Talking is not enough

28 Jan
January 28, 2015

Bell Let’s Talk always makes me super uncomfortable for reasons I can never quite articulate. Part of it is because I dislike a company advertising for itself on the backs of advocacy for mental health awareness. I get that this campaign is more effective at raising awareness across the country than Bell just silently throwing a whole gob of money at CAMH, but the ads don’t have to be so damn branded. (Note: I have similar issues with the Dove Campaign co-opting feminism. You didn’t start the conversation, you’re just benefiting from it. Yes, I am a cynical asshole.)

Part of it is also the nagging sense that we’re missing something, and moreover, that the thing we’re missing is being further obscured by a focus on talking.

There are so many layers to mental health stigma. Diagnoses for depression and anxiety carry less stigma than diagnoses for schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. Every overachiever with a halfway type-A personality makes claims of OCD without understanding how disruptive a disease it can be. Our cultural love affair with people with autism who are secretly geniuses in some special way obscures the needs of people with autism who do not have some exceptional skill, who deserve just as much support.

A person of colour diagnosed with mental health issues will face very different challenges than a white person diagnosed with the same, given a racist system that socializes us to perceive PoC as inherently more unstable. A fat person seeking help for mental health struggles will be told to lose weight. The continued medicalization and pathologization of gender dysphoria is just one of the ways that mental health diagnoses will be used to control the bodies of those society perceives as a threat. Not so long ago, homosexuality was considered a mental illness.

There are few resources available to someone who needs access to mental health services. Your average physician probably received very little training in dealing with mental health issues, most of that focused towards pharmacological “solutions”. You can check yourself into the emergency room if you actively have suicidal ideations and plans, but there is precious little support available to you after your three days are up. (Bless you, Gerstein Centre.) The availability of preventative, maintenance care rather than emergency care is even more dire. Most therapists are not covered by OHIP. Some will operate on a sliding scale or have pro bono sessions, but they are few and far between with waiting lists as long as their arm. The number of therapists who are trained to understand the intersection between mental health and oppression is even smaller.

The science itself is often politically motivated. (This may come as a surprise to you, but scientific study is rarely value-neutral.) Schizophrenia in the 20s and 30s was a diagnosis primarily given to middle-class housewives who were sad and withdrawn, until the diagnostic criteria changed in the 60s to include hostility and paranoia so it could be used to pathologize young black men in the civil rights movement. A diagnosis for borderline personality disorder has been said to be far more reflective of the physician’s attitude towards a patient than anything inherent in the patient, which explains its reputation as basically being sociopathy-lite. (It is far more accurately described as emotional PTSD.)

And I can’t even begin to enumerate the number of ways our society is just set up to be ableist. From the language we use to the systems and infrastructure we design, we’re not built to accommodate neuro-atypicality. Any atypicality, really.

There is less stigma today than there was ten, fifteen years ago. Fifty years ago. I don’t fear losing my job because I am writing this blog post.

But it’s not enough. It’s not enough. I can tell you that I’ve been depressed and anxious most of my life, that I’ve been officially diagnosed and on medication for the past half a decade, that I’ve frequently known more about my options for mental health treatment than the physician I was speaking to, that I’ve seen therapists who saved my life and therapists I thought barely deserving of their medical degree.

I can tell you that I’m willing to talk and desperate to help and that I will not judge you and that I understand the stigma you’re afraid of. Talking is so important. I’ve always been incredibly lucky and privileged that I’ve always had someone I could talk to. My friends are fucking fantastic.

But talking can’t give you access to the resources you need, because they don’t exist. It can’t guarantee you a doctor who will understand the problems you’re going through, who has the luxury of spending more than fifteen minutes with you. It can’t reform our affordable housing policies so that those who are unable to work can still have a roof over their heads. It can’t make our politicians understand the effects of poverty and oppression on mental health. It can’t table motions in parliament to change how OHIP funds mental health treatments. It can’t find you a place in a capitalist system that prizes our individual value only insofar as we can be predictably productive cogs in the system.

So, okay. I don’t know where I can go with this. Maybe talking is all I can do for now. So let’s talk. Let’s talk about community building. Let’s talk about how municipal political engagement is the best way of enacting change. Let’s talk about our one-size-fits-all work culture and education systems. Let’s talk about workaholism and alcoholism and self-medication. Let’s talk about our uneven social power dynamics, and minority threat, and microaggressions, and death by a thousand cuts. Let’s talk about toxic constructions of masculinity and how it perpetuates the falsehood that not asking for help is manly. Let’s talk about underfunded services in schools for neuroatypical kids who require extra assistance. Let’s talk about the problems inherent in the DSM and the politicization of mental health. Let’s talk about what scientific research gets funded, and by whom, and why, and how. Let’s talk about finding alternatives to institutionalization, of giving agency back to the individual. Let’s talk about supporting the very activists who are doing the advocacy on these and other important issues, of the mental health implications of activism fatigue.

