results, but that’s another post. The short of it is: I know this stuff.

The concept at hand had to do with probabilities, calculating things like: given a test of 5 multiple choice questions with 4 options each one, what is the probability that with random guessing, the student gets a 60% or higher.

Okay, what concept is that, so I start googling around, reading stuff on Wikipedia to lock in what concept we’re going after.

Maybe I don’t know this stuff.

None of it looks familiar. The homework seems simple. The terms aren’t complicated.

Why didn’t I study this in my stats class, I wondered, and I started to feel a little bit of anxiety. Maybe my stats class wasn’t as rigorous as this one. Was I shortchanged, not prepared properly?

As I continued to go down the rabbit hole and converse with my daughter, I asked her how they take the tests. Do they use graphing calculators? Do you know how to access the binomial functions on it?

Yes, she said, and they also have a binomial distribution table. I looked it up, and everything came rushing back.

In my stats course, which I took in Spanish, we didn’t call it that. It was the tabla de distribución binomial. It’s not like the words are completely different. They are almost exactly the same, but for some reason the knowledge was filed someplace else, and my English context brain couldn’t access it. Once I saw the actual table, it unlocked the door, and everything made more sense.

But there was panic for a bit, and I imagine I’m not the only one to experience this anxiety. I wish I could communicate just how disorienting the experience was, to know something, but forget you know it when speaking another language. In English, everything looked to foreign to me.

My daughter laughed and said welcome to her world going to university in English.

Art Matters: A Case For Community Expression

Javier’s art teacher asked him to draw something for the school field day. Ever the creative munchkin he is, he got together with his friend, Lorenzo and drew a baby Yoda as a work of public art. Classmates gathered around, commented, laughed, played, shared. Javier solicited ideas from the group and incorporated them into the drawing. When they were done, the public space was reclaimed by the rain and trampling foot traffic.

The little group coalesced, created something fun and delightful, and left the situation better for it. There was no physical artifact left, the chalk long dissolved, but the experience, a tangible connection was carried away from that moment. Javier helped foment community, expression, social awareness, culture, and friendship.

“You know, Javier, I think it’s really neat what you did. It’s a shame that art isn’t more valued in society. I wish that artists were more valued. I wish they could earn a decent living without having to scrap and save. People just don’t know how much they need art and artists in their lives.

Look at what Hasan Minhaj talked about on his show, Patriot Act, last night. Why do you think so many people have fallen victim to opiates and addiction? There’s this malaise, this existential crisis, some kind of void that people can’t fill, so they numb themselves from physical and metaphysical pain.

Individuals don’t seem to be acutely aware of how important art in their lives. Sure, they get hungry and buy food or other physical artifacts. Maybe we don’t value it because it doesn’t satisfy a physical need or some compulsion to hoard for later. But even though art may not be physical sustenance, it feeds us in ways we don’t realize.

We are starving, emaciated, and ravenous from a hunger so potent that we are literally willing to die for it. We feel something, but don’t know what to call it. We address that emptiness with more emphasis on concrete subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Busy yourselves, we are told, step back, don’t think so deeply about things. Get on about the work, productivity, distract yourself from your pain by activity. Best not to think about all that touchy feely, philosophical bullshit. It’ll just keep you down.

We are not automatons, meant to produce widgets for profit all the days of our lives. We need to share in creation. We need to have a space to both create and enjoy the creation of others. Instead of zoning out, distracting, forgetting, we need to remember we all in it together, and that when we come together something wonderful happens. Musical performance. Public art. Community art. All these things enrich us in ways that are not immediately apparent, but no less important.

Understanding Bias

It is certainly frustrating trying to lift the veil on the root causes of problems that exist in society. First, based on what I see, what is the best way to intervene and help fix the problem or foment conditions whereby the problem may be addressed. Second, is there actually a problem to begin with? Is it all an illusion? Are there forces that work to attempt to profit from fear and uncertainty? All of the above?

I’ll admit, it’s tough to pierce the veil. In my own youth, the root causes of the inequalities in society were masked to me, my understanding thwarted by a system that served me and about which I had no complaints.  Now, in my adulthood, and as a resident of Puerto Rico, I have benefited from having lived outside of my own white American experience. I have learned a foreign language, and suffered over “the right way” of doing things only to find that there is no “right way.” There is only a right way inside of a specific context, and that context is fluid. Sure, there are general principles, like honesty, integrity, fairness, but the forms those things take is fluid and sometimes not familiar outside of a particular context.

Different isn’t wrong, and perhaps it even ends up being the wellspring of innovation.

But our resistance to difference, to trying to “fix” the other, a lack of cultural and societal perspective on things like standardized testing bias, is holding America back. We are still falling into the same traps over and over. Americans say, “we test them, and on average they come out dumber.” Not only that, but Americans have a neat and easy explanation too. There must be a genetic component, as was said by James Watson (discoverer of DNA) recently. I’m probably repeating myself here, but over and over again, I note that we look for innate properties to describe societal outcomes. It’s easy. It’s natural, and it absolves society completely of guilt.

