Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Motes and beams

Our political discourse is a complete mess. A significant portion of the things people say are obvious fallacies, like appeals to emotion and ad hominem attacks. The remainder revolves around differing philosophies. Generally speaking, liberals believe that societal ills can be resolved by more fiscal regulations and permissive social policies. Conservatives (as typically defined) seek to slow change, believing that although change may be positive, it ought to be accomplished cautiously. Some modern conservatives are simply the mirror image of liberals; they favor laissez-faire economics and conservative social policies. Many of the people we call conservatives today are actually libertarians, who believe in small government; that is, permissive fiscal and social policies.

These philosophies are the result of different assumptions. It's easy to refute any of them, especially in their extreme versions. They argue back and forth, saying that the others are wrong. In so doing, they convince themselves that they've proven their own points. The assumption seems to be that if all other political philosophies are disproved, theirs must be correct. They fail to recognize one crucial bit of information:

They're all wrong. All of them.

Of course, there are many proposed policies that could improve things. We should be involved in politics and make wise decisions about whom we elect and which measures we support. I won't suggest otherwise. But it's all beside the point. We may make incremental improvements. We may temper some of the problems. But if we want to fix our society, we need to fix more than the system. We need to fix ourselves.

This post begins a series about how we can fix our world by fixing ourselves. Although we all have influence over other people, the fundamental principle throughout this series is that we each make our own choices. Each of us can choose to do what is right in every circumstance. It won't guarantee that everything we want to happen in our lives will happen. But we can choose it nonetheless. And maybe, by choosing to do what's right, we'll successfully encourage others to do the same.

Nothing besides fixing ourselves has a hope of fixing the world. We'd better get started.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

For Jade, wherever I may find her

I'm currently in an airport in Phoenix, waiting for my next flight. Layovers here always remind me of a particular layover that I spent here once.

I was flying from California and my connecting flight was late. There was one other guy who was also trying to make that connection. The others on our flight let us off the plane first and we both ran from one terminal to the next, trying to make it in time – but the plane had already departed before we'd landed.

So we stopped at a gate and began the process of getting set up to take a different flight home. There were two employees helping us: a middle-aged woman whose name escapes me and a woman my age named Jade. Jade took my boarding pass and immediately noticed the email address I'd used to book my flight.

She looked at me and asked, "Petey blue eyes, huh?"

I just smiled and said something like, "It's the little things in life."

I didn't have a baggage tag for some reason. I'm not really sure what went wrong, but Jade went through my papers and even went through the little trash can they used for ticket stubs and the like in an attempt to figure out where my bag had gone.

My compatriot and I had just run a quarter mile carrying our bags and had been concerned about making our flight. By this point, it was clear that we'd arrive later than planned but that we'd arrive. As Jade was looking through her little trash bin, I sighed and let the tension go.

Jade looked up, hurt. She accused me of trying to make her feel badly. I hadn't meant anything by it, so I said the only thing I could in that situation.

"Jade, I'm just trying to get your attention."

She rewarded me with a smile. "You really are Petey blue eyes!"

Soon our business had concluded and it was time for me to move on. I don't remember what else, if anything, either of us said. I just know that every time I fly through here, I wonder if I'll see her again. I wonder if I'll recognize her and if she'll remember me. The likelihood isn't large, but stranger things have happened. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get some food.

I'll keep my eyes open.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Find a good match for you

"But you're so great! How are you still single?"

Some people are practically perfect in every way. They're smart, talented, funny, and attractive. They're also kind, humble, and generous. When people like this are single into their late 20s or 30s, many observers are mystified – or even dismayed; after all, if someone that perfect isn't married, what hope do we mere mortals have? There are some important misconceptions in this process and it leads to some erroneous conclusions. I'm hoping that by pointing them out, I'll convince my readers (and myself) to think differently.

The consternation over our wonderful single friends seems to come from the way we think about dating. The idea seems to be that we go looking for the most incredible person we can who is willing to date us. Then, we convince that person to date little old us. It's like playing chicken. This mental model demonstrates the insecurity that's embedded deep within our societal consciousness. It also is a recipe for frustration and failure. And it ignores several crucial facts about people and relationships.

Most importantly, people can't be scored and placed on a continuum: "50 points for playing the piano!" "He just lost 400 points because he smokes." "She listens really well. That's a solid 275 points." Does it sound silly? It ought to. It's silly because we all value different things differently. It's also silly because no one is capable of identifying the intensity of feelings with such accuracy and precision. And it's silly because the characteristics we observe, even if we could quantify them, would probably not combine simply with addition and subtraction.

The bottom line is that dating is not a game where one keeps score. Attractiveness is not objective and can't be measured, even subjectively. And the milestones of dating – exclusivity, engagement, and the like – aren't really milestones. If I've dated someone for three days or if we break up three days before the wedding was scheduled, I still start from square one.

Stop keeping score.

We also need to discard the idea that one's success in dating is directly tied to one's actions. Some will dismiss this as an Un-American sentiment, but it remains true. The fact is that we rely on the actions of others and on circumstance (that is, on God's actions) for these things. A person might truly be attractive and desirable in every way and still have trouble with dating.

Instead, we should think of dating differently. It's much more productive to think of it as a search for someone who is compatible. Look for someone who is like you enough that you can understand and trust each other – and who is different enough to make things interesting. My dad said it many times and it took me a long time to figure out how deeply right he was: just find someone "whose company you enjoy." This will be different for different people (thankfully). The rest of it will take care of itself.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Be considerate

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"

The golden rule, as it is typically understood, is a reasonable approximation of consideration but does not capture it fully, as how I wish to be treated is not the same as other people wish to be treated.

It's true that we all have the same needs; for example, the needs to learn, to be free, and to love. And yet there are different ways that people can help us with those needs. The fact that our needs must be satisfied differently is the motivating idea behind the love languages theory: I might most naturally express love with my words, but if my date receives it best with service, I'd better roll my sleeves up.

The point is that consideration doesn't mean thinking of how we wish we were treated. It's about figuring out how other people want to be treated and doing that. What are my partner's love languages? What are my friends' pet peeves?

I like to measure my success by the number of times I've caused someone else to smile.

There's more. It's not just what people want – and especially not what people want now. A good parent says no to a child because it's what's best for the child and a good friend sometimes does the same. Of course, we must be very careful as we determine what is or isn't best for our friends. But in the same way that we don't give our alcoholic friends booze, we sometimes must do for our friends what they wish we wouldn't – but what they'll ultimately thank us for.

So be considerate. And by that, I mean do the best you can to contribute to the real, long-term happiness of the people around you by observing carefully and acting lovingly.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Either you're committed or you aren't

"I will spue thee out of my mouth"

When we talk about love, we usually refer to romantic love. And when we discuss romantic love, we always assume that it is exclusive. It is, of course, normal for romantic love to be exclusive. Exclusivity is to be expected. And yet every other type of love is naturally inclusive. Does my love for my brother preclude love for my sister? For my mother? For a romantic partner? Of course not; loving increases my capacity to love.

And yet romantic love is and should be exclusive. Perhaps it is because our romantic relationships are intended to be so intimate and intense that they require enough time to make simultaneous development of other such relationships impossible. Certainly, our needs as regards our romantic partners can be satisfied by one partner – and are best satisfied when we have that partner's exclusive attention.

