Thursday, April 25, 2013

Belonging, Democracy and Muslims

Introduction: After the Boston marathon bombing, the head of the liberal party, a possible future prime minister, said some foolish things. A front page cartoon in the National Post newspaper shows (probably) the prime minister and his wife at a casket. The wife is weeping, the husband is turning around angrily. In the foreground the liberal would-be PM is saying, "Can we talk about root causes now, or have I come at a bad time?"

I decided this piece needed to be posted again.

Having enlarged my frame of community, I manage to feel happy and included.

Did I tell you I grew up poor? In the bush? In a space and time where no one was an immigrant and everyone was a member of the caucasian race? At 17 I moved out on my own, working part-time, and attended grade 12 in a high school in the nation's third largest city. The school was different and therefore not-as-good. I went from well water to chlorine water, from fresh air to tasting car exhaust. It was a lonely year, at first. It took a while before I belonged.

A Memory: I'm being driven by a classmate, Sam, past a manicured park and he is asking me which girl I am taking to the prom.

A Scenario: I could have resentfuly glanced right and thought,"Look at that stupid 'pool table' park. How are kids supposed to play imagination games there?" I could have glanced left and thought, "Who does this rich city snob think he is... with his car and his ski trips." I could have looked around and resented all those members of the mongolian race walking by... but since my school was half Chinese, I would have cut in half my chances for a date Saturday night! (The other half was Italian)

I answered, "Lorraine Chow."

He exploded, "Hey! She's really nice!"

Last I heard, the girl was doing social work, and the boy, Sam Sullivan, is now the mayor of Vancouver. He is Vancouver's mayor, and then again, Vancouver is his city. Exactly who belongs to whom? Easy: "Belonging" is a matter of attitude. It is a mental construct; we make it up.

Belonging is easiest for me in a democracy, even if I live alone, "a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made," because in a democracy I feel the most equality, liberty and hope... Meanwhile a trial is unfolding where a bunch of Canadian youths, of mostly high school and college age, stand accused of terrorism. It seems that most of them are not so much evil as innocent fools. Charges have been dropped on 7 of the 18 arrested. Upon being freed, let us hope they will go forth to be productive members—who belong—of society.


When the arrests were made, two years ago, two things stood out for me: An older man planned to chop off the prime minister's head with a sword, and some Muslim young women known to the accused, some of them married, were featured in the newspaper as "feeling marginalized" in Canada. The women had been exchanging e-mail about how they hate their fellow Canadians... Now, for a teenybopper goth to feel "alienation and isolation" (A and I) is normal, even charming, when seen from my older viewpoint; but for a housewife to feel this way, and to also have hatred, smacks of her not facing her adult responsibility.

I was 15 when my grade 10 English teacher, Mr. Wong, devoted an entire semester to poems and stories with the theme of "A and I." He even included song lyrics such as Sounds of Silence and I am a Rock. There is some comfort in just knowing that "A and I" is the default state of people. The girl who joins goth peers is taking a good first step. I dimly recall sitting with Lorraine while one of my favorite teachers, Mr. McCutcheon, spoke at graduation. Years later he became the principal. All I remember is the part where he said something like, "Remember when you first came to this school? It felt so cold; you felt so lost and lonely? Then you joined your first club. Suddenly the school was a warm friendly place. And so you found your school spirit."

A Daydream: A grown Muslim woman has joined a badminton club of mainly Sudanese ladies. Half the members are Muslim, half Christian. After she begins to belong she then feels free to ask a new friend, "But isn't it easier to have a habit of hatred? How can you girls get along when there is a civil war and deaths back home? The friend answers, "As Jesus said, 'let the dead bury the dead.' Here is our new home, here we are alive and thrive..." ... I suppose that as a person's inner conflicts are integrated it becomes easier to integrate into the concept of community.


Of course "joining a club" is only the tip of the ice berg. You could rattle off a dozen "non join-something" ways to belong, only to have an angry woman-child say, "Yes, but—" Then you could brainstorm a further score of ways to integrate only to get a score of "Yes, but—" in reply. Never mind. When the person is ready to take responsibility for herself then the "ways" will appear.

