Friday, March 29, 2013

Dealing with the Absurdity of a Pop Tart Gun

Many years ago, during my time as a junior petty officer in the Navy, our division got a new senior chief, and almost immediately, everyone in the division hated him. Yet, by the time I left there, he was my favorite chief. To this day, he still is, because of the many leadership lessons he instilled in me, mostly by example.

The base we were at had an absurd rule regarding when and where command baseball caps vs traditional naval white hats could be worn. I don't know how long the rule had actually been in place, but from at least before I got there. For the most part, the sailors most affected by the rule ignored it, as did those who should have enforced it. Everyone was happy.

Until this senior chief showed up. Almost immediately, he began requiring strict enforcement of all the rules in his division, including this absurd one. Most of us in the division were pretty understanding of the enforcement of most of the other rules, but the one about the baseball caps really, really rankled us. It didn't take long for us to hate our new senior chief over it.

After some time – probably only a couple of weeks, but it seemed like months at the time – he confessed to us that he, too, thought the rule was absurd. “Then why are you enforcing it!?!”, we practically screamed at him.

His answer was enlightening. Because sometimes the best way to deal with an absurd rule is not to complain about how absurd it is while ignoring it, but to show how absurd it is while enforcing it. That was the gist of his explanation. And with that explanation, the rest of the division got on board, and the rule began being enforced outside our division as well, to the point that no one liked our new senior chief. Not too long after that, the base commander changed the rule to a more realistic one we could all live with.

That lesson has stuck with me. I've rarely had need to use that method since, but when the story of the schoolboy disciplined for chewing his pop tart into a gun shape came about, I realized it's another great place to apply that lesson.

In case you hadn't heard the story, a 7 yr old in Maryland was suspended from school when a teacher overreacted to him chewing his pop tart into a gun shape. There has been a lot of various outraged reaction to it in the media, but it got me to thinking about how I would react if it were to happen to any of the children at my kid's school.

I've decided that my old senior chief's example is the best way to proceed. Let the school have their way, with the only response from me being “you realize you're setting a precedent with this absurdity, don't you? I will use that precedent against you in the future, and you will not like it.”

Then wait for the opportunity to arise, and because it's a school, it surely will. The teacher sends home an assignment with a map of Florida or Oklahoma on it? There's an opportunity (because those two states are as obviously as gun shaped as a pop tart can be) to storm into the school and demand that they apply equivalent disciplinary procedures to the teacher as they did to the child for sending home “images of guns.” Or show outrage at a student assignment or teacher handout that shows an image of the flag of West Virginia (which has guns upon it), or the Virginia state flag, (which could be considered worse, because it has a man standing with one foot upon the chest of a fallen (slain?) foe.)

The cool thing about being educated or just knowing how to do a little research is that you can find these things within their curriculum pretty easily. Things that should be right under a teacher's nose, that they should be aware of, but never, ever consider when they become a little too overzealous.

Situations like this highlight the problem with zero-tolerance policies, and over-zealous political correctness. But it can almost always be used against the very people applying the policies, if someone can remain calm enough to realize it. And frequently, until it's used against them, most of these types of people won't ever realize when they've crossed the line into absurdity. Indignant outrage rarely moves them, but a decent helping of common sense and critical thinking applied against them in the same manner they used almost always gets their attention.Or the attention of someone in a position to do something about them.

Never be afraid to fight absurdity with well-reasoned absurdity.

A quick footnote:
I'd like to make it clear that I'm not ranting against teachers, or school administrators here. In my experience, for every teacher or school administrator who does this, there are a hundred more whom are reasonable people, have common sense, and are good people. But given the multitude of educators that a child comes in contact with through out their school years, it's inevitable that most parents will encounter at least one like this. In most cases, another adult within the school will already be on your side, but just in case – remember, you can fight absurdity by taking it to the next level!

Friday, March 22, 2013

What makes a criminal?

I've mentioned before that after my term of service in the Navy, I became a student of US History, particularly the events surrounding the adoption of the US Constitution. But there is another period of US History I find fascinating because of its parallels to modern times.


