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Archive for June, 2016

Well, I finally did it.

In 2011, I got a Windows Phone because my company paid for it. In Jan 2013, I upgraded to a Windows Phone 8 because the company paid for it again. I’m all for getting free phones. I was happy with my smart phone.

But over time, my Windows Phone started to have major problems:

  • For some reason, after a few days, the screen wouldn’t rotate when I rotated the device. I don’t know why it would do this, it just wouldn’t.
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  • For some other reason, after a while, the volume wouldn’t adjust up or down. I’d be listening to a podcast and try to make it louder or quieter, and it wouldn’t change. To fix both of these I had to turn the phone off and turn it back on.
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  • The phone wouldn’t upgrade to the newest operating system, Windows 8.1.
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  • I couldn’t install new apps. It would always say it couldn’t connect to the App Store to verify my account.
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  • The phone got really slow when loading apps, and the apps wouldn’t even load 1/4 of the time.
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  • I dropped the phone and cracked the screen, leaving a huge thumbprint-sized blob of dead (black) pixels in the corner.

So yeah, it was time to get a new one.

I had delayed getting a new iPhone for years. In fact, the first time I went to the AT&T store, they wouldn’t let me pay for it all at once. The only option they had was to finance it over two years. Huh? That’s ridiculous.

I went to the Apple store a few times to buy it outright, but it was never in stock. I had to order it online and wait a month for it to arrive.

But finally it did. And I’m like “What was I think waiting so long?”

I love my new iPhone. It works so much better. The apps load fast. The app store works. The screen rotates. The volume adjusts. There are plenty of apps. And it has fingerprint unlock for my thumb!

I didn’t think there was that much of a difference between the iPhone and the Windows Phone. But there is. I never thought I would be a believer but I have been swept away by the device.

It’s not perfect, there are things I don’t like about it and were better on Windows Phone (e.g., figuring out my contacts was better on the Windows Phone, the stopwatch apps in the App Store are worse than the simple one on the Windows Phone), but I am happy with my purchase.

So much so that I am writing a blog post about it. I can’t believe I’m shilling for Apple. Blargh to that.

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You know, technology is great… most of the time. It’s great at making things easier, and over the past ten years, it’s been great at connecting me to other people with social networks. This blog gets almost no traffic, but on the other hand sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have been fantastic for letting me keep up-to-date with others. It wouldn’t be possible to not feel a little homesick if it weren’t for those.

But lately, I think that the geeks designing the technology have gotten things wrong. Almost totally wrong.

Why would I, a geek, say that?

One of the things I value is diversity of experience. We have a diverse group of people at work. I like going to new places and trying different restaurants. I listen to people who think differently than I do because they think differently than me, not in spite of it. If I were to do the same things over and over, I would get stuck in a rut and think the same things over and over again.

I bring this up because of my belief in technology’s complete and utter failure – despite the promises of the technoclass (of which I am a member) – to deliver on its promise of an enlightened utopia based on knowledge. People would shed their shortsighted opinions and beliefs, do a little research on the Internet, and come to a correct understanding of everything. Ignorance would slowly, slowly fade as people who don’t use it would eventually give way to the next generation.

Yet that hasn’t happened.

Why hasn’t technology delivered the enlightened utopia Silicon Valley keeps promising? I think it’s because even though we have all this fantastic technology, it’s still being used by people. And people have inherent biases and make all sorts of cognitive errors. I don’t have time or energy to describe them all.

You see, if we hold a strong political belief, even if it’s wrong, we don’t browse the Internet to find out the truth of whether or not something is correct. Instead, we seek out the websites and articles that confirm our opinions and discard the evidence that contradicts it. This is how we resolve our cognitive dissonance – with confirmation bias (the tendency to believe the evidence that confirms our beliefs and disregard the evidence that contradicts it).

Technology has made it easy for small fringe groups to spread their message. Lesser fringe groups can do the same, and people who believe all these things can easily find it. Thus, the enlightened utopia will never occur unless the motivation to stop believing wrong things is stronger than the reinforcement people get by believing them. That is a tall order.

And that brings me to technology.

When I click ‘Like’ on someone’s comment, or their status update; or, when I click on an article to read like Business Insider, what does Facebook do? They show me more status updates from those people and more links from Business Insider. In other words, Facebook thinks “Well, since you like it, we’re going to deliver more of it to you.”

