Wednesday, July 26, 2017

My Politics. Part I

People seem wired for a certain amount of drama. No matter how good things get, most people have to see the current times as challenging, or bad. The need to see things in a certain way or at a certain level justifies a shit ton of bullshit rationalization.  So, meta-level, this is how I see things:

The world is better than ever before. In the US, poverty doesn't mean what poverty means. The poorest people I know own computers that would not have been available to any government at any price in the 1970's. If you are reading this, you have access to a computing system that didn't exist not that long ago. You cannot believe you are poor if you have  access to a system that no one in your grandfather's world could have imagined. Measure. Do you have access to hot water, ice, food from multiple continents despite any season and more knowledge than you could mine in a lifetime? Then you are a god, beyond what any Roman emperor could access. and you live in a golden age.

There is an old saying about academic politics: The politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

Here's the deal. Since the mid/late 1800's, we have an ideal. We are all products of our culture and early education, so shift this 200 years in any direction and it might make no sense, but here goes:

  • People matter. 
  • Equality is important. 
  • Individual liberty is important. 
  • People can continuously improve. 
  • Society can continuously improve. 
  • A legitimate government serves the people, it does not rule the people.

And, for as long as this ideal has been held as pretty much universal, there has been a constant tension between liberty and egalitarianism. They are mutually incompatible. If you allow maximum freedom (liberty) there will be wild disparities in possession, friendships... anything you care to measure. Conversely, there is no way to have egalitarian outcomes except by controlling individuals. Yes, I am aware that there is an entire branch of political philosophy devoted to proving that there is no antagonism between freedom and equality. Any six-year-old can shatter those pathetic arguments.

A quick and dirty way to phrase this, imagine a basketball game: If you value liberty more than equality, you want the rules applied equally to the two teams. If you value equality more than liberty, you will believe that any score that doesn't end in a tie is prima facie evidence of unfairness and you will continue to tweak the rules until all games are ties.

In the dawn of the 21st century, we forget that "poor" used to mean "starving" not obesity. Not that long ago, poor people in  North America couldn't read, and now they have access to free Harvard courses. That a (personal example) an eight-year-old bottom of the line economy car can outperform the hotrods we dreamed about as children.

Bringing it home, people are tribal. They seem to need an 'us' and a 'them.' The less actual difference there is, the more vicious and heated the rhetoric needs to be. Communist, fascists and socialists were never enemies because they were different. They were always enemies because their policies appealed to the same people. They were similar enough to compete for resources. Civil wars are more vicious than other wars because of the similarities between the sides, not the differences.

And this big, scary divide in US politics right now? It is really simple. We agree on almost everything... except where we should strike the balance between individual liberty and equality. And because that is such a relatively minor point, tribalism demands that we get vicious about it.

Tribalism demands. We needn't obey. (Obviously) I'm heavy on the individual liberty side. We don't need to agree. We both want people to be happy. I believe that unfettered opportunity will have that effect for more people and, as an aside, that a few people pushing the envelope changes everyone's potential. If you believe stuff makes people happy and managing the output of stuff will make more people's lives better, you aren't my enemy. We just disagree.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Killing the Sensei

In the Criticism≠Teaching post I wrote about students who have been so conditioned to criticism that they criticize themselves when no one else does. They even criticize as a habit when they have done nothing wrong. I advised you to kill that voice in your head, and a few people asked the very reasonable question, “How?”
I can’t give a definitive answer. The voice still bubbles up for me, sometimes. Especially when I write.
But here are some strategies I’ve used:

