Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Not a special case

Romantic relationships are often thought to bring out the best in people.  True love conquering all and such.  I am not convinced that this is actually true though, and I think that more of the time they give people excuses for being awful than create good behaviour.  It is easiest to see in the case of serious physical abuse since we all know that when we see someone with a black eye the most likely reason they got it is a blow from their romantic partner rather than anything else.

That assumption that it is okay or normal to pull all kinds of crazy out on your partner certainly holds true when there is no physical violence though.  Jealousy in particular is something we often hold up as a virtue even though in non romantic relationships the idea of forbidding a partner to spend time with half of the population or demanding exclusivity would be shocking and bizarre.

This is kind of interesting when you consider it in the context of a monogamous relationship that is beginning to be polyamorous.  In that situation many people seem to become the worst partners possible, making all kinds of demands and feeling justified in exploding over the tiniest issue.  Ferrett wrote about this a bit and the very fact that he feels it necessary to clarify that being poly isn't an excuse to treat your partner like crap is very telling.  We shouldn't need to make it explicit that blowing up at people you love over small misunderstandings isn't okay... and yet it seems we do.

Being in love with someone is powerful.  It generates very intense feelings and those feelings can very easily be tipped over from adoration to hatred.  While I love being in love and I think that for me it is definitely great to be in lots of romantic relationships we should recognize that these relationships don't automatically make us better people.  Our feelings aren't magically correct and righteousness does not spring from romantic attraction.

Unfortunately we too often seem to think that romantic love removes the need for us to behave well and grants some sort of infallibility when instead it magnifies the need for consideration and good deeds.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A demon placated

I have often talked about my money demon.  I think about it as a tiny red monster on my shoulder that is constantly yelling at me to never spend money, to buy the cheapest option, to be paranoid about debt.  It doesn't want me to cheat anyone else mind you because it sees that as debt and as such it is a thing to be desperately avoided.  It has been there as long as I can remember but sometimes it is sleeping, dormant sort of.  I know it is there during those times but its exhortations are silenced.  Back when I was in university the demon was at full strength but it took a long nap while I was working selling beds as I had more money than I had any pressing need for at the time.

Over the past eight years the demon has been agitated, bouncing around and shrieking at full volume.  This month though Wendy finished her PhD and got a job and the demon took this as a cue to sit down, relax, close its eyes for just a minute, and finally nod off.  This has been a pleasant change that influences all kinds of small things in my life.  I don't worry about bus fares anymore and I go out and spend a little money to go to a movie or something like that without feeling tense about it.  Best of all though my desperate need to balance the books between me and everyone else in the world has faded dramatically.  I no longer worry about incurring debt quite the same way.

That shouldn't be taken to mean that I am now going to become a spendthrift that tosses money around like water.  Even in the years when I was working and making good money I literally spent one third of my take home pay and put the rest aside for later - I am always going to be frugal.  This change is just a small alteration in my habits, a pulling back of fear and doubt, worry and stress.  The demon going to sleep means I can do things that are well within my means comfortably and buy things I need without concern, secure in the knowledge that my bank account is on the way up.  It is going up slowly but the demon only really gets excited about the direction of the money vector not the magnitude.

Some people frame my discipline surrounding money as a laudable virtue but I don't see it that way really.  It has its advantages but others often don't see the cost of having a demon on my shoulder all the time.  There is a perfect middle ground where one makes ideal long term decisions about money but is not subject to lots of extra stress and I go far beyond that most of the time.  I hope now that the demon is slumbering once again I can be sensible and disciplined without all the monetary paranoia that has so often dogged my steps throughout my life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An insufficiency of broadness

Sometimes when when people hop online and turn on the flamethrower they hit too many people by accident.  On the other hand sometimes they hit far too few.  I read an article yesterday talking about the issues with radical revolutionary left wing politics written from the perspective of someone who had once been an ardent adherent but now is much more moderate.  The author's viewpoints these days are very similar to my own - radical leftist social policies without revolutionary or communist viewpoints.  She spent time talking about all the issues she saw with her particular former brand of radical left politics, namely dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti intellectualism.