On January 17th, 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect, and the United States officially became a dry nation, where alcohol was outlawed. Prohibition and the ratification of the 18th Amendment was not something that had simply crept up on us overnight – the temperance movement had been pushing for it for nearly 100 years in the United States, and various regional pushes well before that for centuries. They finally succeeded with the 18th Amendment, and thus began what was supposed to be a new era in the US.

Except that history shows us it failed. And failed miserably. While initially it did reduce alcohol usage, after a short while, alcohol usage actually went up. Otherwise law abiding citizens began deliberately breaking laws. Criminal organizations rose, and violent crime along with them. The tax-free profit of illegal alcohol was too tempting, and being illegal, territory and business disputes had no legal recourse to resolve them, leading to them being resolved with “might makes right” policies. In other words, violence. And lots of it.

We see a lot of parallels in the drug war that began in earnest in 1971, particularly with marijuana. But I digress from the point I want to make. Both situations, as well as other, more recent legislative attempts, beg the question “What makes a criminal?”

Most people agree on certain crimes, like murder, violent assault, rape, theft, etc. They are part of the social contract, and violating them rips the very fabric of society apart, necessitating the branding of those who would violate them as criminals and undesirables. These are fairly clear cut, and there is rarely disagreement about them.

Other crimes aren't so clear cut, like those against laws that basically function as the lubricant for a civilized society. Laws like zoning ordinances, speed limits, etc. As a libertarian, I'd love for there to be no need for these type of laws, because as functioning adults, we should be able to police ourselves, and be able to work things out with our neighbors. Unfortunately, even in the most utopian ideal of societies, where everyone is respectful of everyone else's rights, there will always be a small amount of friction between individuals that society as a whole will need to step in and mediate. Since I recognize that humans are far from perfect, I also recognize that these types of laws will always be a necessary evil.

People that violate these types of laws can also be branded as criminals by society, even though a significant portion of society may not see them as such.

There is another class of crime that is particularly troubling. It's those crimes defined by government as crimes for no other reason than to protect the existence of that government. Wile this would include sedition or treason as defined by the Constitution, I'm primarily talking about the proliferation of laws, proposed legislation and executive policies we've seen since the 1930s. Things like REX84, The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, NSPD51, USC 2384, and The Smith Act. Things that often go outside the boundaries of our constitution and attempt to side step the bill of rights.

But even more troubling than those, and more relevant to the point I would like to make are the laws that take formerly legal activities or possessions and make them illegal “for our safety.” Laws like Prohibition.

When something formerly legal is suddenly made illegal to keep us safe, who are the real criminals? When otherwise law abiding citizens are turned into criminals overnight simply because a president or governor or mayor signed a new law, does that truly make that citizen a criminal?

The law says yes, it does.

But is it really that simple. Isn't that kind of a bitter pill to swallow when you or someone you love is suddenly a criminal merely because a signature has been put to a piece of paper?

Now, in some cases, one could argue “well X causes Y harm, and it makes sense for it to be illegal.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider, for a moment, how the first moment of Prohibition must have been like. If a man came home from work, and enjoyed a single beer with dinner every night, or a woman enjoyed the occasional glass of wine before bed, they instantly became criminals if there was any beer or wine left in their household the very moment that law went into effect. Even if they were otherwise 100% law abiding citizens.

Really, truly think about that for a moment. One minute, they're a law abiding citizen, the next minute, through no action of their own, they are criminals.

Yes, yes, I know – they could have made sure to drink or get rid of the alcohol before it became illegal, but that's not the point of this thought exercise. The point is, is it right for nothing more than the signature on some legislation to turn a law abiding citizen into a criminal for something they acquired while it was legal?

I can hear some of you now “Yes, but...” Yes, but nothing. Really think about it. You can use all sorts of examples to justify it all you want, but I'm trying to get you to think outside the box here. Don't think about it in the case of the controversial subjects like guns or drugs or alcohol. For those of you who are married, while you consider my next part, also think about that subtle shift in your opinion once your vows were finalized. Look around your room, or your house and pick a favorite object of yours or a family member. 

How would you feel if, for whatever reason, that object suddenly became illegal?

Would you remain a law abiding citizen and turn it in or destroy it? Or would you keep it, and become a criminal? What lengths might you go to retain it?

What if it's not your object, but that of a spouse or other loved one? Would you insist they get rid of it? Would you aid them in being a criminal? Would you turn them in to remain a law abiding citizen?

