Mental Health Days

One of the blessings of my workplace is the ability to take impromptu (unpaid) days off as the need arises. As long as I have no pressing deadlines and my work is up to date, I can decide to take a “mental health day” as needed. Today was one of those days.

I’m not suffering through any sort of acute crisis, in case you were wondering. After weeks and weeks of some ups and and downs, I found myself able to build a lull into my work schedule, the girls were spending the weekend with their dad, and my partner is away at a conference. It seemed like an ideal time to take a 3-day weekend.

I had some snuggle time with sweetie, relaxed with the news (well, as much as one can relax with the news nowadays, but that’s another tangent), packed up my bike and headed over to Santa Cruz. First stop was Sylvan Music, a guitar retailer specializing in local builders, in particular Kenny Hill guitars. The market for classical guitars is not nearly as large as the steel-string market, so few retailers stock really high end classical models. It’s not unusual for local conservatory students to truck down to GSI in Santa Monica to pick out an instrument. Sylvan is an exception, largely (I suspect) due to Kenny Hill Guitars being located a stone’s throw away.

I’m paying close attention to how different guitars – even those with very similar geometries – express a particular flavor (technical word: timbre) of sound. Even within Kenny Hill’s particular line, I’m finding striking differences. I expect those with cedar tops to sound “mellower” than those with spruce tops, but Kenny Hill uses sort of space-age composite (a thin veneer of both spruce and cedar sandwiching a thin synthetic honeycomb for strength and weight reduction) with lattice bracing. Believe it or not, it matters whether the spruce layer is on the outside or inside of the top. One model also has a traditional construction where the neck/fingerboard interface is coplanar with the top of the body, while another uses a “raised” fingerboard (actually, a depressed upper bout) – this changes the angle at which the strings meet the body and consequently the resonant properties of the instrument.

Back when I started guitar #002 I wrote about parameter overload, the impossible number of factors to juggle in guitar design, all of which impact the timbre in tightly interactive, non-linear ways. Today, looking at guitars with relatively constrained options, I was still blown away at how differently each instrument sounded. Never mind picking up a Cervantes for comparison – totally different sound from the Kenny Hills. I’m realizing that I need to start keeping notes on which aspects of the sound I prefer. It’s a bit like trying to choose a favorite wine – while we may be partial to drier or sweeter varietals, the choice also depends on the occasion and mood. And of course, the most variable factor at the moment is my own playing. My practice is a bit spotty and my technique inconsistent as a result.

Back to the day off – after noodling with instruments that are worth more than my car (not hard – my car is 13 years old) I saddled up and rode the trails at Wilder Ranch. I haven’t been riding that much the past few weeks, but was pleased to see I still had the strength and stamina to ride one of my favorite loops through the park. Follow that up with yummy whole wheat crust pizza at Woodstock’s and coffee/blogging at Lulu Carpenters, and you have the start of a great weekend.

But what I really wanted to write about was the privilege I feel at even having the option to take a spontaneous day off. It’s both a combination of economic fortune (I can afford to lose a day’s pay) and being in a job that doesn’t require me to be in a particular locale at a particular time. If I were a college professor I couldn’t just cancel class to go mountain biking (hmmm… I’m remembering how few classes actually met on Fridays when I was last in school…); a doctor can’t just clear her calendar of appointments to take a mental health day. Chicago cab drivers working 51 hour weeks 50 weeks a year can expect to pull in around $32k; a day off can be costly.

And yet, I would wish this for everyone – that everyone could have the resources to just take an occasional day OFF. What would that take? I know some countries mandate a particular quota of paid time off – I can’t even imagine how that would work in the US.

My brother-in-law is a union telephone lineman in New England, currently in a labor dispute with Fairpoint Communications. I’ve been reading commentary about how “generous” these union benefits are – one new contract term under dispute would require workers to contribute to their own health insurance premiums for the first time ever. How about framing it this way: the unionized workers at Fairpoint have pay and benefits that ought to be the norm. Why aren’t we asking “why can’t we have pay/benefits like that?” rather than jealously resenting the dwindling proportion of unionized workers making living wages?

