Thursday, June 30, 2016

Because rams are Satanic

I was a Riley Raider in the single-digit years of my life.  Eventually enough parents complained that naming an elementary school after pillagers and rapists was somewhat inappropriate, and we became the Riley Rams.  Parents immediately objected to that because rams are Satanic, and we then became the Riley Superstars.  Now the internet tells me that they're the Rams again.  Parents are fickle, it seems.

One of my favorite parts of being a Raider was music class.  I liked getting to sing in school, I liked getting to play with drums and xylophones and the utterly fascinating autoharp, and I just liked having a part of the day devoted to music.  My teacher, whose name I can't quite recall—Mrs. Anderson, maybe—was a tall, kindhearted white lady who I'd guess was about 40.  She walked the fine line between letting us get into our rendition of "Jimmy Crack Corn" and enjoy life, and letting us goof off so much that we devolved into Lord of the Flies chaos.  But the one rule that she strictly enforced was that everyone had to try their best to stay on pitch.  She was the music teacher, after all.  Seems reasonable.

I recall her specifically instructing us more than once that while it was okay to sing like the people on the radio at home, in her class we had to sing correctly: one pitch per syllable, except the "Gloria" in "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."  What "correctly" meant was, to bluntly approximate, "not like black people."  I didn't understand that at the time.  I didn't actually have much exposure to pop music other than rock until middle school, and given that it was the 80s, I suppose that pop music on the radio would have been pretty dominated by white people anyway.  My recollection of middle school is that it was actually rather diverse, maybe only a bit more than half white.  Middle school art class in the early 90s was probably the first time that I heard non-rock pop music for any length of time.  And then, certainly, I heard a lot of "incorrect" singing and soulful R&B voices, with two or even three pitches per syllable.  But elementary school, despite being only a few blocks away, was not like that at all.  I'd go so far as to describe it as almost all-white.  (According to the website, the staff is also exclusively white at the time I'm writing this.)

I didn't wonder until recently what kind of subtle impact those lessons might have had.  What does a white child learn when they're taught for five hundred hours across six years that the way that they hear white people sing is correct, and the way that they hear black people sing is incorrect?  (That may not be nearly as true today as it was a few decades ago, but I would argue that you could still guess a vocalist's race today with somewhat-reasonable accuracy based on their manner of singing.)  Even without my teacher ever explicitly mentioning race in the class, that seems like a lot of subtle subconscious reinforcement; our brains are good at putting together patterns like those.  And furthermore, how does it feel for the one or two black kids who already have limited exposure to people they can relate to at school?

I don't mean to call my elementary school music teacher an awful racist.  But looking back, I do think that she could have done better to help encourage her students to embrace a wider variety of musical styles, by playing genres of popular music in class that we might not have been familiar with, and allowing kids to emulate the artists that they knew and loved even if they sang in a style that she wasn't familiar enough with to teach.

Really, I suppose it's not terribly worse than an elementary school music teacher of 2016 who told their students that music produced on computers or samplers is inferior to acoustic music, which would be absurd and harmful, without bringing race into it at all.  Art classes for children can teach ideas and techniques and stimulate creativity and broaden horizons—they shouldn't be used to tell kids that the very things that excite them about art are incorrect.

That is, unless the child is starting to show an interest in country music.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Conquering Australia

I don't discuss politics often.  It's not a topic I care for all that much, and despite already being in the fourth season of House of Cards, it's not something I'm terribly qualified to talk about at depth.  But one thing that I've been thinking about a lot over the past few months has been those people who support Bernie but wouldn't vote for Hillary if she were the eventual nominee.  Some say that they wouldn't vote at all, or they'd vote for a third-party candidate (which is of course equivalent), or occasionally they say that they hate her so much that they'd rather vote for Trump, even though by all accounts their ideals and beliefs align much more closely with Hillary than Trump.

We live in something at least vaguely resembling a democracy—wait, a republic—well, at least we don't have a king.  We're each entrusted a vote, allowing us each a tiny say in how our country is run, and who should run it. It's a wonderful, sacred thing, and we shouldn't waste it on people we don't truly believe in.