First, distinguish between external and internal criticism. External criticism comes from other people. It may be wrong, misguided, actively designed to sabotage you… listen anyway. The more you want to find a reason to ignore or deny it, the more important it is to listen. If it is bad advice, you should be able to explicitly and dispassionately articulate why it is bad. But be careful. There’s a reason why watching for your own cognitive biases is a lifetime commitment.
This post is really about internal criticism. Do you know why an outside copyeditor is necessary to a professional writer? Because you can’t catch your own errors. If you knew how the word was spelled, you would have spelled it right the first time. Yes, there are clumsy finger errors, etc. Quibbles. The point is, you generally don’t make errors you recognize as errors. Almost always, the decision you made in the moment was the one you judged to be best in that moment, with the information you had and the time you had to think. If you think of something better, cool. That’s a learning experience.
One example. Just a synopsis, it would be really long to type. Climbing with a partner. His jumar (ascender) got jammed. Halfway up a slippery cliff. Rope wedged in the same crack as the jumar. Starting to get cold and wet. Only decision I could see was to unhook and free climb to get above him and work from there. Shitty climb on slippery rocks with no protection and a 40 foot fall.
It worked. Six months later I thought of an easier, safer solution, and I was kicking myself for not thinking in a few minutes of something that took a half year of unadrenalized pondering. Sigh.
Examine effects, not feelings. Most people’s problems are second or third order. Writing the essay is the primary problem. Worrying about the grade you might get is the secondary problem. Worrying about what people will say about your grade is tertiary. A big piece of ‘non-attachment’ is ignoring the secondary and tertiary concerns. Which is actually easy, because the primary problem/solution is usually physical and real, as opposed to both emotional and imaginary (and if it’s going to happen in the future it is imaginary in this moment.)
Be in the moment. Related to the last one, but I get very specific about this. I mean to be in your senses. Look, listen, smell, touch, taste. Don’t look and then start an internal dialogue describing what is right there. Look, don’t describe. Listen, don’t judge. Live, don’t interpret. I know that’s hard, but it is really powerful.
With a lot of attention/practice/mindfulness, you can do this with your internal states as well. This lets fear, anger, love, rage, annoyance, self-doubt—all that stuff— move through you without sticking. You can feel anger without becoming angry, and love without becoming stupid.
Think less. The less time you spend thinking in words, the easier the last two points become. Meditation, solitude, hunger and fighting are some of the paths I’ve found. Those are in order, from easiest to hardest, but also from least to most effective.
After Action Debrief. I’ve written about it here XXX link XXX. I f you’re going to have a critical voice in your head anyway, you might as well train it to be useful. In a nutshell, the AAD is just three questions: What happened? What went well? What could I/we do better next time?
That’s it, but you have to be strong enough to say, “That went about as well as it could have.” Let yourself have your wins.

Focusing pain. Sudden sharp pain tends to clarify your mind and order your priorities. Give yourself some pain if you are too much in your head. Snap your ear whenever you catch yourself in your critical head.

There are more strategies that work. Remember that your brain can and should be exercised and disciplined, just like your body.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Math and Passion

One of the things that has been bugging me lately. I have several close friends who are very passionate about certain issues... and they are wrong. Simply wrong. In some cases, the issue they are excited about doesn't exist. In a few, the words they use do not mean what they think they mean. In a very few cases, the words that they use originally meant the exact opposite of what they think they mean. Black has become white; dogs are cats; freedom is slavery.

Where do I get the right to say that they are wrong and I'm right? Fair question. This is the way my brain works: These are people I care about and generally, but not always, that means I admire their intelligence*. If they believe X and I believe Y, I assume I'm wrong. I then, depending on the question go to first sources (like the actual court case). Or go to the data (the Bureau of Justice Statistics, commonly). Or design an experiment (Who is more hateful, X or Y? Let's type "All x should die" and "All y should die" into google and see who is talking about killing most.)

I think that's pretty solid. Confidant that it is far more than the people I am disagreeing with have done.

But here's the question, and it's really two three questions.
1) Should I even bother to tell them I disagree? I know a few sense it, but as long as it stays submerged, the friendship continues fine. Understand, they are usually passionate about their position-- one even said it was important enough it was okay to be wrong. I can't even wrap my head around that, largely because I'm not passionate about the positions. I am relatively passionate about the path to those positions.
2) If I decide to have this disagreement, how? Facts don't actually sway people. For that matter, if we agreed on an experimental design and their position was mathematically proven flawed, my experience is that they would double down. And never forgive me.
Oooh. There's a third question.
3) Most of them are happy being passionate. It may come across in words as feeling outcast and beleaguered and under constant attack, but that belief makes them feel special and gives their life meaning. If someone is wholly invested in their enemies as a core of their identity, is pointing out that their enemies** are imaginary a dick move?