Not such a simple problem, is it?

Then consider, if you choose to remain a criminal, to defy the law, what other laws might you be willing to disobey? I mean, you're already a criminal, right?  

In the end, each of us can only answer this type of question for ourselves. Only we really know what will make us a criminal. But something I do know, from my insignificant studies of people and history is that more often than not, most people will choose to become a criminal if they do not agree with the law that suddenly made them one. And that once they are labeled a criminal, they are much more likely to be willing to disobey other laws.

Who's fault is that? 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Cupped Hands Analogy

The next time you're in the shower, bath, or even just washing your hands, try the following. Holding your two hands together, try and hold as much water as you can without it spilling or dripping.

As you do this, notice how you have to hold your hands to hold the maximum amount. You can't hold your hands too loosely, as water will spill out, and you can only hold a little. But neither can you hold them too tight – you can't hold water inside a closed fist. Less even than an open hand can hold. Also notice that no matter how well you manage to seal your hands and hold water, a tiny bit always manages to seep out of your hands.

Now imagine that the water is a society, with each individual molecule of water being a person.

Government is like your cupped hands.

Held loosely, government can only hold only a few together in a society, such as a clan or a tribe. Held too tightly, it holds few together as people resist, and throw off the choke hold of oppression. But held just right, it can hold together a lot of people. And just like water, held just right, there will always be a few who slip through the cracks. It is unfortunate, but it is a part of life.

While I believe highly in the value of personal liberty and freedom, I am also smart enough to know that in this crowded world, government is a necessity. It acts as the social lubricant between neighbors, it enables the building of the physical infrastructure that makes modern society possible. Without it, we would have utter chaos and anarchy.

I believe the framers of our Constitution of this United States did a pretty good job of putting together a form of government that doesn't hold too loosely or too tightly. Sure, it has it's flaws, and it lets a few slip through the cracks, but for the most part, it has historically been a pretty balanced government.

Throughout our history, there have always been those who would try and close the hands of the United States government too tightly around the water of it's people. Every time they've tried, we've made made waves, and they have backed off.

We are at another of those crossroads. Those currently in control of government are now trying to close their hands about us, “for our safety.” Many are in opposition to this, and making waves.

This is a time in this country where every suggestion by an elected official needs to be examined by the populous not with the attitude of “is this reasonable?” and in isolation from their other suggestions and laws, but with an eye to the complete whole, and the attitude of “are the hands of government getting too tight?” It is time to stop worrying about the little bit of unfortunate water that is seeping between the hands, and time to start worrying how much chaos will ensue if the hands close too tightly.

We can no longer afford to look at the little details in isolation. It is time that we start looking at the whole picture, at what every new government proposal really means to the future of our country.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

An Open Letter to Congress

Dear Congress,

It is pretty much accepted that the majority of American citizens believe this country has been in decline in various areas for the last few decades. The exact opinions on what's in decline and what isn't vary, but many people beleive the biggest is the growing ideological rift that has prevented Congress, and thus the country from truly functioning well.

Each election, members of both parties stand before the public and make promises that they can fix it, if only we will support them and their chosen presidential candidate. This time, you all promise, this time we will fix it. And so we, the people, argue amongst our selves and vote. And then we keep our fingers crossed.

Despite all your promises, all our hopes that this time will be the time, things haven't gotten better. Things have gotten worse. And both parties point their fingers at the other party and say “it's their fault!” And if the president isn't of your party, you blame him, too. In the 90s, it was so bad that you argued over stains on an intern's dress. It has only gone down hill since then – now you can't even agree on a budget for a bloated federal government that has lots of room for cuts. You allow the administration to cut visible services when we all know darn well there is plenty to cut behind the scenes.

And still you insist on pointing fingers across the aisle, and you waste time dealing with ineffective feel good legislation that put excessive numbers of laws on the books, and further divides you and the country, while taking control from the states, and ceding more and more control to the executive branch “for our safety”, even though it's in violation of the spirit of the US Constitution (and often in direct violation of it.) A lot of fingers are being pointed as to who, specifically, is to blame.

But have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, the real problem is some of you? I'm not talking about one party or the other, nor the inability to get anything done, nor even the inter-party bickering. I'm talking about the fact that a large percentage of you have been there for too long.

