The purpose of a university education

I normally don’t post the complete writings of other people but in this case, I’m making an exception because this is so perfect and there is nothing more I can add to this:

Hello, Cross-Cultural students, I am writing to express my views on how some of you have conducted yourself in this university course you are taking with me. It is not uncommon for some-to-many American students, who typically, are first-generation college students, to not fully understand, and maybe not even appreciate the purpose of a university. Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.

Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life’s most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.

Last class meeting and for 15 minutes today, we addressed “religious bigotry.” Several points are worth contemplating:

Religion and culture go “hand in hand.” For some cultures, they are so intertwined that it is difficult to know with certainty if a specific belief or custom is “cultural” or “religious” in origin. The student in class tonight who proclaimed that my class was supposed to be about different cultures (and not religion) lacks an understanding about what constitutes “culture.” (of course, I think her real agenda was to stop my comments about religion).

Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).

The male student who stood up in class and directed the rest of the class to “not participate” by not responding to my challenge, represented the worst of education. For starters, the idea that a person—student or instructor—would instruct other students on how to behave, is pretty arrogant and grossly disrespects the rights of other students who can and want to think for themselves and decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the exchange of ideas or not. Moreover, this “let’s just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with” is appallingly childish and exemplifies “anti-intellectualism.” The purpose of a university is to engage in dialogue, debate, and exchange ideas in order to try and come to some meaningful conclusion about an issue at hand. Not to shut ourselves off from ideas we find threatening.

Universities hold a special place in society where scholarly-minded folks can come together and discuss controversial, polemic, and often uncomfortable topics. Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university. There is no topic that is “off-limits” for us to address in class, if even only remotely related to the course topic. I hope you will digest this message, and just as important, will take it to heart as it may apply to you.

Charles Negy

(end quoted material)

I’ll have more to say about this topic later.

Goodbye Gytha Ogg

Today, we buried our bearded dragon, Gytha Ogg.

She had developed a tumor on her right hand side of her body. Looking at pictures of her from a couple of years ago, I realized that I may have caught the beginning of her cancer. She died Saturday midday. Her last night she got to eat a bunch of ground cherries, so her last meal was sweet and a delicacy. When we woke up on Saturday, we first thought she was very happy because she was bright orange but the we noticed her beard was black and she was sluggish. We put her in some warm water, which perked her up for a bit but she was dead by midday.



Do You Care Enough to Know?

Someone on a friend's FB wall said,in response to a very good article explaining why President Obama hasn't given a barnburner of a speech on the events in Ferguson, MO, that they did not care why he hadn't given the speech just that he hadn't. This moved me to ask the question in the title, if you don't care why something happened how much do you care that it happened at all? I am a technical support engineer by profession. One of first steps in solving a problem is developing the fullest understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Saying that one doesn't care about why something is happening is saying that one feels justified in shirking doing the unglamorous and not-particularly emotionally satisfying work of figuring out what the moving pieces are. Those moving pieces can make all the difference.

The sentiment behind “the reasons don't matter” is that actual politics really don't matter. It is a sentiment of defeat because the only way the reasons why something does or does not happen cannot possibliy matter is if there is absolutely no hope in doing anything about it. Saying, “I don't care why he isn't giving the speech I want him to” is a tacit admission that giving a speech would do absolutely nothing. If a speech or series of speeches would make a big difference and the president refused to give a speech that would do some good then knowing why that decision has been made would be useful. From where I sit, Mr Obama has done what could be done from D.C. Attorney General Holder is in Missouri this very day and the FBI and the Justice Department are looking into the matter. What else can the President of the United States do?