Let’s talk about how one day a year isn’t enough.

20 Things Every 20-Something Needs To Realize In 2015

10 Jan
January 10, 2015
    1. Chivalry is only dead if you let it die. The medieval code of conduct developed in the 1100s is the epitome of social order, and we must strive to never evolve or change in any way. Also, you should probably go get a horse.
    2. You shouldn’t date only for the sake of dating. Doing something fun in order to meet new people and broaden your horizons is vapid and insipid. Dating should be no less than the perfect expression of that agonizing sense of yearning and loneliness arising from the very the depth of your soul. There is nothing casual or fun about your desperate expectation that the existential dread you wake up to every morning can be quenched by the constant companionship of another sack of meat.
    3. It’s impossible to fail if you refuse to give up. The universe owes you success if you can only manage to out-stubborn it. There will never be circumstances or laws of physics or personal limitations or social limitations that stand in your way if you try hard enough to pretend they don’t exist. Keep jumping off that roof, one day you’ll fly under the power of your flapping arms.
    4. If your life is easy, then you’re not trying hard enough. Do not ever pause to enjoy the fruits of your own labour; ease and comfort is for the weak. If you ever find that life is not throwing you enough curveballs, you must immediately go out and make it more difficult for yourself. Having a good day at work? Yell at your boss! Settling into a comfortable groove with your partner? Cheat on them! You can’t fail if you refuse to give up!
    5. “The One” exists, but there’s more than just one of them out there. I also have a terrible grasp on the concept of arithmetic.
    6. If you keep sending nude pics, there will be no reason to want to see you naked in person. Two-dimensional representations of your naked physicality are so powerful that they actually sap away at the energy of your body until they render void the satanic magic of your soul. Your attractiveness is a finite resource that must be hoarded jealously like a dragon hoards gold.
    7. If people aren’t adding to your life, they’re taking away from your life. Everybody you meet thinks only of how they affect your life. There is no such thing as a transient or transactional relationship with another human. Neutrality is not physically possible. If someone is not with you, they’re against you. And they probably want your horse.
    8. There are always opportunity costs; you can’t have it all. Unless you refuse to give up. Then you actually can have it all. Sorry, I lied.
    9. Intelligence can be bought. Grinding away at quests and studying scrolls to boost your intelligence level isn’t worth your time. Although I would take a look at your stat-sheet first. It might be more worth your money to spend your hard-won gold on dexterity, or maybe increase your max HP. A balanced party is a successful party.
    10. America is no longer the greatest country in the world. It is important that every single 20-something in the world realizes this, because everyone in the world, especially those of you that live outside the US, must structure their life philosophy around the imagined dominance of a country that has only existed for the past 240 years. This is not at all narcissistic or indicative of the same kind of arrogance that first led to this misconception to begin with.
    11. Humans aren’t any better than animals. We’re just smarter. So make sure those damn animals don’t get their hands on any gold; otherwise they’ll buy a bunch of intelligence and overthrow the human race.
    12. Sex can be a beautiful thing, but it won’t be beautiful on its own. You probably need to add more glitter. Everything needs more glitter.
    13. Most of the foods we eat shouldn’t be labeled as “food”. Who labels things “food”, anyway? I hate coming home with boxes and cans that just say “food” on them, and then realizing I accidentally bought garbanzo beans again when I already had four cans of those in the cupboard.
    14. Don’t work jobs you hate — just don’t do it. You can survive on the nectar of the Milky Way and the energy of stardust and live in the warm embrace of Mother Gaia. In fact, don’t work at all. You are a child of the universe.
    15. When making a decision, only the outcome matters. There is no such thing as unintended consequences or collateral damage. So go ahead, knock over that little old man crossing the street – you need to get the new GTA game.
    16. If you want it bad enough, you’ll get it. Life is a perfect meritocracy conforming to the tenets set out in The Secret. Keep wanting that thing. I’m sure it’ll descend upon you in an angelic chorus.
    17. If you feel the need to brag, you probably don’t have anything worth bragging about. Do not take pride in your accomplishments or share your successes with your loved ones. Swallow that pride. Bite your tongue. Eat your heart out. More consumption metaphors.
    18. Romantic love is intense and exciting, while true love is much less turbulent and much deeper. No love you feel for a romantic partner can be true or deep. Stop lying to each other and yourself.
    19. If you know you’re not going to finish it, don’t start it in the first place. If your waiter brings you a large plate of food and you know you can’t eat it all, you should go hungry. You don’t deserve that food.
    20. Simplicity is the key…to just about everything. That’s why I prefer pseudo-wise platitudinal listicles to actual introspection.

(I am mean.)