We ought to remember, however, that love naturally includes others. For some people, at least, it is natural to develop many friendships at once. As friendships lean towards romance, it is reasonable to spend time with many potential partners before pairing off.

Unfortunately, our modern dating culture encourages people to commit very early in the development of a relationship; some people even commit to exclusivity before going on a single date. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with a relationship developing quickly, we should not assume that it is the norm. In particular, we should not be offended when a potential romantic partner is not yet willing to commit – especially if we have not expressed a desire for such commitment.

Instead, we should enjoy our friendships for what they are. And, as we develop interest in an exclusive romantic relationship, we should work towards that end. But we should always respect the autonomy of our friends. We should communicate our feelings clearly in appropriate moments and ways. And we should remember that where there is no commitment, we have no right to expect exclusivity.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Petey's dating manual: On the inconstancy of feelings

"But I am constant as the northern star"

Assumptions are frequently wrong. We have all known this since we were children. And yet we assume things every day. Assumptions are a matter of necessity; we don't have the time or the resources to thoroughly evaluate every question that comes to mind. So we assume based on observations of common behavior and make the best of things – and we identify incorrect assumptions as often as is possible and correct them.

One of the common assumptions we make is that other people's thoughts and feelings are relatively straightforward. Many people try to gauge the interest that another person has in them as a simple yes or no question: "is he (or she) into me?" Love is not a box to be checked. There are many aspects of love and ways in which it is manifest, each of which can be felt at varying levels of intensity at different times.

We know this because we experience it ourselves. Even without a particular cause, our feelings about people change from day to day and even from moment to moment. We love people for particular characteristics without appreciating others that they possess. Sometimes, we have have every reason to appreciate someone but we don't have romantic feelings towards him or her.

And yet it seems to puzzle us when we encounter complexity in the feelings of others.

Although the tendency is for our feelings to change, we are not prisoners to our unpredictable feelings. We have the ability to encourage or discourage feelings. Love is a choice; I can choose to work on loving people or I can choose to not do so. If I spend my time serving others, I will love them more. If I ignore them, what love I have for them will fade. This choice is especially important for the stability of our families.

As regards others' feelings, we can choose to be patient. We can remind ourselves that their actions may lead to contradictory conclusions because their feelings contradict each other – and that this is normal and understandable. And we can focus on developing and giving love more than on receiving it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Roll with the punches

"Ask a simple question, get a simple answer"

I've already written about asking clear questions and giving honest answers. This series would be incomplete without a discussion of how to deal with the truth; after all, reality doesn't always square with our hopes. Fortunately, there are positive ways to deal with unpleasant truths. I'll write specifically about dating and breakups, but these ideas are all applicable in a wide variety of contexts.

I find it useful to understand the nature of my feelings as I process them. In some cases, I've missed having someone more than I missed the individual I was dating. Sometimes my discomfort has to do with the unpleasant task of adjusting to life without my former partner. And, of course, I've missed people – both people I've dated and people I knew through them.

Identifying the things I feel badly about allows me to determine what I can do something about and what I can't. If I miss having someone, I can meet new people and deepen friendships I already enjoy. I can plan to make the necessary adjustments. In the case of missing people, I can easily see some of them. As for the rest, I can live with the pain and let it abate with time.

Even the worst sorrows are resolved by faith. Faith doesn't remove all pain immediately; faith adds hope in a future day when "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain" (Rev. 21:4). I believe that this is true for all of us, although we will not see this prophecy fulfilled in this life.

There is the matter of how to react in the moment to unpleasant news. Obviously, it's inappropriate to try to use pain to coerce or punish someone. It is also unwise to hide all emotion. Such concealment is dishonest and can be hurtful, even if its' motivated by a desire to spare someone else pain. Instead of these destructive techniques, I try to understand my feelings and to express them simply. There is always something to appreciate about a person and even about the way that person goes about breaking up. An expression of all of these feelings – positive and negative – shows respect and encourages continued friendship. It also helps the healing process to happen quickly and completely, which opens the door to future happiness and friendships.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On PRISM, surveillance, and terrorism

I've been asked to write about PRISM, the recently rumored government surveillance program. Details are scarce, especially once the hype has been filtered out. I don't know much about PRISM or Snowden in particular, so I'll discuss the topic generally.

One of the principal benefits of a government is that a government provides peace and security for its citizens. A government provides peace by preventing people from causing harm. In modern governments, this is usually done by establishing punishments for bad behavior; for example, imprisonment for theft and fines for minor infractions.

A government must have more power than any of its individual citizens in order to effectively enforce its own laws. After all, laws can only be enforced against people who are willing to break them. As such, the government must have the power to coerce people in order to punish them.

Many modern governments also recognize that it is beneficial to limit the power of the government. This is the motivation behind the checks and balances in the Constitution of the United States of America: each branch of the government can prevent the other branches from overreaching its bounds. There are also specific limitations placed on what the government can do to individuals. These limitations, such as due process, are designed to prevent governments from oppressing individuals, as many governments have done throughout history.

We have seen significant changes in the government of the United States since their inception. There are many more laws and the laws are much more complex. And the ways that information is generated, stored, and obtained are completely different.

These days, we're increasingly aware of people who are unaffected by our legal deterrents; for example, terrorists who aren't bothered by the prospect of dying aren't discouraged by the fact that officers of the law who figure out what they're up to will probably shoot them. It may be that there are more of these people; it's certain that we hear more about them. And technology marches on, ever enabling offense far more than it does defense.

The result is that we have a government that gets increasing demands from its citizens to protect them against some really scary people. In order to be more effective, it does what organizations naturally do: it expands its power.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on pre-emptive law enforcement requires secrecy, as people can change or cancel their plans if they know that they've been found out. And secrecy prevents anyone from watching the watchers.

One of the most frightening implications of our current political and legal climate is that it is impractical for any individual to know whether he or she is breaking some law. What's more, citizens have no idea whether or not their governments are investigating their actions. In a society where people regularly break laws, possibly because there is no course of action that is not against some law, and in which the laws are not all enforced, it is possible for individuals and groups to be targeted by government officials – and that targeting has the appearance of being the rule of law.

Government has always sounded a bit paradoxical; it protects liberties by restricting them. A government designed to promote freedom is necessarily a balancing act. Absolute freedom means that no laws are enforced and people are allowed to kill as they please. Absolute security means that no one has any freedom or privacy.

Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence to suggest that our government is encroaching more and more on its citizens' liberties and privacy. To make matters worse, many experts believe that the denial of these liberties does not provide additional security but merely the appearance of security.

I'm reminded of an occasion when a friend of mine called another friend. She had a virus on her computer and she called a computer expert. After some time talking about it, he offered to visit her apartment in the following couple of days to clean up her computer. She explained that she'd talked about it and felt better and that he needn't bother.

If what we're after is feeling better about it, we're doing fine. But if we actually want to solve these problems, we're going to have to look them square in the eye.

It seems clear that we can't prevent all terrorism. So we must decide what we will and will not do in our attempt to increase our security. At what point have we ceded enough liberties that the lives we save aren't worth living? What risks are we willing to take in order to live free? This debate is certain to be sticky, as these decisions must be made in aggregate and not everyone will see eye to eye.