This isn't an autocracy, the POTUS doesn't have the means or authority to, for instance, have the cop who shot Brown arrested. The bully pulpit only goes so far. What possible words could he say that would help? And given the political realities on the ground in America, the fact of the matter is that if Obama made a strong statement then by the end of the day Darren Wilson would be a folk hero. The only statement that Obama could make about the shooting of Brown that would not elevate Wilson to the status of folk hero would be something like this, “My fellow Americans, Michael Brown was a thug who got what was coming to him as is every other black person shot by the police”. THAT would pass muster on FOX News or Drudge or but nothing else would. But any expression of opposition to the shooting will just make people celebrate Officer Wilson even more. They will justify it that if Obama thinks it was wrong, then it MUST have been right. It wouldn't matter how old or young Michael Brown was. It wouldn't matter where he was. He could have been helping a little old lady across the street, right in front of his church, still wearing his choir robe and he could have been famous throughout the state as the boy who was a perfect child and if he were gunned down by a cop that was on camera shouting “gonna shoot a nigger, gonna shoot a nigger” the officer would still be celebrated as a folk hero by those who turn to FOX News. Why? Because Obama is against it and therefore it must be the correct thing. At best, some tut-tutting might occur that perhaps the officer shouldn't have shouted the n-word on camera. But the fact that Obama thought it wrong would suddenly make it right no matter what the specific circumstances were.

The fact that this is the political reality on the ground isn't a triviality for policy wonks and political junkies. It is material to how the Obama administration is trying to walk a tightrope. As the first black POTUS, Obama does have a particular duty to history to carry himself in a certain way. The politics of respectability, which was the political milk upon which I was raised, has fallen much out of favor to be replaced by a politics that celebrates not being respectable. If the politics of respectability requires me to grant someone with whom I disagree the benefit of the doubt that their motives might not be malevolent, the politics of in-your-face requires me to only consider that those on the other side are motivated by a deep malevolence. In other words, if someone disagrees with me it isn't because they might be ignorant or misinformed, it is that they are malevolently on the other side. It's not having no clue how blacks are treated by the police regardless of class background, it is actively wanting blacks harassed, locked up or killed by the police. It is not that Mr. Obama has to walk a tightrope, it is that his job, the long and short of it, is to 'uphold white supremacy' and not only does he do so, he does it with gusto. In the past, the other side might be deluded, ignorant, uninformed, misinformed or plain out stupid but not actually evil. You might get to evil eventually but that was only after you eliminated every other alternative. This was the politics of civility which is now entirely out of fashion.

The politics of incivility, requires that if I am talking about race I need not acknowledge any progress that has been made, I need not acknowledge people of goodwill who are white, instead I should do just the opposite. Any progress that has been made should not be seen as progress. In this formulation, blacks moving up the corporate ladder isn't a sign of progress. At best it is a sign of cooptation but that is not progress. So, if there are black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies now when that hadn't happened at all until 1999 (Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae) that isn't progress. Now, there are exactly 6 black CEOs currently and a total of only 13 in all. I was born in 1967, that means I was 32 before I lived in a world where a black person reached the highest summit of the economic food chain. I was thirty-three when we had our first black Secretary of State and we inaugurated our first black president less than 60 days before I turned forty-two. To me, that looks like progress but the current paradigm says that it isn't progress. It can't be progress because the politics of incivility requires that there be no progress. It doens't matter how many lives are materially better, we cannot acknowledge that.

As I said yesterday, I think that we have a rare window of opportunity to demilitarize our police forces before it is too late. It is something that you can get behind as long as you aren't an actual authoritarian. I would like to see us take this opportunity to come together as Americans and say “this is not us. We do not countenance this. It has been a point of pride for us as a nation, that we don't have paramilitaries roaming our streets dispensing rough justice.” We could say this loudly and strongly and in our own respective political vocabularies. But in order for that to happen, we have to navigate the politics of our nation as they currently are, not as we would want them to be. It will require us to work with people who we may find most parts of their polticial philosophy abhorrent but that should not detain us on the way to demilitarizing our cops.

On this issue, we need to be able to work with people who might have very different political agendas and commitments in other arenas but who agree with us on militarized policing. That means trying to understand why things are and why people believe the things that they do or why politicians make certain political decisions, such as what to say on a domestic issue involving race and law enforcement and when to say it. If you don't care about those whys, if the thought of holding your nose and working with libertarians to keep our police forces turning into some Balkan militia circa 1993 turns your stomach, then how much do you care? If you care, lots of things should be on the table and more dire the circumstances, the more you should be willing to put on the table. With my deficit hawk friends, I always ask if the national debt such a crisis that they would countenance raising taxes or cutting the defense budget or both. If they say 'yes' then I know that they really believe it is a crisis but if they say 'no' I recognize that it isn't or at least not the crisis they think it is. Why? Because if the deficit is an existential crisis then everything is on the table. If everything isn't on the table, then it isn't an existential crisis. Likewise, if police brutality is a crisis (and I think it is) then we should be willing to get in bed with just about anyone who wants to see the cops reigned in, including libertarians even if we find the rest of their philosophy unrealistic.