The thing to remember though is that these issues aren't something especially attributable to one branch of radical left wing politics.  They are present across humanity in pretty much every setting available.  People gather together with others who support their viewpoints, refuse to deem other ideas worthy of consideration, feel the desperate desire to convert everyone to their way of thinking, and dismiss any theory that speaks about nuance and situation instead of unequivocally supporting their position.

It isn't a crime to want to hang around people like yourself.  I don't exactly have a lot of close friends that believe in trickle down economics!  However, when in a group where everyone feels the same about something it is hard to avoid the tendency to dismiss all other opinions as ridiculous and that makes it hard to break away from a way of thinking even when it is sorely mistaken.  It is also very challenging for anyone to admit that they have doubts about the things their in group believes in because it will be seen as an attack on the righteousness of the group itself instead of a desire to refine and test ideas.

No matter if your group is held together by a love of pastries, communism, Tarantino movies, or Catholicism these trends are going to hold.  People will want to hear that their ideas are right, that anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong, that everyone ought to think this way, and that no theory is required to see the inherent rightness of their views.  When painting a particular group as problematic we really should take time to consider if the problems we see are unique to that particular group or if instead it is just that we have had more personal exposure to them.

So yes, the radical revolutionary left does have issues with dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti intellectualism.  Everyone else does too though so if we are going to criticize a movement let us criticize their specific beliefs rather than employing ad hominem attacks that can quite reasonably be applied to nearly every group out there.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The thing to do

People often want to help out, to make the world a better place, but it is a damn tricky thing to figure out what sort of help is best and how much help exactly you need to deliver to feel good about yourself and be justified in putting your feet up and relaxing.  If I volunteer at the food bank is it enough, or should I be working a second job to have more money to donate to educating young girls in developing countries?  This article has some great thoughts and the beginnings of answers and it got me thinking a lot on this topic.

Simply put there will always be problems and no matter what any individual does everything will not be fixed.  That leads to decision paralysis and people giving up because they can never reach the point of feeling like they have done enough - there is no obvious signal to tell you it is time to head to the bar.  What we do have though is the knowledge that if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charities we could wipe out pretty much all of the world issues easily solved with money immediately.  So there you go, we have a straightforward, measurable, reasonably achievable objective.

More is needed than that of course because you not only need to help but also avoid doing more damage in the first place.  Donating a lot of money to charity is obviously not a licence to go about saying "Dude, that is just so gay!" as an insult while maintaining impeccable moral standing.  You need to listen, learn, and adapt your habits to try to do less damage with your passing.  Giving charitably is a wonderful thing but no amount of it can remove the need to not be an asshole.

I had a discussion with Pounder awhile ago on this topic and he asked how I felt about the moral implications of someone who makes a lot of money and donates a huge amount of it to charity (Example:  $100,000 salary of which $30,000 is donated) when compared to someone like me who spends a lot of time yelling about social justice and puts in a few volunteer hours here and there.  I think the clear answer is that the $30,000 trumps my contribution in terms of raw efficacy but that doesn't translate necessarily into the moral high ground - after all, I have much less money to give.

This really reinforces a very important point about trying to improve the world:  People will contribute in any number of ways and as long as they are in fact helping we must respect those contributions even when they are not the contributions we would choose ourselves.  If you can't figure out if you are helping enough or how you should help that simple benchmark of 10% is a fantastic guide.  It isn't as though is it objectively right but it certainly meets the standard of being plenty good enough.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Someone to lean on

I have spent a good chunk of time the last couple days visiting The Artist in the hospital.  Things are pretty rough for her right now and she needs extra moral support in a big way.  On the way home her husband The Steward and I were talking about who we end up leaning on when things in our life go badly.  There are some people in everyone's life who make things fun and who are entertaining to be around but when the shit hits the fan they fade away quietly.  Then there are others who step up and shoulder some of the burden.  The Steward thought that being polyamorous was a real help in that situation because there are likely to be more people with a lot invested in the person who is struggling.  His theory is that lovers are more likely than friends to show up and help when the worst happens.

