Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Potpourri

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Tonight's post is a potpourri of ideas, follow-ups, and thoughts to consider.

My previous post highlighted a recent story by NPR that outlined problems at one U.S. Army base in dealing with soldiers experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their tours in Iraq. Today, NPR reported that three U.S. Senators have sent a letter asking Dr. William Winkenwerder, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, to investigate the allegations. The Associated Press reports that the letter, signed by Barbara Boxer (D, California) Christopher ("Kit") Bond (R, Missouri), and Barack Obama (D, Illinois) have asked the secretary to confirm the allegations in the report and to provide details regarding any plans to address the alleged problems. Let's hope this marks a change where the U.S. Congress actually returns to the business of holding people accountable for their actions and organizations accountable for their duties.

Earlier, I mentioned a (possibly) new member of our household and kristy (who has a terrifically named blog) asked if he was still around. Well, I'm happy to report that while Tramp is not yet entirely committed to living inside the house with the rest of our brood, he has taken up residence under the house. He comes into the kitchen twice a day for meals and limited cuddles. He's still very skittish, though. He flees out the pet door and back under the house at the least sudden movement or noise (or when Dog is around). Still, it's progress. JP's taking point on making the poor fella feel at home. I'm not sure what Tramp has gone through that's made him so very nervous, but he is beginning to relax and enjoy himself when he doesn't think anyone's looking.

In passing, I note that France's new news network is now live. Excellent! I look forward to exploring it in more detail. Let's hope they follow the best ideals of journalism, rather than the worst.

And, finally, here's something to think about over the next couple of days: Given that so much of our world is becoming more and more connected, why is it that people are feeling increasingly isolated?

As always, your comments are invited. As they used to say on Laugh-In, "Sock it to me!" (By the way, I have a six degrees of separation link to the production of that show, which is pretty cool when you consider I was four went it went on air and nine when its curtain fell.)

Tonight's picture is courtesy of Windows Media Player. It's a random "snap" (Alt+PrScr) of the random visualization that appeared while I was listening to the NPR piece, so I've no idea who to credit.


Blogger THE Michael said...

Damn, coming back to your piece on our shared subject, I had forgotten that you'd taken a swipe at it when I was listening to it on NPR! Didn't mean to horn in on your subject, but, I think perhaps between the two of us we pretty much lit that puppy up.

My iTunes visualizer is better than your Windows visualizer....nah nah nah na hah na,,,,,,,,hehehe


4:11 AM  
Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

Hey sweetie - good followup on the NPR piece, I hope more congressional members get involved in making sure this issue is thoroughly investigated and remedied. I didn't know about France's new news network (shame on my little francophilian soul) - thanks for linking to that!
Much love, as ever, your JP

5:46 AM  
Blogger Mcglk said...

Given that so much of our world is becoming more and more connected, why is it that people are feeling increasingly isolated?

I've been watching this phenomenon in my own life for the last few years in detail, and I suspect I might have a few answers. I'll concentrate on five of them here.

Connective dilution

I realize that the phrase doesn't make much sense---after all, I just made it up one day---but the phenomenon can best be described by way of a personal example.

Before I escaped from Eastern Washington, I lived in smallish cities or small towns. Most of my youth was spent in the execrable Clarkston, Washington (motto: Looking Forward to 1955!). For those who've never lived in a small town, let me explain that one of its curses and benefits is that there are few degrees of separation. In Clarkston, I could honestly say that there were less than four degrees of separation between any two people, and possibly less than three (at most, anyone was an acquaintance of an acquaintance of one another).

Moving to Seattle was eye-opening and wonderful. For the first time, there were sufficient degrees of separation that I could have anonymity. There was a buffer now, one where I could indulge myself without it necessarily affecting people who knew me. It allowed me to grow into myself a little more, and it also allowed me to be more selective in my friendships, which could grow deeper as a result. The percentage of people I knew dropped sharply, but the quality of those few friendships increased quite a bit.

In other words, the more connected you are with other people, the more you have to dilute yourself to get along without negative repercussions, which leads to feelings of isolation.

I know this sounds paradoxical, but the truth was that I felt less isolated in a large city. Now that I'm back in a smallish town (Windsor CA), I'm starting to fill that connective slush again. It's a town small enough that every death affects someone you know, and worse, my girlfriend is a schoolteacher who has lived in this area most of her life, so she is recognized by some kid no matter where we go. She has mentioned on occasion that she would really like to do x or y, but can't, because she would be recognized, or it would get back to her school somehow. So she doesn't, even though she would really like to.

Information glut

Vienna - 28548 unread

That's what my RSS reader says. It further informs me that there are over 12000 technology articles I haven't read, 8500 news stories I haven't read, 1600 blog posts I haven't read, and so on and so on and so on.

Vienna - 41 more articles read

Ah, it just updated all the feeds. Now there's 28589 articles to plow through.

Now, I read fast, and I know how to use a computer. But how the heck do I keep up with all that?

Honestly, I don't. Fortunately, Vienna allows me to select a feed or a category of feeds, and right-click to the option "Mark all articles as read."

The important stuff tends to get buried in the glut. Good organization can help the stuff that's important to me bubble to the top somewhat, but the sheer quantity of information is just overwhelming. The natural reaction is to pull away.

I am still hoping that artificial intelligence can solve this problem, but we're still a long way from that point. The CyC project is now open source (though the main inference database is not), and I would love to have the time to play with it and build my own knowledge base (or better, try to figure out how to get it to build its own knowledge base and use me for credibility filtering), but I really don't. There's a lot of research going on with attempts to emulate human intelligence, but geez, we already know how badly that's worked out, don't we?

