Ambi-valance

As I was out writing this week I found myself watching some of the people around me. I noticed an interesting behavior pattern amongst some of my fellow fast food patrons: they actively wanted attention, and yet once they got it they didn’t want it any more. We could go into a discussion about the satisfaction of needs and so on, but there is another explanation that seems to serve just as well (for the cases I was watching at least). This other explanation also explains some of our other behavioral tendencies. You know, the ones where we want to do something (we really do), but we never seem to get around to it.

Sure, we could be looking at need satisfaction, and there probably is some of that in there. But, we are also looking at ambivalence.

Literally ambivalence means having two valances or charges. Practically, it means that we are being pulled in two different directions. It means we want something, and don’t want it at the same time. It can also mean that we might want something, but obtaining it means we lose something else, or some of our ability to obtain something else.

Being stuck with two different ‘pulls’ on a thing or desire can cause considerable headaches. At best it can cause delays or buyer’s remorse. At worst you end up without two different things you want and you’ve wasted your resources on something you didn’t want as much as either one.

Unfortunately things get worse… When someone is in an ambivalent state, any move you make toward one objective can be met by an equal pull toward the other objective. This is why holding an ‘intervention’ with someone can actually make the problem worse. Every time you pull the person away from what you’re ‘intervening’ against the person being ‘intervened’ on pulls the other direction!

So, what do you do?

There is a solution to ambivalence. Sometimes you can do it yourself, and other times you might need help to get it done. The solution is to reduce the ambivalence and not just try to pull your way out of it. This means some genuine introspection. This means building up the pull toward one objective or course of action, and reducing the other pull. As one of my professors used to say, “the ambivalent person is stuck in a ditch, and you are digging one bank down and building the other up so that they can get out in a particular direction.”

The specific hows and whys of the situation depend on your actual situation (and your mileage may vary), but understanding the concept of increasing one draw while reducing the other is a key to getting yourself and others out of ambivalence dear readers. It is a way to help yourself make the decisions you need to in situations where you really don’t want to.

That’s it for this one dear reader. As always there is more to say, but not enough time to say it.

Figure out what you want dear reader. And then figure out what you really want. And I’ll see you next post.

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The myth of average

Once again in my day to day adventures I find people making reference to that most mythical of creatures the “average person”. The things is, while the concept of average exists, the “average person” is one of the most unlikely creatures one can conceive of.

One of the things we learn in school is that average, specifically the calculation of average we call the ‘mean average’, is calculated by adding up a bunch of numbers and then dividing by the number of numbers:

7+3+4+5+7+4+5=35

35/7=5

In this case we have an average of five, and even a couple of specific cases where five was the actual number. But, the average doesn’t represent all the numbers exactly does it?

And,what about other variables? How do you average something like gender? (Ummm… last I checked if you want the plumbing to actually work you don’t…)

Average is a mathematical construct. It doesn’t work for all variables because not all variables are mathematical. And, since a full description of a person includes a lot of variables, including at least one that isn’t mathematical (usually more!), trying to describe someone with one average (or even the dreaded average of averages) doesn’t work.

Even when an average does work an average is really a best guess description of reality. A best guess isn’t always accurate. The average number of five in the example above doesn’t represent the threes or sevens very well…

Even if we wanted to be ‘average’ it doesn’t quite work. An average is an attempt to describe reality that doesn’t always work. Sometimes it can’t work.

The bad news is that you are not average dear reader.

The good news is also that you are not average dear reader.

Sometimes you are above average.

Sometimes you are below average.

And depending on the situation either of those could be a good thing!

Sometimes you are better than average.

Sometimes you are worse than average.

And that’s alright. It’s part of life.

Sometimes dear reader you are just fabulous.

And that’s the truth.

Use averages to help describe your world dear reader, but don’t be dominated or judged by them.

See you next week.

Tower of Babel to techno babble

Information, clarity, and understanding; these are valuable things if you want to make your way in our world. If you want to make good decisions and actually achieve something they are absolutely vital.