There's plenty of room for dissent, but my opinion is that we ought to be expanding, not limiting our freedoms. We ought to expand the legal notion of search and seizure to include data, even if those data are stored in servers outside of an individual's direct control. We ought to ensure that people know when a subpoena has been served to collect their data. We ought to actually stick to our current legal doctrines, like habeas corpus. We ought to take our chances that someone will get past ordinary law enforcement and be willing to stand up ourselves to protect others.

One last change we ought to make for our security is that we ought to become the kind of nation that no one wants to attack. This is not a governmental change. It is a cultural change. Most of the important needs we have today are not needs that can be met by any government. They must be met by ordinary people, one at a time.

Am I scared by news like the PRISM story? Absolutely. I think I'm scared most of all that we have politicians and ordinary citizens that have not only allowed this sort of thing to happen, but have made it inevitable.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Tell it like it is

"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."

My last post was about asking direct questions for the sake of clear communication. Direct questions aren't much use unless the answers to them are given honestly and openly. The reasoning for honesty and openness is largely the same as the reasoning for direct questions – and the reasons we shy away from honesty and openness are also mostly the same.

There are many reasons to be honest (and, as I discussed in this post, honesty includes openness). In fact, there are many reasons for honesty that are independently sufficient to make it a moral imperative for all of us. In this post, I will discuss only one of them: honesty respects the autonomy of other people.

Although our lives interconnect, every person makes decisions independently of all other people; in other words, my decisions are my own just as your decisions are your own. But my decisions and yours cannot be wiser than the information we have to guide them. When we give people incomplete, insufficient, or inaccurate information, we do so in an attempt to influence their actions. Moral obligations aside, any relationship that relies on such manipulation is inherently flimsy. The truth always comes out eventually and our lies (or our omissions) have a strong tendency to make things worse than they would have been had we been honest.

So show your confidence in and respect for others. Be honest. Be clear. Be tactful. Trust people to respond maturely when you tell them the truth.

I've written about related topics before. For another discussion on clarity, see this post. For a discussion of communication generally, see this post.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Petey's dating manual: If you want to know, ask

"Do you like me? Check yes or no"

Have you ever thought to yourself as you watched a movie that it would be really boring if the characters communicated well? The plot twists and challenges that make a movie interesting usually come from the fact that they don't listen to each other.

Despite the fact that we recognize the problems in these relationships, we emulate them in our own lives. We guard our feelings and rarely say the things we actually think or feel. We wait for others to act, especially when action means vulnerability. And we assume based on insufficient data instead of asking clear questions.

To make things worse, our mass media tell us that it's more romantic if we don't talk about things. When the right moment comes along, we'll both just know. In my experience, waiting for the fireworks to go off on their own is a good way to ensure that nothing ever happens.

It's understandable that we resist direct communication; it can startle people – and startling someone in an arena such as love, where emotion is such a powerful force, is extremely risky. But you can't play it safe in love and have any hope of success.

We ought to be more concerned with what is true than we are with anything else – including what is comfortable. Even if the truth is unpleasant, it'll come out eventually – and uncertainty is almost as painful as (and hurts much longer than) unpleasant certainty.

We should recognize what we do and don't know to avoid unwarranted conclusions. Allow me to list a few common assumptions that are sometimes, but not always, right. These aren't terribly gender-specific, so feel free to adapt as you see fit.

  • It's been 24 hours since I left a message and she hasn't called back. She must be avoiding me.
  • It's been 24 hours since I left a message and she hasn't called back. This is inexcusably rude.
  • He didn't hold my hand. He must not be interested.
  • He didn't open my door. He must not be considerate.
  • She seems withdrawn tonight. I bet she's changed her mind.
  • He did this thing that I really don't like. He must have a serious character deficiency.

Instead of assuming or speculating, ask a question. I think all of the following questions are fair game, as are the responses.

  • We've been on a few dates, but you're physically distant. Where do you see this going?
    • I don't know but I know I want to keep going on dates to find out.
    • To be honest, I don't actually see this going anywhere.
    • Really? I just didn't want to rush you.
  • What do you mean to communicate by holding hands? Kissing?
  • Are you saying no because you're busy or because you don't want to go out?
    • I want to go on dates but I'm really busy. How about we talk in a few weeks?
    • I have something going on with someone else but I'm otherwise interested. May I call when I figure things out?
    • Honestly, I don't want to go on any more dates. I was just trying to be gentle.
  • What can I do to improve?
  • You said these words. What I understood was this, but that doesn't seem right. What did you mean?
  • You seem distant/distracted/peeved today. Are you okay? Did I do something?
    • I'm just tired (not feeling well) today. It's not you and I'll be fine tomorrow.
    • I do have something on my mind. It doesn't have to do with you but I would love to talk about it.
    • Actually, there is something.

It is crucial to phrase questions well. Identify what you actually want to know and ask that. To stick to the facts and not your interpretation when describing another person's behavior. Ask questions that show both your interest in the truth and your interest in the other person. Make sure there's room for the other person to be genuine. In short, love first, understand next, and act last.

I'm frequently surprised by how natural the conversations are that start with these questions. In many cases, both of us want to talk about the topic in question but have been dancing around it for some time. It's not only natural; it's a relief to finally get it out in the open.

The idea of asking difficult questions is uncomfortable for many people and can be especially uncomfortable for those who feel that their gender role makes it unnatural to do so. But I cannot overstate the importance of each person asking hard questions: the fact that something confuses one party often comes as a surprise to the other and few people bring things up when they think they've already been clear. If you wait for the other person to bring something up, you could be waiting a really long time.

So if you want to know, ask.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Take a look in the mirror

"Know thyself"

Dating is about two people learning to fit together. We can't date well if we don't understand what we think and feel – and why. From there, we can start figuring out what kind of person we want to be with, as we actually understand our thoughts and feelings.

It pays to ask some obvious questions ourselves, such as what things we like and what our pet peeves are. It pays much more to dig deeper. Even for something as simple as really liking ice cream, there's much more to discover. Do I like it for its texture? Its flavor? Is it that I associate ice cream with celebrations or with good friends or family members? Which brands and flavors do I most enjoy? Why?

This kind of questioning allows us not only to choose better when and how to enjoy ice cream, but also may allow us to better identify other things that we would enjoy that we might not have tried otherwise. It also allows us to articulate ourselves (as an aside, articulateness is more about understanding than it is about expression).

Take another question that goes (perhaps) closer to the heart. I love books. It's fairly normal to have a discussion about which books I've enjoyed reading – and this is a good discussion. But it can be much more interesting for both parties if we go deeper. What makes these books stand out? How did the author create the experience that I so enjoyed? What do I like about these characters? What about this book that seems similar? Why did I enjoy this book but not that one? What are my favorite passages in the book? Plot elements? Ideas?

The more we know about ourselves, the better able we are to express ourselves and find common ground. For illustration, let's imagine that I'm on a date and that she and I are discussing which books we enjoy. If I say that I enjoy one genre (say, science fiction) and my date says that she typically reads a different genre (say, history), we may conclude that we don't have much in common in this area. On the other hand, if I can name a few favorite works (such as Asimov's Foundation and Dune) and my date names a few favorite historical works (including Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), we may find that we have a great deal in common. After all, Foundation is essentially an exploration of history in a futuristic setting. In one sense, it is simply a recounting of the end of the Roman empire adapted to space. It is also a supposition about how a person or a small group of people might profoundly influence the future. It might be that my appreciation for Foundation would be greatly enhanced by reading Gibbon and my date might love Asimov after having been introduced to his work in that light. If we didn't know our tastes well, we would be very unlikely to stumble across this deep, interesting commonality.