I am not convinced.  In this particular case I think it holds because my relationship with The Artist only exists due to both of us being poly - I doubt I would have met her otherwise, much less be as close to her as I am.  In general though I think polyamory actually makes it easier for some people to ditch with a moment's notice when things go badly.  There is definitely a plausible deniability element to this because cutting off friendships just when a friend needs help is an obviously crappy thing to do but ending a romantic relationship abruptly is far more defensible.  You can't be too hard on someone who wants out of a relationship and needs space afterwards and unfortunately that offers a shield to the fair weather lovers.

When things go badly the main thing that poly relationships do is make things more extreme.  The people who will rush in to help will help more because the are more emotionally invested.  Those who would run away anyhow will run faster and further.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the reliable folks are better people to be friends with in the good times but living a polyamorous lifestyle will make it crystal clear who you can really rely on when disaster strikes.  I don't really feel like that is particularly an advantage or disadvantage but it is definitely different.

A lot of people talk about polyamory in general as if it is a high risk, high reward prospect.  That is, a new lover and the accompanying wonderful feelings and exciting sex are pretty great but everyone worries that there in an inevitable reckoning where jealousy, bitterness, and resentment will come home to roost.  I can almost hear the whispered admonitions "Yes, sure, sexing up somebody new sounds great and all, but what about the *consequences*?"

For some people it may be that way but it sure isn't for me.  In my life polyamory shrinks that all or nothing feeling rather than amplifying it.  If I go through a breakup that makes me sad I can still get my snuggles with someone I love.  When I need extra energy or attention from someone there is likely someone who can give it and when I have energy to spare likely somebody needs it.  In most of my life having multiple romantic partners smooths things out and moderates the extreme peaks and valleys.

In any case when life delivers a sucker punch it pays to know who will say "I wish I could help" and who will say "I will be there in 15 minutes".  Regardless of whether they are family, friends, or lovers those in the second group are the ones that keep the world from falling to pieces.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Not like this at all

I am not interested in random feel good fodder that gets linked on Facebook.  Most of the time those posts are just not very interesting but sometimes things like this crop up and it just makes me feel a nauseating combination of rage and sadness that this is meant to be heartwarming.

I find it hard to imagine how somebody would think that stalking children is not only necessary but even laudable.  Flipping out on your children, driving them insane, and being their worst nightmare is more of the same.  Whoever wrote this seems to subscribe to the school of thought that loving someone intensely justifies all kinds of abuse in general and worse than that they think that it is a necessary component of love.  It isn't okay as a lover, friend, or relative so why would it be okay as a parent?

It doesn't stop at the glorification of abuse though.  Anger, control issues, lack of respect for autonomy and privacy, and fear tactics are something that you must subscribe to in order to be an adult, apparently.  That is, until a child admits that they *wanted* the abuse, that the abuse was *required*, they are not to be considered a responsible adult.  Desperately trying to force someone being abused to claim the abuse was justified is sick.

The statement that no one else will ever love you the way this parent does is troubling in a similar way.  Again it is textbook abusive behaviour to try to convince someone else that the abusive relationship is the best they can ever expect, to try to make them believe it can never be replaced.  Parents have a tremendously powerful bond with their children but the assertion that their relationship will always be supreme sounds like desperate manipulation, not love.

Parents do have to do difficult things, and they have to say no.  Over the years there will be conflict, frustration, anger, and regret over mistakes made.  I have plenty of my own mistakes, no question.  But they are mistakes!  Flipping out on your child is something you should try to avoid, not celebrate.  Stalking is not fucking okay.  The knowledge that your parents want to 'hunt you down' does not make children's lives better.  My child has definitely screamed "I hate you" on more than one occasion and almost certainly will do so again.  This is not a vindication of my parenting technique but rather a sad but inevitable side effect of raising children.