The challenge here is not winning the argument. My ego doesn't need the strokes of winning. The challenge is preserving the friendship and, possibly, helping a few friends avoid a path that will be hard to recover from.




*There are other virtues I admire besides intelligence. No one has to be perfect or superior in all categories to be my friend.
** And this is a really fine line because there are always a few real assholes. There are millions of good christians, but the 70 (or less) members of the Westboro Baptist Church make the news. There are tens of thousands of people working to make a better world, but the loudest, shrillest and stupidest two percent become the poster children for 'Social Justice Warriors.' As long as that worse 2 % or 70 individual or whatever exist, the enemies, just barely, miss being completely imaginary.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Criticism ≠ Teaching

The last post was laying the groundwork for this one. I thought starting with the universally acknowledged evils of micromanagement would make this post more palatable. Instead, Danny Martin gave a very capable defense of an unpopular and nearly indefensible position. Truly well done.

Jumping into this anyway, because it is important.

Criticism is a shitty teaching paradigm. Telling people they are doing things wrong, even telling them what they are doing wrong is literally worse than useless: Useless teaching would leave students unimproved. Criticism actually makes the students worse.

This will probably be a hard sell. When I came up through the (primarily Japanese) traditional martial arts, stern criticism was the standard teaching method. I've even had an instructor say, "Only perfect is good enough." And I was cautioned not to praise students because it would make them lazy. In the law enforcement world, right after I was promoted a senior sergeant told me, "Do you know why you'll never be a good sergeant? Because you don't understand that everyone is lazy and dishonest and our job is to catch them and punish them." Her crews were consistently poor performers because they spent more time watching their backs around her than doing the job.

But it's only a hard sell because we are all so used to it. When something is shitty, being the norm doesn't make it less shitty. We know criticism is poor teaching methodology.

Why is it bad? Let me count the ways.

  1. It's all brakes, no engine. Criticism stops behavior. If that behavior isn't replaced with a better alternative, improvement can only happen by luck.
  2. Criticism almost always works off the wrong metric. The instructor judges a strike (for instance) by whether it looked right. In striking, looks don't matter for shit, it's a kinesthetic skill.
  3. Criticism, especially of the wrong metric, is usually arbitrary. The coach may be looking at foot placement one minutes and hand position the next, may focus on a minor problem in stance and miss the big problem (something that would result in injury) in the hands.
  4. The instructor's reaction becomes the student's metric. Not whether the technique worked, not how much energy was delivered, but whether they got yelled at or not. Getting better, when you are measuring improvement by the wrong metric, is nearly impossible.
  5. When the student is anticipating the instructor's reactions, the student is thinking. Cognitive processing is too slow to use effectively in a hand-to-hand conflict and thinking about irrelevant things is worse. Excessive criticism makes your students slow.
  6. When the students are driven to avoid criticism, it pushes them from a gains maximization to a loss minimization strategy. In other words, they are no longer trying to win, they are trying not to lose, and that is usually a very weak, passive and reactionary strategy when the shit hits the fan.
  7. And to compound point six, the game they are trying not to lose isn't even the right game. They are worried about what sensei will say, not working to put the bad guy down.
  8. At the extreme end of this, when everything is criticized, the only strategy left to the students is to do as little as possible, to become as passive as possible. The condition is called, in psychology, "Learned Helplessness." Constant criticism creates passive people, which is another word for victims.
And we know the answer to this. From behavioral psychology or modern teaching theory or MBWA (Management by Walking Around.)