I wouldn't give a lady specific advice but I might spark a thought by saying, "I certainly don't dress like a "real member" of the mainstream culture, not when I wasn't raised middle class, not when I will attend a graduation without wearing a neck tie. However, having enlarged my frame of community, I manage to feel happy and included."

While responsibility is first and last an individual thing, the community can help. A Muslim congregation could help each other by directly discussing the topic of "Belonging" or, indirectly, by asking, "If raising our families in western civilization is a good thing, then why might that be so?" To quote from memory a line from writer David Gerrold, let us be "encouraging a nation that works for everyone with no one left out."

I am thinking of Muslims because of something the New York Police Department reported. They said that when those Canadian youths attended a Mosque (church) on a certain Sunday they all showed up wearing camouflage. They only made this mistake once. The police weren't surprised that they were so young and reckless. The surprise is that, according to police, not one member of the congregation informed any Canadian authorities. No one chatted with a beat cop, dropped in on their city alderman, climbed the stairs between the globes to see the desk sergeant... I could easily brainstorm ten more ways that were not attempted.


If "belonging" is a state of mind then "democracy" is too. Without this "state of mind" something like, say, "voting," is a mere shell, a hollow form holding nothing but air. In far off lands, because of hundreds of years of not knowing democracy, voters think that "having adult responsibility" belongs to the prince and his government. The government is "they" and the people live—or more precisely, exist—with "apathy," from the Greek a for "without" and path for "emotion" or, "spirit."

When having spirit—the word relates to breath—a person is inspired to breath in deeply and look around to take action. ("a" can also mean "onto") He aspires to ascend to great things, to belong. Having apathy is different: a persons' lungs deflate, shoulders sag, and he glances under his eyebrows towards city hall to say, "What's the use?" ("ex" can mean "out") As he exhales his sense of being a lively citizen exspires. Such little deaths are an everyday thing for commoners in lands without democracy. Better to exit such a landscape (exscape) and raise your children in Canada.

I suppose a girl-wife who remains stuck on the doorstep of adulthood will have her lungs only half full, her diaphram a tense frustrated knot. She'll relax once she accepts life and steps on through.

This month (April 2013) on the CBC I heard a good example of a good citizen here in Calgary. A man who disagrees with air conditioners being on the sides of house, in the little infill canyon, (not facing the backyard) researched the matter on his own, unpaid, as a volunteer—meaning: as a citizen. He looked into the history of agreements between the city and the housing companies, the UN report on air conditioning subsonics, and sucessful bylaws and practices in Australia, and talked to people here in town about whether the noise bothered them too. After all his effort, all his willingness to be responsible rather than a passive peasant, it is no wonder that our Muslim mayor is bringing the matter before city hall.

Here at home the government is us. With the spirited energy of belonging we all have the right to see files at city hall, talk to our bureaucrats and talk to our aldermen. We have the right to think and research and compare our findings with others. Our Right, checked by common sense, is balanced by our Responsibility to act, especially when a bunch of men suddenly come to church in camouflage. Maybe "democracy," too, is a topic for a congregation.

Apathy follows giving up—I don't give up on democracy and Canada; I don't give up on congregations and individuals—they will surprise you. At my platoon's 10 year reunion a red headed former corporal, whom I remembered as a bigot, smiled broadly to report to us that he had a wife who had come here from Hong Kong at age six. Another surprise: A stern graying Chinese father, patriarchal and traditional, told his daughter something that really touched her. She was grown up and was just starting her own business. He said that as a young man he had come here to the "Gold Mountain" (America) so that his daughters could have equal rights.

So now school spirit days are replaced by community spirit. One man's Canada is the excited crowds at ice hockey games, another man feels awe at solitary trout fishing, and my own energy is boosted every time I get a nice surprise... When Sam and I were teens an influx began of people from the state of Punjab. Today Sam is nurturing his sense of belonging by learning the Punjabi spoken by so many loyal Vancouverites. He has already learned to speak fluent Cantonese and Italian. Should I drop in on Sam? No, "Mayor Sullivan" is too busy doing good.