Bottom line: I wish everyone had the flexibility to afford and take days off when needed. There is really no reason this could not become a national norm.

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Voting, take 2

Yesterday’s post was a bit abstract. Now that the dust has settled (and the major national races have largely turned out as statistical models predicted), I’m thinking a bit more about the electoral process.

I wrote:

Obviously the real world is not as simple as this mathematical model – we have passionate factions on multiple sides of an election, the perceived costs/benefits of a good choice can vary, etc. But, having worked through the numbers, I’m struck at how little it takes to reliably tip the balance of an election in a particular direction.

How little it takes to tip the balance… I’m impressed with how well the art and science of persuasion has been developed in political advertising. In his book The Assault on Reason, Al Gore tells a story of one of his Senate campaigns. A strategist has suggested that in response to an opponent’s claim, Al should respond a particular way, and that would drive his favorable ratings up by a certain amount. To his surprise, when he followed the suggestion his poll ratings improved exactly as expected. This wasn’t necessarily due to the superior reasoning in his position – it was a message crafted by campaign staff, presumably focus group tested and run through statistical prediction models.

The history of social psychology in the 20th century is full of stories of how easily people – both individuals and groups – can be persuaded to alter opinions. Some experiments have shown how to persuade otherwise compassionate people ignore someone in distress, as well as how to encourage otherwise apathetic individuals to contribute/volunteer more than they might normally be willing. To a degree, people can be manipulated by messages. If you’re one who thinks “it could never happen to me,” decades of research suggest that there can be situations where you’re flat wrong, and you won’t necessarily recognize it when it’s happening.

So we’re all susceptible to manipulation. Let’s start with that as a given. Let’s also assume that nobody likes to be taken for a fool, or fall prey to this manipulation. What to do about it? I’ve made one personal choice, and that is to not have a television set in my home. I say this not as a point of pride or to climb up on a soap box, but to just state a fact: I dumped my TV in part because I respect the power of advertising (political and commercial) to shape my thinking. A dated but otherwise relevant book entitled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television makes this case well; even in the early days of neuroscience, we recognized that stimulating images taken in through our visual perception systems can implant ideas in our minds without our conscious awareness. Everything I have learned in psychology courses since only reinforces this belief.

Here’s another idea for inoculating against manipulation – engage in dialog over issues that encourages deliberative, thoughtful responses. What passes for “political debate” on television is essentially a set of dueling infomercials. It’s fast paced, with viewers on the edge of their seats trying to catch a “gotcha” moment. It’s harder to be manipulated when you take a deep pause to reflect on what you’ve just heard, and engage in a patient conversation with an equally patient partner. The coffee house and bar have functioned as such venues for centuries.

I was asked today what got me into the study of learning and education, and the election reminded me: my desire to see more people engaging in thoughtful inquiry around affairs that matter to them. This takes both a disposition and a set of skills, both of which can be acquired. (I note in passing that neither the disposition nor skills of intellectual inquiry are easily measured with multiple choice tests – fodder for future writing). The interests behind political advertising are trying to bypass our critical faculties, inducing us to take positions and vote (or not vote) without having actually thought deeply about our motivations.

Voting and uncertainty

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 From The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Oh how I relate to those two lines, particularly in this election cycle.  Hate mongers fill cyberspace with passionate intensity. Yes, the “good guys” express their share of passion, too, but often I find that the most thoughtful, nuanced commentaries on current events are… thoughtful, not passionate.

In my work I sometimes think of myself as a professional skeptic. We conduct large scale experiments on educational interventions, and roughly 90% of the time I end up being the bearer of bad news to passionate advocates – their particular policy/cause/gizmo was just not as effective as they’d hoped. People are complicated; social change is hard work, with few turnkey solutions (even when we’ve managed to define the “problem” adequately).