You have to be hard sometimes as a parent.  You need to say NO and you need to try to keep your children from coming to harm.  That can be difficult, and acknowledging that even the best of us have done things we regret is valuable.  However, it is absolutely critical that you teach your children what a healthy, happy, loving relationship looks like and you do not do that by running through a checklist of abusive behaviours and calling it a necessary component of love.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Cataclysm of Data

I just finished reading Dataclysm by Christian Rudder.  He is one of the founders of the OKCupid dating site and the author of OKTrends, a blog about interesting facts he finds in the data OKCupid gathers from its users.  Being an enthusiastic user of the site and having really enjoyed the blog posts I was very interested to see what he would say when he had a whole book to say it in.  I was not disappointed, but I wasn't really surprised either.

The book is a good examination of the ways in which people talk about attraction and the ways in which they act - in particular it is interesting when these are not the same.  For example, most people agree that they would not date someone who was overtly biased against a particular race.  However, when we see who people actually send messages to and who they respond to the evidence is clear that people have very strong racial biases.  In particular asian men and all black people have a really tough time of it.  It isn't just a few brutally racist people either, but rather a consistent bias across the vast majority of people.  It is noteworthy that racial bias is several times larger in the US than in Canada and many other countries.  I wasn't quite sure what to conclude from that but it didn't exactly surprise me.

Rudder also talks a lot about the ways in which women and men behave very differently.  For example, women at age 20 tend to find 23 year old men most attractive and the ages trend upward together.  At the high end of the data 50 year old women find 45 year old men most attractive.  Men on the other hand find 20 year old women most attractive no matter what age the men are.  This drives message volumes in a big way - younger women get gazillions of messages whereas older women need to send messages if they want a good chance to connect with people.

The thing I liked most about the book is that Rudder acknowledges his biases and the ways in which his data is limited.  He makes it very clear that he understands that his source consists almost exclusively of single people and that he doesn't have enough data to make good observations for people above age 50.  Even though OKCupid is the destination of choice for polyamorous folks we are still a pretty small chunk of the population there - probably even smaller in numbers than the ostensibly monogamous cheaters who maintain their profiles without pictures.

Rudder also doesn't place himself above the users whose profiles he discusses.  When talking about racial biases he makes it clear that he thinks preferences in attraction in an individual aren't really something we can criticize but that there are clear problems when certain groups consistently run into bias against them.  He makes it clear that he thinks racism is unacceptable but that he almost certainly has unconscious biases he is not aware nor proud of just like most other people do.

I tend to place far more stock in someone who presents conclusions when those conclusions come with a huge helping of "We certainly cannot generalize to everyone" and "The data is very limited in this respect" because it shows that the writer knows their limitations.  Rudder does a good job this way and he treats his data as useful, which it is, but very carefully outlines the limits of what one can conclude from it.

The thing I wish Rudder would have included in the book is the statistics about gay relationships.  He does talk about that lack though and says that it would have bulked up the book tremendously but wouldn't have added much since the trends across genders were actually pretty much the same.  Fair enough, at least he considered it and rejected it for a decent reason.

Speaking of gender OKCupid is soon going to roll out more gender options than M and F and that is a good thing.  Most users won't really notice a difference but it will be a big positive change for people who want to identify as nonbinary or trans but will also let people like me become cis men instead of just men and I like that.  All of Rudder's data is strictly divided into men and women in the book because until now those were the only choices and I will be happy to read the next version that hopefully has data for other gender identities so we can take a peek into the Big Data there.  Of course it is possible that such a data set is small enough that strong conclusions will not be possible to draw from it; honestly I don't know.

At any rate I think this is a book worth reading.  It has lots of interesting data to look through, is well written, and doesn't try to overreach with conclusions it can't really justify.  I approve.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

An object of concern

Recently Elli's school announced that the Extended French program is ending.  They will no longer be devoting extra resources and space to the program and it will be moved to another school.  The reasoning behind this is that our school is beyond capacity and hopefully the added flexibility combined with some students leaving to follow the french program will help us get class sizes down.  It all makes sense to me.

