Nate's Thoughts

Just...whatever occurs to me.

Today marks three weeks since I have been in close contact with anyone outside of my own household. We got home from a funeral on Sunday night, and I started running a fever around midnight. I called in sick to work all that first week and was told by my doctor to work from home for two weeks if possible. Then our entire organization started working from home and here we are.

Like everyone else I've been going through what I've been calling the ugly rainbow of emotions:

  • hot red anxiety
  • sickly yellow stress
  • frantic white-on-black panic
  • dull gray lethargy
  • dark black depression
  • old-TV-static lack of focus

The whole lot. It's been rough and will probably get rougher for the next little while.

But right this minute I'm okay. I'm trying to protect myself emotionally as well as physically. I've been outside a lot; mostly in my back yard. I've started jumping on our trampoline, something I haven't done in decades. And I've taken a few neighborhood walks, making sure of course to keep six feet away from anyone else and just smiling and nodding from a distance.

I've been forcing myself off of my favorite news sites; they are just contributing to my stress and panic. I do want to know what's going on, but there's really not much I can do beyond what I'm doing. I've set myself a limit of five minutes per day for social media (other than Mastodon, which is already self-limited by the fact that I follow only a select few people).

And, like social distancing itself, my mental health measures have been helping in small ways. I'm seeing the colors in our world more brightly because I have time to spend looking at them. The flowers in the neighborhood are starting to come up, even though its still cold, and they are beautiful. I've been reaching out to friends and co-workers to play games online and the laughter that we share in these moments is more precious than gold.

I've been spending more time listening to and talking to my kids. My regular commute is over an hour each way. Right now my commute involves opening a door. I can dart out of my “office”, give some hugs, laugh at some jokes, and dash back to my desk for the next meeting.

I know that I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm young (enough), healthy (enough), my job isn't (currently) at stake or furloughed. I have a safe place to live (unless the next earthquake is bigger than the one last week) and I am happy in my family relationships. I hope you are in a similar situation, but I know many of you aren't.

I am a man of faith and honestly believe that fasting and prayer can bring blessings not just for me but for the world, and I am fasting and praying for you all. I am also looking for ways to help more directly, but—as lucky as I am—my spare income is small right now.

I hope we all get through this and return to a happy life, perhaps a happier and more connected life, when we are free to return to each other's society.

“Where do you want your family to be in twenty years?”

This is a question posed by a parenting book that my wife and I are reading. The intent is pretty obvious: you modify your family behaviors now so that you can accomplish those long-range goals.

But I've found the exercise of imagining my family twenty years in the future to be very therapeutic now, when we none of us know what our world is going to look like in three days. Imagining a world where my kids are safe, happy, and still close to my wife and I is, a little surprisingly, all I need. My wife and I have been fairly driven people most of our lives. Degrees and good jobs and all the typical aspirations. But we're finding that we don't feel a lot of need to pass these dreams on to our kids. Its entirely possible they were never our dreams to begin with, but were more or less impressed upon us by school and whatnot.

So the vision that makes me happy is simple. It's my kids. Maybe they're married, maybe not. Maybe I have grandkids, maybe not. Whatever they each do for a living, we're all gathered in our house. My wife and I are older but still around, my kids are adults. We're together, we can all be in the same room and enjoy one anothers' company.

So no, I don't know what will happen tomorrow. But I like to imagine my kids gathering and laughing together in twenty years.

I teach my kids to say “please” and “thank you” to assistant apps like Alexa and Siri. I know as well as you do that these apps are not people and do not have feelings. They use some neural nets and branching algorithms to find a best response to given verbal input, and polite words like “please” are considered semantically null in the process of evaluating your request.

But that's not the point. Other than Google, companies have chosen to give these apps human names, and want us to speak to them like we would speak to people. If we are going to talk to these devices like they are people they are basically a training ground for how we talk to real people. If my kids are mean to Alexa they're learning that it's okay to also be mean to the wait staff at a restaurant, or the cashier at a grocery store, or their mother at the dinner table.

So I want my kids to be kind to the robots in our lives, not because the robots need it, but because the kids do. And this means that I also say “please” and “thank you” to robots, and always will.

I realize that some people will see this as an excellent demonstration of the slippery slope fallacy, and point out that people can tell the difference between a human and an electronic hockey puck in the living room. And I agree, you totally can. But what is the harm in being polite to things that don't require politeness? I'm content to err on the side of kindness, and to teach that “error” to my family.