We didn’t make you poor. It’s your choices. It’s your inferior culture and values. Maybe it’s genetic. You’ve had 150 years to get over it. How come Nigerians immigrate here and do better? Here you go, we have a special program for you that will stigmatize and marginalize you, thereby fulfilling the promise that we will get what we expect – more failure. Or maybe, just maybe, there isn’t actually more failure, we just focus on it more, confirming our biases.

This kind of thinking is fomented by a society that does not have the tools to understand its social pressures. Most white Americans do not speak a second language. Most white Americans have not lived in another culture, have not put themselves in a community where they are not the majority. Once African Americans move into an area, white people flee using the racial dog-whistle “better schools” and continue to live in their bubble.

So, what can we do?

Well, one thing we can do is try to ignore our own uniformed “observations.” There are a couple of things working against understanding social pressures, one is confirmation bias. We tend to not conduct impartial investigations in our own living spaces. We tend to not give the benefit of the doubt as we clutch our purses. We tend to make conclusions on very small sample sizes, and we tend to erroneously apply those conclusions as general rules.

This exception-based thinking can be found in individuals who talk about the one guy they know who survived a car crash because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. “If he had been wearing his seatbelt,” they say, “he wouldn’t have been thrown free and would have been crushed. The guy walked away like nothing happened to him.” I shake my head, because they will hang onto that personal exceptional story and resist the countless incidences of those who also walked away because they were wearing a seatbelt. Those cases are unexceptional and therefor not noteworthy.

We have a tendency to cling to these exceptions, leading us to incorrect perceptions about reality.

Another pressure that works against understanding is the news media. It’s related, but I want to focus on two phrases in particular: “Man Bites Dog” and “If it bleeds, it leads.” Each principle is indicative of a reality that exists outside of the normative. It’s reported because it’s rare and horrific. The index of effect is greatly exaggerated by these reports. If the impact is the product of the rareness and the magnitude then it can, in one’s mind, equal the aggregate impact of more common occurrences.

We then make political decisions on these very small sample sizes and we extrapolate them into trends and conclusions that are not supported by the data. Things “seem” a certain way because the news media reported a passenger jet with 250 people aboard crashed into a mountainside. We don’t necessarily hear about each and every one of the 30,000 or so people who are killed in traffic accidents every year. In general air travel is very much safer than car travel, but sometimes it certainly doesn’t feel that way, does it?

I would simply ask that we challenge and humble ourselves in the face of what we regard as the truth about things. What we may believe about the “others” is most probably wrong. Look to bias in the news media. Look to how we confirm our own biases by consuming information that validates our own viewpoints. Accept the conclusions of anthropologists and sociologists when they say that sub-optimal outcomes are social and systemic and not based on inherent defects in the marginalized population. Just as we accept the rocket scientist and his orbital calculations, we should regard social scientists with the same deference. “Hmm, I may not feel acutely imperiled by not wearing my seatbelt in a moving car, but the engineer said I should. Maybe I should listen.”

So What Laws did the College Admissions Scandal Folks Break?

We’ve all been following the story of the college admissions bribery scheme. The reporters have continued to call it bribery and fraud without actually saying what laws were broken. It drives me nuts, because by themselves bribery and fraud or lying (except in specific contexts) are generally civil matters or not against the law at all. I can pass a waiter $20 to get a better table. Is that bribery? Yes, yes it is. Is it a crime? No.

There are other situations where bribery or lying are decidedly not crimes. Are they unethical? Sure, but criminal they are not. In many cases, things will get you fired. You violated a policy. You accepted a bribe for special treatment for a client. You get fired. The company may sue you for damages, but generally law enforcement doesn’t get involved.

So, I ask, what was the crime that Huffman and the rest committed? If people can donate directly to the school in a quid pro quo fashion to gain admittance for their children, how were these modest sums resulting in substantial federal charges for basically the same behavior?

Why are they throwing the book at these people?

Felicity Huffman, “pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying $15,000 to have a proctor correct her eldest daughter’s SAT answers in 2017.

Because they used the mail.

If they had conducted these transactions in person only, they probably would have been okay, but because they mailed things and conducted the unethical behavior using the USPS, it’s now a Federal crime.

It really doesn’t seem fair to me honestly. Were they stupid? Yes. Are they terrible people? Yes. But these laws were meant to stop perpetrators of schemes to defraud retired Americans, stop multi-level marketing schemes, Nigerian prince, and other wholesale theft schemes. In my mind it’s a pretty big stretch to say these individuals deprived others of services. It’s an embarrassing episode, they should suffer repercussions, but I find the spectacle unnecessary and a waste of Federal resources.

9/11 Never Forget

It’s everywhere – all day long, “Never Forget.” I must admit it rubs me the wrong way and raises a question.

What are we never supposed to forget? Our anger? Who did it? The buildings? The lives lost? The endless war that followed? The thousands killed on that day and the millions more killed in the subsequent years? Is it a moment fixed in time that we are not supposed to forget, or is it the slow drag through time and in perpetuity of that thing called endless war?

