Chaos and Upheaval

Peachtree 216

Hello – it’s June! We had other things to say at other points last month, but the Chaos Unleashed has robbed some of those things of their immediacy… on Memorial Day, our landlord popped by to announce that he was selling the house, so we’re moving to the town next door. We had lease papers signed within a week of him telling us, and we move in on the 10th. We really do NOT want to live through somebody showing the house with us in it. We did that once and…nope. So, T. went looking and found a pretty little place that’s within a 15 minute walk of where we rehearse for choir. Unlike many of the houses around here, it’s a real house, which means it’s old, but it has a very thorough remodel and an owner who adores it — and says he will never, ever, ever sell it. Which is good enough for us just now.

We are (nearly) all packed and ready to go, with most things staged in the garage, so the movers can do the heavy lifting. We really had settled in here, which makes it all the more difficult to move, because there were really only a couple of things which didn’t get unboxed (Christmas ornaments, a stash of sewing fabric). But, this is our 17th move in 25 years of marriage, so it’s not like we haven’t gotten the drill down by now.

The new place is all one level (yay, no more stairs!), has air conditioning (most houses around here don’t, relying on the afternoon breeze), has a bunch of mature fruit trees in the back (plum, cherry, persimmons, white peach, pomegranate, and citrus galore), and has garden space (with like 16 square feet of Chinese chives planted as well as Thai bird chilies, and, surprisingly, dragonfruit). It’s a quick across-the-block hop from the nearest branch of the public library, the weekly farmer’s market, and the aforementioned rehearsal space. Since it is older, it doesn’t have a lot of closet space, which is just the excuse we need to do a once-and-for-all winnowing of the many, many, many coats, blankets, gloves, and woolens we brought back from Scotland.

Otherwise, we’re sailing on calmer waters these days. Hope you are, too.

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-D & T

Thoughts On At-will Employment Ethics

What ethical responsibilities does an employee have in a state which is an at-will employment state? Does the employee owe their employer some notice? If so, does that same obligation rest with the employer? Of course not, although there is some pretense of this given. However, it seems to me that the most common scenario is one in which the employee is expected to give adequate notice, if not excessive notice, and the employer is allowed the free latitude to “do what is good for the business” rather than what is good for the employee.

Some of this is due to the imbalance of power inherent within the relationship, but some of it is socially reinforced, is explicitly stated on the part of employers, and is reinforced through an indirect pathway, in that prospective employers will evaluate a prospective employee based upon whether or not they have left their current position with hard feelings. Started differently, it appears that individuals are willing to punish their peers for not giving adequate notice, while simultaneously allowing latitude on the part of the corporation. This social reinforcement of notice serves to allow the individuals within the corporation to maintain some semblance of stability, while allowing the corporation flexibility. There is tension here, however, simply because individuals are applying a standard to others which they would not apply to themselves. If you ask anyone in a corporation whether or not they have a moral obligation to give a notice, they will probably be reluctant to honestly own that they do. I think, people intuitively understand that there is an imbalance here, and understand that it is not ethically right of them to enforce such a standard of notice upon their peers, while simultaneously preserving the option for themselves to not give notice.

This is one area in which individuals are willing to accept a double standard with regards to ethics. Employees grant privileges and latitude to corporations to perform acts which the individuals themselves would find ethically repugnant. This double standard is part of what allows corporate structures to perform unethical actions while their employees feel that they as people are being ethical.

People inherently resist holding corporations to the same ethical standards as they do individual humans. That is not to say that individuals are not in favor of holding corporations ethically accountable. That is merely to say that individuals instinctively understand the corporations are fundamentally different than human beings, and should not be afforded the same rights or privileges, and nor should they be necessarily required to uphold the same moral standards. However, absent any critical thinking on the moral standards of corporations, and any means of connecting the opinions of the individuals within the regulation in a meaningful way to the corporations actions, we will be left with this double standard in place, and largely unrecognized.


Random Patterns

Going through the knitting stash, I discovered this pattern. No idea what it is for. Kind of feels like when you read those stories of the random adventurers discovering some magic spell and mistakenly reading it, performing the spell, and ending up with who knows what. That would be this, but performing the spell looks like it would take something like 30 or 40 hours and more than eye of newt.