Except, of course, no, it's nothing like that.  It's not sacred at all.  It's a minuscule tool that we're given as a part of a well-defined and completely absurd process that was designed by people who aren't us.  Hopefully that doesn't sound terribly paranoid, but I don't think it's very controversial to state that gerrymandering exists or that the electoral college is insane or that our systems of assigning primary delegates are maddeningly overcomplicated.

But anyway, people take it as this matter of personal pride that they refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils.  And I think that's madness.  Voting for a president is not choosing a godfather for your child, you're not taking them home to meet your parents, and they're not putting your name down as a reference for a job application.  You're not vouching for their character, and you don't even have to like them.  You don't have to like the process either.  In fact it's not about you at all: it's just a formal dance that our country goes through every four years, and trying to make it about you and your own romantic statement that you're making into the void and at no one in particular is counterproductive and irresponsible.

You did not write the rules to this game.  You can and should feel bad that it's a terrible system, and it's awesome if you want to help try to change it.  It would be wonderful if, in my lifetime, we actually fixed our election system and there were more than two real political parties.  But you should feel no more remorse voting for the lesser of two evils than you would for conquering Australia in a game of Risk.  That's just the way this game works.  You have all the other days of the year to work toward fixing things and raising awareness and convincing people that someday it would be really cool if we weren't controlled by the incredibly rich—but on election day the only thing you're doing is filling in an oval next to the name of the least terrible of two people.  Stop pretending that it's something that it's not.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Genghis Khan

Lately I've picked up a bunch of new albums from artists I like, and it's been pretty nice.

Basement Jaxx—Junto: 6/10
Highs: Never Say Never, Galactical
Some delightfully wacky house music, but spread a little too thin.  Don't bother springing for the deluxe edition.

Florence and the Machine—How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful: 8/10
Highs: Delilah, Queen of Peace, Third Eye
Beautiful, powerful, energetic, and interesting.  Delilah is pretty much what I want from rock-and-roll.

Foxy Shazam—The Church of Rock and Roll: 6/10
Highs: I Like It, The Streets, (It's) Too Late Baby
Modern-classic rock from Hipster Freddie Mercury.  I don't really want to listen to a whole album of it at once, but a few tracks now and then can be just right.

Sia—This Is Acting: 8/10
Highs: Bird Set Free, Alive, Cheap Thrills
It's like Sia covers the top pop hits of the past five years, except they're not covers at all.

Rihanna—ANTI: 6/10
Highs: Desperado, Same Ol' Mistakes, Love on the Brain
Some good tracks, and a few that just don't work work work work work work.  Mostly forgettable.

Miike Snow—iii: 7/10
Highs: Genghis Khan, The Heart of Me, My Trigger
A delightfully wacky foreign pop adventure starring Genghis Khan, easily the best song I've heard in months, with a fun video to go along.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis—This Unruly Mess I've Made: 7/10
Highs: Downtown, Light Tunnels, Brad Pitt's Cousin
Ventures a bit too far into pretentiousness from time to time, but still far more varied and interesting in subject matter and sound than the majority of rap music being cranked out.  Downtown is what you get when you mix nostalgia and showtunes and rap in a blender, and both the song and video are completely insane but work so very perfectly.

Random singles I recommend:
Dolly Parton—Jolene: Yes it's from 1974 and yes it's country, but it's still fantastic.
Kimbra—Goldmine: Rest of her second album is meh, but this one's solid.

Trent Reznor—Gone Girl: Good soundtrack for the movie, but uninteresting on its own.
Britney Spears—Femme Fatale: Actually liked it, but I couldn't see myself wanting to hear these songs very often... maybe if it's cheap
Rae Sremmurd—SremmLife: Awful pop-rap performed by children! Joy!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Basically describing empathy

Engineers are problem-solvers by trade.  If you stretch the definition of the word a bit to include "this thing isn't built yet" and "we don't know what the problem is yet" as "problems," that's pretty much all we do.  (That's not to say that's something exclusive to engineers.  For example, if you pretend that politicians aren't overwhelmingly corrupt and indeed want to make things better, then their work would be extremely similar in nature to that of an engineer.)  It's easy to become laser-focused on just solving one problem and then another and then another and then another, as quickly and efficiently as possible.  But that doesn't always produce the right outcome.