Of all those things, I suppose the lives lost and the heroes rushing toward the disaster is the best “never forget” subject. I will remember the innocent people killed in a senseless attack, but we don’t really have to be so forceful with the “never forget” business. It sounds vengeful to me, which is why I suspect there’s an implicit “never forgive” there too.

If we need to heal and remembering is part of that healing, then I’m all for it, but I can’t help but think we are using the phrase to steel our resolve and appetite for endless war.

What I remember, and probably will never forget is how I felt in the days and weeks following the attack. Besides having my Reserve Army unit activated, I knew that we were going down the wrong path, that the US had thrown itself, foaming at the mouth, into a frenzy of bombs and troops and more young lives lost.

For what?

So we wouldn’t forget, stupid!

The Way Things Fail

Back in engineering school, we were taught all sorts of things, materials, statics, dynamics, math, factors of safety, design, even a little bit of public policy. We were taught to look for causes of failure, whether human (design, operation), fatigue, or even an act of nature. We walked through case studies of engineering disasters like detectives.

The takeaway: you can’t engineer away failure, and the cause of failure is rarely one thing.

In these case studies, there were usually small errors compounded by something unforeseen. Perhaps there was a bureaucratic process, a cost cutting measure, an edge case condition, and bam! you have achieved critical failure. How did it happen? Well, the pilot feel asleep. No that’s not it. The pilot fell asleep and there was a freak storm with tropical moisture at high altitude. No that’s not it, try again. The pilot fell asleep, there was a freak storm with high tropical moisture, which caused the air speed sensor to ice over and the junior pilot wasn’t able to deduce the problem with sufficient time to avert the tragedy of Air France Flight 447. We’ve got design flaws. We’ve got training flaws. We’ve got procedure flaws. We’ve got acts of God, all mixed up in a delicious failure soup.

The consistent commonality in these case studies was the fact that things go wrong. They will go wrong, and you should expect them to go wrong. See Murphy’s Law. Armed with this new knowledge, engineers must now ask themselves how they want fail. The engineer of the product or solution, must consider the modes of failure, how a thing may fail. It seems strange to plan for failure, doesn’t it? But you must, because you need to be able to control whether it will it fail gracefully or blow up in your face?

Take the design of cars, for example. In the mid 20th century, cars were built as steel behemoths. No seat belts. Limited crumple zones. No air bags. We built cars, and we expected them to be rigid and sturdy. Engineers, unfortunately, underrepresented the driver and passenger systems, and the systems of other cars and drivers in their designs. What happens to a car when comes into contact with another? Engineers should have taken a holistic approach to the automobile, considering it as part of a complex and unpredictable system. They should have considered that cars were going to crash and crash badly. Just because a car’s intended mode of operation is not impacting other cars, doesn’t mean you don’t design for it.

The result in 1972 was almost 55,000 traffic fatalities; 55,000 people dead because cars were under engineered for failure modes.

Fast forward to mass shootings in these recent years. “It’s mental illness!” “It’s family values!” “It’s right-wing extreme ideologies!” “It’s video games! It’s toxic masculinity!”

Many of the mass shootings touch on these characteristics, and it would be easy to blame one thing. Maybe all of them and things we hadn’t considered are to blame for the desperate and aberrant outcomes we have witnessed recently. You are not wrong, but you’re hand waving. Remember our friend Murphy? “But but, cars aren’t supposed to crash! The driver was drunk. The driver was inattentive, going too fast. The road was poorly designed. The car was unsafe.” All of those things may be true, and yet still you’re addressing the accident as preventable instead of probable. American drivers experience on average one accident per every 165,000 miles driven. It’s probable that a driver will experience one or more accidents in their lifetimes. We can work to mitigate risk factors, but like an ashtray in an airplane lavatory, we have to assume some people are going to do the wrong thing.

But back to mass shooters – Maybe we have areas of sickness in our society. Certain facets of personal liberty and individualism create easy targets of isolated individuals looking to belong to something.

Whatever it is, I ask the following question: If you can’t stop car accidents from happening, shouldn’t you still look to control how they happen?

If mental illness, distressed individuals, violent video games, social isolation, and childhood abuse can lead to desperate acts, don’t you want to control how they happen?

We know weapons are not the cause of these terrible tragedies, but they do increase the severity of the failure. When things go wrong, there are no crumple zones. There is no air bag. There is no seat belt. There is only an AR-15 style weapon with an extended magazine.

El Paso Shooting

From his manifesto:

“Even if other non-immigrant targets would have a greater impact, I can’t bring myself to kill my fellow Americans.” The manifesto writer said he supported the Christchurch shooting citing the “Great Replacement” anti-immigration theory postured there. The writer says that his hatred of immigrants predates Trump so “don’t blame” the president.

Would this guy really have had to disavow Trump’s influence if their values didn’t coincide?

Hey guys, I thought of violence against immigrants first, so don’t give credit to Trump [even though we’re pretty much in lockstep with what we’d like to achieve, an America devoid of brown people].

Absolves Trump? I think it indicts him as morally complicit.

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