Politically, I’m generally left-leaning. Without parsing that too finely, I advocate for personal liberty (control over one’s reproduction, sexuality, freedom of expression and association, etc.), as well as a vision of government as steward and protector of the commons, particularly against those organizations/corporations/tribes who would impose their will on others.  Some issues for me are no-brainers. As often as not, however, people with similar ends in mind can argue over means. What should one do, for example, about housing stock in San Francisco? Do we even agree that preserving an economically diverse city is worth attempting in the first place?

Around this time of year I often read commentary to the effect of “why bother voting, we’re just choosing the lesser of two evils, if voting could change anything it would be illegal, etc.” While I sympathize with the spirit of these nay-sayers, I’ve come down firmly on the side of voting, even if what we’re doing is little more than a coin flip. I could cite a number of civic-minded reasons why voting is important (not the least of which is that it sends a message to politicians that people are paying attention), but I want to focus on decision making under uncertainty.

For those of us “lacking all conviction” (or who can see both sides of an issue), it’s tempting to withhold our vote until we have a strong, defensible argument for picking among A, B, C or D. What if I choose badly? What if the policy/politician I’m endorsing has unintended consequences I can’t foresee? Here’s my question – do you think it is more likely than not that your choice will further your political agenda in a desired direction? Not with a strong degree of certainty, just simply better than 50/50.  If you believe even slightly better than 50/50 that your choice will have a positive impact, you should vote.

I work with numbers and statistics so frequently that I sometimes forget to go back to basics and understand where my intuitions come from. I’ve been thinking about voting as a very error-prone process, but one in which the law of large numbers (or the Wisdom of the Crowd, to use a popular term) can tip the balance decisively.

Here’s a thought experiment. Say we have 1,000,000 voters choosing between two candidates. These million voters lack all conviction, but there is a very slight preference for the policy of candidate A over candidate B. Let’s say that out of 1,000 voters, 501 – just slightly more than 50/50 – favor candidate A. If you run the numbers, in the end we expect 50.1% – or 501,000 voters – to vote for A over B, and A wins.  Now of course, randomness means that we would never have exactly 501,000 to 499,000 in an election, but how “wobbly” would those numbers be?  After all, candidate A wins by a mere 2,000 votes in a population of one million. Here’s the magic: If I wave my statistical wand, I can tell you that in over 97% of elections of this type, candidate A would win¹.

Let’s think about this. One interpretation is that if half the population was just a smidgeon more convinced that candidate A was preferable, candidate A would win almost every time. Another interpretation is that it only takes one in 1,000 committed voters in a sea of uncertainty to swing an election. I invite you to contribute your own interpretation (and critique) in the comments.

Obviously the real world is not as simple as this mathematical model – we have passionate factions on multiple sides of an election, the perceived costs/benefits of a good choice can vary, etc. But, having worked through the numbers, I’m struck at how little it takes to reliably tip the balance of an election in a particular direction.

Sometimes – often – the majority is wrong; our history is one of prolonged oppression of minority groups, until either a court intervenes or public opinion dramatically shifts. Still, all else being equal, I would prefer to have thoughtful citizens weighing in on an issue – even under extreme uncertainty – than any of the alternatives.


¹ Technical footnote: The standard error of the sum of 1,000,000 coin tosses with a 50/50 probability is sqrt(1,000,000*.5*.5) = 500. A final result of 501,000 votes is two standard errors above a tie. Using a Normal approximation, we find that a bell curve centered at 501,000 with standard deviation of 500 has 97.5% of its area above the 500,000 (50/50) mark. That is, 97.5% of elections under this scenario should come out in favor of candidate A.

Right Involvement

This blog entry isn’t about woodworking. I want to keep up an intent to post at least weekly, and the last night of a weekend has become my time to write. Tonight I find myself thinking of events playing out on the national and world stage.

A couple of weeks ago we came back from Maui and I was struck by how restful it felt to “unplug” from the news and e-mail. Right when we’d departed for Maui it was clear that something significant was brewing in Egypt – by the time we returned it was in full revolution. Now we see unrest in other countries, and there is a showdown between the governor of Wisconsin (and his multi-billionaire backers the Koch brothers) and the public employee unions.  Oh, and the Republican majority in congress just voted to defund Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a slew of other organizations they politically oppose.

