Schools are not safe in the USA – Nowhere in the USA is, actually

Another child murdered in a school today in the USA. 8 years old – doing nothing but going to school. I keep thinking of someone telling me it is irresponsible to travel overseas with my child – too dangerous – yes, but not as dangerous as staying home and sending my child to school. I … Continue reading “Schools are not safe in the USA – Nowhere in the USA is, actually”

Another child murdered in a school today in the USA. 8 years old – doing nothing but going to school. I keep thinking of someone telling me it is irresponsible to travel overseas with my child – too dangerous – yes, but not as dangerous as staying home and sending my child to school. I blame this on capitalism – pure and simple. Guns are a business, government is a business, education is a business, crime is a business – people are the raw materials. Capitalism has turned us into resources- anyone ever asked you what you are worth? How do you answer? In cash. We sell our time, we sell our energy, we sell our health, we sell our safety – and the buyers are the masters of capital. We could have a society where people are safe, taken care of, fulfilled – but instead we have a society where some people own other people and we are measured (like it or not) by how much credit we have. Shylock’s Good Man wasn’t good in deed, but good for a debt – and that is how we are judged. It’s no wonder that people lose track of their intrinsic self worth and the intrinsic self worth of others. It’s no wonder that madmen are stealing guns from stores called Armageddon and sending manifestos of revolution to billionaire presidents. How long before someone lights themselves on fire in a way that starts the fire that burns this society down? Not sustainable. Capitalism is not sustainable.

The Greatest Dilemma aka The Parent’s Dilemma

Maybe you have to be me to understand this one, but I’m guessing that you only have to be a sort of half way self aware parent of a child that you truly love to understand it – this – my greatest dilemma.

I want my child to grow up and be happy and find success and joy and love and be able to deal with the world.

And the world is completely fucked up.

Am I supposed to turn my child into yet another completely fucked up, money obsessed, neurotic asshole? Should I teach her how to be a really good person despite the fact that our world chews up, spits out, and completely fucks over really good people?

Or should I teach her to be a sort of economic terminator that buys low, sells high, always makes the career expanding move, exploits the stupid career limiting moves of others, and who always takes the move that advances her interests (or the interests of those she is interested in)?

It’s a sort of expanded level of prisoner’s dilemma. Which, if you aren’t familiar with game theory, goes like this: (thanks Wikipedia)

The prisoner’s dilemma is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely “rational” individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and named it, “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
It is implied that the prisoners will have no opportunity to reward or punish their partner other than the prison sentences they get, and that their decision will not affect their reputation in the future. Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, when they would get a better reward if they both kept silent. In reality, humans display a systemic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games, much more so than predicted by simple models of “rational” self-interested action. A model based on a different kind of rationality, where people forecast how the game would be played if they formed coalitions and then maximized their forecasts, has been shown to make better predictions of the rate of cooperation in this and similar games, given only the payoffs of the game.

An extended “iterated” version of the game also exists, where the classic game is played repeatedly between the same prisoners, and consequently, both prisoners continuously have an opportunity to penalize the other for previous decisions. If the number of times the game will be played is known to the players, then (by backward induction) two classically rational players will betray each other repeatedly, for the same reasons as the single-shot variant. In an infinite or unknown length game there is no fixed optimum strategy, and Prisoner’s Dilemma tournaments have been held to compete and test algorithms.

The prisoner’s dilemma game can be used as a model for many real world situations involving cooperative behaviour. In casual usage, the label “prisoner’s dilemma” may be applied to situations not strictly matching the formal criteria of the classic or iterative games: for instance, those in which two entities could gain important benefits from cooperating or suffer from the failure to do so, but find it merely difficult or expensive, not necessarily impossible, to coordinate their activities to achieve cooperation.

So, should I teach my child to be a drone, a thinking, good person, or a mercenary ? Which option maximizes her happiness in the future? Is she going to be happier if she is successful or if she is good or if she is a part of the system? This is what I call the parent’s dilemma.

So, here is the dilemma in pretty simple terms. I can teach my child to be successful in this world, which makes her a part of what I see to be the problem or I can teach her to not be part of the problem, which from what I have experienced and continue to see will make her unsuccessful. There does not seem to be a middle way in this particular dilemma – at least no middle way that exists in the United States of America.

People’s Voices in Our Heads

We all have them. Not the crazy type of voices, but the voices of people we know and the things they say that just stay in our heads bouncing around. Sometimes the voices of people we met in passing or heard on the TV or radio. Those voices – they have a lot of power – and most of that power comes from the fact that we don’t stop and consider just who that voice came from, what they might possibly know, and in what context it was said.

Here’s one that has been with me since kindergarten – a little girl’s voice that said to me “You’re a storyteller!” in an admiring tone. This one little 5-year-old girl’s voice saying something on the playground as we played on the jungle gym might be exactly what propelled me to write, to tell stories, to aspire to greatness in the field of telling stories. Imagine if she had said to me “You’re a preacher!” or “You’re a doctor!” or a thousand other things…did her utterance lead to my current reality – I’m pretty sure it did and the fact that her voice is still clear in my head makes me fairly certain of that. I’m grateful she didn’t say “You’re a loser” or “You’re a retard” – which was the word kids used back in those days for kids who had to wear football helmets in school. I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I didn’t die when I fell and broke my skull shortly before starting school and I’m lucky the kids in my kindergarten class weren’t cruel to me for having to wear that helmet all the time.