Many of us are in the habit of compromising when it's possible for both parties to get everything they want. For example, when I marry, I may discover that I prefer sleeping with the window open but my wife prefers to have it closed. If we dig deeper, I'm after fresh air and she's after quiet. It may be that a bit of white noise from a fan would help both of us. Or it may be that I could spend a weekend improving the house's ventilation system to allow for fresh air with a closed window. If we argued about the window instead of understanding and expressing ourselves, we'd never find that common ground.

Another reason to look in the mirror is that it solves the (seemingly opposed) problems of insecurity and overconfidence. Knowing ourselves allows us to love ourselves as we are, as we cannot love what we do not know. And loving ourselves resolves our insecurities, freeing us to focus outward and love others. It also helps us to see how we can improve. By improving ourselves, we can become our best selves – and nothing we can do will do more to make our loved ones happier.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Act

Please excuse my hiatus. I've been working on a post and it turned out to be really long. It's basically the dating manual I always wanted but never had. I sent it to a friend to ask for some feedback and she pointed out the obvious: it's really long.

I'm going to publish a series of blog posts, each of them being a single topic from my original post. I'll publish one or two per week.

"Hello? There are two people stuck on an escalator and we need help!"

The first rule of dating is that you have to do your part.

The easiest way to go about dating is to ask someone on a date. Be bold. After a few rejections, one becomes accustomed to it. It always hurts, but it's easy to shake off and move on. Ask questions. Open up and share your thoughts and feelings. Choose to love – first as a friend, with room for romance later on.

Many women feel that it's a man's job to do the asking (a valid opinion, if not the only one). Regardless of who does what in a relationship, gender should not be a crutch. If you don't ask people on dates because you feel that it doesn't fit your gender, that's fine – but be sure you don't believe that it fits your gender because you don't want to have to take any risks.

There is plenty that can be done in dating besides asking people on dates. You can go to places and do things that allow you to meet people. You can encourage people you'd like to get to know (some people call this flirtation). You can make yourself your best self by learning, becoming more physically fit, by improving your dress and grooming, by growing financially, and in many other ways. You can start conversations. You can make it easy for others to start conversations with you. You can lower the barriers that prevent people from actually getting to know you.

Of course, it's possible to be active without acting intelligently. Since my objective is a happy, stable marriage, repeatedly asking someone out when I know I don't want to marry her is acting but isn't acting in a way that will help me reach my dream. I should also be sure to focus my efforts where they're most likely to be productive; for example, I might do well to meet people in social venues where most of the women aren't college freshmen. There isn't anything wrong with freshmen, but they're unlikely to be a good match for me. So if you're trying hard and aren't seeing results, ask yourself what it is that you want and what you might do that would be more likely to help you get there.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

100 things I'm grateful for

I've been working on this list for several months, off and on. It seems my life is pretty awesome. I don't mean to brag; I just hope my list makes you a little more grateful for the blessings in your life.

  1. I have friends who care about me.
  2. God listens when I pray.
  3. God put me here on this earth to learn and gave His Son to get me back.
  4. I get to learn daily about how the world works.
  5. I am healthy and strong.
  6. I've been blessed with an acute intellect.
  7. There is beautiful music.
  8. Nature is beautiful.
  9. Nature provides never-ending opportunities to study.
  10. I get second chances. And thirty-fifth chances.
  11. There are magnificently powerful tools to help me accomplish almost anything.
  12. There are holy temples all over the world and I get to attend them frequently.
  13. Even the people I don't know are usually really nice to me.
  14. There is lots of freely and reasonably priced art available in lots of forms.
  15. I have a good singing voice.
  16. There are more good books to read than I could possibly digest in a lifetime.
  17. God guides me. He knows what He's doing, even though I don't.
  18. My body heals itself.
  19. Not everyone is the same as I am, which makes life interesting.
  20. I have a stable family.
  21. I was raised in a home where education is valued.
  22. My basic needs have always been met.
  23. I was able to become financially independent while still in college.
  24. I basically never had to pay tuition.
  25. For almost every topic, I have a friend who is knowledgeable about it.
  26. There are libraries.
  27. The internet allows me to access information quickly.
  28. I can communicate instantaneously with people all over the world.
  29. There have been and are prophets and their teachings are invaluable.
  30. The prophets also provide good (but human) examples.
  31. My friends know my quirks and shortcomings and still want to be my friends.
  32. I have friends who are willing to call me out when I'm wrong.
  33. I have friends who can see qualities in me that I can't see.
  34. People teach me the lessons they've spent a lifetime learning.
  35. My mission changed me forever.
  36. I have frequent opportunities to serve others.
  37. I'm capable of growing a beard.
  38. I have enough flexibility to take a nap when I need one.
  39. Hot showers during cold winters.
  40. Worlds don't end when I err, which is a luxury not afforded to movie characters.
  41. My ex-girlfriends aren't ex-friends.
  42. People do so much good that I see it even when I'm not looking for it.
  43. My car works and even looks pretty good.
  44. I'm not dead, despite the many times I've been in serious danger.
  45. Thanks to freezers, I can enjoy basically any food at any time.
  46. I know stuff about nutrition.
  47. I look pretty good bald.
  48. Dancing is fun and I'm good at it.
  49. People's parents seem to like me.
  50. People can change - myself included.
  51. Someday, I get to have a family.
  52. The chant "You're either with Petey or against America!"
  53. I've had lots of opportunities to benefit from the wisdom of generations past.
  54. Little children have a knack for believing and seeing the best. It's inspiring.
  55. I get to live in a place where there's room to spread out and breathe.
  56. My mother taught me how to cook.
  57. My mother taught me manners.
  58. My father taught me to always do what's right, regardless of circumstance.
  59. In-laws: they're sudden extensions to the family.
  60. I've never had to fight to defend myself and likely won't have to.
  61. I live in a culture where most people deal effectively with bodily odors.
  62. I get ample reminders to do good things and improve.
  63. I get ample reminders that I'm actually a decent guy.
  64. Summertime.
  65. I've always had a ward, so I've always had friends.
  66. It's okay to take a break when I need one; there's always more time.
  67. Beyond my necessities, I enjoy several luxuries.
  68. I can type. It's fast, accurate, and otherwise less annoying than writing.
  69. I get divine help when I need it, even for mundane tasks.
  70. There are many good examples of familial happiness and stability.
  71. My whole life is perfectly designed to teach me what I need to progress.
  72. Winter is beautiful.
  73. The sun always comes back.
  74. The vast majority of the bad things that could happen don't happen.
  75. Exercise works. It's possible to do hard things and not be sore later.
  76. Nerd skills come in handy.
  77. Affordable gamma lids.
  78. Poetry beautiful enough to get my attention.
  79. I live in a time where violence is discouraged rather than encouraged.
  80. The ability to learn from my mistakes.
  81. Writing allows me to express myself and to think through my problems.
  82. Different cultures capture different truths. We get to learn from them.
  83. It's fun to learn languages and doing so changes how I see the world.
  84. My failures and disappointments have made me better.
  85. Every once in a while, I hit a string of green lights.
  86. People I haven't seen in years are happy to see me again.
  87. Deciduous forests.
  88. Mountain lakes.
  89. I sometimes get feelings of surpassing wonder. They're never predictable.
  90. My vivid imagination makes my life incredibly rich.
  91. Hoods and hats go a long way towards keeping my bald head warm.
  92. There's a reason to laugh every day. Often, there are several.
  93. My great sense of smell is coupled with a strong resistance to revulsion.
  94. When there aren't great people to spend time with, there are good books.
  95. Most of the things I need to do become interesting if they aren't already.
  96. Sometimes I do something and am met with a shocking degree of success.
  97. People often value my opinion.
  98. There is always something new to boggle my mind.
  99. I've had uncounted wonderful experiences and I know many more are coming.
  100. As terrific as this life is, there's something much better waiting.