Types of Fictional Stories That Hit Me Right in the Feels: An Incomplete List

02 Jan
January 2, 2015
  1. Stories about good relationships between a parent and a child
  2. Stories about coming to terms with the imperfections of a parent
  3. Stories about searching for a place to call home, and finding it
  4. Stories about realizing that you are more rooted than you think
  5. Stories about the futile attempt to find happiness in the next adventure, always the next one
  6. Stories about love found in unlikely places between unlikely people
  7. Stories about love that grows over the course of an entire lifetime shared
  8. Stories about predestined love and the illusion of choice
  9. Stories about the ways in which we fail to live up to love
  10. Stories about being disillusioned about the people we love, and loving them anyway
  11. Stories about helping others despite lacking the means to do so
  12. Stories about storytelling that changes the life of the storyteller

Astute readers may notice that this means I basically cry at everything (fictional).  You would be correct.

Twenty Fifteen

01 Jan
January 1, 2015

I wanted 2015 to be the year I start blogging again.

Scratch that, I wanted 2015 to be the year I start writing again.

It doesn’t matter that “writing” has been on my New Year’s Resolution list since time immemorial. It doesn’t matter that I never live up to that vow, for a variety of excuses that do a pretty decent job of masquerading as plausible reasons. If insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing with the expectation of a different outcome, then call me insanely hopeful about each successive year’s potential to not suck.

I don’t believe in superstitions and symbolisms. Except a tiny part of me does. And that tiny part of me wanted 2015 to be a fresh beginning.

I had wanted a new portfolio site ready to launch, to show that I am no longer flailing and floundering hopelessly in an amorphous career that I fear being snatched out of my hands at any moment. I had wanted a new blog, a cleaner setup that would reflect a calmer heart, a better taxonomy structure that accommodated the multitudes of a personality both in my tags and in my mind. I had wanted a disciplined schedule, with timeslots for writing and timeslots for developing and timeslots for relaxing (what a paradox!) I had wanted a novel outline, a folder full of character notes, a backlog of blog posts ready to go.

That, as you may have guessed, didn’t happen. My professional site sits on my local server 75% complete since July, a heap of feedback notes scattered across various email platforms. My blog is the same as I left it, 18 months ago, with a few half-hearted new sections that I haven’t gotten around to populating. I woke up at noon today, after having spent half the night reading a book that I’ve since decided is too depressing to continue reading. And it’s the end of the first day of 2015, and it doesn’t look to be any different than the last day of 2014.

(It wouldn’t be, of course. Just because your brain is fond of semiotics doesn’t mean reality has to give a flying fuck what meaning you’re trying to conjure from the flip of a calendar page.)

But maybe this is always going to be the way it is. And maybe that’s okay. Right now, I don’t know what I want 2015 to look like. Right now, I still feel like I have whiplash from 2014, and 2013, and 2012. Conditions are imperfect for me to embark on The Next Great Canadian Novel, the Next Great Seminal Thinkpiece, the Next Groundbreaking App. It’s not the clean and tidy start that I can look back on in a hypothetical memoir and say “there, that’s finally when I got my shit together”.

But conditions are never going to be perfect. And I’ve read way too many self-help books to not know that perfectionism is nothing but a fear of failure. If 2014 was to have been the year of emulating Elsa and Letting It Go, then maybe I can attempt to make 2015 the year of being mindful of the present. Of doing and creating and loving and living despite these imperfect conditions. Of failing fast and failing often but most importantly having the courage to fail.

So I don’t have a beautiful new blog theme to unveil. I don’t have a thoughtful treatise on the meaning of life to accompany that unveiling. My “novel” has the exact same word-count it did a month ago. But I’m writing this anyway, and hitting “publish” anyway. And that seems like a not terrible way to start.

Happy 2015, y’all.

TX Lege – These are the names to remember

26 Jun
June 26, 2013

The Texas State Senate just saw an absolutely amazing act of civic and democratic engagement. There is so much I want to say about it, but first I want to outline the events as they went down, for context.

The outline of the facts:

On May 27, Texas governor Rick Perry abused executive power and called a special session of the senate that had more lax rules about how bills could be passed. These special sessions are meant to deal with specific issues and crises, but have been exploited to ram through bills that the regular senate sessions didn’t pass. Special sessions only need a simple majority to pass bills, unlike the 2/3 of quorum required at regular sessions.

On June 11, more than two weeks in, Republicans added an omnibus bill SB5 to the special session that directly targeted reproductive justice: One would ban abortion at 20 weeks, regardless of rape, incest, life of the mother, ectopic pregnancy, preeclampsia, or divine intervention. The other imposed such stringent requirements on abortion providers (down to the fucking corridor sizes) that only 5 of the 47 abortion providers in Texas would qualify, and the others would have to shut down.

(This special session was called for redistricting issues, and had just had transportation funding added to its docket. Oh, special sessions are meant to deal with crises? And should focus on specific issues? Well fuck you, I’m Republican.)