A full quarter of the Senate and over 15% of the House of the 113th Congress have been serving in Congress for over 20 years. Over thirty of you, those who are considered among the leadership, have been members of Congress for over 30 years. Prior to the 20th century, it was rare for a Congressman to serve for over 30 years. In fact, out of the 102 Congressmen who have served for 36 years or more, 90 of them served in the latter half of the 20th century.

Quite frankly, you've been doing the job so long, you've lost the ability to be flexible, and the outside perspective to accept the energy that new blood can bring to an organization.

You've lost perspective. 

To make matters worse, your parties have been indoctrinating your junior members to the beliefs of your senior members, making Congress even more inflexible. And some of you have even become so arrogant that the opinions of your constituents mean nothing, especially if they don't agree with you 100%.

You've become disconnected from those you are supposed to represent. You have forgotten that you are supposed to be citizens first, politicians second. Not the other way around.

While a lot of nasty things have been said about all of you as individuals, particularly during elections, I believe that, for the most part, most of you do have good intentions, even if I do feel they are often grossly misguided and/or driven by your egos. Which is why I am asking those of you who have served over 20 years this question:

Do you truly want to fix America?

Then step aside, and let someone else do it. You've had your chance. Despite your best efforts, you're failing. Every good mechanic, technician, engineer and programmer knows that you can only throw yourself at a stubborn problem for so long before you absolutely have to bring in a set of fresh eyes to fix the problem. They all know that if they don't bring in a fresh set of eyes, they'll continue to spend hours, days, weeks, months and even years banging their heads against the wall trying to fix something they've overlooked all that time. You're doing the same thing. Bring in a fresh set of eyes. Relinquish control.

Resign. Retire. Right now.

Yes, I'm serious. A large majority of you need to say “Hey, you know what? We can't fix this, we've been looking at the problems for so long from the same two perspectives that it's time for the next generation to have a crack at it.” That willingness to admit defeat, and step aside will do more to invigorate Congress and America right now than any amount of experience, bickering and talk of bipartisanship from what is essentially the same group of people who've been saying it for decades ever will.

You do want to fix America, right? Then let someone else have a crack at it. And don't just resign – go a step further and don't work for getting your protege's elected. Discourage them from running even. When your party asks you who you recommend to replace you say “Someone who's never held office before. Someone young. Someone you and I don't know. Let the voters decide.”

It's time to set aside your egos, time to admit a fresh set of eyes is needed. Time to recognize that the hundred or so of you in Congress with over 20 years are a small, insignificant portion of the 300 million people in America, and that a lot of other people are just as qualified as you to do the job. Time to recognize that those you've been grooming as your successors may also lack the needed change of perspective. Time to recognize that many of you from both sides of the aisle are carrying past prejudices from the culture of the 60s and 70s as well.

Again, I ask you, for the good of America, resign. This goes for you Senator Feinstein, Representative Pelosi, Senator McCain, Representative Young (both of you), Senator Reid, Senator Hatch and all of the rest of you with more than twenty years of service. You've all done your time in Congress, thank you for your service - now it's time to give someone else a shot.

Even though I've spent some time and effort writing this plea and choosing my wording carefully, I knew the entire time I was writing it that it was completely in vain. I know that not one of you will take this seriously, and be courageous enough to step down. You're all afraid of the tone it will give your legacy, that it will somehow stain your service to the country, or that it will mean nothing. You worry it will change the balance of power in Congress between your parties. And those are exactly the reasons you should step down – if you truly care about this country, those things won't bother you, because they aren't what is important now.

While I can't guarantee you that your sudden retirements and resignations it won't change the balance of power, I can promise you that if you do it right, it won't taint your reputations and legacies in the eyes of the American public. In fact, if a large majority of you coordinate your departures under the same umbrella announcement that you're doing it for the good of the country, it will cement your legacy as true patriots, show that you're willing to work for the success of this great country with great personal sacrifice. It will show America and history that you can and will put greater good ahead of your own egos.

If you don't have the guts to show you are humble enough to resign, at least have the guts to post a direct response to this letter on your Congressional web pages explaining to your constituents why I am wrong, and why you think you can serve them better by staying on, than stepping down. Or completely ignore me, and my fellow citizens who share this with you, and show us all how really arrogant you truly are and the contempt you have for us mere citizens.