– D

Welcome Thought Police

D Random Shot 24

I’ve just read this article, about Facebook reporting suicidal people to the police. Think about that article & then think about whether you actually believe that “the ends justify the means.” This is the same logic that says it’s OK to violate your civil rights to keep you safe. In this case, it’s Facebook, and you all know what you signed up for … but this feels a lot like Facebook trying to justify their action (snooping through your activities for something they find problematic), and that tells me that they know they’re in an ethically bad position: they’re misusing their privileged access to your personal information and trying to normalize that misuse of privileged access by providing a post hoc, fallacious argument that appeals to our emotions. This line of argument has the added benefit that it makes you look like a creep if you argue against this, because who wouldn’t want to save suicide attempters from themselves?

In the article, they provide a quote:

“While our efforts are not perfect, we have decided to err on the side of providing people who need help with resources as soon as possible,” Emily Cain, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement.

I would prefer to cut that statement a bit shorter:

“While our efforts are not perfect, we have decided to err,” Emily Cain, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement.

I say this because I do think their actions are quite an error, and I find it particularly worrisome because it is being conducted on such a massive scale, without oversight, and – because of the machine learning aspects of this – it is being conducted in an area in which oversight is quite literally impossible simply because the technology is designed not to include human oversight. Facebook states that they don’t track outcomes of their interventions, so they are not even monitoring this program for effectiveness on a case by case basis (to refine the algorithm even?), nor are they monitoring it for harm. This is, quite literally, an explicit invasion of privacy, inviting law enforcement intervention into people’s lives, with zero oversight.



Glasgow Cathedral T 12

If you visit Europe, I strongly encourage you to visit churches, and stately homes, and to keep your eyes out for the plaques. For the battle flags, torn to tatters. For the endless procession of names, each kept in its own place of honor, in the corner of a room, or on a memorial outside the village church.

I don’t think that we who have not served can have any sense of how truly devastating war is, and I really don’t think we as Americans can understand how terrible World War I was for Europe. By looking around, though, we can kind of get a sense for things, if we really take the time to contextualize the memorials.

Memorials are local, in the UK, in a way that they are not in the US. Here, war cemeteries tend to be where we encounter war memorials, if we encounter them at all. I remember there’s one in Concord CA, but that I only remarked it after we’d returned – it was simply part of the background, before. I believe there’s one on the waterfront in Vallejo, as well. But these are different to Scottish memorials, in that they’re general memorials. “We remember the men of…” sort of thing, and that’s about it.

The memorials in Scotland were mostly very personal. “In memory of our glorious dead who fell in the great war 1914 – 1919,” followed by a list of 38 names. “Faithful unto death.”

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George’s Square, Glasgow
Cambusbarron Village Church

Some memorials are grand, meant to be the centerpiece, such as the one at the center of George’s Square, in Glasgow. Some stand forth to say, “our village gave dearly,” such as the one in front of the Cambusbarron village church; Cambusbarron was our home village for the last year we were in Scotland, so we got to walk past their monument any time we needed something from the village. Cambusbarron, at the height of its industrial vigor, housed a few thousand people and had a school capacity of 270. Cambusbarron volunteered 200 men to serve in World War 1, 38 of whom have names on the village memorial, as they (and a few others, unintentionally forgotten) never returned.

I don’t think I can really understand living with not only the sheer loss (1/5 of a whole generation of Cambusbarron died). I also don’t think I can possibly understand the trauma of having 1/5 of my generation absent forever, and the remainder of my generation would have seen them die. You see, quite a lot of villages joined up together, and were kept together, particularly in Scotland, where military service is a very … clan-centered activity. You join up with your mates, you join a particular regiment because that’s the regiment your village joins, and you go off to war. And then you spend the rest of your life walking past the ghosts of the dead every day on your way to the market.

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I remember my father becoming emotional about Veteran’s day, and not understanding why, not being able to conceive of why he – a true 1950’s man, for whom crying just didn’t happen – would be overwhelmed with sadness when the mood would hit him and he’d remember those lost in his own experience of war. From what I know, my father was not sent to Korea because he was in the Air National Guard (which wasn’t deployed). He was a pathologist in the Navy during the Vietnam war or shortly thereafter. But I don’t know why he cried, and it’s now too late to ask. Was it for classmates? There must have been lost classmates, considering my father attended Massanutten Military Academy. I simply do not know. And, of course, it’s not something he spoke of, at least not to me.