As a parent, one of the most effective forms of correction is a “time out”, basically a little bit of time for a child who is having trouble controlling their emotions to go somewhere else and settle down. It's really not a punishment, per se, even if it is seen as such. It's meant to be a cooling off period and a chance for the child to get in touch with their thoughts without the influence of their siblings. If they fall asleep, that's okay, they probably needed the rest and we need to remember to put them to bed earlier. In our family the general rule of thumb is that a time out lasts one minute for every year of age, so the four year old goes to time out for four minutes and the fourteen year old for fourteen minutes.

The joke, of course, is that the parents would love to spend forty-some-odd minutes alone in their room.

And...it's not a bad idea, actually. But parental time outs need some modifications:

  • No phones in time out. This includes tablets of course.
  • No books in time out.
  • No other people either.
  • Parents put themselves in time out, not one another.

For me the main value of putting myself in time out is that I deliberately shut off all distractions and make myself use the time to process my emotions. I'm not going to defer my feelings by browsing social media, I'm going to make myself sit down and feel those dang feelings. It's important.

And it works, funnily enough. I've had to do this more than usual lately. But when I force myself to do a totally distraction-free time out, I come out of it feeling more balanced and more capable of handling whatever it was that was bothering me.

And yes, I usually fall asleep. That's okay. I just need to remember to put myself to bed earlier that night.

Some months ago I read a post on Twitter (which of course I can't find now. Sigh.) written by a woman who noticed that men would often expect her to step aside if they were on a collision course on the street or in the hall or whatever. So she tried an experiment where she just...didn't step aside, and reports that men would just crash into her.

And this is disturbing. Disturbing because I find it all too easy to believe her, and then disturbing because I have to look at my own behavior. Do I do that? Do I expect other people to stand aside, to give way when I'm walking? I'm not a small man and I can be physically clumsy; do I just barrel through?

The problem is that it's hard to remember things that you did without thinking. I sure hope I don't behave like this.

So I started watching myself walk. But of course, since I was paying attention, I was doing it right; I was giving way to others when on a collision course. I realized fairly quickly, of course, that just giving way to women is a good start but what does it cost me to just step aside in all cases? Maybe twenty seconds a week? I can afford that.

So now that's my new habit. I don't worry too much about right of way when walking, I just be sure to step aside. I sincerely hope that I wasn't one of those men who just walked through women and expected them to make way; I'm much more sure that I'm not one of those men now.

You've probably had a teacher say something like this:

I'm just getting you ready for the real world. Out there people are going to chew you up and spit you out, and you have to be ready to deal with it. The world is mean and terrible and it's every person for themselves.

And we all just...accepted that. The world is mean, check.

But these days I'm starting to realize how flawed the premise is. Yes, there are mean people in the world. But the idea that basically the entire world is mean and out to get you...that seems like very broken thinking. We, you and I, are “the world” for everyone we encounter. The expectation that “the world is crappy people and you just have to deal with it” is tacit permission to be a crappy person.

We can do better.

A poet who reads his verse in public may have other unclean habits —Robert A. Heinlein

After eleven years, there's no way I'm missing NaNoWriMo this year. I've finished NaNoWriMo the year my daughter was born mid-November. I did NaNoWriMo the year I was in the worst class I've ever had (Financial Accounting was more or less a part-time job), and I did NaNoWriMo last year, when I was taking some other accounting class. Not sure why my MBA program put the accounting classes in November.

The point is that if I did it then I can do it now.

I'm just not sure what I'm going to write this year. But that's okay. I've got 20ish days to figure it out.

But I have made the decision that, whatever I write, I'm going to write it on a blog on this site, and publish it in more or less real time.

I'm doing this with no small amount of trepidation. Partially because I just misspelled the word “trepidation” four times. My NaNoWriMo novels usually have some days where I write almost nothing. (For some reason this is usually a solid week around November 8th.) They have days where I fall asleep mid-writing session, and I write garbled garbage. I'm used to this nonsense, but I've always kept it behind closed doors, as it were.

But I recently realized that I've got these characters in my head, these “people” that I think about all the time, and not even my wife knows anything about them. And that seems silly. Maybe someday I'll make some real money writing, maybe I won't, but it still seems silly to keep everything tied up in Scrivener files that nobody else will ever see.