Any good software developer will recognize the importance of not causing more problems (bugs) in the process of fixing existing problems.  That should hopefully be obvious to someone before their first day on the job.  But when you start to stretch the definition of "problem" a bit, I think that fact remains just as true, but not nearly as obvious.  Eventually we learn to make things better holistically instead of just fixing bugs as independent tasks.

Let me explain with a theoretical example that came to mind today.  A bunch of people in my office are regularly using a service that delivers lunch from local restaurants each day.  They drop the lunch off in bags at the front desk, and recently enough people have been ordering from this service that they've needed to set up a separate table to hold all of the ordered lunches.  Now imagine that the service becomes more popular, to the point that it's being an inconvenience to other people who need that space for something else, or it looks unprofessional to visiting customers.  Now it's a problem.

The easy solution to the problem is to ban personal food delivery services—no more delivery services, no more pile of bags of lunch cluttering up the lobby.  Problem solved!  Except it's not really; solving that problem just created a new one, namely that all of those people who were using the lunch delivery service now have to find another way to get lunch.  Maybe they waste more time driving somewhere, or maybe they get something that they don't really like from a food truck, or at least they're really annoyed at that arbitrary decision to ban delivery services.  Solving the first problem just created a new one.

A better problem-solver would recognize the desire for a lunch delivery service, and instead of banning it, find a new place to store the delivered lunches where they're out of view of clients, but still convenient to access.

But probably the right solution for this problem is to analyze why the problem occurred in the first place.  Why was that delivery service so popular?  Once you've identified that, it opens up a much broader array of solutions to consider.  Maybe the correct solution is just to encourage more food trucks, so that people have a more interesting variety of meals to choose from.  Maybe it's to have someone hand-deliver lunch to offices so that dozens of people don't have to independently make trips to pick up their food.  Maybe it's something else that you'd never have thought of because you were just solving the problem of some bags being in the way.  Really solving the core problem instead of just fixing the first obvious symptom is often more efficient in the long run, and almost always a lot more satisfying.

I feel like I do a pretty good job at that kind of advanced problem solving at work and in general technical endeavors.  But what I really feel like I'm starting to get better at is applying that knowledge to non-technical things.  If your friend does something that really pisses you off, or they seem to be making terrible self-destructive life decisions, those probably aren't the real problems.  Finding a way to passive-aggressively get back at your friend, or nag them about it, is the work of a junior problem-solver.  But trying to understand what life circumstances led them to behave the way that they did so that you can attack the actual problem that needs to be solved—that's expert-level problem solving.  (Of course, not everyone wants you to solve their problems, but maybe all you need to do is to be aware, yourself, that there is a problem, and that's enough to help guide your friend and improve their life.)

When I put it that way, I suppose I'm basically describing empathy. That's a talent that I have certainly not been blessed with.  Far from it: I don't understand why people act the way they do, I can't easily imagine things from someone else's perspective, and I don't pick up on emotions or subtle hints.  But I can solve problems.  Instead of fixing every problem that crops up in my human interactions individually as efficiently as possible—be it an argument, a friend who needs advice, an inconsiderate person ahead of me in line, or so on—maybe some of the more important ones could use some advanced problem-solving skills, so I can find the better solution instead of just causing more problems.  I can investigate, and ponder, and try to understand why things turned out the way they did—that's something I know how to do.  (I'm far from an expert in the realm of my own interpersonal interactions, but I've gotten good at analyzing other people's problems and getting at the root of things, at least.)

I feel like I'm starting down that road.  It's a tough trail to follow, but it's a little bit happier and more peaceful and more rewarding here.