Whither the Patriots Now

My wife, along with a number of other friends and columnists, have noted the silence of Second Amendment advocates, on the matter of events in #Ferguson, MO. I noted on my FB wall this morning that there are at least two people who are on my FB wall, with whom I have debated the 2nd Amendment, and their silence on this matter is quite conspicuous and deafening. Conspicuous because the events in Ferguson, which to most of the rest of the planet looks quite rightly like an out of control police force running roughshod and rampant over peacefully protesting citizens. These protests are happening because a police officer, who at the time of this writing still walks free under the sun, shot and killed an unarmed eighteen year old black man. In the last few days, images have been put forth that try to portray Michael Brown as some kind of criminal. Him with a sheaf of bills in his mouth, etc. The Ferguson police have said that Brown was involved in the robbery of a convenience store. They are now reporting that there was marijuana in his system. All of these ‘revelations’ serve as a memetic tapestry to tell America and the world what we are ‘supposed’ to know about black American men–namely that they are criminals and thugs. If Michael Brown is a thug, then so are all those other black men and women, young and old, marching in protest. The consequence of this, inevitably, is the idea that these people protesting aren’t really patriots but Cliven Bundy on his Nevada ranch is.

Let’s examine that a moment. So, Mr Bundy owes the federal government $1,000,000 in back grazing fees. He refuses to pay it so the feds seize his property. Friends and fellow travelers show up with lots of guns which they proceed to point at federal officers who, wisely, descalated. This is hailed as patriotic. An unarmed black man, a day before beginning his first day at college, is walking in the middle of the street and is told to get on the sidewalk by a police officer. The officer then shoots and kills the young man. People turn out and protest peacefully (more on the looting later) and the local police show up looking very much like a militia with very good equipment. The kind of people you usually hear in connection to cities with names like Kiev or Sarajevo, not St. Louis. As a friend of mine pointed out, what happened in Ferguson was far more tyrannical than anything that happened out on the Bundy ranch and yet, the people who claim we must be prepared to take on our government by force of arms are no longer cheering and rushing to stand with the people of Ferguson.

We are supposed to maintain the fiction that none of this has anything to do with race but that horse left the barn, jumped the fence and is two counties over by now. For the most contentious of our rights, I have a simplistic but, reasonably effective, heuristic I use for determining whether someone really believes in a particular right. The test is quite simple, try to suss out whether someone is willing to grant a right they treasure to someone they wish didn’t have that right. This winds up making not just strange but kinkily bizarre bedfellows. On the right, the question is if the good people of Ferguson, a fair percentage of whom happen to be from the Chocolate Side of the Force, were to turn out with guns would the NRA stand with them. We appear to be getting our answer now. On the left, the question is whether or not the likes of Cliven Bundy or his more erudite fellow traveller, John Derbyshire, have the right to spill their racist bile through some media. There are some on the left who would very much like to see that kind of speech made illegal.

At some point in my political wanderings, I realized that you can approach questions of rights from the point of view of trying to secure rights for you and yours or for a more universal conception. If you are really and truly in favor of the 2nd Amendment on the grounds that it is proof against tyranny, then your only logically consistent position is to point to Ferguson as an example and to applaud any residents of Ferguson who decide to shoot at the police. The police are behaving tyranically and lawlessly. The Second Amendment was passed in order to give the government a moment of pause before behaving tyranically, therefore, the people of Ferguson are patriots by the terms the Tea Party has defined itself.