I hope we get to a viable and fast AI sometime in my lifetime, one that could get to know what my tastes are (including the ones that change over time), and filter even more information to get me the important bits that are relevant, or ones I'd just enjoy. ("You've got mail. Most of it is stuff that doesn't interest you from the FreeBSD list, but there's a question pending that you know the answer to---wanna read it? I've initiated another DDOS attack against that Russian spammer; we've got another 600 spam attempts from him in the last 24 hours. Most of the news is either about Iraq, the Cheney pregnancy, and Michael Richards again. Oh. Lance posted something on his blog---wanna read it?")

Vienna - 126 more articles read


Narcissism and other sociopathic behavior

I am the star of the movie of my own life.

I think everyone's been guilty of this phenomenon from time to time; after all, we are the only person in our lives that affects ourselves no matter what we choose to do. (Go ahead, parse the sentence again. I admit, it's confusing.) But the more we concentrate on performance for our audience, the less we work on being ourselves. And the less time we spend on being ourselves, the more isolate we become.

Our society tends to breed a certain amount of narcissism. Occasionally, we see it expressed to a clinical degree, but we all have it from time to time. It does seem like the phenomenon has been on the upswing the last few years, though---you can see it expressed in politics, in public life, in celebrity, in art, even in charity work. The Me meme probably got started during the Reagan years, now that I'm thinking about it, and certainly the GOP seems to be the political repository of this particular societal cancer.

The problem with Looking Out for Number One is that inevitably, it eventually makes you the Only One who wants to be around you.

Perceptual distance

I'm currently living 800 or so miles away from Seattle. I realize that isolates me somewhat. I don't yet have any friends down here besides Linda.

But even in Seattle, there were times I felt isolated. Most of those times had to do with how busy I was.

I seem to be one of those people who constantly comes up with projects I want to do. I'm back in a "wanna do some film" mode, for example (a project has come to mind that I'd really like to do, dang it). I've been writing more (though not in my Blogger blog, because nobody visits it). Coding more. Doing more.

It's isolating, because it's busy. Busyness distances. Like a jostling person pushing other people away, one's own activity level can push away those we most want close to us. They feel you're too busy for them. You even feel like they're a distraction. But eventually, the effect catches up with you.


Why bother?

Having been seriously betrayed several times in the last three years, by people unconcerned with the harm their actions would do me, I've gotten pathologically cautious about other people. Even old friends are subjected to more scrutiny these days. It's not the healthiest state to be in.

But for all that, the truth is that most people don't tend to put much effort into their close relationships.

Now, there's something to be said for the sense that close relationships shouldn't feel like work, but the truth is, everyone has some natural variability in their lives, and there are times when talking with someone is harder than other times. That's the sort of "work" I'm talking about---the willingness to pursue a good relationship even when the natural variation isn't making it easy.

I have friends---real friends---that I've kept for 30 years or more. It happens because I stay in touch, even when I'm busy. I call them up. I ask them how they are. I do it even when they haven't called for a while, or have been too busy, or live a long way away, or whatever.

This boggles Linda's mind. She has no friendships that have gone past ten years. Every one of them has fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. That in turn boggles my mind. Here's why: Friendships are precious.

When you take the sheer panoply of people we meet in our lifetimes, and you realize what a tiny percentage of them qualify as friend, it's shocking. It's like having a dozen tiny diamonds strewn over a cold sandy beach, or the number of warm habitable planets in a universe that's vast and cold. The sheer amount of sifting and searching we do in life is staggering.

Friendships are worth keeping. They're worth the work. Sometimes, they still fall by the wayside---people change, lose their ethical base, lose their sanity, or gain a different set of interests that you can no longer support. But not all. True friends are worth keeping, in good times or bad. Fair weather friendships are certainly less stressful and easier to keep, but ultimately meaningless---like peppering that beach with flecks of mica, or painting asteroids green in a big universe. It's the ultimate false alarm, and I think it does more harm than good.

This is not to say that societal niceties should be ignored. Consequenceless lies are the KY jelly of human discourse. But if you're going to express concern or care, it makes sense that at least it be genuine, with all the consequences that go along with that.

Nobody likes a hypocrite, after all.

And others . . .

I've been guilty of a few more, of course. I'm painfully shy at times, for example, which has led me to pass up opportunities of forming new acquaintanceships.

My physical state is still such that I get tired easily, and the lower energy levels don't provide me with a lot of enthusiasm for pursuing new friendships when there are so many other things that need to get done (and that's aside from the number of things that I want to get done). Fatigue is a real problem in American society, but much more so for those with chronic illness or prolonged recovery periods.

Economics are a factor as well. The worse the economy gets (and the Bush administration has been horrible for it), the less people can afford to go out and do something fun, or travel to reconnect with people, or any of a number of other things. Work becomes the grind, and time off is spent recuperating. It isn't good for a healthy society.

Hope has also been taking a real beating, mostly because of economics and politics. I don't feel particularly safer now that the Bush administration has "handled" our diplomatic standing to the low end of Gehenna. I don't know if the US can reduce the nine-fold increase in our debt that the Bush administration has added (currently approaching $8,700,000,000,000 and growing). I don't know when the GOP or its electorate will regain its senses. This is all the sort of thing that makes me want to hide under the bed.

And probably other reasons I haven't thought of yet. . . . :)

11:44 AM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Barbara Boxer is my hero. Thanks for highlighting this important story. As for France's new news channel, let's just say it has growing pains - but there's hope.

1:41 PM  

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