But some people are very angry.  You see, they are very concerned that French classes stay because then the high achievers can get even more out of their time in school while the rest of the students cram themselves into ever less space.  These parents, so worried about the loss of extra French training (which they could go get by busing their kids to another school if they are truly desperate) are going to converge on a special meeting tonight to try to demand that the school board reverse their decision.

I am driven to the very edge of bonkers and beyond.  It wouldn't rankle so much if parent council weren't so chronically short of volunteers for events but knowing that parents are happy to devote time and energy to fighting a good change that is already set in stone but won't show up to help when we are doing things that really need doing sets me off.  Opportunities to help everyone, or even to help those who need it most, are left in the dust while people swarm to complain that those who have it the best already need more stuff.

The school is overfull.  New condo buildings are going up and this situation is not getting better any time soon.  Changes to try to alleviate this must be made.  It would be wonderful if every child could have a battery of teachers surrounding them at all times but we must make do with what we have.  Suddenly being up in arms about a change that has been a year in the making and which needs to happen won't help the children.  I do know of some things that would help the children though, if people have free time they want to spend on improving the school.

It strikes me as unlikely that this renewed interest in public education will actually result in anything other than timewasting.  Frown.

Monday, December 8, 2014

You were wrong

The US is preparing for a violent backlash against their embassies and military posts around the world.  Shortly they will release information about some of the awful crimes the US government committed in the wake of 9-11 including admissions of some truly awful torture.  Apparently it will include stories of continuing torture on detainees even after the torturers became sure there was no more information to be gotten.  Torture is wrong as well as being consistently useless.  Even worse than useless really as it enrages the world and turns them against you as little else will.  Torture without even the pretense of security theatre goes far beyond wrong right into the land of cartoonish evil, the kind that requires a mustachioed villain with a plan to blow up the moon with a gigantic laser.

Reporting on this issue has made me so disappointed.  While I don't expect US networks to apologize for the crimes of the government (though I wouldn't turn it down) I would certainly expect them to admit that the things they did were wrong.  Instead all I see is a sea of people expressing their concern for US citizens and soldiers abroad, almost as though the backlash were unexpected and America is just an innocent bystander.  They try to portray the information coming out as neutral, just a description of facts, a historical document, while the violent response that we all expect is regrettable and wrong.

The anger that these revelations creates and the violence that seems likely to ensue is regrettable and wrong.  What it isn't is surprising.  Revenge is not the right course but it isn't as though it is a shocking and new development in human psychology.  If all of the talking heads on television want to help America and save American lives the tactic of absolving the government of responsibility is the worst way to go about it.  Report it as you would if it happened *to* Americans instead of being perpetrated by them.  Say it is wrong.  Express regret about the incident, not the fact that people are furious about it.

But that won't happen, in the mainstream at least.  Nationalism guarantees that anyone who criticizes the government is widely viewed as against the state, rather than simply against the violence the state perpetrates against individuals.  To wind down the cycle of revenge we need people willing to stand up and state that the acts of the government were wrong and we need public sentiment to support that.  Saying that torture is unquestionably wrong does not make you anti US.  It makes you pro joy, pro human flourishing, pro peace.  We should all be willing to be on that side openly, loudly, and proudly.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rage, not despair

It is hard to avoid the coverage of the protests in New York surrounding the Eric Garner murder case.  A police officer choking someone to death while arresting them for a non violent crime is a tragedy in any case but the fact that the victim was black and that the officer will not be charged reinforces a terrible trend.  Last night I was hanging out with The Artist and The Steward talking about this and there was a real tone of despair there, a sense that everything is wrong and getting worse.