I've put forth the challenge. Do you accept it?

Chris Heismann
Citizen and Veteran

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Emotions of Numbers

People and numbers are a funny combination.

Math and numbers are logical things. They follow rules that are consistent and unvarying. Two plus two always equals four. Any given equation will always produce the same result when given the same exact set of inputs.

People, however, are not always logical things. We can be logical, but we are usually emotional, whether or not we like to admit it. We don't always react exactly the same way, even though the circumstances may be the same. Being five minutes late to work on one day may elicit a completely different reaction from your boss than it will on another day.

Nowhere can you tell this is the case more than when comparing peoples reactions to numbers, especially when attached to traumatic events. Those knowledgeable about numbers can present them along with other facts in ways that deliberately manipulate the emotions of those who don't know better, or who fail to think beyond their emotional reaction. If you don't think beyond your emotional reaction, you WILL allow yourself to be manipulated.

Allow me to illustrate with some hypothetical examples. I could use actual numbers and situations, but that could distract from what I'm trying to illustrate. So let me be perfectly clear – the situations I'm about to present to you are completely fictitious examples I made up to illustrate how presenting numbers can manipulate you.

Suppose I told you that in the last 30 years in the city of Ulder, 1/10th of 1% of the population were killed by lightsabers? That's probably not going to evoke much of a reaction from you. One is a small number, 1/10th of that is even smaller. Stating the number that way isn't going to evoke much of a reaction – it doesn't register for most people as significant. Which may actually be the intent. Especially if I don't also present you with how big the population is at the same time.

If I tell you that Ulder's population is 1000, some quick math tells us that only one person died from a light saber wound. (1000x0.1%=1). If Ulder's population is really 10 million people though, that means 10,000 people died from light saber wounds. If I present the number as 1/10th of 1%, I'm presenting the number for minimal emotional effect. But if I present it as 10,000 people killed by lightsabers in Ulder, I'm presenting it for maximum emotional effect. Because ten thousand is a big number and it registers as significant for most people. Bigger numbers register even more significantly.

Furthermore, I initially said “In the last 30 years”. Those 10,000 light saber deaths were over 30 years. That's an average of 333 to 334 deaths per year. An average. But that doesn't mean that it was 334 deaths last year, nor 334 deaths in the first year. It very well could be that 30 years ago 9999 people were killed by light sabers, and only one person last year.

And then you have to consider that merely presenting the numbers doesn't tell a lot of the facts behind those deaths. Were they suicides? Were they Jedi brutality? Were they the result of an explosion at the light saber factory? Was there a war, official or otherwise?

There is also no perspective set to those numbers. Has the population been growing or stagnant or declining over that 30 years? What is the over all death rate? What were the other causes of death? If 50.000 a year are dying from another cause like starvation, is light saber death really the thing to be focused on? What are the rates of light saber deaths in the cities around Ulder? Are they lower or higher? And what other factors might make their rates different?

So, you see, I can influence your opinion of light sabers in the city of Ulder simply in the way I present my data on the number of those deaths. Ten thousand deaths is perceived as a lot, less than 1% is not. And what else I tell you or don't tell you is just as important to how you may perceive my message.

Numbers don't lie. They don't manipulate. But the people who present those numbers to you can, and many of them will, all the while using your own perception about the logical nature of numbers against you.

You cannot control the fact they will lie, they will manipulate and they will twist things to their favor. You can, however, educate yourself against their manipulation, and watch for it. The only way to fight against it is to be prepared to do your own research about the numbers they present.

I will freely admit that the numbers and facts that I will present here on this blog are sometimes going to be used in such a way as to illustrate the point I am trying to make. I don't think it's possible to present numbers in such a way as to not be manipulating, at least not without tens of tens of pages of dry, boring facts, figures and statistics. I promise I will do my best to not use them to outright lie to you, but I invite you to double check me, to look into the things I mention. Do your own research. I'm comfortable enough with what I say to engage in a reasoned discussion with those willing to look at the same data and use critical thinking skills to reach their own conclusions.

It is how we learn, how we learn to think. It is an essential part of freedom and liberty.