When I browse for something on Amazon, they send me an email the next day with “We think you’ll like these products because you previously searched for a similar one.”

Twitter and Gmail give me ads based upon what I like, although Facebook is the worst offender.

I bring all this up because all of these services, while claiming to give me more of what I demand, are just reinforcing what I already believe. They are making my exposure to the outside world less diverse, not more diverse. They are feeding into my confirmation bias and resolving any cognitive dissonance by showing me the same thing every day. I don’t get to see the status updates of other friends because Facebook thinks I want to see the same people. I don’t, I want to see them all. I can change Facebook’s settings but they still reset it every once in a while.

I think technology is failing us that way.

Just now, I went to Bing images to do a search and it said “Sign in to build a customized experience just for you.” I said no. I don’t want a customized experience because while they are trying to tailor it for me, that’s what I want to avoid. I need a different point of view in order to expand my mind. Otherwise, I just do the same thing over and over.

I think that’s where tech companies have gone wrong. In the race to deliver the customized experience and make people feel warm and fuzzy because of familiarity, they (we) are doing a disservice to people by not showing them new things.

And new things is how we broaden the mind.

The last thing I want is for mine to get too shallow.

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Did I ever tell you the time I went to a cult meeting?

No?

Oh, let me tell you about it. It was so weird.

It was two and a half years ago, and one of my friends wanted to go to this celebration. A lot of people were going to be there and he wanted a ride, so I said I’d take him. Maybe it would be fun. This was a special occasion as some of the local deities that the cult members worshipped were involved in an annual ritual, and this worship meeting was dedicated to celebrating the deities.

Let me tell you, it was a crazy atmosphere.

There were two groups of deities and the event was televised, but unless you identified yourself as worshipping the local deities, you were ostracized and insulted. Maybe of the worshippers there wore clothing signifying their identification with the group, and some of them even painted their faces.

During the celebration on TV, whenever the deities did something positive, all of the cult members cheered and screamed loudly, giving a chant “SEEEEE… HOX!” They chanted it over and over again.

Many of the members consumed copious amounts of alcohol, and it was encouraged by the other members. Everyone who clearly identified themselves was treated as a valued member of the cult, even if they hadn’t met before. Screaming at the TV was encouraged, and saying a word against the local deities was discouraged regardless of whether or not a competing cult member made a good point.

I didn’t like the cult mentality. No tolerance for other views, loud people getting in each others’ faces, an atmosphere intended to reinforce all of this.

I decided I wouldn’t go back the next year.

The Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl turned the local fan base’s party into as repressive a cult as any you can imagine.

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A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast about a writer who has written a few books, one called War and the other called Tribe. The writer, Sebastian Junger, was originally a war reporter. During the podcast interview, he described that after his time covering the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s (or perhaps the second Iraq War), after he came back to the US, he experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

During the podcast, Junger describes the time when he was waiting in the New York subway and suddenly had a panic attack where he seized up and was overcome with a sense of dread. He had to go hide out in a corner and wait for it to pass.

When I hear these stories, I think back to my own time. I identify closely with people who have this because I, too, have had it. 10 years ago, while I was hiking in Fiji, I had a hiking accident where I nearly died. The day after my accident, I found I had trouble with my memory. I couldn’t remember people’s names whereas I was usually good with them. Days later, I kept forgetting where I would put things like pens, pencils, and even my shoes when I walked in the house (I also lost a blue recycling box somehow). I had trouble focusing and concentrating, and I also lost interest in some of my favorite activities like sponge hockey.

What sealed my self-diagnosis is a series of panic attacks I had when reading a comic in the newspaper. It was about a cartoon dog who got lost from his master, fell into a small ditch and started yelling that he was trapped and stuck. It was a joke because it was such a small ditch and he was exaggerating to get attention. But when I read that comic, I suddenly had a panic attack where my heart started racing (the same flutter you might get on a roller coast, except worse). I had the same experience watching the movie Cliffhanger when a character fell into a chasm, and a third time watching a movie and some characters were just walking through a waterfall, no danger involved. All that anxiety was real and it came over me automatically, no thinking about it involved. How does reading a comic or watching a movie give you panic attacks?