  1. Reward even small improvements. It doesn't have to be anything big, just a "Good job" or a nod. Just as people decrease behaviors that are criticized (punished) they increase behaviors that are rewarded. Rewarding small improvements creates a vector toward further improvement.
  2. Tell the students what to do. Avoid telling them what not to do. "Avoid telling them what not to do" is only seven words but because of the double negations 'avoid' and 'not' it is tons less clear than "Tell the students what to do." Positive statements are clearer than negative statements.
  3. Don't criticize bad techniques, replace them. Instead of telling someone her stance is wrong, show her where her feet should be and explain why.*
  4. Use the right metric. If you are teaching strikes properly, it will show on the heavy bag.
  5. Let nature judge. A lot of the wrong ways to do things hurt. That's why they are the wrong ways. Improper hand positioning hurts your wrist when you punch the heavy bag. A canvas bag will teach you when your punching angles are off. All the wrong ways to do a break fall hurt. If you use the right metrics, you almost never have to criticize because the world takes care of that for you.
One of the most annoying training scars I see are students that are so used to being constantly criticized that they criticize themselves. They handle a scenario brilliantly or snap into a counter-assault technique against multiple simultaneous attacks, and you can see it in their eyes, sometimes even their lips move: They are chewing themselves out for some tiny detail that didn't even effect the outcome. They are so used to being criticized that they have a tiny sensei in their heads telling them they did it wrong. No matter what 'it' is. No matter whether it was wrong or not.

That's bullshit, and if you have that little voice in your head, kill it.


*Quick note on explaining. I find it very useful to explain the underlying physiology or physics that make something work. If the principles are true, they apply everywhere and if the student understands the principles, he or she can adapt them under stress. That said, the principles work. They have visible effects. If you have to explain that something worked when it clearly didn't, you're wrong. You aren't explaining, you're attempting to brainwash.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Micromanagement ≠ Leadership

I think it was Machiavelli in his Art of War that said "The greatest reward for a fighting man is simply to trust him." That resonated. I'd worked for a long time under a variety of people put in leadership positions. Just being in the position doesn't make someone a leader. The true leaders, the ones that inspired loyalty and dedication, had alls aid, at some point, "You've got this." And let me handle things on my own.

Machiavelli (if I'm attributing it to the right person) specifically applied it to fighters. I don't think that's necessarily true--everyone takes micromanagement as an insult. But it's more explicit in dangerous professions. A firefighter I know is incensed that he has to spend more time in each report documenting his PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) than his job. He showed me one report-- nearly half a page of what equipment he put on and in what order. Barely four lines on extracting the subject from the wrecked car.

When you are entrusted with life or death decisions, being treated like a child throws a huge mixed message.

So here's the deal. If you are a micromanager, you aren't a leader. You aren't even a shitty leader. You're a busybody who likes to feel important by interfering with better people than yourself. If you have employees who need to be watched every second either you need to hire adults or, more likely they aren't the problem.

When you get the micromanager who always finds fault, it is something else. If everything a worker does is wrong, no matter how closely they follow policy or even if they were just following the last set of orders, what's going on isn't even management, micro or otherwise. It is straight-up victim grooming. Creating a field of passive people for the manager's games.

I doubt if most micromanagers realize what they are. Humans are excellent at rationalizing and it's easy to reframe micromanagement as "Being explicit" or "I'm a hands-on guy." But on the tiny chance someone reads this and sees through their own bullshit and decides to change... it won't be easy.

No matter your intentions, all those years of micromanagement have instilled in your people the idea that you don't trust them-- and that they can't trust you. They will literally assume that you turning over a new leaf is a trap. That you will give them enough trust to show some initiative and then will ruthlessly punish them for that initiative.

This easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you change your behavior and don't notice any benefit for a day or a week or a month, it is easy to revert. The reversion just becomes further evidence that your attempt at change was insincere.

