The Sum of Our Experience: Math Cannot Explain the Results

I have always been fascinated with math. I’ve never been good at it, but I have been fascinated. In fact, in an effort to exercise my mental muscles, I’m thinking about taking up the study of math. I get a little tingly thinking about the possibilities. The ability to look at a set of data and to derive some truth from it is a very inviting challenge.

math

photo credit: Roman Mager/unsplash.com

I’m a little intimidated by the proposed path ahead. I’ve been thinking that I would return to the level of arithmetic and geometry that I mastered in school as my baseline. Upward and onward from there. Yet, a little research has caused me to step back and reconsider. The plateaus I once traveled have dramatically changed. Language is different. Processes are different. I’m coming to realize that the concepts my granddaughter mastered in middle school may be far beyond my ability of comprehension.

Humankind has progressed so far and learned so much, in math and in so many other arenas, how can I ever come to even basic understanding of the world around me? Here’s a list of things that I am woefully under-prepared to fathom:

  • Math — see above
  • Things related to math, like physics and computers — I benefit from the principles of physics and computers, but I don’t really know why
  • Politics — or at least why people support some candidates and platforms over others
  • Sports — since the early 1980s, when I simply didn’t have time to watch games or sports networks, I have been totally incapable of being excited about sports at any level (I’ve tried. Please don’t see this as an invitation to try to enlighten me or make me a fan. Yes, I will sit with friends and watch the Super Bowl or the World Series. But that’s my weak attempt to be seen as normal.)
  • Disease and health-related issues — I grasp the concept of aging, accident, injury, infection, and the changes we should expect over time, but I don’t understand cancer or addiction or unexplained takings of the young
  • The systems at work that track budgets and people and productivity — I’m confused constantly (However, I am blessed by the opportunities for friendship with those who do understand these things.)
  • God — I get the concept of a higher authority, I struggle with concepts of justice and mercy and unending love

You may have gathered that I see myself as one who is cast adrift in a sea of ideas and concepts and experts and problems and opportunities. Cast adrift.

But before you feel sorry for me — or yourself if you share some of these same thoughts and feelings — please consider the great gift I (we) have been given.

Every moment of every day is like an exciting novel that I can lean into expectantly, anticipating the next turn in plot. I recently sat in a meeting where a friend talked about the unique possibilities of reading fiction, where a stream of events are strung together to form a plot line. We have no need to know everything that happens between those events. In truth, the great gift of fiction is seeing the pieces of the story that our imaginations provide.

Our imaginations, our resources for creativity, reside in the gaps between what we know and what we desire to know. The tragedy in our existence comes when we demand to know everything and accept nothing less. For in that quest, we assert ourselves as the know-all-and-end-all — the ultimate authority.

I have come to recognize the people in my life who I view as having true authority are those who live in a constant wash of humility. They share what they have learned and they constantly express their wonder at what they have yet to learn.

As I listen to people talk about a variety of subjects, including those on my list above, I am saddened by those who have ceased to live in that wonder. When we determine that we know all there is to know about anything and refuse to promote further exploration and curiosity, we begin to die.

I hope that I will never be the sum of all my experiences — that there will constantly be an unknown in my equations. I want to be blessed by the opportunity to gaze at the void, to wonder about the stretches of what it represents, and to experience the joy of discovery that God promises us.

And just because I can, I’m going to pick up a textbook in geometry.

Comparatively Speaking, Why Does Your ‘But’ Have to be Bigger Than Mine?

the lesser of two evils is, by definition, still evil

I read an article yesterday about an intellectual, liberal-thinking writer who had published a number of articles in support of Mr. Trump as President. The writer does not support many, if any, of Mr. Trump’s positions. Yet, he was voicing his endorsement for one sole reason: Mr. Trump is refusing to play any of the political games of Washington. Speaking of the contrast, the writer lauds the disruption that Mr. Trump is injecting into practically every moment. Comparatively speaking, past presidential transitions have been calm at the top — the President and the President-Elect are portraits of cooperation and the turbulent waters are at the bottom. This year is marked by turbulence throughout the Reflecting Pool.