Update: Fixed a typo in #71. Life teaches me things. It does not reach me things.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"So, when are you getting married?"

People frequently ask me when I'll marry. They give me advice on how to become married. It's the same with basically everyone who's single, especially those of us in Mormon culture.

In most minutes and on most days, I'm at peace with the fact that I'm single. I'd rather be happily married but my life is good. Most of the time, it doesn't bother me when people bring up the fact that I'm single. There's no need for a taboo on singlehood.

But there are hard days. Even though most of the time, people mean to encourage – or, a least, they don't mean to offend – the things that people say can serve to make those hard days even harder.

One reason it's hard for me to hear some things is that my training in logic has taught me to see implications. In my more cynical moods, my mind leaps to more cynical implications. I think that in most cases, people aren't fully aware of what they imply. My goal here is to bring to light some of these assumptions (I certainly don't claim to have treated this exhaustively) and the thinking that underlies them.

You control when you find and marry someone

"So, when are you getting married?"

"It's your turn next!"

I know most of you mean well, but marriage involves two people and divine intervention. I can control only myself. Siblings don't always marry in order. In fact, I challenge you to name a single happily married couple that didn't experience significant serendipity to get together.

You're doing something wrong

"Why aren't you married yet?"

It's very possible that some failure of mine is the cause of my singlehood. I'd love to find something I can do differently that would lead me to marriage. I will listen to your thoughts on the subject. I recognize and value the impartiality of people who aren't me in this matter. I'd suggest, however, that you try to know me well enough to know whether or not I've already done what you suggest – and whether or not I've been doing it for the past several years. And please don't be offended if I decide that your advice doesn't fit me.

Do what I did

"You just need to ..."

This is basically the same as the last assumption, but more specific.

Finding a mate is like finding anything else; we stop looking when we've succeeded. It amuses me how frequently people tell me to try what "worked for them." By that, they mean the last change they remember making before their marriage worked out. Typically, this ignores all other changes they made, all decisions made by other people, and all circumstances surrounding their dating and marriage. And a sample size of one is hardly compelling. I mean, no one tells me to look under my bedside table for my keys as if it's profound wisdom.

Do what I didn't

"Attraction doesn't matter much. You just need to be good friends."

Advice about what one would have done at a previous age tends to come in one of two flavors. One of the flavors is the wisdom of years. I value this sort of wisdom. The other flavor is the faux wisdom of forgetting what youth is like. Advice that is at odds with past behavior often sounds more like the second than the first.

A twenty-something man and a sixty-something man are going to value different things. As I want my marriage to be happy and to last into the eternities, I'm looking for someone whom I can love unreservedly in all stages of my life. That is, some degree of physical attraction should exist because that's important to young men (and, of course, to young women). And we must have the sort of friendship that can mature into a relationship that an old man (and an old woman) can appreciate.

Am I being too picky? Maybe. I'm certainly not discounting the possibility. I ask myself that question quite frequently.

There's something wrong with you

"You're so ...! I can't believe you're not married yet."

Of course I appreciate the compliment, especially since my deepest insecurities are that I'll fail in any number of ways to be an adequate husband or father.

If I'm so kind or talented or whatever that you're astounded at my singlehood, where's the hangup? What failure or fault do the girls I date see in me that you have failed to see? Because I've been turned down for enough second dates that sometimes I wonder.

I've thought about this one a lot because so many people try to say things like this when they're validating others. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn't. Honestly, the best thing that any one has ever done in one of those down days was to give me a hug. She listened well and tried to say things that helped, but a little tender physical contact made much more difference.

You're not married, so you must not really want it

"When you really decide you want to get married, ..."

Really? When I really decide I want to get married?

I don't think I've ever called anyone out on this. I'm going to set the record straight.

I had an epiphany once. It happened at an age when my guy friends were definitely into girls, but when their interest seemed focused either on kissing (or the host of related motivations) or on troglodytic notions of conquest. I remember that I was walking through a hallway in my church. I think I was by myself. And it struck me that my interest was in a stable, long-term relationship. I wanted to be married.

This epiphany took place half of my life ago. Never since then has that desire been forgotten. Every major decision I've made has been designed to make me a better family man. Even during my full-time missionary service, when dating was prohibited, I was conscious of the ways in which that service would help me become a better man. The foremost question I have about every potential career is how it will affect my family life. I could go on.

I don't know all of the causes of my prolonged singlehood, but I know it isn't lack of desire – or effort. Just don't go there.

It isn't just the singles

In the same way that there needn't be a taboo about singlehood, we needn't refrain from talking about other aspects of people's lives. But we should be very cautious before talking with people about when they will have children, when they'll serve missions, and so on. As says a favorite hymn, "In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can't see."

My game plan

I know that marriage won't come easily. I know that I'll have to change to get there.

I'm going to keep trying. I'm going to keep asking hard questions and I'm going to keep improving myself. I'm going to keep on discarding ideas and assumptions that I find to be incorrect and I'm going to keep on doing my best to apply what I learn. And I'm going to keep on trusting that one day, I'll find someone I want to marry who wants to marry me.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Copyright was so last millennium

Creating stuff is hard, especially in a fast-paced world like ours. It takes time, effort, and inspiration to make something new and valuable. The things we create – writings, inventions, theories, artwork, ideas, and so on – are natural to share and we do. We talk about our ideas and show people our inventions. We put our art in showcases. The more valuable the creativity is, the more anxious we are to share it because of the impact it can have. Other people are similarly inclined to share the results of creativity. Naturally, creators want their work to be shared – and they want to be remunerated for the significant time and effort that went into their creativity.

Once something has been created, it's relatively easy to duplicate it. This bothers many creators because duplication typically means that they will not be recognized or remunerated for their work. But copying is simply too rewarding: relative to the effort required to create, the effort to copy is so small that people naturally tend to wait for others to create so they can use the things others have created. As a result, people are motivated to not create; instead, they hope that others will create so they may benefit.

In an attempt to correct this perverse incentive structure, many governments create a notion of intellectual property, which treats ideas as the property of their originators. Intellectual property laws typically prohibit people from selling, distributing, or claiming works without the creator's permission. These laws, when implemented intelligently and enforced effectively, ensure that authors get credit and payment for their works – assuming, of course, that there is a demand for the works.

