Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Sunday musings 11/13/16: Uncertainty

Not surprisingly, there are lots of things on my mind this week. Sunday musings is part payback for all of the wonderful things CrossFit and our community has given me, and part electronic therapy, an extension of my blog where I do an occasional “data dump” to free up space in my brain. The sheer volume of stuff banging around in there is frightening. I’ll spare you most of it (and the crowd roars!).

As is often the case when my circuits are on overload there is a bit of a theme running through the catacombs: this week, uncertainty. So. Much. Uncertainty. On a macro level as well as the most micro of micro levels, what I see before me and within myself is uncertainty. Some people thrive on that, on not knowing what is around the corner, specifically on not only not knowing but also in not knowing the universe of possibilities. Here on CrossFit.com there’s a bit of that, right? Some of you wait until the very last minute to open CrossFit.com before your WOD, and others have no choice because their Box doesn’t pre-post the workout. The uncertainty that’s got me worked up is much more global and pervasive, though.

In physics there is actually something called the “Uncertainty Principle”, and this is more to the point of what I am feeling in general. The Uncertainty Principle holds that the more you know about one variable that pertains to a particle, the less you can know about some other fundamental, essential quality. Hmmm…ring a bell? While the physics version of the Uncertainty Principle deals specifically with the precision of measuring things like mass and momentum, the softer, fuzzier social version is what ties me in knots when I get to this point.

One way to look at this outside of physics goes something like this: the more certain you are about anything, the less able you are to adjust if your forecast is inaccurate. The corollary, at least for me, is that the less certain I am about what is just ahead the more difficult it is for me to pull the trigger on a decision. For all but the most intuitive, reactive personalities, the ability to measure precisely within a universe that is governed by reasonably firm rules or principles is necessary in order to comfortably navigate around corners. For certain there is a personality type who requires too much information of a degree of accuracy that is too high, and this most proactive of personality types is often paralyzed under normal levels of uncertainty just as the free-wheeler is unnecessarily buffeted by easily forecasted winds. But this is different. For some reason, now seems different.

For me this has been building for many months, at least; it is not a reaction to the events of the last week. In trying to divine the genesis of this feeling, returning to physics for a moment is instructive. Imagine for a moment that a universally accepted theorem was all of a sudden found to be wrong. Or even worse, imagine that most of that principle remains unchanged except for one, small but unavoidable change. I dunno…how about gravity? Instead of gravitational forces unfailingly drawing mass to the center, what if they all of a sudden pulled sideways? Or even worse, what if they sometimes pulled to the center and at others sideways? Or in the ultimate horror, your every day existence depended on knowing when gravity would shift, but you were incapable of knowing this with any degree of certainty?

This is not the first time I have looked out the virtual windows at my world and seen nothing but randomness. Nothing that I could measure with enough precision that I felt comfortable with the notion that I could feel certain about what was out there. To be sure, there is a benefit with begin comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable, and here the Uncertainty Principle may offer us some guidance. There is, in any system or with any particle, something that can be known with such a degree of precision that one simply must trust in its truth. “Dis is dis”, if you will. The more shaken you may be by what appears to be ubiquitous, universal uncertainty the more elemental that known must be so that you can begin to rebuild your foundation.

For some the foundation will be simple and concrete. The sun persists in its daily rising. My plumbing did not fail. You get the idea. Still others will return to a base that is built around faith or philosophical cornerstones. Indeed, for them, how better to combat uncertainty in the world than to be quite certain about something which, by its very definition, cannot be measured at all? Most will be like me, going back and back and back to ever more elemental, basic, and simple examples of both, our reverse journey’s length and duration directly proportional to our discomfort with the uncertainty in our lives. From there I will endeavor to build upon whatever certainties I can find, from which I will seek to once again be comfortable enough to venture confidently into a world filled with uncertainty.

Physics helps here, too. The Theory of Relativity states that measurement depends on the frame of reference of the one who measures. In the end it is not the uncertainty that changes, but the one who is uncertain.

With reasonable certainty, I’ll see you next week…


Sunday musings: An Election, Not a War

Sunday musings…

1) Embedded. How over-used and overblown has THIS word become, eh? I just read an article in the Sunday NYT by a reporter who was “embedded” with 5 individuals with stakes in the Cubs victory. Really?

2) Caveat venditor. Let the seller beware. Kinda interesting twist with lots of ways to interpret. Fail to understand the value of your product and under-price it? Shorry. Sell a product that is dangerous without adequate safeguards and then get sued and lose? Ditto.

This is the new reality in the world of my day job.

