Coming to terms with being human.


Shiny, Happy People

I went to get more Paxil today. I could say I went to see my psychiatrist, but that would suggest couches, notepads, and talking about my mother, none of which ever happens. Instead, I wait in the hallway for about an hour, get called into the doctor’s office so I can say I am doing alright, and then go to the pharmacist. The American health care system at it’s best.
The Center is great. It exists for people like myself who have mental problems and no medical insurance. Most of my fellow patients are homeless. It’s interesting that I would probably pass these people by on the street but in the Center we’re equals.
There is a sign in the lobby; Keep the voices down in the hall. Someone wrote over in the hall and put in your head. Keep the voices down in your head.

Visitors don’t laugh when they see this sign. They look uncomfortable, or they tsk. Patients laugh out loud. We point it out to each other. We’re laughing at ourselves. We’re a group, bound by the idea that we are different than everyone else. Visitors agree. They don’t laugh because it’s not polite to laugh at others, not when they can hear you.
In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Harris talks about group dynamics. Humans are genetically social creature. As such, we develop peer associations which influence our actions. We conform our ideas and mannerisms to whichever group we feel most closely associated with at the time.
This explains how 9/11 caused a bumper sticker epidemic. Did hundreds of thousands of people suddenly become InstaPatriots (just add tragedy)? No. The flag wavers were already patriotic. In peace time, however, only the most fervent individual conforms to a nationalistic group identity. Have a single national tragedy though, and anyone who identifies positively with America begins to conform to the American stereotype.
Likewise, in the Center the patients identify with one another. We group together in a solidarity strengthened by a culture that is uneasy with our differences. Outside of the Center, things change. Outside I am middle class and the others are homeless. Outside the same woman I was laughing with in the waiting room is uncomfortable to be seen around me. I’m uncomfortable too.


Walking Billboard

Today I wore my blogging t-shirt. I am usually skeptical of shirts with sayings on them. Everybody thinks they’re so damn witty. Listen up kids, Hot Topic equals Starbucks. Anyway…I have become one with the lameness for the sole reason of promoting blogging. Case in point.
This morning I am ordering a cup o’ joe while wearing the aforementioned shirt. Turning to exit the line and take over the best chair in the joint I am confronted by a confused baby boomer. “What’s a blogging?”, the grammatically challenged woman asks. I tell her. It's like I'm one of the Shirt Tales.
The best thing is, the sort of people who question strangers are the same people who want to pass on the info. They’re socially active folk. Many of these people can actually change the tense of an unfamiliar word to construct a decent sentence (a blogging? Come on…). So link over to Think Geek and support the cause. It’s better than being a patriot.


A friend's a friend forever...

Today I learned about Friendster. Friendster is a new site (still in the beta nursery) that helps people connect with one another. It is similar to the Spoke software I mentioned earlier, except you volunteer to exploit yourself.
I am outright fascinated by social mapping. Partly because it illuminates a previously invisible part of human experience and also because I assume I would map out as a little lonely peninsula, like Florida. It’s similar to genealogy. This American Life did a program in November of 2000 that mentioned that fifty percent of Americans are related to the Bush family, if you just go back far enough (of course, 100% of people are related if you go back really far). Anyway, relational mapping is similar, but more interesting. Which friend of a friend of a friend influenced your circle to go see Masked and Anonymous?
Also, thanks to Clive Thompson, I learned about Introvertster, a parody of Friendster. Check it out if you are horrified that people like myself would sell our info-souls to wanna-be dotcommers.


A Fair and Balanced Post

Neal Pollack asked me to write this. Well, actually Neal doesn’t know that I exist but he does know that blogging exists. Yes, blogs promote fair and balanced reporting around the globe.
You see, Al Franken is being sued by Fox News because of his use of “fair and balanced” in a book title. It seems that only Fox can use "fair and balanced" in a legal manner. Mr. Pollack has proposed a FAIR AND BALANCED DAY to remind us to guard our freedom of expression. Al Franken might have the money to protect himself but bloggers are a penniless lot (at least, I am). Neal also hopes that Hallmark will support this as an official holiday, or so I hear.

I had never visited Neal’s site before yesterday. It was shear luck that I fell into a blogging event like FAIR AND BALANCED DAY (yes, I am using the phrase as much as is palatable). Suffering from late evening boredom, I choose to look at the resent updates list on Blogger. From there I surfed to Stinging-nettle and finally to Neal Pollack. Shear luck, but not unpredictable.
Blogs are emerging into a powerful medium. The amount of information that is exchanged, reviewed, rehashed, and demonized on an hourly basis is amazing. Whenever information is exchanged in a manner that promotes feedback higher level systems can emerge. Sites like Blogdex and the Tipping Blog discuss and track the patterns that bloggers create. That is a fair and balanced thing to do. Thank you for tolerating this post. It's for the cause, after all.


He’s dead Jim…

Bloodless surgery sounds nice, doesn’t it? Most people, Anne Rice fans excepted, believe blood is at its best inside the body, not out. Well, at a growing number of hospitals in the United States, the option of bloodless surgery is available.
Don’t get visions of scalpel-less surgery though. Bloodless surgery means that other people’s blood isn’t used. No bags of O-Positive Red Cross Specials getting pumped into your veins. The present technology utilizes blood boosting medications, saline replacement, and other techniques to avoid the blood of those dirty people, like your friends.(Admit it, we are dirty people. I don’t want to know what’s in my own blood much less what’s in yours.) Contamination coupled with constant donation shortages makes bloodless surgery in demand. And the technology is advancing. I assumed this new tech arose from the desires of Gene Roddenberry infected visionaries, but no. It came from good old fashioned religion.