God bless us, every one.

Sean Crawford

during Calgary stampede
shouting "Yee-haw!" together
Summer.28,  2008

update: for Oct. 3 2009 the newspaper reported, "Member of 'Toronto 18' sentenced to seven years."


~This time around, 2013, the Muslims are not so silent; the Calgary Sun did a sidebar showing the Muslims were against holy war, and that it was a Muslim who tipped off the police.

Here's what Founding Editor Peter Worthington said in the Calgary Sun on page 26 for April 25:
"There has been one significant development in the continuing "war against Terrorism" that until recently has been alarmingly absent: Muslims are increasingly standing up and opposing terrorism that is being done in their name.
Where once there was silence at Islamist or jihadist exremism, more and more ordinary and influential Muslims are registering their opposition.
Silence in the Muslim community was in part through intimidation—fear of militant reprisals. The media and politicians were similarly silent, wary of demonstrations and even violent acts if they dared criticize.
That, too, is fading, as clearly there is little in the way of resentment or blame directed at ordinary Muslims."

~The father was in Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong.

Random ideas of ways to belong to a city: take a walking tour, get interested in local industry, dig in to local history, dance, volunteer, share a kind word with the butcher and baker, watch local TV and read a local newspaper, sing, attend a mosque and community center ...these are all actions...

How to get out of wearing a tie: Wear a dark suit along with a pin stripe business shirt with a keyhole chinese collar.

For more on extremists see my Wizards, Extremists and Truth essay, of June 2011.

For democracy as a goal see my Goals and 300 (the film) essay, of March 2013

More Greek: (my rough translation)

the root word path = emotion or spirit

the prefix a = without, ...the suffix y = characterized by or pertaining to

the prefix sym = together, ...the suffix ic or etic = characterized by or pertaining to

the prefix tele = at a distance

the prefix em = with ... (an old Star Trek show was called The Empath)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Global Hot Air

So my brother e-mails me all the way from the Philippine Islands, where he lives, to say he figures this global warming stuff is a smoke screen for something... He asks me if I have any ideas about what's going on. I don't know.

I reply that here in the Alberta oil patch if the average person writes into the newspaper letters section to express any skepticism at all then there is sure to be an emotional insulting reply, from another person, accusing him of being a stooge for an oil company. Hence no one will write in anymore. So that's it for public responsibility.

I said that a (local?) syndicated journalist wrote that it is OK for journalists to be biased on this issue—  although normally journalists hold on dearly to their ethics. Except in this case. So that's it for responsibility from the fourth estate. (journalists)

Which leaves only the scientists, those who traditionally, regardless of their community passions, strive to be scientific when it comes to science. Unfortunately I read in the paper how a local university professor did not go to a conference of his peers back east. He said he would be extremely unwelcome for his views on whether or not global warming was caused by carbon dioxide. So that's it: "Objective" scientists will object to someone expressing "his" views rather than respond by analyzing "the" views.

I told my brother it's like being in one of those science fiction societies where the hero and his pals are the only ones who know of X. I take comfort from President Harry Truman, a history buff, saying philosophically, "We go through such hysterias on occasion; nobody knows why."

If individuals on the far side of the globe are starting to ask questions, then maybe the Dark Side is not so monolithic. Dawn will come. As President Lincoln said: This too shall pass.

Sean Crawford,
Jedi Knight,
Spring 2008/13

Update: Today, April 22, 2013, the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources is reported as being stonewalled by the New York Times, in the Calgary Herald. It seems that "according to Oliver and his aide, he sent a 550-word op-ed or letter to the editor to the NYT—sent to various inboxes—but it was never published...the (NYT) also has a huge staff and surely must screen for letters that come from government officials who are rebutting several pieces that have run on their editorial pages.

So, there are two possibilities here. Either the editors read Oliver's letter and didn't like that it exposes their shoddy fact checking, or ...

So, Oliver is hoping that his meeting with the New York Times today will help set the record straight."