Just after reading that article, I was cruising through Facebook and I saw a post from a friend lamenting Mr. Trump’s choice of words for one of his New Year’s Day tweets. His point was, to some extent, about content. Primarily, however, it was about tone and demeanor. As you would expect, a number of readers responded with like feelings. And then, in crept somebody’s ‘but.’

I read, with fascination, as entry after entry sprung to the screen. At one point, the responses gave way to an attack against an individual. As it turned out, the two individuals involved didn’t know each other at all. The root of the conflict? The attacker feared that her ‘but’ was bigger than his.

In order to move forward in the political world — or any any human interaction — we have to stop comparing bad as a justification for our allegiances. Instead, we must seek out good and reward it.

A Place to Start
Conflict is resolved effectively only when the parties involved agree to leave the battlefields and join forces on the construction site. The true path to peace is in building something better, not in demolition.

Don’t you think it’s a little juvenile to be investing so much time in comparing the size of our ‘buts?’ Instead, why don’t we begin identifying leaders and language that point to a better future for all people? For too long, the vast majority have believed that we have been voting for the lesser of two evils. I pray that in 2020, we will be voting for the greater of two goods.

Happy New Your Resolutions

my recommendations for what you can do to make my 2017 better

I’m a big believer that the only significant changes I can make in this world are the things under my control. Thus, the only change I can guarantee is the change I bring to my own life. I have dutifully reflected on this past year and selected a number of areas where I can bring about change . . . with me. Thus, I have new year’s resolutions.

However, during a moment of irritation, I also began working on my list of things that  others could do. Please note, it was during a time of irritation. So this isn’t a path to world peace or anything so noble. These are simply things that would make my life better.

New Your Resolutions

10. Use your turn signals.

I’m doing a lot of big city driving these days. I will go out of my way to make a space for another driver who politely asks to come into my lane by moving his or her hand ever so slightly to activate the turn signal. I’ve noticed that many, many others react the same way.

But a good number of drivers out there ignore this courtesy — and legal requirement. I’ve also noticed that the more expensive the vehicle is the more likely that the signals will not be used. I checked with a friend who sells fine cars. He has assured me that all vehicles, regardless of price, are equipped with turn signals. And I personally checked the window stickers on a number of cars and SUVs — there is no special surtax leveed that would excuse you from signaling.

Please, signal. It’s just one of those forms of communication that makes life better — and safer.

9. Stop using crude and foul language.

I’m fully aware of the First Amendment. I know it’s your right to say things that are vile and distasteful to me. But stop it. Regardless of how much sophistication you believe the f-bomb brings to your cell phone conversation, just know, it doesn’t. What those words say to others, regardless of their context, is that you: (a) are stupid, (b) received your entire training in linguistics watching R movies that target the basest desires and cravings of our society, (c) are rebelling against society and you say these things to show your disrespect, (d) are rebelling against your upbringing,  and/or (e) were brought up in an environment where others were influenced by (a) through (d), above.

The number one excuse for using profanity is that it allows us to communicate our emotional well-being at any given moment.  Let me suggest here that there are other words you could use:

  • I’m angry.
  • I’m frustrated.
  • I’m sad.
  • I’m happy.

That’s just a starter list. Saying those kinds of things allows your listener to understand where you are coming from instantly and is far more likely to lead to bringing their empathy to the surface. Hearing one of those expressions doesn’t cause us to think, “Hmmm, I wonder if he just hit his thumb with a hammer?” We have a pretty good clue about what you are experiencing.

Please, clean up your language.

8. Carry poop bags and use them.

If you walk your dog — and there are millions of you out there who do — pick up those packages, large and small, created on your adventures. Yes, it’s a natural occurrence. But you can’t blame your dog.

Please, pick it up and dispose of it.

7. Recycle.

We all use disposable containers. Many of them are recyclable and some, if not appropriately disposed of, are safety hazards for humans, animals, and plant life. And no, you can’t blame your local municipality if they have no recycling program. They should, but that will be on my mid-year list of “responsible things society should do.”

Please, recycle.

6. Adopt and embrace the Oxford Comma.

Miscommunication abounds. Do your part to contain it by appropriately using the comma — and other forms of punctuation. If I have to read what you’ve written more than once to decipher it, 8 times out of 10 it’s because you didn’t punctuate properly. And if you’re one of my students and I’m grading your paper, I really don’t care that your writing and grammar teacher told you it was okay to drop off commas. If you’re unclear and a comma would have helped, I’m subtracting points on technical writing.