Note: Going out of my lane a little, but setting up for the next post, which is about the teaching equivalent of micromanagement.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Olympian

You are amazing.
When I die, these are the things that I will have wished I said and possibly the things you would have wished to have heard. I'm thinking of my son right now, but that's just a focal point. If your dad (or whoever) had the words, these are the words that need to be said:

You have never disappointed me. You might have felt that, but know it was never so. When you were born, I held in my arms a perfect example of perfect human potential. An awe-inspiring bundle of possibility. Innate power and potential of cosmic proportions.
In Greek myth, the heroes were half gods. Heracles, the son of Zeus and a mortal mother; Aeneas the son of Aphrodite and a mortal father. This is how I see you, how all humans are: Something incredible and powerful and heroic. Supernatural in your birthright.
That is how I see you.
If you sensed disappointment, it was never with you, but with the world. You have had to make compromises; we all have. And I may have sighed because the choice you made was not the choice I wanted, since I wanted to see you as a pure and perfect god. But the choices you made were pure and perfect, given the information you had and the priorities you placed. I might have wanted you to stand above the world, but you were neck-deep in the world, protecting the weak, calculating the consequences. I had a Socratic, imaginary ideal-- you had a gritty reality. You made your choices based on that reality. You made the best choices you could, and I love you for that.
I wish that you could see yourself as I see you. The strength, the growing wisdom, the compassion, the insight. You are mightier than you can possibly imagine.
Walk in the world as an Olympian. Nurture your strength and cherish the strength of the minigods all around you. It is a beautiful and complex world, and you are an integral part of that beauty and complexity.
Be.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Impossible

Sometimes you get a request that is just flabbergasting. If that's a word.
"We want an unarmed defensive tactics system for our officers that works the same for all officers regardless of size, gender or age, that will work on all threats regardless of size, strength or mental state and has zero risk of injury to the offender."
"You realize that's impossible, right?"
"You don't have anything? We'll keep looking."

The latest. A request for comprehensive self-defense training but with absolutely no element of violence. This one is tempting. Not the material. As requested, it's simply stupid. It's the students. The people who want this do home visits on people who are in the system. Often alone, this student base has daily contact with a population that frequently have criminal records and a history of violence. These are kids (adults, but at a certain age, everybody starts to look like a kid) going into harm's way to do good things. If anyone needs a comprehensive program, these are the people.

Naively, I alsoused to believe that there was always a non-violent solution, but even then I realized there wasn't always time to find that solution. I was wrong. There are people who enjoy hurting others, and only force or the threat of force will stop them. Predators who can't feel closure without pain. Really bad guys who need to see someone break. People who honestly believe that acceding to a verbal solution is an act of cowardice.
" You boys have been real nice, but I guess now it's time to make you fuck me up." When I asked, "Why?" later the old man said, "If I went to jail and didn't fight, I wouldn't be a man." People satisfying needs with pain isn't limited to the BDSM world.

Realistically, the big gains in SD are in the non-violent soft skills. Recognizing and avoiding dangerous places and people. Recognizing when an individual is setting you up or weakening your position. Escape, evasion and de-escalation. Usually, by the time things go physical, it's pretty desperate. This isn't how to out-fight a fighter, but how to deal with a bigger, stronger threat who chose the time and place and conditions (weapon, numbers...)

This isn't a Disney movie. Things can go very bad. The belief that there is always a non-violent solution creates blindspots and vulnerabilities. If any belief is that precious to you, you will fail to recognize and respond to the exceptions. People don't train for things they don't believe in. It is a belief that makes one voluntarily both blind and unprepared.

You all know this. But some people don't get it. More accurately, they refuse to get it. Teaching the impossible isn't a new problem. It starts with education. Over the years, I've found a bag of tricks to get people to see. That's why I use Maslow, and where the distinction between aggressive, destructive (including self-destructive) and assaultive behavior comes in. Why we discuss ethics explicitly. Personal clarity between what people want and what people need.

Whoah. Damn. Rewind and erase. I just strawmanned all over myself. Shit. All the objections and blindspots I just talked about? Realizing... You don't see these in the field. EMTs, nurses, police, corrections, security, even the people manning the desk at the local VA-- every last one I've talked to has recognized the need for something truly comprehensive. They're usually the ones who contact me. The impossible demands have all come from desk pushers, people who write and protect policy. People who live in idealistic abstraction of the real world.

Unfortunately, they tend to be the ones who control what the line staff get.

Not to self: Remember not to confuse institutions with people.