Last Thursday on June 20, 700+ Texans showed up at the hearings in Austin to testify with their story and to stage a citizen’s filibuster against the vote. They were shut down at around 3 AM, despite there being hundreds of people left who had been there for 12 hours who did not get a chance to testify, because their testimonies were getting “repetitive”.

Last Sunday on June 23, hundreds of Texans showed up again at the debates hoping to prevent a vote on SB5, as Democrats proposed amendment after correction after amendment that delayed the vote for 15 hours. It’s notable that the woman who actually sponsored the bill stopped taking questions 2 hours in, because she was jeered for saying that rape and incest exceptions to the abortion ban were not necessary because rape kits can “clean a woman out”.

On Monday morning at 4 AM, the Republicans used their majority to force an end to the debate and the legislature gave preliminary approval to the bill. I should mention that about 63% of Texans think there are enough abortion laws on the books in the state, and 75% of Texans think abortion is a decision for the woman and her doctor, not for politicians. This meant, however, that there was a 24-hour-delay until the Senate could consider it.

The filibuster:

On Tuesday morning at about 11 AM, SB5 came under consideration in the Texas Senate. And that’s when State Senator Wendy Davis started talking.

If the Democrats could filibuster the vote until Tuesday night at midnight, the special session ends, and the bill cannot be voted on until another session is called. Davis needed to talk for 13 hours if she wanted to stall the vote: she had to talk only about things pertaining to the bill, she had to be standing, she couldn’t lean against the podium, eat, drink, or go to the bathroom, or receive assistance from any other senator in any way.

Davis talked for 12 hours, reading out testimonies from the 12,000+ testimonies she had received on her website from people around the country, talking about their abortion experiences and how this bill would affect them. She only stopped talking because the Republicans gave her three strikes for breaking the rules of the filibuster: Once because they alleged that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood funding had nothing to do with abortions, once because a Democrat senator helped her adjust her back brace when she’d been standing for 10 hours, and once because they alleged, again, that sonograms had nothing to do with abortions.

Both before and after she was cut off just before 11 PM, the other Democrat senators rose beautifully to the occasion. They called point of order after point of order, challenging the Republican’s rules-lawyering with some fine-toothed rules-lawyering of their own, delaying the vote as much as possible and giving Davis a chance to breathe. At a certain point around 11:30 PM, the Republicans began just completely ignoring the Democrats to focus on getting everything ready for a vote.

Then, at about 11:45 PM, Senator Leticia Van de Putte, whose father had passed away on Friday in a car crash and who flew in from her father’s funeral on Tuesday to attend the session, uttered this epic sentence that will go down in history:

“At what point must a female senator raise her hand, or her voice, to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?”

Van de Putte had been trying to get the attention of the Republican senate president repeatedly for ten minutes to challenge their ruling on Davis’ warnings, only to be told repeatedly that she was not recognized. And this bombshell really defines the entire clusterfuck that is this vote: how far must women go to be heard by the men around them?

That’s when the gallery of thousands of pro-choice Texans as well as the many standing outside the state capitol, sporting orange in protest against the bill, went wild. They cheered for Van de Putte and chanted Wendy’s name and they did not stop until Wednesday morning.

And even though the special session was over by midnight according to the Texas constitution, even though the Democrats had succeeded in their challenge, even though Davis followed all of the rules to the letter for 12 hours, even though an incredible groundswell of grassroots activists in Texas and around the country had poured their heart out over this, the Republicans still tried to call for a vote on the Bill. No one could hear anyone else, but they still did a roll call, and tried to claim that the bill passed 17-12.

At its height, 180,000 viewers were watching the livestream of this senate vote on YouTube. #SB5 and #IStandWithWendyDavis were trending worldwide on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people were glued to the proceedings. Hundreds of thousands of people can testify that there was no vote before midnight. (While the national cable media, might I add, were talking about a loose red panda and the number of calories in Starbucks muffins.)

So what did the Republicans do? They leaked to AP and other news outlets that the bill had passed anyway. And they went on the Texas state legislature website, and changed the timestamp on the record of votes so that it would look like the vote took place on June 25th, rather than June 26th. State troopers were called in to arrest the protestors in the gallery.

Unfortunately for the GOP, they have just as little understanding of how the internet works as they do about how clocks work, or how bodies work. Thousands of screencaps are out there of this fraud. Thousands of people saw exactly how the cowardly senators couldn’t win properly, so they cheated, and couldn’t win by cheating, so they committed outright fraud. The protests pouring in online and from the gallery and from the Democrat senators got so fierce that at around 3 AM the Lt Governor was forced to concede that there had been no vote, that SB5 was dead.

He blamed it on the protestors’ uncivil “Occupy Wall Street” tactics. To that I say – fuck yes, you could do with some occupying here.

