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Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Externalizing Problems

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Apparently mass shooters tend to externalize their problems. Most people who externalize their problems don’t become mass shooters, of course.

People with that trait, however, are very frustrating people. I know I can be frustrating, as I do the opposite. I tend to blame myself for anything bad that happens to me, even when it’s clearly not my fault. Still, the most tedious people I’ve met are the ones who constantly blame others.

I knew a guy in high school. I actually don’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Jack. I had a Spanish class with Jack. I think we were part of a study group, or maybe we were on a team for a class project. Either way, I remember Jack constantly complaining that the teacher was out to get him, that the teacher was plotting for him to fail. He was struggling with Spanish (as was I — I was consistently mediocre at foreign languages through high school and college). I argued with him for at length that the teacher wasn’t trying to bring about his failure, but he was having none of it.

Later, I had another friend who on occasion exhibited similar behavior. One particularly vivid memory involves me picking him up to take him to work as a favor. He was getting a ride from me, smoking my cigarettes, complaining about how he would “give and give and give” but that everyone else would just “take and take and take” from him. He was apparently oblivious to the irony.

Now neither of these individuals, to my knowledge anyway, have engaged in any anti-social behavior. As I said, many, many people have this quality and don’t do anything wrong. But a couple things stand out. First, by virtue of externalizing their problems they are unable to recognize their own negative, corrosive traits. Their beliefs are reinforced when they alienate others, because others distance themselves from them.

I don’t encounter these people very much anymore. My wild guess is that people like that might tend to have a hard time getting through college and ending up in industries like the one I’m in. Or maybe people get better at managing it as they get older.

It does worry me, though. If you don’t believe yourself to have any problem, you’re unlikely to seek help. And as I said, most people like this don’t end up shooting up schools. So how do you identify the people who are likely to do that, considering they likely aren’t going to end up in counseling or therapy prior to a shooting?


Monday, June 4th, 2012

What is the point of conversation and argument? I mean “argument” somewhat in the spirit of the logical and philosophical sense of the word, summarized on wikipedia as:

In philosophy and logic, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons or evidence for accepting a particular conclusion. The general structure of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion.

(Edited to remove footnotes)

A conversation can be made up of one or more arguments. While the point of an argument is to persuade, that’s not necessarily the point of a conversation.

Very few people actually make arguments as defined above. What most people do is assert opinions. That may be fine, but those aren’t arguments, and they don’t always make for very good conversation.

What I’m trying to get at is that I tend to irritate people, and vise-versa. I don’t really approach a discussion adversarially. If you want to “win”, that’s what debate is for. Yet this is exactly how many people approach conversations, especially when politics are involved. That, in fact, is the raison d’être of talking points. How cynical are talking points? They are employed to steel individuals for contrary beliefs and opinions, not to encourage an enriching, belief-challenging conversation. The very concept is irrational and depressing.

Note that I’m not implying that people need to be persuaded or concede anything. If they genuinely question the soundness of an argument, and as long as they are being intellectually honest, a conversation need not conclude with one participant conceding defeat. In fact, the vast majority of political discussions end this way, with no consensus. In the best of these cases, people find themselves unable to agree on a point that is difficult to prove one way or another. If they can acknowledge that, they at least have isolated a core point of dispute. In the worst cases, the conversation ends irrationally with name calling or (much worse) violence. In between are the sort of conversations we usually have, especially with people of a different political or philosophical persuasion.

I always try to have the best kind of disagreements. It’s very, very hard to have those conversations with most people. I’m frequently accused of being mercilessly (or foolishly) logical. There’s some truth to that. I am quick to find inconsistencies in peoples’ thoughts. Please note that I’m not bragging here — I know many people who are much brighter and better than I am. There are plenty of people who can absolutely destroy me in an argument. But because for me the conversation itself is the reward (not “winning”), I’m more likely than not to enjoy having my argument eviscerated. It’s not about proving yourself right, it’s about finding out what’s wrong and narrowing down what’s right.