There is no need for despair.  It was not so long ago that the idea of a black man as president was ludicrous.  It was within living memory that black people were officially segregated on buses, in schools, and throughout their lives.  Lynch mobs murdering black people with practically no official pushback were happening only fifty years ago.  Things have gotten better.  There is every reason to think that will continue, not least because a bunch of white people in Toronto know about these incidents individually and are really upset by them.  People know more, they care more, and change is happening.  Too slowly for my tastes, but it is happening.

We need to push these changes to happen more quickly and to achieve that we need to focus our rage into action rather than fall into despair.  Changes for the better do not happen on their own; they are forced through by brave people willing to scream and shout and make a scene.  Pursuing goals of widespread societal change requires passion and that passion can be found in anger, in fury.  Anger uncontrolled can be a dangerous thing but there is much that can be done with the energy we can harness from it.

We know that the world can be improved, that it has been made better, that change is possible.  We know that injustice is on the wane and that we are trending towards a brighter future.  But we will not reach that bright future with despair, with giving in, with deciding that the problem is just too big.  There is no denying that there is a mountain of injustice in the world but it is shrinking every day, slowly giving way to billions of tiny blows.  It may seem beyond any one person's strength to affect but we can clearly see the billions of tiny chips that have been removed from it have shrunk it mightily.  We can and we will grind that mountain to dust and we will do so by getting people angry enough to take one chip off at a time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Collaboration over Confrontation

I found an article I liked a lot titled The Danger of Demonizing Male Sexuality that talks about the way that we talk about and understand hetero relationships.  The basic point is that as long as we continue to frame these relationships as men pursuing women and women fending off men we are going to perpetuate some of the big issues we see today like rape culture and sexual assault.  In order to combat these things we need not only to tell men that they need to behave (which we do, for a certainty) but also change the very way we all think about hetero relationships from a pursuit model to a collaborative model.

When we portray male sexuality as predatory and men as beasts while simultaneously portraying women as lacking sexual desire and as passive targets we set up everyone involved to fail.  I think dick pics are actually a great way to understand how this arises.  Women who are involved in online dating often complain that they are bombarded by pictures of penises.  The reaction to such stories is usually "Ewww, gross, who wants to see THAT?"  While this reaction is definitely understandable, especially from people who get a lot of pictures and don't want them, it should not be assumed to be universal.

The problem here is twofold.  First off, sending pornographic pictures to random people who may or may not want them is rude and unpleasant and people should stop doing that.  However, there is another problem on the other end when people suggest that in fact nobody would ever be attracted to a penis or that a picture of one could not possibly be arousing.  Plenty of people (not limited to women, of course, but that is the focus of this particular discussion) are in fact attracted to penises and some like pictures of them.  Telling people that penises are never attractive sends the message that straight cis men need to be aggressive and predatory because nobody is going to want to have sex with them unless that other person is forced, tricked, or bribed into doing so.

Demonizing straight male sexuality is actually a thing a lot of PUA and MRA  types yell about.  They often attack feminists using this as a strawman, claiming that all feminists just want men to disavow their desires and accept that they are wrong, bad, and immoral.  It isn't true of the great majority of feminists of course but these undercurrents in the way our society talks about male desire do exist and they matter.  We aren't going to fix all of the problems with PUAs or MRAs with any one change but I think altering the way we talk about male sexuality so that we aren't demonizing it and talking about relationships as cooperative ventures instead of competitions will keep some men from falling into these destructive groups, hopefully by helping them fall into good relationships.

The message that we need to send is not that men and male desire are icky but rather that particular actions are icky.  Unsolicited spam of pornography is icky.  Sending naked selfies to people who have indicated a desire to see said selfies on the other hand can be super sexy and that is true no matter who the sender and receiver are or what bits they have.  The message we need to get across is that people are all sexy to some people and not sexy to other people and this is true across all body types and genders.  We also need to make it clear that relationships and sex are about mutual desire, working together, and collaboration.  There is somebody out there for everybody though certainly some people will have an easier time finding partners than others.

Everyone is beautiful to someone.  Our desires are not wrong, no matter what they are.  What we need to focus on is finding other people to cooperate with to make our desires come true in ways that make everyone involved happy.