3) Boredom. One of the beauties of CrossFit, at least for me, is that I have rarely, if ever, been bored with the workouts. Twas a time when I was programming for Randy’s gym that one of the members complained about repetitive routines. Seems he was bored with several iterations of “Helen” and “Fran” played out over a period of 6 months. Yes…6…months. He was bored. Not enough variance in the basic programming because because roughly 20 out of 130 WODs were variations on classic CrossFit “Girls”.

Boredom, as Beth likes to say, is a choice.

At the moment I am on day 3 alone at home save for a couple of very sleepy canines. There is a certain inertia that sets in when I find myself in this position, especially if I dive into the the black hole of my computer. This inertia–a body at rest tends to stay at rest–feels an awful lot like boredom, but it, too, is little more than a choice, however passive. Last night I roused myself and reached out to a buddy to share a meal and a ball game on TV. While that’s not too very ambitious it did represent a choice to actively move out of the boredom zone.

There is a place for, and value in doing very little. Some of my most pleasant times are those spent simply gazing at the water, sometimes deep in thought and others simply deep in breathing. Indeed, doing nothing is fundamentally different from having nothing to do. If you wish, there is always something to do.

Boredom is a choice. To be bored is to surrender.

4) War. This interminable election season is about to come to an end. It was excruciating when it began a full year before the beginning of primaries, and it has only gotten more objectionable. I confess that the players in this particular election are irrelevant when it comes to my distaste for the process, for it matters not which election we discuss, the behavioral norms are to some degree the same in all of them. Ad hominem, either overt or shade, rules the day in them all.

Of particular concern and creating particular distaste is the constant reference made by candidates of all stripes on all sides to their election as some kind of war. The war for this or the battle over that. Please. It’s as if nothing before us matters, nothing is of any consequence until and unless it has escalated into some kind of open warfare. For Heaven’s sake, this morning I was treated to someone describing our country as being in the middle of a Cold Civil War.

Seriously, this election was described with a straight face and a smug sense of gravitas as similar in horror to a war in which hundreds of thousands lost their lives.

Let’s all take a step back for a moment. Take a big, deep breath. Every four years for hundreds of years now we have elected a President, an entire Congress, and 1/3 of our Senate. At times there has been great consensus regarding whatever issues were at hand, but it’s amazing how few those times were. Most often is the case that we have some sort of schism between starkly opposed viewpoints, and an election shifts us a little closer to one side from the other. From my seat here on the couch the only thing that is different today is our vastly greater ability to hear what our fellow citizens think; something that once upon a time required you to be in the same close geography with your fellow citizens is now available at will, wherever. Heck, even the vitriol between candidates–pick a race, any race–is in no way unprecedented. Historically, shade and invective was hurled with more colorful language, but hurled they were, nonetheless.

This is no war, my friends, it’s an election. We will go on as we have for 230 or so years, doing our best. We will not take to the streets, nor will we face off against our army. There will be no coup. We will see either a continuation of the slow drift left we’re experienced these last few years, or a bit of braking and perhaps a tiny move to the right. There will be evolution, as there should be. There will be no revolution of any kind, however loud the braying may be from both sides. We are not fighters in some epic battle, not warriors for a cause, we are citizens of the country that represents the best of what we have in the world at the moment. Our responsibility is to care enough to engage in nothing more than the effort to propel our nation forward along that path, however slowly it, and we, may go.

“No battle is ever won. They are not even fought. The [battle]field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” William Faulkner

I’ll see you on Tuesday at the polls, and right here next week…


Situational Awareness: Enemy or “Other”?

The original “word” for this thought was to be “enemy”, but the more I thought about it the less that seemed to apply. You see, “enemy” is really a very simple concept, one that is just too black-and-white in this world of grey in which we live. An enemy is nothing more or less than someone who has openly declared intent to do you harm. Nothing too very ambiguous about that.

This is very different from a person who dislikes you, or someone you dislike. It’s fundamentally different from someone who is angry at you. These folks can simply be ignored; they can be consigned to the trash heap of indifference. I’ve been known to say that it’s perfectly OK to make an enemy as long as you’ve done it on purpose so that you can assess the ramifications beforehand. Re-thinking this in light of a more accurate definition of “enemy” probably changes my tactical advise to “it’s OK to make someone angry at you.”

This is important today as we traverse our lives with our “situational awareness goggles” on high, important when we identify someone who is better described as “other” as “enemy” or “possible enemy”. By any measure we actually live in a world which is incredibly safe. We are not surrounded by legions of enemies but rather by “others”, people who stand apart for one reason or another as different. Maybe even odd. If we view our world as one which is inhabited by only friends or enemies we are at risk to categorize these “standouts” as dangerous until proven otherwise, all data to the contrary. We are at risk to extrapolate the actions of one “other” to all, even those who share nothing with those villains besides their “otherness”. Is this really necessary?