Unfortunately the things we need to know and understand can be lost or confounded by the manipulation and changing of language. If you want to disrupt or even cripple someone, one of the best ways to do so is to cut off their supply of information. One of the best ways to do that is to attack the meaning of words and language.

And yes dear reader there are those trying to do it to you!

It’s an old problem

One of the oldest stories/examples I know of is the story of the tower of Babel in the bible.

Basically the people got prideful and started doing things they shouldn’t have and as a result their language was corrupted. While the story of the tower of Babel is considered a story at this point (we don’t have sufficient facts to discuss any real details of what happened or even if the event actually happened) the story does serve as an example of how far back such concerns go.

If you want more ‘real world’ examples get a group of “English” speakers together for a conversation. For completeness sake please include speakers of ‘The queen’s English’, American English, Canadian English and Australian English. To really see the extent of the problem try including a back woods Florida alligator hunter, a Silicon Valley software engineer, a lawyer, a psychologist, and a politician (lawyer or no lawyer subtype it really doesn’t matter…).

What you will find is that there is a certain level of Jargon in specialties and areas of interest. There is also a level of ‘drift’ in meaning as groups grow farther apart. And yes dear reader these factors do work in concert, creating situations where you might need a translator even though everyone involved is speaking ‘English’.

The same issue happens with other languages. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian all have Latin roots. And yet translating between them can be tricky. Further north in Europe you have German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian to cope with.

And if you manage to parse all of that out we still have a couple of other continents to deal with. Care to examine the origins Afrikaans? If you get that one worked out why not try finding the origins of modern ‘Chinese’ (as much respect as I have for my Chinese friends I am not trying to explain the challenges of that particular language without a large bottle of Ibuprophen…).

And it still goes on…

Language drifts and changes naturally. That’s why languages like English, Spanish, German, Japanese and Arabic are classified as living languages. The language shifts and changes as time goes on. It becomes difficult to understand the words of former days. It is somewhat natural to find that things like the U.S. Constitution are a bit harder to interpret than they were two hundred years ago.

But that sort of lingual drift isn’t the hardest part. That kind of lingual drift can be countered by study and education. There is a greater danger to our knowledge and understanding in the form of those who actively seek to change the meaning of language to fit their particular ends.

(Note that as we continue I am not taking sides on any of the particular terms mentioned in this post… Today we are talking about language and people changing language. If we want to talk about particular issues where this is occurring… That is a topic for another day.)

Have you heard the contention and disagreement around terms such as “assault rifle”, “gender”, “marriage”, “climate change”, or “the American dream”? There is a whole lot of venom and conflict there, and we haven’t even gotten to the deep philosophical ones like “truth” or “morality” yet. We also haven’t even scratched the surface of recently invented terms like “fake news”, or the never ending alphabet soup of acronyms (I personally know three meanings for PSI and that’s to say nothing of TLA, ETLA, EETLA, LGBT, LGBTQ, RSVP, LOL, ROTFLOL, BYB, BYOB, or BYOBS).

There are those out there who actively try to redefine words to suit their own ends. There are even more people out there willing to adopt a meaning of a word that they like or come from sources that sound credible. Often this is what leads to the sort of linguistic drift that makes talking to my wife’s teacher friends and my family’s military friends at the same time such a challenge.

If we blindly follow what others are saying and if we foolishly allow ourselves to assume everyone is using the same word for the same thing we can end up in real trouble. It is our own responsibility to navigate this mess of meanings and understand what’s going on around us. This is a responsibility we cannot hand off to anyone.

So how do we do that?

That’s a big topic, bigger than we can entirely cover in one blog post, but here are a couple of points. We will probably revisit this subject with more information as time goes on.

The biggest key is learning. Don’t just take someone’s word for it on what words mean. Do some study and find out for yourself.

The second key is awareness. Be aware that others might be using a different definition and how that may affect meaning (it might also be a good idea to figure out why the person is using the meaning he or she is…)

One of the best things you can do is strive to use a shared meaning. This means communicating about communicating and both parties need to have a genuine desire to communicate instead of just yelling at someone while trying to advocate for a position.