There are lots of voices in our heads – all of them real people who said real things – or in some cases fictional characters who said real things. I was a stock broker at one point in my life and on a bad day a client said “You should quit and go buy a guesthouse on the Bosphorus” – his voice bounced around in there and a few years later guess where I was? I was managing a guesthouse on the Bosphorus in Turkey. In the late 1990s when I was living in my car, my brother said “You should go to China if you think you got it bad” – much to his surprise and mine – not a year later, I was backpacking through China – almost certainly because his voice was bouncing around in my head.
Does it mean I’m susceptible to suggestion? I’m sure it does – but here is the thing – we all are.

It wasn’t until these past several years that I’ve become self-aware enough (and still a long way to go) to recognize that many of the thoughts I think are my own – were actually voiced by someone else – and then bounced around in my head until they came out and I thought they were mine. I witness this on a regular basis in other people too – I’ll be present during a conversation where one party says something. A good deal of time will go by, maybe months, maybe years, and then I’ll hear a different party who was taking part in that conversation say the same thing but as if it is an original thought or idea which they have come up with. I’m convinced that they have no conception that they are plagiarizing – and we all doing it. And, get this, if we are not aware of where these thoughts or ideas come from we are in danger of thinking they are our own – and when we think they are ours, we tend to associate ourselves with them.

This is how misogyny, racism, and bigotry of all kinds is built. These voices don’t just turn you into a writer, send you on a trip, or make you think you are more clever than you are (or that someone else is worthier than they are) – these voices are dangerous. And in our world, this brave new world of mass media in every pocket and on every screen and in our ears and brains at all times – dangerous ideas are more dangerous than ever. It’s more than just a meme or an ear-worm – it’s potentially a weapon of mass destruction. Be on your guard – when you hear a thought – try to look at it, try to discover the source, and be as critical as you would be if it were coming from someone else – because most likely it is.

2017 World Happiness Survey – Thoughts on Happiness

There are a lot of very short news stories about the Global Happiness Survey – most of them read something like “Norway is the happiest country in the world” – and then they talk about the top ten countries and the places and the place of the USA and the bottom two or three countries and maybe how countries shifted from the last survey. When you read the actual report, there is a lot more to it. Here is the link to the full report: https://s3.amazonaws.com/sdsn-whr2017/HR17_3-20-17.pdf

On page 122 of the report (yes, it is nearly 200 hundred pages long) what I consider to be the most revealing chapter begins – it is titled “The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery” – it begins with this:

This chapter is directed at policy-makers of all kinds—both in government and in NGOs. We assume, like Thomas Jefferson, that “the care of human life and happiness … is the only legitimate object of good government.”1 And we assume that NGOs would have similar objectives. In other words, all policy-makers want to create the conditions for the greatest possible happiness in the population and, especially, the least possible misery.

Which sounds great but which is obviously not true. Policy makers in 2017 want money and power for their financial backers. The problems with the world are well known and easily solved – if that were what those in control wanted to do. They do not. And to prove that point the last paragraph of the chapter:

To conclude, within any country, mental health explains more of the variance of happiness in Western countries than income does. In Indonesia mental illness also matters, but less than income. Nowhere is physical illness a bigger source of misery than mental illness. Equally, if we go back to childhood, the key factors for the future adult are the mental health of the mother and the social ambiance of primary and secondary school. The implications for policy are momentous.

If we wanted to have a better world filled with happier people, we would be focused on taking care of mental health, ensuring that mothers (and fathers) had the support they need to be good parents, and that schools were creating the type of atmosphere which brings about psychologically healthy and confident individuals – instead of factories that create workers filled with fear, anxiety, and depression. Simple. Business does not create happiness, nor does war/defense, nor do jobs, nor do any of the other things we spend trillions of dollars on. Security in childhood, healthcare, and education. That’s it.

This report is a treasure trove of information about creating a happier planet like this:

The effect from the increase in the numbers of people having someone to count on in times of trouble is by itself equal to the happiness effects from the 16-fold increase in average per capita annual incomes required to shift the three poorest countries up to the world average (from about $600 to about $10,000).

From my point of view – this fact alone shows why the two working parents, dog-eat-dog, get out when you are 18, take care of yourself, ‘sorry, I can’t help you’ society of capitalism in the USA is leading to unhappiness, stress, anxiety, overeating, alcoholism, and drug abuse/overdose. We can’t count on each other here. People give lip service to being there for their families, but in my experience (in my awful family) when it comes time to put their actions where their mouth is, Americans turn selfish. My wife’s family in Morocco mean it when they say you can stay as long as you want or need to, they mean it when they tell you that their home is your home, they are there for you in whatever capacity they can be – without excuses. They are not rich – they work hard to survive – but I know for certain that they would never turn away a dear friend or family member even if it meant they had to work harder. When I think of them in comparison with myself or my family, I feel ashamed – and I should. They are poor and they suffer in their poverty, but they are happier than most Americans I’ve met.