Frankly, my worldview as a young man was very narrow, my willingness to even let the “others” be something at all less than zero. No, “others” were to be feared or ridiculed; they were certainly not meant to be ignored, let alone accepted. Now? Most of the “others” are just varying degrees of different, nothing more. Pick a number…99point whatever % are just that and will never be anything more diabolical or dangerous than a friend might be. They will never be an enemy, no matter how much their “otherness” sets us apart.

For most of us the world is filled with friends and others. We just don’t have that many enemies known or yet to be discovered. I do not advocate replacing our “situational awareness goggles” with “pollyanna specs”, but we really don’t need to have the setting on “high alert”. The risk of the false positive, the risk of identifying an “other” as an enemy is very, very high because there really are very, very few real enemies. Very few people who mean you, or anyone, true harm. To be sure, do be ready to act when it is eminently clear that an enemy is in the room; do not meekly accept the fate a true enemy wishes to force upon you.

Be alert for sure, but don’t let the cacophony resulting from the rare sighting of an enemy, of evil, blind you to the fact that those who will not be your friends are almost always just “others.”

Warren Buffett, Soulmate

Planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ve been on the road and on the go for weeks now, days filled with unavoidable down time, and hence unable to avoid the din of our national tragedy: Election 2016. Whether it be 20 candidates spread over two stages and 12 hours, or two candidates circling a track in a never-ending series of left turns, one theme arched high above it all. America is somehow no longer great. Neither side of the political divide seems able to find even the dimmest silver lining. One candidate has gone so far as to trademark the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Planes, trains, and automobiles. Internet, newsprint, and audio. For weeks I’ve been bombarded with nothing else.

Which got me to thinking Warren Buffett, of course, and how much Mr. Buffett and I have in common. Now to be truthful, there are a few not insignificant things that we don’t share, attitudes and things a bit more concrete that separate us. There would be the tiny issue of money, about $50 Billion, give or take a few hundred thousand. That’ll put a little distance between folks. He drinks Cherry Coke by the gallon; I stopped drinking most soft drinks long before CrossFit went to war with Coca-Cola. Mr. Buffett is a well-known, accomplished bridge player, circling the globe with his buddy Bill Gates and playing the world’s best because he can. I peaked as a card player in the 5th grade when I finally beat my mother at “Go Fish”.

The biggest difference between us is more elemental. Mr. Buffet is a bully, a most distasteful thing in my mind since I have always considered myself one who defends against bullies. He is an awful type of bully, the sanctimonious hypocrite. Do as I say, not as I do, at once imploring the well-to-do to accept usurious taxation and willfully divest the gains of their hard work, while simultaneously using his power and wealth to effectively do neither. This creates a cynical worldview from which he gives himself permission to denounce others who do as he does, yet not so artfully or with not as much stealth. Which all makes it all the more of a wonder that Warren Buffett and I actually have in common something that is more powerful and more important than what separates us (though I’d certainly be OK is I shared a bit of that $50BB).

Both Warren Buffett and I are optimists when it comes to both the state of America today, and what is likely in store for America and Americans in the future.

In a series of speeches, articles and letters over the last 2 or 3 years Mr. Buffett has laid out in some detail how good it is to be an American. This is in respect not only to the lives of Americans in comparison with citizens of the world elsewhere, but also in comparison with past iterations of America and Americans. We are a land of plenty. Outrageous plenty in comparison to past Americas and present others. There likely will never be a time where there is no poverty, yet poverty today does not mean what it meant in years past. The Great Depression brought with it true starvation; the Great Recession gave us Hunger Anxiety, the fear that one might not have enough to eat. While we as a nation and a people rightly focus on continuing to better the lives of the unfortunate, those who spend their lives cushioned by the societal safety net are infinitely better than before, and lives which are unimaginable for the impoverished elsewhere in the world.

There remain in America barriers of varying degree that make if very difficult for members of large, easily identifiable groups to succeed at the highest levels of societal achievement. Buffett and I agree and acknowledge that there is NOT a truly level playing field when it comes to advancement in business, law, or even government. Deeply engrained prejudices along racial and gender lines continue to thwart all but the very most talented, and let’s face it, thick-skinned and dogged individuals. The reality, sad or otherwise, is that there will never be a truly level playing field; someone always has an edge of some sort. Where we agree again, though, is that there has been a vast improvement, a dramatic decrease in both the magnitude and amplitude of these barriers in America.

More people from more backgrounds can rise more easily to a greater height in America than ever before.