Language is a vital tool for thought and understanding. We as individuals need to learn and make sure we understand the language being used. It is a challenge, but it is one of the most important things to do if you want to succeed in communication and in life.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Until next time: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and I’ll see you next week.

Being brave

I know a lot of people who work very hard. Don’t get me wrong hard work can be a good thing, but have you ever known someone to work hard simply to avoid doing something that scares them? I know a few people like that too…

Hard work can be a good thing, but sometimes it’s more of an effort at evasion than something that will actually give us the progress we want. Sometimes hard work is just a way to avoid scary work.

Scary work

At the local university I know a number of professors that will do all sorts of unnecessary calculations and manipulations to avoid learning how to use the gradebook in the universities online learning management system.

I had an uncle who repeatedly got demoted because the scut jobs that low ranking enlisted men did scared him less than actually having to be in charge of anything.

I myself have occasionally been known to mark a project as ‘needing more research’ just because I was unwilling to actually go on the record and do something.

We all have things that scare us. Sometimes that fear is a quite rational thing. Some situations are dangerous to life and limb. But, sometimes that fear is because we are about to expose our own weaknesses: the things we’re not good at, the things we don’t know, the things we might be wrong about, and so on.

The really dangerous scary things should sometimes be avoided, but sometimes they are absolutely necessary. Yes, facing off against a rabid animal might be scary, but if you’re doing it to save your child it’s important.

The second set of scary things includes our opportunities for growth, our chances to exceed what we have done before and become better. That kind of scary is marking the things that will probably be hard work (in the beginning at least), but have the potential to pay off big. You really might want to do those…

Scary not edgy

Scary doesn’t necessarily mean edgy.

Scary includes things that we are afraid of doing. Edgy might include those as well, but also includes things that are just flirting with poor taste.

Doing edgy things is something performers do to get attention.

Doing scary things can lead to growth.

It is really a question of purpose and discernment. Do you need to be doing X? If so why?

If your purpose is good, then do it.

If your purpose is just to get a rise out of someone, then you might want to reconsider.

Doing hard things can be good. It certainly isn’t anything to be ashamed of.

Doing edgy things may attract attention. But they might not be worth it in the long run.

It’s doing the scary things that helps us grow.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next time…

What can we learn from a song?

Average isn’t every…

“Average” it’s a word we hear a lot. “The ‘average’ person…” “On ‘average’…” “My ‘average’…” It’s a word we use a lot. But it is also a word with a danger attached, we should never assume that average is what we’re supposed to be. Average is only a description of what seems to be the most common or most typical based on a (usually limited) sample.

Average is an occasionally scientific wild guess at way to describe people. In the mathematical and statistical sense it is a measure of central tendency, an attempt to identify the central ‘most typical’ value of a group of numbers. In the mathematical and statistical sense the average is heavily influenced by a number of factors that can cause an average to be misleading.

In the personal description sense ‘average’ is in about the same spot as mediocre, or ordinary, in terms of meaning.

You can use an average to determine where you are relative to the group, but even then you have to understand a bit about what you are comparing and who you are comparing yourself to. Would you rather have you school grade point average above or below the ‘C student’ average point? What about the interest on that student/home/car/credit card loan, would you like your interest rate to be above or below average? What about your weight? (Actually that one can be a problem if you’re too far out in either direction so being in the ‘average’ range might not be all bad…)

Something they often don’t tell you is that average might not even matter! Just because the average person does or has something doesn’t mean that it is necessarily right for you and your goals. As someone who has a diabetes diagnosis if I were to eat the amount of carbohydrate in the ‘average’ American meal very often I would be running into health issues and probably have to go back on insulin.

Just because the ‘average’ American adult drives a car that doesn’t mean that you need. If you live somewhere like New York City with lots of traffic and little parking you may find other solutions much easier regardless of what the ‘average’ person does.

Like many things in our world the concept of ‘average’ is a tool that we use for describing, measuring and making decisions. It should never be considered what someone ‘has’ to be. Usually we aren’t average in some way or other, and that’s ok. We as human beings are unique beings unto ourselves.