There are a handful of things that will truly ruin a conversation for me. The first (and foremost) is irrationality. You can’t “just know” something. Supernatural revelations are likewise useless in a conversation, or at least only as useful as a statements like “Yesterday, blue was my favorite color”, or “I know in my bones that the president is a socialist”. This tells me something about how you think or see things, but it doesn’t tell me anything else. Related to this are appeals to common sense. Common sense is an attempt to assert something without providing any support, the implication often being that only an idiot would question it.

Speaking of idiots, another thing that ruins a conversation for me is if one participant really does believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot (or is evil). If that person is also adept at rhetoric, odious in their treatment of others and prone to dismissing counter-arguments as meaningless or nit-picking, I won’t even give that person the time of day. A conversation should be respectful and should adhere to the rules of logic.

So when I get into a meta-conversation, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to defend the way I argue, because it irritates people. But defending myself is itself an argument.

The point of a conversation, for me, is to challenge beliefs — my own and others’. It’s to root out what we believe without sound basis. It is, in short, to learn. Sometimes, when making an argument I’ve never articulated before (or articulated well), I’ll go about disproving myself. That’s always an interesting, exciting moment, and it sadly doesn’t happen often enough.

I hope I don’t sound sanctimonious. I’m being sincere — after all, I got my B.A. in Philosophy and English. You have to love discourse to study that. When getting my degree, I was surrounded by many people who approached conversation the same way. Not all, but many. Maybe that spoiled me. Regardless, it also gave me hope that others could come around to this approach.

When was the last time you approached a conversation with the intention of learning something rather than proving someone wrong?

This Blog’s “Design”

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

I really, really dislike this blog’s appearance. I hate the layout, the fonts, the titles, everything. There are a few things standing in the way of me changing it:

  • Not worth the trouble: almost no one reads it, and there isn’t much reason for anyone other than some friends and family to read it. There are a few posts that get regular hits, but it’s a very small number.
  • I have no taste. Or, to be charitable, I’ve not developed my taste beyond realizing that this looks hideous.
  • A new design will have to accommodate old posts. Image alignment, lists, maybe other things.
  • No time. What little free time I have I’m spending with my kid and wife, or sometimes on video games. Also, I try to read, so I can arrest or at least slow my descent into mental mediocrity (it’s not working).
  • I would be too ambitious. It would have to work in every browser in the history of the multiverse. It would be responsive. Et cetera.

Maybe I’ll buy a template? I don’t know.


Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

My four month-old son seems opinionated.

We’ve noticed little things. He’s starting to show preferences and annoyances. But I’m trying to be careful. While I don’t exactly believe in Locke’s tabula rasa, I do think that Julian has a while to go until his personality develops to the point where it really starts to show.

I’ve been thinking about it recently because Kelly and I have both joked that he’s got a temper.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been annoyed when people think they can predict my behavior. Usually, this manifests itself in things of little consequence — if I frequent a coffee shop, for example, if the server starts to pick up on what I usually order and tries to anticipate it (“Hey, medium mocha to go for you?”) I will, quite childishly, change my order on the spot. Sometimes the consequences are more serious and have occasionally ended friendships (I’ve got stories from childhood that I’m not proud of).

I don’t know exactly what’s going on there. I’ve thought about it, and the most I can determine is that I feel like people anticipate behavior in order to control it, or to feel in control of it. And if someone tries to predict my behavior, they are trying to influence my behavior and are, in a sense, trying to control me.

That probably sounds completely insane (and the server at the coffee shop clearly isn’t trying to control me), but I think there’s something to it. People tend to conform to expectations. If you treat someone like a child, they may start to act like one. You treat someone like they’re a jerk, and they might start to become one. I’m sure there are studies that support or deny this; I have no idea. But it’s something ingrained in me, somehow.

“That’s Joe for ya” pisses me off.

So now that we think Julian has an “Irish” temper, are we going to start unconsciously, unintentionally cultivating a temper in him? I don’t know. Does he really have a temper? Or is that Kelly and me projecting that onto his otherwise apparent tabula rasa?

I’m a new parent, and a self-conscious (obviously) one at that. But I am trying to figure out how to let him be who he will be while showing him, as best I know how, how to be a good person.

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