It’s really all about a point of view. America is great right now. Period. It is far greater in all respects than it was 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. On balance it, and Americans, are in the most positive position anywhere in the world. Mr. Buffett points out several fairly macro issues as illustrations. As noted above, we no longer measure hunger as an issue to address as a country, we measure the fear of being hungry. Our concern is not so much with how much food is consumed but more about the quality of that food. Housing as a quality measure is not examined with a measure of how many citizens are un-housed, but rather by the percentage of Americans who own their own home. Or even more to the point, could afford to consider owning a home. Access to technology is a reasonable proxy for “the pursuit of happiness” for Mr. Buffett. When he was young only the wealthy had color TV. We now concern ourselves with whether there is free access to the internet in our inner cities so that those who are below the poverty line can connect their iPhones or Galaxies to their Amazon Prime account.

This is not meant to give America and Americans permission to gloat and float. There are still some among us who have more needs than wants, who need and deserve a society that continually seeks to remove those barriers that leave them in need. To be sure, Buffett the bully, the scold, is quite content to point this out. However we, Warren Buffett and I, take issue with the basic assumption of those who would say that America is in decline, or is destined to decline. We are both openly pleased and proud of the improvements in the lives of Americans of all walks of life because they live in America. The rule of law, free markets, and an elected government at multiple levels has provided the platform from which American Exceptionalism has grown for almost all of us. The needs of almost all of us are comfortably covered, leaving us and our country to move on to considering our fears and our wants.

This is something for which we should be proud, the prevailing political rhetoric notwithstanding. This should make us optimistic about our future, both distant and near. We have had an inexorable and uninterrupted path toward a better life for almost all Americans. America and Americans are not complacent. We are quite self-critical as we readily see in election years (especially if we are imprisoned in planes, trains, and automobiles), and we are ever seeking more and better for America and Americans. As objectionable as the unrelenting negativism of Election 2016 may be, this, too, should make us optimistic about what is ahead of us as a country and as a people. America is great now; no “again” is necessary. For all that separates us, Warren Buffett and I are joined in an optimism about what it is that is America today, and what we believe is to come in our future. We both think that the rest of America should be more in line with that worldview than that which we hear from our candidates, our newspapers, and our media outlets of all kinds..

Let’s all go with “Make America Greater”. For all of our differences, I’m sure that Warren Buffett and I can agree on that.

Thoughtfulness in the Age of Sharing

How much information is too much? Is there an element of timing in that question? For instance, is the amount of information that is ultimately enough (and not too much) subject to a schedule? I’m prompted to think about this by a couple of very current events, or types of events: instances of death resulting from police/citizen interactions and more than several instances of government officials enmeshed in scandal, or the appearance of scandal. You’ll not find commentary here about the particulars of any of these current events; I have no standing. My thesis, though, is that the twin virtues of transparency and disclosure have been tarnished by the evil twins impatience and entitlement.

Think about it for a moment. Events that are large and important fairly cry out for patience and a deeper, more thoughtful discussion. One that begins after facts have been extricated from the web of innuendo born in the bosom of opinion. The stampede of analysis now comes even as a story unfolds, before it even ends. It matters not whether we are observers of an event that touches on a certifiable “big theme” (e.g. racism), or one that is tiny, local, or personal (e.g. infidelity). The commonality rests not with the protagonists but rather within the observers, especially those who comment: it’s all about them.

Are you old enough to remember when it was considered unseemly to be a self-promoter? Even if you are, it’s tough to recall those days before the ever-connected world when blatant “look at me” or “listen to me” behavior was met with the collective cluck of a society bred for humility. This “cult of self-promotion” not only imposes itself on big events and grand issues (comments that begin with “I think…”), it also means that no one is to be allowed a privacy if the entitled self-promoters decide that they simply must know, well, whatever. “A universal, wrathful demand of the public for complete disclosure” about everything and anything. (Gideon Lewis-Kraus)

The need to know trumps all; one who asks the question in some way is granted all manner of primacy over one who might have the answer. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times.

The phenomena is not without irony. Witness articles critical of self-promotion that tell the story of someone who is almost famous for talking about not promoting him/herself. Nice, huh? It’s like a hall of mirrors, a kind of “Inception”. Trust that it doesn’t escape my attention that there are more than several folks out there who consider “Random Thoughts” a form of self-promotion. An irony within a discussion of irony.

There’s a certain power in thoughtfulness, a seriousness that induces thoughtfulness, in turn, in the listener. If we always know what you think or what you did precisely when you thought or acted, how are we to ascertain what, if anything, is important? If one demands full and immediate disclosure of any and all information, regardless of how significant or trivial it might be, or how public or private the consequences, how are we to order anything at all along the great/small continuum? At some point the primacy of the inquisitor must find its limit, if only for a moment.

A moment of peace for the rest of us, should we care to think about something deeper than the event in question. A moment of peace for an individual who might harken back to an earlier day, one when it was possible to graciously decline to offer anything at all, lest it encourage someone to be interested enough to ask for disclosure.