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not want our blood. Transfusions are against the will of God, according to their interpretation of certain scriptures. At the same time, Jehovah’s Witnesses do want to live. Unfortunately, to keep on living during major surgeries, most people need the help of some extra blood. So the J.W.’s have been pushing for bloodless surgery techniques to help them keep from becoming martyrs.

I consider the absolute rejection of blood transfusions a mite extreme. But if it weren’t for this different view point, bloodless surgery options would not be available. The rejection of one method resulted in the emergence of another. A method that makes better use of available resources than it’s predecessor.
The interesting thing is, the J.W.’s weren’t setting out to affect medical technology. They were just trying to live by their own rules. A minority viewpoint inadvertently affected the course of a science. As the world becomes more interconnected and, as a result, more homogenized how many inadvertent solutions to our problems will never materialize? What is the cost of our disapproval of difference?



Last week I read a story about a talking glove. It is a mixture of cloth and circuitry, reminiscent of the Nintendo Power Glove, that translates American Sign Language (ASL) into both voice and text.
It wasn’t the glove but the response to the glove that caught my attention. Certain members of the deaf community are against the development of this kind of technology. They view the creation of such “crutches” as an assault on deafness. Perhaps they would liken it to offering skin lightening treatments to people with the intent of “assisting” them in a white majority country.
Now, I don’t see this as an issue. ASL is a language. The glove is a translator, no different from a computer that translates Mandarin to Spanish. We don’t view translators as an affront to the dignity of Mandarin speakers. The language glove shouldn’t be offensive either.
I was first introduced to the concept of a Deaf Culture by the documentary, Sound and Fury. In it, two deaf parents decide whether to allow their daughter, also deaf, to receive a device that could give her the ability to hear. They really struggled with the decision. Watching made me struggle too. What is more important, hearing or self acceptance? Is changing an inborn characteristic a violation of personal authenticity? Watch the film and think about it.


Leveraging Your Relationships?

It’s a beautiful day outside. Too bad you’re staring out the office window. Thankfully, oh ecstatic joy, “You’ve Got Mail”! Scanning the From: line you see to your horror, it’s the boss. Opening the dreaded message you read the strangest email.

Dear Cog in the Machine,

It has come to my attention that you are friends with Neil Van Natta, the famous independent film director. I would appreciate it if you could recommend our company to him and set up an appointment for me to meet him. Do not worry, saying no will not affect your quarterly performance review in anyway.

Thank You,

The One Who Pays You

P.S. That review is scheduled for next week.

Are you having a strange dream? Is this an outtake from the film Bartleby? Maybe you have become the unwitting middleman in the process of relationship mining.
Yes, relationship mining. Companies are now picking through the address books, emails, and buddy lists of their employees. Why? To see which oh so social worker bee has a friend that could be useful to the company. The software used for this purpose can actually rank the strength of your relationships, sorting out the acquaintances from the best friends.

The multiple articles I have read on this subject have all mentioned the dreaded privacy issue. How will workers tolerate this tracking of their personal and professional lives? This is an understandable reaction. Is it the only one? Instead of calling for restrictions on this new form of data usage, perhaps we should embrace it. We can demand equal access to the information provided. What new innovations will informed, empowered users create with a world wide Degrees of Kevin Bacon game? Sizing up a potential date will move from the gut to Google. The Google:Relationships search will show every person the guy regularly talks to. Hey, the cached pages could reveal past loves. What power! I don’t even want to know who our Senators are acquainted with.
If you would like to check out one of these companies, go to Spoke. This is the tamest company I have found. They do try to keep things private. Definitely watch their Demo.

In closing, embrace information transparency. It’s a little uncomfortable knowing people can track your personal life, but it’s better than not knowing while they do it anyway.


Life as a Construction Worker

The experiment goes like this. Start with two flashes of light (Flash Uno and Flash Dos). Flash Uno goes off and quite soon after Dos goes off a few inches away. You assume that you will perceive two separate flashes of light. You are wrong!

Well, I am overstating a bit. What you perceive depends on the speed between flashes. If the timing is slow, you do see two separate dots. However, if the timing is quick you will see one dot moving from the position of Flash Uno to the position of Flash Dos. Your brain constructs the perception of movement, even though no movement occurred.
What's more, your brain constructs the perception of time! Remember that in the experiment one flash appears after the other. The perceiver of the flashes sees a single dot move in a straight line from Uno's position to Dos's position. How did the brain know which direction to move the dot in? The brain doesn't know, it creates a perception of movement after receiving the stimulation of the two points. What you see doesn't happen when you see it!
Neuroscience has been uncovering the brain's ability to construct our experience. Your brain does not passively take in information and tell you what is out there. It actively constructs a particularly human view of an unmistakably non-human universe.

I have been wondering about all the construction going on in my head. If my sensory experience is based on mental construction, what does that say about other perceived truths? After all, my thoughts are based in my experiences. More about this later.