Veteran’s Day is not a day to celebrate America. It is not a day to celebrate America’s military might. It is not a day to beat the drums of war.

Veteran’s Day is a day to remember that war brings death, trauma, and generations of grief.


The Flu Shot Isn’t About You

From Lafayette BART 3

October, 1918, was a time of the Spanish Flu. Around 50 million people died, with 150 million people catching the flu – so, one in three people who caught it died from it. According to the CDC, “The pandemic was so severe that from 1917 to 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women.” We find it hard to conceive of the sheer volume of death caused by what we think of as “only the flu.”

When you get a flu shot, you’re acting to prevent the spread of the disease, and to protect other people who may not have access to the flu shot, or who may not tolerate it. You’re protecting people with compromised immune systems, babies, those who are already sick. The flu shot isn’t about you, it’s about protecting the rest of humanity. And, yes, there is research on this as a more effective argument … and I don’t think that changes anything at all.


Wandering thoughts on Altruism

I have been thinking on altruism, and how it plays out within organizations. In particular, I’m thinking about the question which sometimes arises when considering altruism with regards to whether altruism can be selfless or is simply a form of selfishness wherein the individual thinks well of themself for giving of themself and thus actually is being selfish by being giving. Put differently: people question altruism’s emotional component as if enjoying the altruistic act is somehow immoral because of that enjoyment of it.

The reason the question is at all interesting would seem to be because we place moral weight upon selfish versus selfless feelings, and want to frame the discussion in those terms because those terms have moral weight, rather than it being an abstract intellectual interest in the understanding of the nature of the altruistic impulse. It is also narrow in thinking because it disallows both to be true: it is possible to both experience pleasure at thinking well of yourself and to be giving to others from a genuine desire to help them. It would seem that the thinking in this area should be disentangled and should have the moral component removed in order to adequately understand the concept of altruism; likewise, they should be disentangled in order to thoroughly examine the field with regards to its hidden moral component in the form of the questions it asks.

A functioning system of community encourages its individuals to be somewhat altruistic towards one another. This is part of being an individual in a community, at its root. In being raised with in such a community, and encouraged to develop this behavior, one is encouraged to associate that behavior with pleasure of some sort (the behavior is rewarded). So, each member of the community is trained to experience pleasure at performing altruistic acts. It would seem, then, that even the question of whether altruism is selfish or selfless is rather absurd, as the value component of altruism is imposed from an outside system, encouraged by that outside system, and deliberately inflicted upon the psychological makeup of its individuals in order to cause the community to thrive and survive. Considering altruism as an individual concept, thus, ignores entirely the fact that it is both on artificial construct, and is outwardly induced rather than necessarily being intrinsic to the human psychological makeup.

In organizations, when we speak about emotional intelligence, I believe that what we are really speaking about is a set of emotional traits including some degree of fellow-feeling, which may be interpreted to mean altruism. If you consider that fellow feeling necessitates acting positively towards someone else, then fellow-feeling must be viewed as altruism. So, in organizations, just as in other communities, the culture must function to encourage altruistic behavior. In systems and cultures which lack this feature of encouraging altruism, the system or organization is not sustainable over the long term, simply because the cohesiveness and resiliency of the group must surely be determined to some extent by the number and quality of altruistic members. That is not to argue that an organization consisting solely of selfish individuals could not exist, but that such an organization (I imagine) would seem utterly foreign and would not necessarily even be navigable to someone with a functioning set of altruistic impulses.

A problem with accepting the discussion of altruism as having both an intrinsic moral component and an intrinsic motivational component is that the moral component is imposed from outside (Puritans, maybe?) and has driven the discussion in a perverse direction while the motivational component is confounded by both category errors (biology / psychology) and weakness in causal attribution and that there is a confusion with regards to the biology involved. In particular, when one is asking questions about the emotional or sensory aspects of moral judgments and their necessity with regards to how they are attached to moral judgments, one ignores that, firstly, the reward system has been conditioned by the intentional instruction of the community. Secondly, an individual which did not possess such conditioning would be an individual likely unrecognizable as human; at least, within the range of what the majority of society would consider normal, we would not recognize such an individual well enough to predict their behavior as we would other human minds.