If creativity were a simple thing, our discussion would end here. But no one creates in a vacuum. Every piece of creativity depends on countless other innovations. If we simply protected creators' rights as described, we would make creativity prohibitively expensive – the time and expense of identifying all prior art and then securing permission to use that prior art would be astronomical. Also, all creativity could be stifled by a single creator who doesn't permit his or her work to be used. This could get particularly difficult in the case of orphaned works, whose creators cannot be identified.

Accordingly, most notions of intellectual property are limited to a period of time. When that time expires, the inventions or writings enter the public domain; in other words, the ideas become public property that everyone is allowed to use freely, although credit is still given to the originators of the work. The intent seems to be to allow monetization for a long enough period of time to be effective but to allow works that are part of our collective consciousness to be freely used as the basis for new creativity.

This compromise is incorporated into the Constitution of the United States of America: Congress has the power to give exclusive rights for a limited period of time to authors and inventors. The cited purpose is to promote progress. So, in the United States, we have patents to protect inventions and copyrights to protect most other types of creativity. They protect works for a few years, after which the works become public property and can be used freely. In the united states, copyright restricts the act of reproducing a written or artistic work because it's relatively easy to enforce and selling copies is the traditional way that copyright owners have monetized their work.

The times have changed, though. It is much easier to copy digital works than physical media, which means that it is much more difficult to enforce traditional copyright. The mere act of consuming digital media makes copies of it, so the idea of restricting copies is a little strained. Most significantly, there are countless legitimate reasons a consumer might copy digital media that don't apply to traditional media.

Digital media can be consumed on all sorts of devices: phones, tablets, computers, TVs, and more. The device that is best suited for some content at one moment may not be at the next moment. For example, I may prefer to read eBooks on my laptop or on my TV. When I'm flying, I may prefer to read on my phone. This is even more true in the case of movies, as DVDs and Blu-ray disks don't travel well. The process of "ripping" a movie off of a disk to store it on a laptop or some other device is easy but may not be permitted by copyright law. The alternatives to space shifting (copying media from one device to another) are to buy additional copies in different formats or to go without.

Buying another copy of digital media doesn't make any sense. A consumer gets no additional physical media with such a purchase (and if they do, the cost of the media is trivial), so there's no manufacturing cost to justify the additional expense. And copyright is about protecting intellectual property – but the intellectual property is exactly the same. The copyright owner has produced no additional material to justify charging the consumer again, especially because the task of creating the additional copy is trivial for a consumer to do for himself or for herself.

The world has changed. The media we consume have changed. It's time to change the way we think and the way we legislate about them to catch up with the times.

First, the rate at which we create things is increasing dramatically and yet we have ever longer copyright terms. Lengthening copyright terms may be the easiest way to limit creativity. Only those with sufficiently large portfolios or sufficiently capable lawyers can afford to create. Everyone else must live below the radar, hoping that nothing he or she writes happens to look like something penned by someone with a legal team. We need to reduce copyright terms. A work of art can enter the collective consciousness in a matter of days. It should be accessible to the public for further creativity in a comparably short period of time. As a compromise for the content creators, I suggest only cutting copyright terms back to what they were when they were first implemented in the USA: 14 years.

Second, we need to revise the way we think about this "property" and the way we protect it. Instead of preventing the act of copying, which is both impossible and detrimental to consumers, we should think about copyright protecting access to a work. If I've bought a legitimate copy of a book, I really have purchased unfettered access to it. I can read it whenever I want. I can lend it to a friend and that friend can have my right to access it temporarily. And I can give it away or sell it if I like. This is not about physical goods; it's about access to intellectual property (significantly, the terms of sale of most digital media deny consumers the right of first sale).

Third, we should consider if we even want to view it as property anymore. The purpose of copyright law is to create an incentive to create. The particular guarantees we have traditionally given to authors are not necessarily the best way to accomplish this goal. We could come up with a system of taxes on the consumption of media and cash rewards for creating things. Or we could guarantee that authors get credit for their work and allow consumers to pay them what they think the work is worth without legal coercion – but with a culture that agrees that it is unacceptable to consume media without paying for them, except perhaps to try them out.

I'm not certain that I know exactly what the solution is, but I am sure that we need to change the way we think about intellectual property. Reality has outpaced the law and its enforcement. There are reasonable things we can do to improve both our enjoyment of life and the creativity of our whole society. So let's talk about it, decide on a course of action, and make some changes.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Faithful as a loon

I was talking with a friend recently and she asked me where I plan to be in a year. The question wasn't of physical location, but how I envision my life in a year. When I told her, she asked how I plan to accomplish my ambitious goals. For each goal, I said that I would continue to work towards it.

It's hardly as if I set goals and then sit around hoping that they'll happen. I've been working for these goals for years.

But my friend pushed me further. Citing a common phrase, she said that persisting in the same behaviors and expecting different results is insanity. I don't quite agree, so I guess it's time for me to confront conventional wisdom.

Actually, I agree that we should change if we want different results. The problem is when we take this generally wise statement and try to make it a maxim.

In a year, I imagine that I'll be dating someone seriously. This isn't a prediction of the future; relationships can start and end rather quickly and on February 28th of 2014, anything could happen. The same, of course, is true of February 27th. But I do expect to be progressing towards my most important goal: having a happy, stable family of my own.

How will I accomplish this? By continuing to date. This sounds like much of the same, but allow me to explain further. I will keep putting forth the effort to date. I will keep asking hard questions so I can change the faulty assumptions that I make about myself, others, and about dating. I will keep putting my best efforts into improving myself and improving the way that I go about dating.

But if these are things I've been doing for some time and I haven't seen much in the way of results, aren't I doing the same thing and expecting different results? Doesn't that make me insane?

Maybe. My possible insanity is something we can't discount.

But if a sane person tries to accomplish things by changing, doesn't that mean that a person can't remain sane indefinitely? By continuing to change, I expect to continue to see different results. I'm doing the same thing, so I should see the same results – either that or I'm nuts.

I could try changing how I change, but the same problem happens. I can go down this rabbit hole as far as I like and I'll keep on hitting the same wall.

More fundamentally, the world is a stupefyingly complex system, full of intelligent, autonomous, sentient agents (we usually just call them people). When my expectations involve other people – and virtually every worthwhile expectation does – I must remember that other people can choose what they will and won't do. In many cases, I am morally or ethically obligated to continue in the same course of action. In other cases, it just makes sense to keep doing the same thing. Meanwhile, I will continue to hope that other people will choose to do as I would like them to do.

And there is another agent in this system. He usually remains unseen, but is deeply involved in the circumstances of our lives. God gives me my life as I experience it for my benefit, partially to try my faith. For faith to be tried, I must choose what I believe is right and then experience consequences that do not match my hopes. And then I need to keep choosing what I believe is right, knowing that God will grant me all of the blessings that I need to be happy. They won't necessarily be as I imagine them and they probably won't come exactly when I plan for them, but they will come.

I'm not insane. It's just that I believe.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Peteys are like onions

I've been trying to learn how to play the guitar and the piano recently. Not having a piano, it's fairly hard for me to practice. But I have a friend who does and when I visit his house, I try to take a minute to practice. I've taken to playing one of my all-time favorites: And So It Goes by Billy Joel.