Shocking as it seems there are people who are supporting the officer who shot Michael Brown. I want you to let that sink in for a moment before you continue reading so I’ll repeat it. There are people in this country who are celebrating the killer of Michael Brown as a hero because he shot an unarmed black man to death. A hero. For killing an unarmed black man. Now, if we held everything else constant but changed Michael Brown from a black man to a white man, do you think that the people who are out there portraying this cop as a hero now would still be doing? Almost certainly not. These are people who, whether they realize it or not, are showing themselves to be racist in a most egregious and odious way. It goes without saying that racism of any sort is odious but it is one thing to look down upon a group of people, it is quite another thing to devalue the lives of the members of a group of people to such a degree that their lives are worth nothing. Every person speaking out in defense of this officer, every person saying he is some kind of hero, is saying, whether they realize it or not, that in their minds the life of a black person is not worth the same as the life of a white person. There are some on the left who would like to see laws passed that would prevent, for instance, the KKK rallying to the defense of this Daniel Wilson person. Just as with gun control and the right, it is one thing to want free speech for you and yours and something entirely other to want it for people like the folks who are protesting in favor of a man that looks, at present, to be a common murderer with a badge. I find them and their world view odious. Their aversion to people from the Chocolate Side of the Force means any interactions I am forced to endure with these people should be mercifully short. But I want them protected from what I would like to see happen to their ability to celebrate the murder of a young black man. Because if it were up to me, being shouted down in the streets would be the least of the worries of the KKK. So I want their right to call me the n-word to supersede my strong desire to see them have to pay a social consequence for doing so.

On that note, a h/t to Andrew Sullivan at Daily Dish who put paid to the idea that libertarians were hypocritically silent on what is happening in Ferguson. I will link to it later. I am not a libertarian and as readers of this blog know, I think that libertarianism is like communism, a great idea but for the wrong species. But here is a rare time when I think that people regardless of political loyalties can come together to get our elected officials to make illegal for police to have military hardware–surplus or no. It would also be a good idea to require every police car to have a dashcam and every single police officer should wear some kind of camera like a Go-Pro for the entire time they are on duty. Turning it off should be a disciplinary action. If you are of the left then you can get behind this idea because it will make the lives of black and brown people safer. If you are a conservative, you must be concerned with the break with 200 years of tradition of keeping a clear separation between those we employ to keep the peace and those we employ to defend the nation. If you are a libertarian, this is a no-brainer. In other words, unless you are so far to the left that anything this side of the complete tear-down of the West with its capitalism and its democratic republics is nothing more than being in favor for the system as it stands or so far to the right that you would be cheering the murder of an unarmed black man by a uniformed officer, not having our police look like they just stepped out of the latest issue of Militias and Paramilitaries Quarterly should be a pretty easy thing to get behind.

Taking Her Name but Not In Vain

I changed the last name on my Facebook profile today. I decided to take my wife, Jaime's last name, which is Kincaid. I know that it is an archaic practice and, quite honestly, it is something I wouldn't have thought myself interested in doing even five years ago. But sometime over the last year or two something shifted. Perhaps I stopped thinking about the tradition of changing names as a vestige of an archaic attitude toward women and marriage. Perhaps, I am fulfilling some naïve, girlish fantasy I never paid much attention to.

Whatever my reasons, I decided to give up being a Davis and become a Kincaid. This is not to say that one is ever not from your family. Next month Jaime is going to get her legal name change and then we will get legally married at which point I will take her name and become a Kincaid. So I thought I'd start using it now, at least in non-official capacities. I do have to say, it has a ring to it.



Some random musings to test Blogsy

Started using a different blogging software on my iPad. For years I have been a loyal MacJournal user. I still basically like it and the iPad implementation has gotten better and yet I feel like Mariner has just let MJ sort of go by the wayside. So now I am using Blogsy on the iPad. This is my first post with it but so far I am really impressed with the flexibility.

My wife has spent today replacing the faucet in the kitchen while I have been working since 3:00. This is the old faucet, I'll post pictures of the new one when it's all done and working.




Militarization or Hollywoodization?

Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo writing about Ferguson said that militarization might be the wrong term for how police forces in America have tooled up with military hardware. He makes the observation:

Here’s another point I keep wondering about on the “Hollywoodization” front. Why are a lot of police officers wearing jungle camouflage? Is there more jungle or forest terrain in Ferguson than I realize? It’s not even a standard military uniform. Obviously in Iraq the beige/brown desert camouflage is the standard, for obvious reasons. But it goes without saying that jungle camouflage serve no purpose in an urban setting than to signal a highly militant response to whatever citizens are doing.