The People

I was glued to my screen as everyone else I know was, and I don’t have words for how inspirational I found everyone who shared their stories in person on Thursday or via Davis on Tuesday. I am in awe of Jessica Luther and all the other reproductive justice activists in Texas for rousing this massive campaign. I was in tears when midnight rolled around and a huge roar erupted from the gallery, these women and men who had been there for the entire night hoping that 19 senators would do the right thing. I am so grateful to Planned Parenthood and the Lillith Fund for doing the hard work that the government is unwilling to do, and to everyone around the world who chipped in money to pay for food and drink for the protestors.

I know this is a symbolic victory, and that Perry can just call another special session. I know that civil rights in this country have been set back enormously in other ways by the SCOTUS’s actions of the past few days (more on that later, maybe). But god dammit, symbolic victories matter. Texas showed their politicians that they were paying attention, and Texas showed the rest of the country that we are coming after you for this bullshit.

I do have words for the politicians who were involved here. This event highlights more starkly than ever just how important local politics are. We need to get out the vote locally to affect the municipal and state policies that other states use as examples, and we need to vote in the candidates we want locally so that the national stage has a better roster of candidates to choose from. (Incidentally, a friend’s suggestion of a Clinton/Davis 2016 ticket is the only compelling reason I’ve ever heard for pursuing citizenship.)

Here are the politicans to cheer and to vote in:

Senator Wendy Davis – who unwaveringly stayed on her feet for 14+ hours even after the Republicans ended her filibuster; who gave voice to thousands around the country who had none; who eloquently laid out each argument in favour of granting us our bodily autonomy; who was the height of dignity and respect throughout in some badass pink tennis shoes.

Senator Leticia Van de Putte – who flew in from her father’s funeral so that she could stand up for the women of Texas; who called out the Republicans for being contemptuous of a woman’s voice; who pointed out that this bill had nothing to do with actually helping people who needed abortions; who knew her parliamentary jiu-jitsu inside out.

State Rep Jessica Farrar – who organized and stayed with the citizen’s filibuster till the wee hours of Friday morning; who fought back against Republicans when they tried to shut the testimonies down; who was instrumental in helping facilitate the protest on Sunday; who maintained morale among activists when the Republicans just rammed through a vote anyway.

Senator Judith Zaffirini – who pointed out that the rules governing against a senator receiving help from other senators only used male pronouns and should not apply to Davis; who raised point after point to let Davis rest while the president sorted out her questions; who clearly read Twitter when we pointed out that Davis has only been called out on two counts of germaneness and one count of assistance, whereas the Senate rules required three strikes of germaneness to end a filibuster

Senator Rodney Ellis – who helped Davis put on her back brace because that is the right thing to do; who tried to appeal to the human decency of the house when Republicans threw a fit about it; who pointed out that iPads and computers do indeed count as “paper” in today’s age for god’s sake.

Senator Kirk Watson – who appealed the Republican’s decision to end the filibuster and thereby bought Democrats an extra hour; who saw the illegality in the president uniformly moving to table the motion and rightfully called it out; whose inception-styled points of orders were so carefully bureaucratic that it was almost an art.

Senator Royce West – who asked for motions to be provided in writing, and read out slowly; who did his best to tell the national media that the “vote” was unconstitutional.

Senator John Whitmire – the most senior senator in the legislature, who refused to adjourn the session, who spoke out against the unconstitutionality of such a “vote”.

These people were doing what they were elected to do, which is to represent and fight for the rights of their constituents. Mad props. I hope all of them succeed excellently in their future legislative career.

The name and shame:

Every story has a villain. This one has far too many.

State Jody Laudenberg – who sponsored the SB5 bill and then refused to take amendments, or discuss it substantively in any way; who thought that rape kits were basically abortions; who literally does not care if the victims of rape incest or people who could die from their pregnancies are forced to carry it to term; who is perfectly happy to be the mouthpiece of a party that is systematically destroying our rights.

Senator Bob Deuell – who was the author of the portion of SB5 that requires that all abortion clinics to have the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers, despite most abortions not being surgeries, despite abortion being the most safe invasive procedure there is in the world where the mortality rate is so low it’s not even worth measuring; who said in 2003 that women who had been forced to carry to term a pregnancy resulting from rape would see the child as a blessing and thus no rape-exception was needed in any abortion legislation; who tried to argue that no clinics will be closed by the legislation despite Dewhurst himself saying that closing down clinics was a reason for sponsoring the bill.

Senator Robert Nichols – who thinks that talking about Planned Parenthood is not germane to a discussion about abortion legislation when it is Planned Parenthood clinics that will be shutting down and no longer able to provide health services to poor people around the state.

Senator Tommy Williams – who thinks a woman who has been on her feet for 8 hours should be denied a back brace; who doesn’t understand that refusal of adaptive technology is an issue of disability discrimination; who is happy to withhold pain relief from his colleagues for the purposes of politicking.