I have been thinking about altruism alongside the biological and AI concept of Emergence*, wherein unintelligent components of the system are able to evince what appears to be quite rational and logical thought through the application of simple algorithms. When we look at something like Emergence in the animal kingdom and say, “This is something that is able to make decisions without any conscious thought,” and we clearly see that in nature, why would we assume that human thought is of any different nature? Why would we assume that human thought is of greater complexity than that which is carried out seemingly without consciousness in the animal kingdom? If we fail to consider the biological systems, we are asking questions which do not move the discussion in any meaningful direction. We need to understand ourselves both in terms of biology and in terms of psychology in order to sufficiently understand the motivational components of meta-ethics. If we attempt to explicate these questions without reaching out to adjacent fields as well, we end up where we are now, failing to honestly consider all of the aspects of the problem.

To me, though, the larger problem with disentangling the biological and psychological is that of causation: does the altruistic act cause the feeling of pleasure? We would think so, because we believe that we act based upon motivations and we believe that we understand that motivation, despite experimental evidence indicating that the mind simply makes up stories that seem plausible for explaining the world.

In order to disentangle the biology, though, we need to have a discrete chain of causation in which the biological component doesn’t actually begin the process, else the altruistic act suffers from the same lack of standing as it would have done had it been out of a selfish impulse. This isn’t possible, however, because of the way the simple system functions in that it is often quite impossible to disentangle the direction of causation between feelings and biology. For example, feelings of nausea may be caused by a stomach ailment or may be the result of psychological distress; when both conditions are present, and even considering what the individual would offer as explanatory, the reality is that we are trusting an interpretive system to make sense of systems to which the individual doesn’t pay adequate attention and of which they may not have adequate understanding. Additionally, we seem to be arguing from insufficient evidence when considering individual entities and how those entities feel, and then attempting to generalize from a population making statements about how they feel, when all of those entities are undergoing the same requirement to interpret their own biological systems and provide explanation for what they are experiencing, simultaneously we are trusting that those entities are able to express themselves in coherent manners and have the same access to language with which to express a particular set of emotions or range of emotions and thoughts and feelings.

The problem becomes infinitely more complex when one considers that these actions and emotions are usually considered as happening as discrete events, clearly strung together, when we know that there are feedback systems involved in the biological system which are themselves sending signals and request that actions be taken, all of which signals come together to formulate a gestalt decision made by the biological collective rather than being a decision made by an individual in isolation. And, yes: I did just hint that somewhere there’s an argument that the individual cells of your brain are analogous to a colony of termites. You’re welcome.

Anyway, this is what’s been rambling through my mind today, distilled down from the ideas which sleeted through the universe, landed in my head, and which I spat out into the phone (thank you TTS!) for later. I imagine there are some problems in there with the logic. Please point them out, I’m happy to discuss.


*Emergence has its own epistemic and ontological problems, of course; it would seem that these should be broadened from the narrow field of artificial intelligence into the larger field of systems thinking and also applied to systems and organizations.

Has it really been that long?

I just saw a BBC article go by, about wintry weather in Scotland. Reading through the article, it’s actually showing video of someplace we’ve been in person: to the top of the lift system, in Glencoe. Of course I had to mention this to you all, but then had to find the photos of when we were there, and then to see if we’d blogged anything about it (of course we did). It’s amazing to realize it’s been 3 years since we’ve been back to Scotland.

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Cheese Scones, Because…

One of the things we have left to us of our lives in Scotland is reading the Scottish papers. We still read the BBC News for Scotland, peruse The Herald, subscribe online to Bella Caladonia, and of course follow a number of Scots via social media. It’s always interesting to get a Scottish perspective on the world.

This week, however, the BBC reminded Scotland that it’s an English company, with a report most Scots saw as blatantly false. Scottish Twitter’s response to the various alarmist claims by English / Unionist media, about how the Scottish Nationalist Party is having a civil war, was swift. One would think the English would learn that the Scots will unite in the face of a common enemy…

So, of course D. had to go make cheese scones (properly pronounced with a short ŏ, as in BOND) in support of our dear friends currently suffering beneath the staggering peril of so much sarcasm in one place.

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-D & T