        I think Hollywoodization is an apt word here because this seems to me to be more like looking like a military force than actually being one. By that I mean that these guys looked suited up to deal with the kind of policing that only happens in the movies. Yet, these guys seem ready to deal with things if, say, giant robots that transform into cars start fighting a war on the city streets. These cops have seen all the same action movies as the general population. In the movies, particularly dystopian high tech science fiction futures, the cops always look intimidating and badass. These aren’t people in blue out there to protect and serve. They are dressed in combat fatigues and helmets with visors and they are carrying weapons that make it very clear that there is a right end and wrong end of this weapon and that you, the ordinary citizen, find yourself looking down the wrong end of it. It is intimidation pure and simple. The message is “at any moment, we can turn this place into the set of the latest Michael Bey explode-a-thon except there’s no action hero or friendly giant robots to protect you.”
        Thirty years ago, Hill Street Blues presaged at least the attitude of the overeager tactical commander, Lt. Hunter. In one episode, the SWAT team is being tasked with securing a supermarket where some bad guys have taken people hostage. Here is part of that dialog:

Lt. Hunter: (his heavily armed team enters a supermarket with a hostage situation inside the meat-locker] “Maverick, it looks like we’ll be able to use an elevation of about point seven. Let’s see here… I think that we should put it down here by the canned fruit.”
Cpt. Furillo: (surprised) “No, no, wait, hold it with that thing !”
Lt. Hunter: “Well, well, well, Frank… it’s deja vu. So much for rehabilitation, huh ?”
Cpt. Furillo: “What the hell is that, Howard ?” (points to a large weapon)
Lt. Hunter: “That’s a Soviet 109 incendiary rocket launcher. It’s Russian-made. And all the riot gear is from loan from the Stockholm Police.” (starts smiling) “What do you think, Frank ?”
Cpt. Furillo: “Loose it.”
Lt. Hunter: (looses smile) “Judas Priest, Frank. That’s an eight inch steel door. If those deviants think we don’t mean business then our ace in the hole isn’t worth a brown cue-tip.”
Cpt. Furillo: (getting upset) “What ace in the hole ?”
Lt. Hunter: (lights pipe) “Our plastic charges on the outer wall.”
Cpt. Furillo: “Howard… There are innocent people in that meat-locker so take a command : no Soviets, no plastics. Just secure the scene… period !”
Lt. Hunter: (looks in disdain) “The only secure scene is a neutralized scene, Frank. Of course, if that makes your palms damp, there is another way to go.” –


Seems apt.

Cops Are Neither Soldiers Nor Spies

Hey America;

I get it that you’re deep in the throes of believing (wrongly) that “perception is reality” and all and I understand that means that we’ve decided words don’t really have any meaning any longer, they’re more like strings of random squiggles that represent potentially random movements of the mouth which produces various noises. I do get that.

However, it turns out that we hire the police, soldiers and spies for entirely different reasons. We have different expectations of them. The words cop, soldier and spy have distinct meanings and we have distinct expectations and rules for them. We should be very clear about this because these things really do matter. It’s not just a ‘create your own reality’ kind of thing nor is this a perception is reality thing. The perception may be that the army has taken over policing but, in point of fact, that isn’t what has happened. The reality is that police are increasingly acting like soldiers domestically. This is not what they are for.

This essay is going to touch on a number of unpleasant topics so I apologize to any highly sensitive souls who read this but I think it needs saying. The job of a police officer is to keep the peace, be a societal deterrent of crime, arrest criminals or attempt to stop them in the commission of a crime. To this end we empower police to use deadly force as needed and subject to review. The job of a police officer is not to kill people, nor is their job to take and hold a territory that the residents would prefer you quit with all haste. If the police show up and a few hours later, a few city blocks are destroyed and there’s a bunch of dead people lying in the streets and more injured grievously then something went horribly, horribly wrong. Even if it is one unarmed kid who was shot down, something went horribly horribly wrong. The police officer is behaving like a soldier and an officer of the law.