Senator Donna Campbell – who thinks that in a country where we can be forced to get sonograms those very sonograms are not germane to a discussion of whether we should be allowed to control what happens in our own bodies; who uses her medical specialization in ophthalmology (eye disease) to claim expertise in reproductive health; who clearly has not taken a word of the Hippocratic Oath to heart and lies through her teeth.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst – who tried to claim that the vote past midnight was constitutional when it wasn’t; who said in callous disregard of the lives that he’s impacting that “it’s been fun” when the session finally came to a close; who sustained all those bullshit points of orders against Davis.

Senator Glenn Hagar – who immediately introduced SB5 to the docket on Tuesday morning and forcing Davis to endure the longest filibuster possible.

Governor Rick Perry – Do you really need more reason to hate Rick Perry? Wasn’t the 2012 election enough reason?

Remember these names. Let your politicians know that actions have consequences, and that we know who they are.

And if you feel like taking some facile potshot at Texas, stow it. I will delete it. The people of Texas have proven their mettle and commitment to social progress. Can you say the same?

Scattered thoughts on thinking about success

30 Apr
April 30, 2013

I was emailed this excerpt from an HBR article recently:

Before trying to pursue a significant goal, especially a professional one, it’s important to assess whether you have the ability to achieve it. Consider two things:

  1. Do you have the required core capacities: knowledge, skills, and personal characteristics?
  2. Are your capacities as good as or better than those of other people with the same goal?

If you answer no to either question, you should consider revising your goal. If you answer yes to both, make sure you’re not succumbing to one of these five common fallacies:

  • The hard-work fallacy: Believing that determined effort will compensate for your shortcomings
  • The smarts fallacy: Thinking that general intelligence translates into specific skills
  • The magnification fallacy: Assuming that your particular talent is somehow more special than your peers’
  • The passion fallacy: Believing you’re good at things just because you really enjoy them or because they are immensely important to you
  • The “wishing will make it so” fallacy: Convincing yourself that success (for you, anyway) will be easy

So this is an interesting concept, but it feels a little bit like the cold-reading of self-help business writing, because it could apply to everything, but it could also apply to nothing. The inverse of those conditions are also truisms, right? Don’t measure yourself against other people in order to gauge your success; everyone is different. If you wait until you are absolutely sure of all conditions for success before starting, you will never start anything, so start before you’re ready. (That second one is a big thing in programming – start a project before you know what you’re doing, and learn as you go.)

I mean, think about what the inverse of one of those “common fallacies” would actually say: “Determined effort is no guarantee for success”. “Being intelligent does not necessarily mean you have skills”. “Your unique skill set is actually not unique”. “You’re might suck at things even if you really love them and try really hard.” They might be more “realistic”–whatever that means–but those types of thoughts are all also oftentimes symptoms that someone is, well, clinically depressed.

And while it’s true that clinical depression has been linked with a more harsh worldview that does indeed take into account these fallacies, it’s certainly no way to live. These rules also neglects the “risk assessment” portion of decision making – sure, nothing is a guarantee, but what are the chances I’ll succeed, even though I’m not unique or skillful and only have hard work and passion? Well, that depends on your definition of success, but I would say they’re not too terrible, especially if you are privileged enough that you have free time to read HBR articles (or know what HBR is). Hard work (which assumes that you are able-bodied in a way that’s suited for the work you need to do) and passion (which often translates into perseverance) are harder to come by than you’d think.

Plus, maybe someone else has the same goal and has more absolute “capacity”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a zero sum game. Maybe both of you can succeed in similar measures, or that someone else might get a better version of that goal (Ubisoft instead of Zynga if you’re both game devs) without knocking you off your rail. Since both of you have a mix of different types of capacity, even if theirs is “objectively” better than yours, there will be specific circumstances where one trait will be more important than another, and vice versa (e.g. sometimes personal characteristics like eagerness to learn will outweigh absolute technical skills). It’s not like capacity is a raw score from 0-100 – it’s a mix of a variety of interacting factors that are difficult to predict.

Those “fallacies” also ignore the halo effect – confident people seem like they know what they’re doing, so people believe in them more. There’s a reason “fake it ’till you make it” is a popular mantra. In many instances, being deluded about your chances for success actually is not a bad trait to have, as long as it doesn’t preclude you from learning things you don’t know.

TL;DR: Success is large; it contains multitudes.

Another gender-neutral pronoun enters the ring

25 Apr
April 25, 2013

(An edited version of this article first appeared on Canada.Com.)

The Swedish National Encyclopedia has decided to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into its catalog, officially recognizing a word that has been in casual use since at least the 1960s. Predictably, detractors see in this everything from a feminist agenda bent on destroying language, to psychological damage for our children.

Keep in mind that this is merely an introduction of the pronoun into the National Encyclopedia, and not a divine edict. While I appreciate the official show of support for the complexity of gender from a respected academic establishment, it’s not like the Swedish government is going around arresting people who do use gender-specific pronouns. They’re simply acknowledging the existence of this word, and its proliferation in the general culture. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the existence of the neologisms “Britcom” and “LOL”, too, and that hasn’t led to a downfall of society.