So, even though I'm not sure which project I'm going to pursue this year, I'm announcing that it'll be out on the web. This way I can't chicken out (as easily) and just go back to hiding. I'm kinda excited! This'll be fun.

If you want to do the same I'll happily give you an account here on writerfriends.space. Let me know!

Thanks for reading this. You're a good friend.

#NaNoWriMo

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bix had wandered across my earlier entry. I keep vaguely meaning to put in permanent links to my Write.as blog, and maybe even my “suitable for employers” public appearance WordPress Blog, but I realized something:

Those are both currently built as “public facing” sites, which isn't what I'm trying for here. Bix talks about “friction” in maintaining communities, and I like the metaphor. It sparked an idea in me that I couldn't quite put into words. Fortunately Edie Brickell popped up thanks to the almighty algorithm™️ and gave me the words I was looking for:

Me, I'm a part of your circle of friends And we, notice you don't come around.

Eureka!

Current online systems are good at showing you when someone does something, posts or tweets or toots or comments or whatever. But the endless scroll hides the absences. Not out of any malice, I suspect, just because it's harder to show people when someone doesn't say something. What would that notification even look like?

Something like this, maybe:

Right around here Nate thought about saying something but deleted it.

But that feels intensely creepy, as it should.

It's not really something I can fault the makers of social media sites for, but it's something that happens naturally in real circles of friends, and we need a way to re-create it in our online spaces.

How?

Ah, you ask a good question, straw man <h2> question. I really don't know. But here's my first thought: We get lost in large social networks. There is always enough going on to fill anyone's wall or stream or whatever you call it. It's so easy to get caught up in the minutae of third-tier friends that you don't notice the absence of a first-rate friend.

So what if we had smaller social networks? The general consensus is that you can have about fifty “actual” friends. Imagine a social network that is that small; small enough that when Alice is quiet for two days Bob notices and reaches out to Alice directly. Write.as almost has this, but as it stands there's no way for me to reach out to another user quietly, unless they've gone out of their way to include direct contact information.

I'm imagining a slightly different type of social space. A network that is intentionally enclosed by default, where comments aren't immediately put out into the public web. Inside jokes could grow up in such an environment, real connections could form as people grow to feel safe with each other.

And terrible stuff could grow up in such environments too, I'm alive to that possibility. But just because an idea can be used for evil doesn't mean it can't be a good idea.

I don't quite know how to form this kind of online community. Forums have had some of this, but up until now the goal has always been to grow, to make bigger and wider nets.

It might be time to reverse that trend.

If you have ideas about this, if you happen to see this, reach out to me. I'm @nate@frogmob.life on Mastodon.

And we need to start teaching it like one. Programming is related to mathematics, sure, but so is everything. Painters either intrinsically or explicitly use color theory, which is mathematics. Sculptors have to know the structural tolerances of their medium, or their sculpture will fall apart. Music just is mathematics, with the emotion added back in.

And programming is similar. We have reached a day and age where you can be an honest to goodness programmer with a limited understanding of quantitative reasoning. I should know; the last sixteen years of my career were spent writing code. You no longer need to know how to bit shift to write a website. Boolean logic is important, but it can be taught linguistically instead of arithmetically. Some people respond better to word-logic than number-logic.

This doesn't mean I think we should get rid of deeply algorithmic computer science; we most certainly shouldn't. People who can think in algorithms are advancing what our machines can do, and are moving the boundaries back on every form of innovation.

One of the points from How to do Nothing that resonated with me was the concept of context. The problem with Twitter isn't just that we're limited to 500 characters; 500 characters is more than ample for a reply to a comment from someone else. When I'm chatting with my friends very few of my messages are more than 500 characters.

The problem is that each little island of words is totally disassociated from the ones around it. Each tweet on Twitter is its own thing, and you have to build up a context in your mind to try to understand the author's point of view, or, more commonly, just become numb to people's comments.

None of what I have said so far came from me, by the way. This is all a summation of what Jenny Odell said in her book. You should go read it.

Here's my part.

Context is something to be built and protected.

We, each of us, are a lens through which a world can be seen. If that lens is fractured, scattered into dozens of tiny pieces, it's not good for a whole lot.

So it is up to each of us to decide what we want to bring into focus in our own lives. What do we want to see? What do we want to show others?