We hire soldiers to be a deterrent and, if necessary, to take to the battlefield and kill the enemy. Let us drop the euphemisms, at least for this discussion because we need to be really clear on what we hire various armed people for. We do not hire soldiers to ‘pacify’ a nation, we hire them to kill as many of the enemy as is needed for them to capitulate. To that end we equip them with fantastically deadly weapons that become more like something out of military science fiction every year. We train them to drive tanks capable of doing 70 mph across a field and destroying an enemy tank a mile away. We train them to be snipers and use ultra-long range sniper rifles that can punch through a wall and through the target from a mile away. We equip them with this expensive gear on the hope that they will be able to bring overwhelming firepower to the battle than the enemy can. Again, their job is to kill and keep killing until the enemy capitulates. There is no reason for police officers to need overwhelming firepower.

We hire spies to steal secrets, get people to turn against their own country and work for us, and try to prevent the intelligence agencies of other nations from being able to steal our secrets or turn our people. To that end, we expect a great deal of secrecy and, to be honest, quite a bit of dishonesty. In the course of their duties they may have to commit violent acts and so we empower them to use deadly force. We do restrict them from operating domestically, however.

We have, since 9/11, seen an increase in the militarization of our police force. SWAT teams were, at one point, something big cities had that were for special situations. Hostage takings and that kind of thing. What we increasingly have are SWAT teams that are trying to look and behave like a localized SEAL Team Six or Delta Force.

Here is a picture of some Delta Force operators (1):


Here’s a picture of some SEALs(2):


This is a picture of the police in Ferguson, MO within the last 72 hours(3):


Notice the similarities. The men in the first two pictures are supposed to be able to go and hit a target, killing everything that isn’t them and isn’t an innocent, and be gone before the enemy knows that they are dead. What could reasonably be expected to happen on the streets of an American city that would justify turning police officers into special forces operators? I can’t think of too many that wouldn’t necessitate calling out the national guard so it seems to me that American cities already have a ‘worst case, Hollywood law enforcement scenario’ (think the beginning of Predator 2) solution.

The situation, as I have sketched it above, isn’t even the whole story because, like much else in this nation, race is a significant factor. In fact, we should see in a simple contrast just what a mess we are in. Consider two types of police responses at diametrically opposed ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, there’s the Open Carry movement. These folks would like to impress upon those of us who don’t carry weapons that they are carrying weapons and that they demand to be able to walk into the local Circle K with an AR-15 strapped across their shoulder and a 9mm in a holster on their belt. The very essence of patriotism is, we are assured, tied up in their ability to do so. To oppose them doing so is to be un-American. As far as I am aware, the police have not shot anyone at these demonstrations . Not a single one. Why? Because the Open Carry people are almost entirely white and so are not seen as a threat. Over the same summer that this has been happening, in just the last few weeks no fewer than four entirely unarmed black men have been shot to death by police.

It’s not true that everything you need to know about race, law enforcement and media in America is contained in the paragraph immediately above but it does get you very far down the road in understanding it. All you need do is imagine the reaction of the police if a group of black men showed up at the local Target store, each one with an AR-15 and some kind of sidearm. Does anyone reading this believe, even for a second, that this would not end in blood on the concrete as the officers shot these men dead? A kid in a store was shot dead because he had a toy gun!

I wrote this piece because I have seen a few posts along the theme of ‘America is not for black people’ and I disagree with that. Yes, it is true that an unarmed black man is seen as enough of a threat to be shot dead by police and a white man armed to the teeth is just a patriotic American exercising his natural rights. It is equally true that this is grotesquely unfair. But that does not make this country any less mine. Saying ‘America is not for black people’ surrenders way too much, way too soon. This is our country as much as it is anyone’s and we deserve the equal protection of the laws. We have to find a way to maneuver America, using peaceful and non-violent means, into a place where it starts to backup from treating law enforcement as a domestic version of counter-insurgency. It isn’t.

One of the things that my reading about military affairs has given me is an appreciation of how much solders aren’t really good at being policemen and vice versa. Sane militaries try to keep any occupations they take part in short because the very things that make soldiers good at fighting (lethality) is precisely the thing you do not want turned upon the population you are trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of. You cannot convince people you are there for them when you throw flash bangs through the windows, breach the doors and shoot everything in sight in under ninety seconds. They tend to think that the broken and dead bodies of their friends and relatives are a more eloquent testimony of your intentions. Likewise, as long as the police continue to shoot down, choke, beat to death and otherwise take the immediate path of maximal force when dealing with black people we will take that behavior as being far more accurate than any soothing words you might speak.