Although I've liked this song for some time, it has assumed a special meaning to me. First, a bit of background.

It's no secret that people's first impressions of me vary. In fact, they vary so much that I could probably write an entire blog post (or a series of them) on the subject. Since many people first see me in large group situations, it's pretty common for people to think of me as loud and energetic – sometimes, even disruptive. I think that my openness comes across quickly, as well. These impressions are all correct: I'm unafraid of large groups and frequently take charge when no one else has done so. Sometimes, I'm the one who organizes a game of freeze tag simply because freeze tag is awesome. I don't mind broaching subjects that make lots of people uncomfortable. And I write fairly personal things on this public blog.

Unfortunately, many of my acquaintances seem to think that they've got me pegged with their first impression. As is the case with every person who has ever lived, there's more to me than meets the eye.

I'm not terribly concerned with the people who assume things about my character because of their first impressions of me. In fact, several people have thought ill of me when they first met me, only to form wonderful friendships with me later.

What concerns me is that, because I'm comfortable in groups and because I'm so open, that people make subtler assumptions about me. One that is especially worrisome to me is that sometimes people assume that I express everything that I think and feel. I say so much that I don't really blame people for thinking as they do about me. But the thoughts and feelings that matter most to me are the ones that I express most selectively.

One facet most people don't see is the pain that I feel. I don't usually share my struggles, especially in public settings. I frequently wish I could talk about them but don't always know who will listen; my problems tend to be so different from the problems of others that my friends have trouble relating. I've even opened up just to be told (in an annoyed tone) that my problems are desirable and that I should stop whining.

I'm perhaps most guarded about romantic affection. I'm open about my admiration for people and form friendships easily. This is not the case with romantic love. I'm very cautious about expressing romantic affection. I think that, several times, my failure to express my feelings have been interpreted as the absence of attachment. I've been aware of this for some time, but I'm still trying to figure out how and when to best express it. I'm making this up as I go.

And so we come to Billy Joel's music. It might seem like what's visible at the outset is all that's in my heart, but this is far from true. There is a sanctuary in there. It is safe and strong because there are no doors or windows. I am learning to tear a hole in the wall to let people in. It hurts every time, but my deepest desire is to share this room and to have that trust reciprocated. Singing this beautiful song is simultaneously an expression of my hidden pain and of my desire to open up more fully. It is also a reminder that opening up is up to me.

But you, my friends, can help me. You can ask me tough questions. Please dig deep. You can care about my thoughts and you can share yours – even if they disagree with mine. Please be patient with me. Please don't let my silence make you leave.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Five easy steps that prevent most computer problems

Lots of people come to me for computer support. I'm happy to help; it gives me a chance to visit with people I care about and to do something really valuable to help them.

I'm fascinated by how similar their requests are. It's not that I end up doing the same thing to fix every problem but that the same few things could be done to prevent these problems in the first place.

At the risk of denying myself one of my pleasures, I'm posting a list of simple things that everyone can do (and should do) that will remove the majority of their computer headaches – at least, the type of headaches that sends them to a friend for help.

  1. Back up your files
  2. It doesn't matter what kind of hard drive you have. It's not a question of whether or not your hard drive will fail. It's a question of when.

    It goes without saying that keeping only one copy of your information on some sort of portable drive is a bad idea. People lose or break them all the time.

    The solution is to keep copies of your information. One copy is always insufficient. Having even one backup copy of your data makes it virtually impossible for you to lose it, as it's extraordinarily unlikely that all of your copies will fail simultaneously.

    It's a pain to back things up manually. Windows 7 has a feature called Backup and Restore. Mac OS X has Time Machine. They use a separate hard drive or other media to keep copies of all of your files.

    If you don't want another hard drive, there are lots of online storage solutions. Try Google Drive, Dropbox, Skydrive (by Microsoft), iCloud (by Apple), or Mega. Space Monkey hasn't launched yet but is an innovative variant on cloud storage. How much you can store (and what you can store) varies a little from solution to solution. In every case, they're managing encryption for you (although Mega is trying to put you in better control of your data). This means that if they mess something up, your data could become public. They're usually pretty good, but I recommend against storing sensitive data on them without encrypting them first.

    There are several advantages of storing in the cloud. They take care of the hard drives and redundancy for you. In many cases, it's even free (for a small amount of storage, which is plenty for your text documents and often for pictures or music). It's available to you whenever you have internet access. It's painless to transfer from one computer to another. And most of them automatically detect when you change something and upload it automatically, making it effortless to keep a current backup at all times.

    One last note about backups: you have to keep them. This sounds obvious, but countless people have thrown away the disks that store their data or the software that came with their computers because they never use them. You probably won't use all of them, but you certainly will want some of them.

  3. Back up your software
  4. Files are easy to back up and to transfer between computers. Software isn't. However, it is fairly easy to back up installation media and software keys.

    Software that comes with your computer may not come with a disk. When you get a new computer, you should make recovery disks before you do anything. Don't connect to the internet. Don't open files. Most systems will prompt you to make backups and most people ignore this warning.

    In case that wasn't emphatic enough, the first thing you should do when you get a computer is back up the software that came with it.

    If you buy software on a disk, it's probably a good idea to keep the disk around and it might be a good idea to copy it and store it elsewhere. Backing up software is specifically allowed by your statutory rights; there's no need to worry about copyright.

    If you buy and download software (by far more common these days), don't just run the file you downloaded. Before you run it, make sure to save it somewhere. In fact, you should probably just burn it to a CD or a DVD immediately.

    If you buy software through a marketplace (such as the Apple App Store or Google Play) and you don't get an installation file, good luck. Your best bet is to hope that that marketplace never goes out of business. It may be possible to find and back up installation media but that could violate the marketplace's terms of service.

    If you get free software, it's often counterproductive to store it anywhere. There will be a new version by the time you need it again. If it's free, I recommend just downloading it again when you need it.

    In any event, make sure that you keep any software keys with your software. If you burn a disk, add your key to that disk. If the key is a file, add the file to the disk. If it's text, add a text file with the key in it. You may also want to write the key onto the disk itself. Sometimes there are keys that ship with your computer or that are on a sticker under a laptop or on a desktop. Write them down somewhere else, especially if you put your laptop on your lap, as the writing can wear off over time.

  5. Install updates automatically
  6. Modern Windows and Mac OS X install new updates automatically. Don't change this behavior unless you really, really, really know what you're doing. Yes, there are occasional problems with patches. But Patch Tuesday is always followed by Exploit Wednesday. Just don't go there. Install updates as they come out.

    There is other software that needs to be updated, too. Your browser needs to be updated. Your productivity software needs to be updated. Countless other things need to be updated. Most of them will tell you about updates periodically.

    Take the time and install the updates.

    It really doesn't take that long. You don't have to take care of them as soon as you see them, but you'll probably be taking a break or switch tasks within an hour of seeing an update. Update then. If you don't remember, write yourself a reminder. This is a habit you're going to have to cultivate.

  7. Use strong passwords
  8. It's hard to think of a strong password. It's harder to remember a strong password. And it's hardest to remember countless different strong passwords. My recommendation is that you don't.