It is an open secret that many are opposed to the Keystone pipeline not on the merits of 21st century pipeline technology but as a way to combat tar sands and global warming. It looks to me like the media is still biased—although, as I said, normally journalists  believe in ethics.

~By "syndicated" I mean she was also published in the Sun for two other cities.

~The professor story, by Licia Corbella, ran November 30, 2005 on page 4 of the Calgary Sun.

~Regarding science, my Smokers essay of September 2011 refers readers to Michel Crichton's speeches on his web site. He quotes the UN climate report at length, and documents how climate data from a European site "has been changed." Back home on the farm we called that "has been falsified."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Dunning-Kruger Effect 

Right after Easter, I did a speech at my Toastmasters International (public speaking) club. “Spring is sprung” we said; “I want to spring a new concept on you” I said.

Easter, of course, celebrates the return of spring, and new life, and the return of Jesus of Nazareth. The experts say that Jesus was both 100 per cent divine and 100 percent human. And I think He was 100 per cent wonderful. From the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar I recall the scene, in my version of memory, where King Herod is gazing at Jesus in the distance. Herod, half sprawled across a harlot, calls out derisively,

“OK Jesus, if you’re so cool,
Walk across my swimming pool.”

Gazing around at my fellow toastmasters, I posed the question: “Do you think King Herod could “see” Jesus for what he was?” No, of course not. And if the Buddha came into this room and we were helping each other at the coffee urn, would I “clue in” that I was standing beside an enlightened being? Not right away, maybe not at all. Maybe I would need a glimmering of enlightenment myself before I could “see” him.

Last summer Bob Elwood told us of building a stone fountain in his back yard. He could have planned in advance where each stone would go; he could have planned a timetable, with stages, and deadlines, forcing himself to get it done. Not Bob. He enjoyed being in his yard, week after week, guilt free, and then one day, he and his brother found themselves easily spending a full day on it, getting it all done, and feeling good. No guilt, no regrets, only a deep satisfaction. I posed the question: “Bob, when you were, say, age 21, would have been able to “imagine” such a thing?” Bob slowly shook his head. “No.”

There were two professors, Kruger and Dunning, at Cornell University, and they did an experiment. They met students coming out of the classroom after an exam, and they asked them how they thought they did on the test, and then compared the student’s guesses to their actual marks. The professors did this for classes and tests as diverse as logic, English grammar and spotting written humor. The results were always the same.

Imagine if 100 students were lined up in a row, from the lowest mark to the highest. (In science, this is called a percentile) The students who just “didn’t get it” rated themselves about as being at the 60 mark. (percentile) In other words, as being “above average.” I asked my fellow toastmasters, “Guess what their actual mark was?”
“40?” This was the common guess.
“Nope. Lower.” They were surprised.
“20?” Fewer guesses now, they couldn’t believe it was that low.
“Nope. Lower still”
One brave soul guessed, “10?”
I said, “It was 12.”

Call it the Dunning-Kruger effect. (or Kruger-Dunning, which is easier to say) The implications: The truly incompetent don’t know they are incompetent, and furthermore, they are unable to “see” competence in others.

We can see a version of this effect in our city, and in every city where a certain experiment has been tried: According to statistics, most of us are average drivers—According to scientific polls, most of us self-report being above average drivers. In other words, that crazy tailgater behind you in your left lane thinks he’s a good driver and you’re not: He can’t understand why you don’t save him a mini-micro second of time by riding the bumper of a school bus full of innocent children—even as both you and the bus driver are passing car after car over in the right lane—and even if he is “planning” to suddenly dart two lanes to the right for his turn off during rush hour. When the tailgater looks in his bathroom mirror, what he doesn’t see is an incompetent driver.

As for the truly competent students, Kruger and Dunning found they tended to modestly underestimate their mark. They were humble. This makes sense to me: I imagine if you are seeking excellence and immersing yourself in something then after a while you can’t imagine how others are so unfamiliar with what you are so “into.” As my favorite web essayist and computer programmer Paul Graham put it, “If there is a Michael Jordon of (programming), no one knows, not even him.”