Please, punctuate safely.

5. Don’t make up facts.

For example, in #6 above, I have no idea if punctuation is the culprit in 8 out of 10 written communications errors. It would have helped if I had prefaced it with, “In my opinion . . .” or IMHO (although my personal experience is that my opinions are rarely offered humbly).

Making stuff up to strengthen your position is a pretty good indicator that your position is lacking.

Please, don’t add to all the falsity that is circulating out there.

4. Don’t use the word “actually” unless it is actually necessary.

Sadly, when I find  myself listening to a speech or a sermon or a lecture or I’m eavesdropping on someone at the next table in a restaurant, I often count the number of times the word “actually” is used.

Using “actually” as a seasoning for your conversation is like telling your companions that most of what you say is suspect. It ranks right up there with such phrases like “to be honest” or “if the truth be known.” Those are simply signals that you are a person who might not be delivering credible information. For some of you who use this word with reckless abandon, I am learning that I must wait to hear a morsel of relative and factual information until you introduce it with “actually.”

Please, use the word “actually” sparingly.

3. Accept that you don’t know everything and that you are not always right.

I have personal experience with this one. I don’t know everything and I should not be seen as someone with impeccable judgment. (I know that’s ironic, given the fact I’m posting about the stuff that others should do to improve.) I do accept this. And I balance my impulse to push my beliefs and opinions on others with some temperance. I often wait. Before I speak. Before I act. Before I vote. Before I judge — at least publicly.

Please, wait. (I’ve actually waited a long time before publishing this post. [See what I did there? I reinforced this resolution by violating #4.])

2. Give others the benefit of the doubt — but don’t abandon accountability.

A good number of you immediately began thinking of our current political situation when you read this. I have to admit that it was foremost in my mind when I added it to the list. This is a hard one, especially when it comes to enforcing accountability. How much margin can we give others?

My leading response in my law practice was, “It depends.” And so it is appropriate that it be prominent in this conversation. Some things matter more than others. For you to locate and enforce the line of accountability, you must reflect on your values, on accurate information, and on what is at stake. Don’t let others make this decision for you.

Please, listen for understanding, be curious, and stand up for your values.

1. Finally, once and for all, accept the fact that it’s not just about you.

When you are making decisions or investing your time and resources, pause a few seconds to ask whether you are simply acting out of selfishness and personal ambition. In the book of James, we are told that the root of all conflict in the world is our focus on self above others.

Don’t hear me say that you shouldn’t act wisely and responsibly in regard to your own earthly affairs. In an essay on charity, John Wesley once penned that we should address our finances to take care of ourselves, our families, and, only then, on addressing the needs of others. His prioritization was not based on selfishness, however. His point was that we should be good stewards in regard to our own needs so we don’t become a burden to those around us.

Perhaps our problem has more to do with our perception of what our true needs are.

We are all faced with decisions that will impact our own well-being over others. Sometimes those decisions will bring us a small gain while costing others greatly. Our most appropriate consideration should be that which benefits the most people.

Please, do your best for all.

 

That’s my list for you. And each one of them, from the most silly to the most profound, is on my personal list of new year’s resolutions, too — along with an assortment of alterations to exercise, diet, and general demeanor.

Happy New Year!

The Thin Line

The vanishing point between war and rumors of war

This holiday season revealed a terrifying scene. A world leader threatened a nuclear attack against a neighboring country because of a fake news story. Pakistan versus Israel. Nothing for us to worry about, right? Tragically, the thin line that weaves its way between truth and lie, honesty and dishonesty, accountability and absence of accountability is losing weight. The real tragedy is that irresponsibility in communication is now being recognized as a skill.

As a society we have long-revered the art of manipulation and deception. We have even honored it in times of war, sports, and day-to-day negotiation. Yet, those of us who have studied negotiation know that things spiral out of control when the players in war or games or daily transactions begin to worship the thrill of deception or, at least, ignore the immorality that is inherent to it.

In public and community matters, what is most concerning is to have the public pounded with information that is simply untrue. Some of this information is false and purposefully constructed to wreak havoc and upend normalcy. Personally, I think that our law-making bodies should intensify targeted efforts to prosecute such intentional lies. Although asking our social media purveyors to police that is a positive move, I don’t believe that their solitary efforts will be enough.