Ideally, if the police have to intervene with force they will use the least damaging force initially and, if circumstances call for it, escalate from there. Soldiers, ideally, will use the maximal amount of force needed to quickly kill the enemy and convince him to put down his weapons to save life and limb. If you are a former soldier or the loved one of a soldier, you have good reason to want your or your loved one’s commanding officer to instruct the troops to open with enough force to quickly bring a conclusion to bullets flying all over the place. The sooner the bullets stop, the safer all are. Within reason (no destroying the village to save it, no opening with nukes) we should want our military to apply the maximal amount of effective force without straying into overkill (again, no nukes). We should want our police, however, to use restraint until such time as it is clear restraint is not appropriate. Different missions, different expectations.

Although this has serious racial weight, I would urge my fellow citizens who are white to consider the implications of having police departments increasingly behaving as if they were special forces operators fighting a counter-insurgency. The cop who shoots down my son today, is the same cop who will shoot down your son tomorrow.

Photo credits:




Black Doom-Clouds of Thought

        I have two fond remembrances of Robin Williams. The first was that we saw the pilot episode of Mork and Mindy being filmed on a family trip to Universal Studios. The second is that he was a customer at Gamescape in San Francisco where he would buy Shadowrun books and figures. When he came in, we all just treated him like Robin, a customer who had his favorite RPG just as we all did. I remember the first time he came in, we had called to let him know that his special order was ready and he popped by. My manager, Fritz, had told me just to treat him like any other customer and so I did. He looked relieved when a face he didn’t recognize behind the counter just spoke to him like he was just another nerd. We even started quoting Monty Python at one another.

        That is really throat clearing though. What I really want to talk about is how a man admired by so many could take his own life because he felt so inadequate. I rarely write about my struggle with depression because, on the whole, I think my Episcopalian upbringing in an academic household imbued with a deep sense of personal privacy around the interiority of our lives. I think that my own struggles are less interesting than what I might think about the issues of the day. But given Robin William’s suicide, I thought I would post a little something about what it is like to live with a ghost that instead of rattling chains and moaning whispers into the back of the mind little sweet nothings like, “they all think you’re not very good at this. They’re just too nice to tell you.” or “if anyone knew that this is your interior monologue, what would they think of you now” or “you know it’s a shame you squandered your talents in your youth, think of where you could be now”. That last one always has the tone and inflection of my mother’s voice because she was forever telling me that I was squandering my talents.

        I can well imagine Robin Williams sitting in his palatial Tiburon home, overlooking the Bay, surrounded by the toys he has acquired, people he loves, and the accolades and awards of four decades in the public eye and him thinking “so what? I got all of this on a lie. I’m not the brilliant actor everyone keeps telling me I am. I know! I’ll work harder. No, what’s the point…” I can well imagine it because I go through that on a quasi-regular basis. That dark cloud hangs overhead suggesting that somehow, I have hijacked the life of someone far more worthy of my good fortune than I, has been a companion since at least puberty. I tried to will myself through it. I tried to pray myself through it. I clutched crystals and chanted mantras and went to Al-Anon, ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), Codependents Anonymous, and hours and hours of therapy. Whenever a therapist would suggest that I talk to my doctor because I might be struggling with a case of severe depression. It took until 1997, when some coworkers asked if something was wrong when my life was, at the time, going along pretty swimmingly that I took the idea that there might be something wrong with my brain chemistry and that was a better explanation for my dawn-to-dusk self-berating extravaganza that was my internal monologue. The idea that I might be off my equilibrium such that others noticed drove me to my doctor who prescribed the anti-depressant I’ve been taking, to great effect, for almost two decades now.

        The drug I take isn’t proof against the more doom-cloud thoughts I can generate. Rather, the drugs buy me enough space to be able to, with varying amounts of effort, stop myself from getting sucked into some kind of vortex of self-loathing.