We aren’t always ordinary. We have our challenges to overcome, and we have things that we are really really good at. It is those differences that make it possible for us to grow, improve and help one another.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Until next time…

Be better than average,

Be what you can become.

Moral Fidget Spinners…

There was once a word, morality, that meant a doctrine or system of moral conduct, or conformity to ideals of right human conduct. It was a good word, a strong word. It meant “This is what I believe is right; therefore, this is what I will do”. It really was a good word.

Unfortunately there came a time when someone (male, female, black, white, brown, plaid, purple, gay, straight, or all of the above (it really doesn’t matter!)) decided that morality should be defined as: a commodity. For those not familiar a commodity is an economic good, or something subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market. Someone decided they could sell ‘morality’, or at least the idea that some editions of morality are valid (while others are not…) for money. That someone managed to make fairly good money at it…

Unfortunately someone else (still doesn’t matter who…) noticed the individual making money and decided to get in on the act.  Now, the first ‘flavor’ of ‘morality’ was already for sale and that meant a new ‘flavor’ of ‘morality’ was needed for the new peddler to get into the market. And this second person sold the newly invented ‘morality’ for a tremendous profit!

But, with that new flavor, and the attached profits, came an open door for other vendors of ‘morality’, each wanting their share. And so, morality fell victim to niche marketing.

And so it is dear reader that we (or I at least) find ourselves (myself) in a world where ‘morality’ changes based almost entirely on what online polls say the consumer is buying…

Within the past weeks I’ve watched people waffle back and forth on guns, ‘liberties, ‘taking a knee’, and a host of other issues. It honestly feels like ‘morality’ can be found in online auctions or as a prize won in arcade ‘skill’ games right along with stuffed animals, team jerseys, and fidget spinners (remember those?).

Unfortunately ‘moralities’ and moral positions seem to be abandoned as fast as those fidget spinners. This is part of a cycle dear reader, a long painful cycle that can and has caused the deaths of nations (along with a few hundred million people at least…). It is a cycle that needs to be broken.

Morality is not a fidget spinner dear reader. It is not something that can be bought, sold, packed, given away, or won in an arcade game. Morality is a personal code. Morality is the way we choose to act toward one another. It is something to be carefully considered and then lived. Yes dear reader, there are many flavors of ‘morality’ out there, and it can be hard to sort through them all. But it is necessary. It is a part of life, a part of growing up, a part of the reason we are here on this earth.

So that is my challenge to you dear reader. Find your morality (or if you have it, evaluate how well you live it…). Draw closer to a way of life that makes life better for you and those around you. Draw closer to things that are good and true dear reader. Don’t be bought, played with and forgotten like last spring’s fidget spinner…

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week I will present a few thoughts about NANOWRIMO, and admit that I goofed…

P.S. thank you to www.merriam-webster.com for help with the definitions portion of the post!

If it can happen once…

Several years ago I ran into the story of a soldier in the Vietnam War, a soldier who started as the classic last kid picked for the team, bottom of the barrel sort of person. It was entirely easy to label him as “the screw up” and send him away because nobody would want that guy on a mission. It could have ended there, with our soldier being the screw up no one wanted for time an all eternity; however, that’s not what happened.

The salvation of this man came through his own honest effort; a little instruction and assistance from a wise old sergeant; and… a cup of coffee.

The sergeant could see what was happening. He talked with his soldier and then made some changes. The sergeant took away all of the soldier’s previous duties and gave him one, just one, thing to do. The soldier would be attached to the company headquarters and was to make sure that the captain had a hot cup of coffee available at any time he wanted one. It was a little thing, a silly thing, but it was something the soldier could do if he put in the effort. And this simple act, this one duty, bore amazing fruit.

The soldier, the former ‘screw up’, did his one duty. The captain had a cup of hot coffee when and where ever he wanted. And, the soldier received two critical things: sure knowledge that he was not a complete screw up, he could do things if he tried; and the opportunity to observe and learn without undue stress and criticism.