The gender-neutral pronoun issue rears its head with predictable regularity among linguists who study English, and we face the similar conundrum. There simply isn’t an elegant and universally accepted way to talk about a single person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the discussion.

“One,” after all, makes you sound stuffy and old-fashioned. “It” is largely reserved for animals. Numerous neologisms have been invented by academics, none of which have found much purchase in popular society. I travel in pretty progressive circles, and I still do a double-take when I see someone use ze, zie, zhe, or any of their variants.

Part of the reason these haven’t caught on is just because we don’t do very well with top-down decrees when it comes to language; you need organic support in the form of natural, day-to-day use. It’s why no man-made language like Esperanto has really caught on across the world, despite how much easier (supposedly) it is to learn. Despite what you might think of 21st century atrocities like “impactful” or “to action” or any sort of text speak, the reason they’re around more and more is because they arose organically from a specific linguistic need, and filled a vacuum. Another example of a language vacuum being filled is the word “cis” to indicate someone who identifies as the same gender as the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s a borrowed term from chemistry that stands in opposition to “trans”, and neatly identifies a component of someone’s gender identity without assigning default or superior value to either identity.

The other big reason these neologisms haven’t caught on could just be because a more organic alternative already exists – “they”. Contrary to what outdated grammarians would have you believe, “they” has been used as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun since about the 15th century. “Don’t use ‘they’ to talk about a single person” is about as relevant as “Don’t end a sentence with a proposition” – both of them hammered into the heads of impressionable students from a young age, neither of them particularly correct. (As Churchill famously said, this is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.) Writing style guides for newspapers and universities and other are just now starting to catch up to this, finally allowing “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun to be used in an official capacity.

Still, when you use “they”, you’re still conjugating verbs in the plural. It’s “they drink a glass of water”, not “they drinks a glass of water”. It’s still not a perfect solution.

The language we use can empower or marginalize in equal measures. The use of the universal “he” in legal documents have been used as excuses to deny women their legal status, keep them form being able to participate in parliament, or practice certain religious rituals. And even without those stakes, it’s dehumanizing for women to be defacto excluded from the default state of humanity. You can’t have gendered words in a language and use one of those genders to encompass the other without conveying a subtle class difference between the two.

If you doubt this, consider how jarring it would be if you wrote all legal documents with a universal “she” instead. It’s already the standard in some niche subcultures, like designer board game instruction writers. But it’s by no means mainstream or universally accepted.

(Fun fact: Chinese didn’t really have a gendered pronoun until about the 1920, when a female version of the default pronoun was adopted in order to make Chinese seem more like those gender-specific western languages we looked up to so much. The previously gender-neutral pronoun then became standard for ‘male’, even though the components of the logogram use the neutral ‘human’ character.)

I applaud the efforts of the Swedish National Encyclopedia, even as I remain skeptical of its possible effects, given how these things have gone in the past. In Baltimore, high school students have been using “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun in slang since about 2004, seemingly organically, but even that hasn’t seen much penetration in the rest of the country or the English-speaking world. I have a feeling the move is significant more for its indication of institutional support and its ability to raise awareness about gender issues than its actual impact on language use going forward. Nevertheless, it’s a heartening move, and a sign that maybe our endless efforts to equalize gender relations is getting somewhere after all.

(Now, let’s talk about a second-person plural alternative to “you”. My vote is for “y’all”.)

On Coffee Warning Labels, Which No One Has Ever Talked About Before Ever

23 Apr
April 23, 2013

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So this image has been going around Tumblr for a while. I didn’t pay much attention to it other than to chuckle at the snark, until this angry response started popping up on my dashboard:

A few things you need to know about this hot coffee case:

  1. It wasn’t an issue of the coffee being because no fucking shit coffee is hot, but McDonald’s had over heated their water to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 121C. Not just hot, but really FUCKING hot. Your fancy Starbucks lattes are brewed to 150 degrees.
  2. The 79 year old woman had this cup of 250F (121C) coffee between her legs when it spilled so 250F (121C) coffee spilled on her genitals
  3. She got third degree burns…on her genitals. THIRD DEGREE.
  4. She had to have skin grafts to repair the damage
  5. When she sued McDonald’s, it wasn’t for millions of dollars, it was for $20,000 to cover hospital costs and court fees. 20-fucking-thousand.
  6. It was the courts that awarded her the amount of money she got. Again, she only wanted hospital bills and court costs
  7. McDonald’s changed their heating policy, but not before making her sign a gag order keeping her from talking about this case
  8. So she had to live on hearing little shits like you call her stupid and money-grubbing, and other horrendous stuff because she dared ask the company in the wrong to fix what they fucked up.