        I started a new job earlier this year, the first time I’d done so in almost a decade. I have been at New Relic just shy of six months now and before sitting down to write this piece, I had been going back and forth with myself since last nigh thinking “you’re not doing a very good job. Everyone is just really nice about not telling you but they all see you’re not a rockstar and aren’t on the ascendence.” This, of course, prompted the chorus of concerns about what happens if I lose my job and how I would have failed my family, what with Jaime so close to the end of school that she can almost taste it. Then I saw an email from one of the senior TSEs on my team with a review of some of the tickets I had worked on. At several points he noted how I had clearly developed a solid grasp of the technology and that he was impressed with how I synthesized research I had done from internal wiki articles or prior tickets and didn’t rely solely on copy and pasting. In other words, I’m doing a really good job and he’s fairly impressed.

        My wife knows that I will freely admit that my view of myself is entirely out of skew with how the rest of the world views me and this mismatch is not that my opinion of myself is too high. Rather, when the rest of the world sees me they see an intelligent, very driven, successful professional woman who is a talented writer, a kind and loving spouse, and a good neighbor. That is what everyone else sees. On good days I’ll grant myself being a tad smarter than the average bear and the rest, well, people can be so generous.

        That is the part about depression that I think people who don’t grapple with a perpetual motion machine of negative thoughts don’t quite grok; no one wants to be stuck in these loops of doom. But when one of them starts and takes hold, sometimes all I can do is ride it out. The drug I take makes riding it out easier but I still have to ride it out. It doesn’t matter what the external circumstances look like. By any reasonable definition, I am doing very well in life and yet there’s always that nagging suspicion that I am where I am because I was either lucky or the rest of the world is oblivious to my faults. I can’t just stop having those thoughts, I can work with them as best I can and try not to isolate myself.

         Robin Williams, alone, knows what his interior landscape looked like in the last 24 hours of his life. I certainly do not know. But having been on that precipice three times before I turned 30 and pulled back each time, I can imagine it. I can imagine him looking around and thinking that all he has belongs to some other Robin Williams, the one worthy of all the accolades, not him. That is, ultimately, why his death felt more personal than celebrity deaths usually do. Yes, he made an indelible mark on my childhood but it was the mental illness we both shared and which, at the end of the day, killed him is what caused me to break my usual writing stance and do something much more personal.

RIP Mr. Williams. There are so many roles and lines that I will remember fondly but it is “phenomenal cosmic power! Itty-bitty living space.” that I hold and will continue to hold most fondly. You made Aladdin watchable for me.

Never Have I Been So Proud to work for a For-Profit Company

As those of you who read this blog and know me outside of the Internet are well aware, I left my job of nine years in March and joined New Relic as a support engineer in the Portland office. New Relic builds hands-down some of the most awesome software I have ever worked with in a twenty year career. The company is enthusiastically involved with the FOSS community. We actively encourage user groups and trying to expand technology out to reach girls and young women and introduce them to the joy of letting your nerd flag fly. It is a very ‘nerd positive’ environment.

I have had a number of jobs in my life and I have been proud to work for a few of them. I was proud of myself for landing a few other jobs. But with the exceptions of the US Army, IGC Networks and Street Tech I have never been proud of the company I work for. Not proud to work there (although I feel that as well) but proud of it.

The reasons for it are explained in this blog post:

New Relic could have handled it in any number of ways but the official response, our public response, was for us to offer an actual apology. Not one of those pseudo apologies where the subtext is always “well, if some thin skinned twerp and wilting violet was offended I’m sorry.” No, this was real and from the gut, where we live:

The whole blog post is well worth the read, but this from Patrick Moran, our chief marketing officer is what I’m most proud of:

Our apology
We love the communities we participate in. We love the developers, the designers, the makers that build stuff. But in this case, we irritated one of these community members, and we’re sorry.
It would have been so easy for me to drop him an email last year. We still would have used the name (honestly), but we could have been—we should have been—human about it.
So Andrew, please consider this an honest, public, apology from the leadership and staff here at New Relic. You deserved the call last year, and we never dialed your number.

I’d been waiting to see how we would respond to this matter but I would never have guessed in 100 years that the above would be part of it.

This is a good day to be a Relic and I am extremely proud of my company for being such a great company and a good community member. The values expressed in the whole piece is part of why I stayed in tech when a lot of people I knew starting out got out of the game for one reason or another.