The soldier took this opportunity to observe and learn, and then he stepped up to do. Our soldier was no great tactician or leader. He wasn’t a great fighter slaying the enemy with his M16 and bayonet. He wasn’t an engineer conjuring wondrous structures and impenetrable defenses with just his entrenching tool and some communications wire. But, the man did have a gift. And, when he was given the opportunity and knowledge he needed, that gift came out.

Our soldier, the ‘screw up’ no one wanted, was a logistical problem solver. This soldier became the man who could find solutions and get dry socks and warm meals to the men of his unit. That might not sound like much if you’re sitting in your own home with your own washer and dryer, and pizza delivery on speed dial. But, trust me, if you’re out in the field, out in the dirt and muck, that kind of thing matters.

The soldier, the former ‘screw up’, became a beloved and valued member of the unit because he was given an opportunity, a chance to both learn and succeed, and he took it. He took action to become better than he had been before.

But what does this mean to us?

And so it is with us dear reader. We stand on all sides of this equation.

There are times when we are the ‘screw up’ who just needs one success, even a tiny one, and a bit of knowledge and support to put us on course to better things.

There are times when we are the one who can see a need, and an opportunity. In that case we are called upon to take action and help someone to help themselves.

Sometimes we are one of the others in the unit, the ones who need to allow space for change; the ones who will forgive the faults of the past and give someone who can grow the space and opportunity to do so.

Sooner or later we play all three roles dear reader. Sooner or later all good things will come if we let them.

That’s it for this one dear reader, see you next post… Until then…

Find an opportunity and take it!

Lessons from ‘the great American eclipse’

Yep, on Monday of the week I’m coming back to the blogosphere we had an eclipse, a total eclipse of the sun that ran the entire length of the country. I happen to live in an area where the eclipse was 98.9% from my door step and full totality was only about 45 minutes north…

Naturally our area braced for the event and some of the ‘knowledgeable ones’ predicted lots of things, some of which happened and some of which didn’t. Here are a couple of things we learned and some thoughts going forward.

A once in a life time experience:

Everyone and I mean everyone was saying that a total eclipse (not just a continent spanning one but any total eclipse) was a once in a life time experience. And, it is… If you just sit in one spot and you don’t live long enough!

I’ve been through at least two total solar eclipses, several partials (they were total eclipses for somebody!), and more lunar eclipses than I can remember. But, I’ve moved around just a little bit…

Lesson: opportunities do happen, but you need to figure out where they are and what you are willing to do to get them. If you sit and do nothing they don’t come around very often.

Bracing for the horde:

Government officials, media types and professional prognosticators warned us to be ready for 100,000, then 500,000, then 1,000,000 people to who were supposed to be descending on our area. Gas was sure to run out. The phone lines and internet connections would be overloaded. The state transit department was going to have to make I15 a one way street to deal with all the traffic. Stores and restaurants would be swamped and run out of food and supplies. I believe there were even warnings about witches, zombies and ninjas (Wiccan ninja zombies?).

Well, in the end there were difficulties. After the eclipse a forty five minute trip away from the zone of totality became a four hour trip (on the one side of the I15… Traffic in the opposite direction (toward the zone of totality) was just fine…). Several hotels and gas stations artificially raised prices. And… Several stores and restaurants ended up ordering too many supplies, and didn’t sell them all.

The main problem was a problem of hype over thought. Yes, there were lots of people who came up for the eclipse. A lot of them came from relatively nearby and made a day trip of it (or tried to at least…). A lot of them brought food and water with them. The ones that weren’t making a day trip of it filtered in a day or two ahead. It was only when everyone tried to leave at the same time that there were big traffic problems. Some store shelves got barren, but new shipments were getting in on a daily basis and to my knowledge nobody starved.

If you were looking for roving gangs, there weren’t any. Roving gangs don’t’ usually travel long distances for astronomical events. If you were looking for zombies, apocalyptic horsemen, or other such oddities, there weren’t any of those either (that I’m aware of…). If you’re still looking for them I’ve got some nice fiction books in production that you might like…

Generally if you thought ahead and made reasonable preparations you were fine. If you didn’t prepare ahead of time, or it you went straight to the worst case scenario, then things were less satisfactory (but still not a total disaster in most cases!).