I know I’ve reblogged this before tonight but so help me god, I will keep reblogging this with the proper information so everyone can maybe learn not to be an asshole. Like I said before, next person to mock this woman can have 250F (121C) water poured on their dick or lady dick and see how you like it.

So sit the fuck down, Canada.

Which, okay, to be fair, you don’t tell Canada to sit the fuck down without incurring my anger. But I had actual, legitimate problems with this post, and like in the Cho Chang issue, decided to get involved against my better judgment.

Tumblr, I love you, and I am anything but a McDonald’s apologist (I even agree with most of the substantive points here), but can I fucking point out that 121C / 250F is above the boiling point of water?! It is actually kind of impossible for water to go that high in our atmospheric pressure. If the coffee had actually been 250F, it would have been bubbling and frothing as it was being handed over about 18,000 feet below sea level.

The actual numbers are 82C / 180F in the coffee. Aeropress recommends 165-175F for brewing coffee, but the National Coffee Association says 195-205F. In other words: it is totally subjective. McD’s coffee was scaldingly hot, but it’s also not like McDonald’s was such a rebel in their coffee making that they used water with unheard-of temperatures in order to flout health and safety standards.

I did a presentation on Stella Liebeck in 7th grade, shortly after the incident happened. I followed a mailing list about her for months. This sort of stuff is close to my heart. It totally, totally sucks that Stella Liebeck got injured. She was well within her rights to try to recoup damages for medical treatment from McDonald’s. I’m not even saying that McDonald’s didn’t behave like a total asshole during the litigation. They should have just paid the fucking medical bills and issued an apology and gone on with things.

But a warning label on coffee telling you that it’s “hot” isn’t what’s going to protect the Stella Liebecks of the world from being scalded. That’s a legalistic CYA for McDonald’s, not any sort of protective measure for the consumer. All that will happen now is that when someone else gets scalded by McDonald’s coffee, they’ll be able to say “sorry, we warned you, you used our product in a way that we clearly told you not to”.

What would be a protective measure for the consumer is proper industry regulation – including, for example, how hot water is allowed to be in open containers before it’s being delivered to consumers. You shouldn’t have to sue private companies in order to have business regulations protect the interests of individuals. Yet that is exactly what happens.

At the same time, we also need to recognize that we can’t protect against everything in life, and that if something goes wrong, there won’t always be someone to point a finger at. Think about the massive cost of malpractice insurance and lawsuits. There are a lot of awful doctors who need to be held accountable for their actions, but there are also a lot of really great doctors who are absolutely terrified that they will be held responsible for the outcomes of procedures that were never perfect, and never expected be perfect, to begin with.

That is what we’re mocking, when we talk about a litigious society. Not Stella Liebeck personally, but the confluence of a deluded just-world fallacy combined with a pseudo-libertarian free-for-all in which government interference on behalf of its people is seen as overreach.

And that, unfortunately, is not so easily fixed with a warning label.

Be outraged at the things that are wrong with the world! But be outraged accurately.

(Originally posted on my Tumblr.)

Four wrongs and no rights

21 Mar
March 21, 2013

There are so many things wrong with the PyCon incident surrounding Adria Richards and the ensuing fall-out that the specific behaviour of the people involved doesn’t even begin to get into it.

The events, as I understand it, are thus: Adria Richards was in conversation with two men at a coding conference, during a presentation. The conversation moved on–or maybe it didn’t, it’s unclear–and the two men cracked some jokes that were sexual in nature. Richards took a photo of the men, and tweeted about her issue with the jokes. PyCon organizers saw the tweet, came into the presentation to speak to the men in private. The men apologized, and did not return to the presentation. Richards wrote a blog post about her experience. The internet explodes in hate, as it is wont to do, with rape threats, death threats, and public and private harassment directed at both Richards and PyCon developers.

Then, Playhaven, the employer of one of the men, decides to fire him. Richards’ website is targeted by a DDOS attack, then Richards’ employer, SendGrid, also falls victim. So SendGrid fires Richards.

In short: it’s a mess.

Read more →

Canada.Com

02 Mar
March 2, 2013

So it turns out that when I decide not to blog regularly anymore, I really meant that I was going to bore other websites with my rambling instead of my own. I’ve been posting intermittently on the fabulous Canada.Com for the past few months, under the careful editorial hand of Mr. William Wolfe-Wylie (who, incidentally, has a ridiculously awesome name), and it just occurred to me that it would make sense to mention that on this blog as well.

Anyway, here are the things I’ve written for them in the past little while, if you’re interested:

I’ve really enjoyed writing for them, since I look at things that I might not have looked at otherwise, and having an editor for the first time since my brief stint with Millennials Mag* forever ago is always a good addition to my workflow. Go check it out!

*Come to think of it, all those articles are now unavailable. I should…post them somewhere. Like….a blog, or something. If only I had one of those.