    It's not that you shouldn't have strong passwords. It's that you shouldn't bother trying to remember them. I use KeePass to store a database of passwords. It automatically encrypts the database and requires me to enter one master password to open it.

    KeePass features a password generator that makes strong password generation a cinch. I won't get into the mathematics of what makes a password strong, but I recommend that you use such a password generator and there is solid mathematical reasoning behind that recommendation.

    I haven't found a way to make KeePass 2 work well in Mac OS. For that matter, the user experience of KeePassX (a version of KeePass for UNIX systems, including Mac OS X) is worse on a Mac. But it works.

    One of my favorite features of KeePass is that not only do I not have to remember my passwords, I don't have to type them. I haven't ever seen half of them. On Windows systems and in Linux, there's an auto-type feature that types my username and password directly into my browser or whatever I'm using to log in. In all of them, it's easy to copy my username or password to the clipboard so I can paste it elsewhere. And it automatically cleans out my clipboard so my passwords aren't available to other programs.

    I sync my passwords database using the cloud (see the section on backing up data) to my various computers and even to my phone. I'm not concerned about the security of it because I have a strong passphrase that is required to open it. And that means I always have access to all of my accounts, everywhere.

    Did I mention that I don't know my own passwords? That every one of my accounts has a different password? And that the time I'd expect it to take to crack any one of my passwords far exceeds the time we expect the universe to exist? In short, I'm not too worried that anyone is going to steal my digital life.

  9. Be careful where you click
  10. Malware is pretty amazing these days. Just clicking on a link could infect your computer or steal your account from you.

    It's not that links are bad. They're like email attachments or downloads: be careful. Use bookmarks to get to the websites you use often and never use a link from an email to get to them, even if it looks authentic. It's just as easy to use a bookmark and, assuming that you made the bookmark correctly in the first place, it's much less risky.

    Links in social media are really the same risk as links in emails and on web pages. Regardless of how you get them, always be skeptical of uncharacteristic communications from people you know – and more skeptical of communications from people you don't know.

    Always keep a virus scanner up to date and running (yes, even if you use a Mac). For Windows users, I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials, which is free to users of Windows XP an later. It does its job and stays out of the way otherwise.

    Another common source of malware is smartphone software. By running an app on your smartphone, you're potentially giving some unknown author access to everything on your phone. Favor software actually written by the entities you're interacting with; for example, Twitter's official app instead of a third-party application. This isn't an absolute rule, but caution is in order. On Android devices, inspect the permissions that an application requires and consider if they seem reasonable – this won't protect against everything, but it will help.

Most of these things take a small investment of time at the outset and very little time to maintain. In fact, I think I save time typing passwords. And it pays off: my laptop died last week, as laptops are wont to do. I can still get to the files using nerd-fu but I don't think I have to; there's nothing on that computer that I've needed yet that isn't backed up elsewhere.

There are, of course, more things that can be done. Maybe I'll write another blog post someday about what you can do if you want to tinker a little more.

Friday, January 18, 2013

On what might have been

How many times have you wished that one little thing could change in the past? If that hadn't happened, the effects in the present would be countless and powerfully different. If I'd only chosen to turn right instead of turning left, I would have seen my friend and been able to give him a ride. If she hadn't waited 15 minutes before leaving home, she wouldn't have been crossing the street when that drunk driver came along. We could go on endlessly.

Of course, we don't really know what would have happened. We have gotten pretty good at guessing, but we don't ever know for sure. The scientific method usually involves repeated experiments – and certainly involves allowing others to repeat our experiments. The hope is that if we observe enough things carefully enough, we'll understand cause and effect.

The way that a scientist tries to understand cause and effect is by isolating a single difference. An experiment involves doing two things exactly the same way except for that one crucial difference and observing the results. If changing that one thing consistently gives a changed outcome, we assume that there is (and that we have observed) a causal relationship.

We've become so accustomed to experimentation and so casual as we set up our experiments that we've come to make frequent errors in the way that we see the world. Some of these errors lead us to dangerous conclusions.

Our habit of breaking things down into experiments has trained us to think only of one factor in an outcome at a time. Isolating the different factors is wise, but we must eventually remember the ones we've left to the side. This is especially important because we don't always think of all of the factors when we set up our experiments. The fact of the matter is that many light things fall more slowly than rocks do, although their weight is not the only factor in that measured outcome.

Our legal system has a similar approach to things that can have a similar effect on our thinking: since there are many things that contribute to any one event happening, our law concerns itself principally with a proximate cause. Without this legal doctrine, we'd have no way of assigning any sort of blame to anyone or anything and our laws would be completely pointless. But if we're not careful, this too can train us to think that every outcome has a single cause.

We do well to identify the other causes of the events in life, whether we hope to repeat them or avoid them. We can do so by asking questions like, "what else contributed to this?" and, "what else might I have done in this regard?" When we identify something that we might have done that seems likely to lead to a desired outcome, we can consider if we want to try acting in that way in the future.

It's also a good idea to recognize that, because so many factors contribute to every single event, we rarely have a suitable justification to blame anyone else for anything. Even if the outcome could not have been the same had they acted differently (this is rarely the case), it's usually impossible to prove that another persons actions alone would guarantee that outcome. This is usually impossible to prove because it isn't true.

Similarly, it seems that in most cases where a person tries to influence another's decisions, it's because the other person's actions would contribute to some desired outcome. There's nothing wrong with this, but we'd be a lot less tempted to manipulate each other if we spent more time thinking about what we can do ourselves to contribute to those same outcomes.

On a related note, we usually form opinions too soon about whether or not we want something to happen. I've looked back on several then-happy experiences and wished they'd been different and I've been immensely grateful for many of my unpleasant experiences. In fact, we'd probably all be better off if we made more of our decisions based on our principles instead of what we imagine and hope will be the outcome.

So stop fretting about what would have happened as if you know and figure out how to make the best of the situation you're in instead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The new way of multiplying that's exactly the same as the old way

There's an article that's been kicking around the intertubes for the last couple of days. You'll find it here (as far as I can tell, this is the original version).

The gist is that there's an easy way to teach multiplication – that the Japanese have figured something out that we haven't in America. I presume that people are sharing because they wish they'd been taught that way in school.

To multiply 12 x 23, we draw these lines:

Now we count the intersections of the lines in each corner:

Here, we can add the two numbers in the middle column and put the numbers together to get 276, which is the correct result for 12 x 23.

But if we restructure the lines slightly:

And remove the lines:

We have exactly the same multiplication with the exact same calculations as we would have done had we simply done as taught in school.

Now to my objections.

The "proof" given that this gives the same result is only a demonstration that the result worked for a particular example. To prove that a method is correct, it's necessary to show that it will always work. If our students could actually demonstrate why these two methods always produce the same results, we'd be going somewhere.

I fail to see how this is any simpler. It actually takes longer to do. I suppose some students might object to the typical American method because it seems so arbitrary and they don't see why it would work, but the same applies just as easily to this visual method.

Try using bigger digits (not my own thought; I found this one online).

Most importantly, though, all of this misses the bigger point. It's not just about being able to perform computation. We have calculators for that. It's about understanding what a computation is, what it means, and how it works. This could be a useful teaching tool but could also be a crutch that prevents another generation of students from understanding one of the most fundamental operations in mathematics.

So why is this any different or better? Maybe I've missed something?