And…one last quote just to drive home a point

Overall, the chapter concludes that falling American happiness is due primarily to social rather than to economic causes.

The Regulated Society

I remember having a conversation with a ‘gun nut’ friend who insisted that she should be able to carry and shoot her gun anywhere she likes. I disagreed. I found it astounding that she couldn’t see that 1) her gun created a power inequality between her and anyone without a gun and 2) that unless she could guarantee that her bullets had a certain trajectory and stopping point, she was impinging on the freedom of others to move about without concern over being hit by stray bullets. She, on the other hand, was bothered that I thought there should be regulations in place to protect people who she had no intention of threatening – her problem with my arguments could all be boiled down to “Who is given the power to enforce these regulations?” and further that anyone given that sort of power is almost certain to use it for their own advantage. Why should she have to give up power to someone else in the interest of unknown others? Why should she have to give up her own best interest to the interest of others with uncertain motivations? We were at loggerheads – I tried to argue that it wasn’t her, a person with presumably benign motivations, that the regulations were protecting society from, but from people with darker reasons for having or shooting a gun. Her counter-argument was that criminal person wouldn’t be swayed by regulations so all the regulations were actually doing was dis-empowering her while empowering an enforcer class that would create more regulations thus depriving her of more power and beefing up the power of the enforcer class which would eventually come to be controlled by those without an altruistic intention. I tried to argue checks and balances, protection of the weakest members of society, representative government, and more – and left the table pretty sure that I was right and she was wrong – and a part of me still wants to believe that – but in my heart, I know she was right. I don’t like it because I want to believe in the hallowed institutions of self-governance and U.S. style democracy – but damn it – she was right. Or at the very least, we were both missing some ‘right’ middle ground.

The regulated society is a disaster. It’s a disaster that most people are completely blind to. As humans we made a bad turn- this idea of disempowering individuals for the betterment of all is a terrible idea – like lowering test standards to increase the average score. The regulations are not working. All the gun laws we have did not stop any of the mass shootings (or individual shootings) that happened anyway. Speed limits do not stop people from driving fast. Food regulations do not keep companies from selling poison as processed food or using dangerous pesticides – yes, if they get caught they get penalized – which is what the regulated society is when it comes down to it – the penalized society – or the penal society – or the prison society. We live in the Prison Society. There is no freedom except that you are allowed to have from the enforcer class, the guards, the regulators, the power elite. We have willingly given up our power and they have willingly taken it.
I have never wanted to live in the Prison Society, but here I am. There are ways out, but none of them are easy. My world travels and travels within the United States have shown me that the Prison Society is a worldwide phenomenona – there are different flavors, but no escaping it. The Prison Society lives on enforcement and bureaucracy and the illusion of the common good. A dictatorship can offer more freedom than democracy, or less – it depends on the levels of enforcement, bureaucracy, and regulations. The only way out of the Prison Society is self-empowerment – we must re-empower ourselves and refuse to give up that power to anyone – and the only way to create a society that is good for all is to create a new way of thinking about power and wealth and humanity. My friend was right about the regulation society and that we should not give up our power to an enforcer class and she was right about the need to arm ourselves, but I think she was wrong about what we need to arm ourselves with – we don’t need to be armed with guns, we need to be armed with knowledge. The Knowledge Society is the only path that leads to freedom from the Prison Society.

The Joy of Teaching

One of the great joys of my life is being Sophia’s primary teacher. From the time she was born, I’ve tried to never overlook an opportunity to open her eyes to the way the world works – from pointing out the science and math in everyday objects to letting her know about the vast amounts of information she can find in books and libraries. Sophia is a kindergartner who reads at a high level and now has a firm understanding of addition and subtraction and a basic level of multiplication – she can tell you about planets, elements, and a huge array of other things. She has (I think) a decent understanding of birth, life, death, and how the body works. All of this wasn’t learned from someone standing in front of a classroom or from hearing a lecture – it was learned because I saw her interest and helped to guide it to the things I think it is important that she learns. This idea didn’t come from a vacuum either. In the 1990s, I read a lot about un-schooling and different ideas about how education could be reformed – changed from an industrial model. In the early 2000’s I was introduced to the work of Tsunebaro Makiguci and his philosophy of education (Makiguci was not only an educator but the founder of one of the schools of Buddhism I follow – SGI) Makiguci was persecuted by the Imperial Japanese government for his pursuit of non-traditional education methods – in particular – the idea that a child should be encouraged to follow their passion and it is the educator’s job to guide that enthusiasm into the subjects the child needs to learn…that is what I have been doing with Sophia. I wish I had been given that kind of education, I wish we all had. I can only imagine how different the world would be. Not a world where money is the driving force, but a world where knowledge is. I hope that this reaches someone and allows them to find the sort of joy I am finding in helping my daughter to become the person she is meant to be.