Lesson: Be prepared, but make reasonable preparations. A one day event like the eclipse isn’t the same thing as WW3. Yes, people are going to go see something like the eclipse, but it’s unlikely that the whole state of California is going to take a day or three off work and end up on your doorstep.

People are people and that includes both locals and tourists…

One of the problems that did come up was relatively normal people conflicts.

Several national news reports claimed that the locals weren’t friendly. Several local news reports included pictures of tourists driving their vehicles and setting up camp in local farmers fields, the ones the farmers were growing crops in…

Sorry folks… I know ‘farmer John’ may be “just a farmer”, but if you drive through his field and set up camp on top of the crops you are damaging his lively hood. You are also cutting down your own food supplies. Tourists you need to use some sense.

On the other hand… Locals, please have the courtesy to wait until the tourists actually do something offensive before you get all offended. And remember, they’re new here… Some of them have never have gotten out of the city before… Maybe put up a few signs to mark the active wheat and ‘tater fields?

Again this is one of those things that’s kind of predictable… When you get large groups of people together somebody’s going to be less than intelligent. The goal is for you to be intelligent and do what you can to prevent problems in the first place.

Trust me folks, when it comes to my home I’m as territorial as anyone. I’ve also been the one who’s traveling. I know what it’s like to not understand what’s around me. It is much better to do some thinking, planning and considering about what’s around you than it is to go immediately to harsh words and blaming the other person. (By the way… To the ones who were offended when the farmer decided to call the sheriff: be grateful… I know folks who were stocking up on ammo along with the food and toilet paper! Think first!)

Summing up

The name of this blog is Words Mean Stuff. I named it that because words do mean something; they are symbols for ideas. The biggest lesson from this week’s events is to have and use ideas, good ideas. A lot of problems can be avoided and a lot of truly majestic moments can be witnessed (or even participated in!) if you just gather some good data and think first.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week I’m going to talk a little about what I’m doing with the blogs. And then after that… Well, that’s next week’s post isn’t it. See you next post dear reader.

For better or making it worse?

I spent most of this week at my wife’s family’s family reunion. For the most part things went well, so far as I can tell everyone is still alive and had a pretty good time. There were biffs and goofs here and there, but that’s what you expect for a family reunion (especially when you’re hitting four generations of family present, and enough people for you very own baseball tournament…). And of course, as always when riding through the desert, I found a few things to think about…

My wife’s parents and siblings went in to rent a large house and that lead to the title and subject of this post…

A house disinterested in itself?

The problems we faced with the rental had a lot to do with how the couple that owned the place treated it and each other.

When we arrived the electronic lock on the door didn’t function. An hour after we arrived we managed to contact the woman who owned the place. An hour after that her husband arrived and skillfully concluded that the lock wasn’t functioning…

The problem fairly quickly came into focus as I observed the man and how he dealt with us and the property. I’m sorry, if you and your spouse/partner/whatever are going to run a rental property together (or go in on any significant project) your response should never be “I don’t know this is my wife’s thing”… You made a commitment to your spouse/partner/whatever and then you made another commitment together. That means if you are treating part of the project like a chore assigned by an annoying school teacher you are failing to keep two commitments.

Not keeping the commitment to the project might be one thing, but blaming your spouse/partner/whatever and setting him/her up to be ‘the bad guy’, that’s a real problem. We are talking about the person that you presumably love, care about, and have committed yourself to. If you’re going to go into a commitment with her/him, and then not holding up your end what are you doing to the relationship (and you honor as a person)?

Rings in the pond

Between the two issues I think not supporting (or worse being in active conflict with) your spouse/partner/whatever is the biggest problem. Relationship issues can quickly poison other deals, projects, or endeavors.  When that happens it creates problems in the deal/project/endeavor and the things around it. And those problems feed back into the relationship causing more problems…

When you are in that situation it will be painful to address the relationship issues. But, it’s the only way to fix anything.

Remember dear reader, in ever so many ways our lives are about people and relationships. And no amount of success elsewhere can make up for failure in that department.

Take care dear reader. Take care of yourself and yours. I’ll see you next post.