So I sign the appropriate petitions, write notes to my senators and representatives, even make sure I’m current on my donations to the right organizations.  But I don’t get on a plane to stand with the Wisconsin marchers.  I don’t drain my savings and give it all to political advocacy groups. In fact, now the pendulum for me is starting to swing in the other direction – I don’t even want to read the news any more. I feel like there is nothing I can do to alter the outcome, so why allow myself to be repeatedly enraged every time I pick up the newspaper?

And yet… somehow it feels important to bear witness to these events. The people in the streets in Cairo and Madison are counting on the fact that others are watching and holding the powerful accountable. If the rest of us shrug our shoulders and ignore the conflict, the powerful win.

So what is the right balance? I don’t have the answers. Right now “bearing witness” feels right, and I’m trying to do this without diving into the hyper-partisan media sources who (for good reason) are trying to inflame the passions of the readers. Anybody reading this: any thoughts on the matter?

Quick woodworking update: I’m working on what I think will be my last segmented bowl for a while. While the product is pretty, I don’t enjoy the construction/shaping process nearly as much as working from a solid block of wood, so I think I’m going to go back to fancy pens and solid wood turnings after this project.

What century are we in???

… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

United States Constitution, Article VI

OK, I’m a little steamed. Apparently on June 4 CNN hosted a forum on “faith and values” and invited the 3 leading Democratic candidates to participate. While I didn’t watch the actual event, published reports of the questions asked suggest this was essentially a 21st century McCarthy-style loyalty oath ceremony, wherein each candidate was required (in the sense that McCarthy’s victims were required to swear an oath of allegiance or face black listing) to expound on how faith has helped them in their lives.

Since when has religious fervor become a requirement for being taken seriously as a candidate? Even if the majority of Americans want to see such an exposition, I have a problem with a prime time television show essentially condoning a religious litmus test for public office. The Framers feared this so much they wrote it directly into the core of the Constitution – it didn’t even have to wait for the Bill of Rights.

By posting this blog for some political operative to find in future, am I effectively foreclosing the opportunity to run for state-wide or national office?

OK, off of soap box for now. This is going to be an interesting (or incredibly depressing) election seasion…

For a longer article and analysis on this forum, see this link.

Go Al!

I went to a talk by Al Gore last night, promoting his new book The Assault on Reason. I’m still working through Dawin’s The God Delusion, but Al Gore’s book is next in the queue. His essential message as I understand it is that “we the people” have allowed a power vacuum to develop due to our general inattention or aversion to civic and political matters. This leads to an erosion of rational discourse, and ultimately enables political leaders to make completely irrational judgments with impunity. The “rule of reason” appears to be fading.

So of course, someone asked “what can we do as individuals?” His jocular reply (it was the last question of the night and he was done) was “read my book.” But seriously, what would it take for us to get into the habit of discussing issues of the day in a reasonably civil, rational forum? Sort of like taking our 30 minutes of daily exercise – what would it take to engage civic/political issues for 30 minutes a day?

Al alluded to the Internet and other two-way technologies as a possible solution. Blogs, social networking sites, etc., are forums for the very back-and-forth he advocates. Of course, anyone who’s spent time looking at popular news sites with comments (Digg.com comes to mind) knows the rhetoric can turn nasty and juvenile pretty quicly. But there are those who stick with it and try to promote a higher level of civility and rational thinking.

I’ve always been impressed with European exchange students I’ve encountered in the U.S. (granted, a select group, since they had the motivation and wherewithall to travel abroad for education). In particular, their grasp of politics, social/political theory, and history is heads and shoulders above their US peers. I haven’t spent any time in Europe, but I suspect politics is not such a dirty word around the European dinner tables?

I’m going to think more about what to do with my 30 minutes a day. Writing this blog is interesting, but is more my own reflections than a truly public discourse. I’d like to find a discussion site where the signal-to-noise ratio is fairly large – any suggestions?