Another false-news type is doing damage at the same time. Unverified statements, made as fact, are psychologically hardening positions across our political spectrum. For example, it was very easy for President-Elect Trump to recently tweet that his election has resulted in a 10% gain in financial markets. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Trump nor his organization has responded to requests for credible sources for that claim. Meanwhile, at the time the statement was made, a look at leading market indicators showed that the gains were below that margin — some far below.

Look, I was clear during and following the election that I did not support Mr. Trump in his bid for president. However, I did say that I would respect his office and give him an opportunity to be successful. In order for me to do that, I’m just asking that he make an effort to be accurate in what he says or writes. He would have been perfectly correct to simply say that the financial markets have made significant gains since the election. That is true and I have no problem admitting that. And, I think it is within the realm of acceptable behavior for him to claim his impending presidency as the factor that made that happen.

I’m not just pointing to Mr. Trump.

We all realize that, although Mr. Trump seems to have a huge capacity for distributing misinformation and making statements that he or his aides must later “walk back,” this lack of accuracy is not limited to Mr. Trump and has infected almost every crevice and pore of our public lives in a negative way.

Another example from Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. (To those of you who are willing supporters of Mr. Trump, please keep reading. Until someone gets him off Twitter, he just provides too many examples. Spoiler: I’m actually going to give him the benefit of the doubt here.)

The early reactions I heard only quoted the first eleven words. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity.” Given Putin’s rants at about the same time, it certainly sounded as if Mr. Trump was putting us back on the front row of a cold war — with glowing nuclear armaments displayed all around. However, the second part of that tweet does show that Mr. Trump recognized boundaries.

I have to admit, I don’t follow @realDonaldTrump on Twitter. At my age, I just haven’t needed that constant anxiety. But had I accepted the reports of his statement at face value, I could have only concluded that he had every intention of rescinding all progress that ‘s been made toward nuclear disarmament. That is not what he said and we can all hope and pray that was never his intention.

The problem, of course, is that Mr. Trump’s communication is vague and no one can determine its face value. Even though there have been additional statements issued about this, we still aren’t exactly sure of what he intended. This is one of those moments where it is our responsibility and duty to ask — even demand — clarification. And insist on accountability. But be fair, he didn’t say that he was going to pursue a cold war. This is when we ask questions and seek clarification.

So, if you’ve been waiting for my big point, here it is . . .

Given the world of misinformation we live in, shaped from social media, cable news, and the major news media organizations, we must be vigilant and we must demand accountability. As the American people, we have a long history of following leaders we are unwilling to listen closely to. Close enough has been good enough. If a policy sounds like it benefits us personally, then we’re supporters. We have ceased being people of thought and inquiry. We have voted “us versus them” and it is coming back to bite us — and them.

We are them. They are us. We’re in this together.

So, a call to our leaders, our news sources, and to each of us personally:

Invest time in getting and communicating good information from multiple sources. Then, act on it responsibly. Don’t simply stir discord. Have friendly conversations. Commit to beginning and ending your discussions as friends. And set aside time for the next visit.

This call was to me, as well. I’m dangerously close to following @realDonaldTrump. Maybe right after my next physical.

Olfactory Attraction

I’ve been driving a lot lately. And at intersections it seems like I’ve been surrounded by young men who are piloting very expensive vehicles. I make various judgments about these fellows. I assume, for example, that they are internet billionaires with lots of money to spend. Or, they live in their parents’ garage apartment and spend their entire paycheck leasing a fancy car. But in every case, I suspect and feel fairly confident that each and every one is trying to attract friends with their show of affluence. The thing that puzzles me is their application of olfactory attraction.

In my observation, almost 50% of these young men are hanging those pine tree shaped car deodorizers from their rear-view mirrors.

Now, I understand that a small, enclosed space can become a little, shall I say, aromatic from time to time. But apparently it’s all the rage to publicize that to potential riders by hanging tangible evidence of your need to mask odors.

So, I’m proposing a business venture that is perhaps worthy of a visit to Shark Tank. I propose we manufacture and sell large magnetic signs that boldly say:

This car smells bad. Would you like a ride?

This could be yuge.