Another fine web essayist and programmer, “Stevey” Yegge, once wrote how he started out as a beginner, and then got to where he proudly thought he was a good programmer. …After some years he realized, one day, (in my version) ‘I had thought I was a good programmer before, but now I’m proud to be a good programmer.’ …After some more years he thought ‘Now at last I’m a good programmer, I was mistaken those other times.’ …After some more years, after becoming a still better programmer, he perceived the pattern…. How humbling. Today he knows he will spend his life seeking excellence while realizing he will never understand those few truly great programmers. Just as I can’t understand the Buddha’s enlightenment while sadly realizing I can “see” no stepping-stones to get me to where he is.

Being an experienced programmer, Stevey does a lot of the hiring interviews at Google. He reports that while he can weed out the ones who only “talk a good game,” and spot any programmer as smart as he is, he just has no way to “see” the super-competent. This frustrates the hell out of him. For hiring superstars, he concludes, “You just have to get lucky.”

I have tried, I told my fellow club members, to imagine the Kruger-Dunning effect in the real world. As you know, people often run for election to be US president after being a state governor or vice-president. I imagined a man who thought he was a good mayor, and then thought he was a good state governor, and then thought he could try for the White House. Only he wasn’t a man, he was a lady, Sarah Palin! ... (You may recall that even when reporters lobbed softball questions at her, she would still swing wildly and miss—every single time) Too bad she hadn’t spent a little time—ten or twenty minutes every day—learning social studies.

I have asked myself, “What are the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect for my own life? Maybe I could role model off Stevey, not Sarah: Every day at home he made a little effort to learn a little math. For my part, if I believe I know “a lot” about my career, “except for a few things I could pick up anytime I needed to” then maybe, perhaps, I should get around to learning these “few things” sooner, not later. Until then I’d better not claim to be an expert, at least not loudly and egotistically.

For the rest of my life, the best thing I could do is what the Japanese call Kaizen: lots of little improvements. This I believe: Never stop learning, never give up.

Here’s a practical application of the Dunning-Kruger effect: Suppose I am seeking a martial arts teacher, but I don’t want a bad one. I suppose I could go around to the students at various dojos, and they might all tell me they have a fine sensei. (Literally: one who has gone before) Simply asking students, then, would not be my test. Rather, I would meet the sensei and then, if he was egotistical? I would head for the door! Surely, for any calling in life, the good ones are humble…. Contrawise, the egotistical ones are always the mediocre ones—and they don’t even know it.

Thus I ended my talk. My speech evaluator, as it happened, worked in human resources, (personnel) and she told us with amusement she didn’t like the idea that for hiring superstars you have to get lucky. Later that night in the bar people told me they really liked my speech. I wondered if I should have ended by returning to a scene with Jesus.

…The man who stilled the water had no use for ego. In His day, the equivalent of a percentile line up would be at a wedding table, where the “top of the line” was the guy at the head of the table, next was the guy seated at his right, next the guy on the left, and so on down the table. In my version of the scene, Jesus advised against ego, against running up and shoving for a high place in the line. What he advised instead was humbly finding a seat near the bottom of the table, being content there… and maybe then being invited up to a higher place. How wonderful: This was 2,000 years before Kruger and Dunning.

Sean Crawford,
Seeing my first robins,
April 2013
Footnotes: More from Paul Graham's essay, News From the Front
"No one ever measures recruiters by the later performance of people they turn down."

Graham was referring to "playing it safe" by only recruiting folks from "big name" universities—Note: Unlike Europe and Canada, down in the US campuses vary widely, even within the same state university; hence they will only sometimes put the adjective "good" in front of a "university."—The application to "not being able to see greatness" is obvious. His above sentence was footnoted:
[2] Actually, someone did, once. Mitch Kapor's wife Freada was in charge of HR at Lotus in the early years. (As he is at pains to point out, they did not become romantically involved till afterward.) At one point they worried Lotus was losing its startup edge and turning into a big company. So as an experiment she sent their recruiters the resumes of the first 40 employees, with identifying details changed. These were the people who had made Lotus into the star it was. Not one got an interview.