I looked up my symptoms online and it seemed clear I was experiencing PTSD.

As time passed, my symptoms started to go away. My memory returned, I could concentrate again, and I didn’t have panic attacks nearly as often. However, I still have a fear of heights and I don’t like driving along a ledge that has no railing. I freeze up when that happens. When I think about skydiving out of a plane and actually visualize it, I do start to panic a little bit. I have no idea how I went skydiving in Turkey; I think because I had dirka I was distracted.

So, yeah. PTSD is real. It sucks.

It’s mostly gone now, but I feel bad for the war veterans who suffer with it. It has entrenched my aversion to war as being mostly good for nothing.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast where the interviewee was talking about how human beings are wired to avoid pain and to seek out pleasure (or rewards). Or maybe it wasn’t a podcast, perhaps it was in a book. I forget. The point is that we as humans are fairly predictable in our behavior. That’s why we find it so easy to eat ice cream or chocolate and so hard to exercise. One is pleasant, the other is not.

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Of the two of them, the instinct to avoid pain or danger is much greater than the instinct to attain pleasure. The reason for this is due to our evolutionary development. If you were attacked and eaten by a tiger on the African savannah, your reproductive odds of success dropped to zero. You had to avoid that danger in order to survive. On the other hand, if you found a good source of protein or sugar, your chances of survival and passing on your genes increased, but you could always live on to forage another day. Not indefinitely, but one more day.

In other words, the cost of being wrong when it comes to danger and pain is far higher than the payment for attaining pleasure and rewards.

For some reason I started thinking back to bullies in junior high and high school. I don’t remember why I made this connection, and I thought to myself “Do I still harbor grudges against those people who picked on me way back then?”

I read a thread on Quora about how people who used to be bullies feel about their actions. In general, while some bullies are remorseful of what they did in the past, a large proportion of them just think it was “kids being kids.” The degree of harm done wasn’t that bad and people should get over it.

On the other hand, the people who were picked on never forgot that they were picked on. While they may have moved past it, it’s still in their memories.

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When I look back on my own experience, I was bullied every single year from Grade 7 to Grade 12. It was usually a different kid, but sometimes they repeated themselves (e.g., Grade 9 and Grade 12). I knew I was lower on the social pecking order because I was physically smaller and couldn’t fight back; worse yet, I didn’t have the charm or charisma to build my own coalition that would stand up for me, thus dissuading others from picking on me. That is, my own circle of friends didn’t have the influence to stop others from picking on them, either. And as the picked-on kids know, you can’t go to teachers or the principal and report them because that lowers your social status in the eyes of others because it labels you as a tattletale.

In other words, life wasn’t fair back then.

So coming back and reflecting on it now, do I still harbor grudges against the bullies who picked on me?

I can still name their names but the truth is that my memory of them is fading… sort of. I bet that if I were to meet them today that they would all have forgotten how they were as teenagers.

But I won’t have forgotten. While I understand that kids are kids, I also understand that I did nothing to deserve the treatment I got from them.

I think to myself No, I don’t harbor a grudge nor do I wish ill on the people who picked on me, nor do I think about it. But at the same time, if one of them randomly asked me if they wanted to meet up for old time’s sake (like go for a cup of coffee), I’d hesitate to say yes. I might never say yes. Heck, if they even wanted to be friends on Facebook, I might not approve the friend request.

Why is that?

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I’m fortunate that this has never come up in real life, and it probably never will. Yet the fact remains that if it did, I know how I’d react – it’s the way that people say you’re not supposed to react; you’re supposed to forgive the person and let bygones be bygones because it’s better for you to let it go.

But if I am honest with myself, I wouldn’t let it go. I’d go out of my way to avoid talking to those people. And I think the reason is that I am biologically programmed to avoid pain.

In my mind, those people are associated with psychological pain. I felt bad around them; belittled, embarrassed, demeaned. Because of the way our memories work, a strong emotional experience forms lasting memories. And, those episodes of being picked on by bullies were strong experiences and so they are forever etched in my memory and encoded as a negative experience.

So, even if I could potentially attain a reward for being friends with these people (e.g., acquire a new friend, get an apology [unlikely], get new insights), the desire to avoid pain outweighs my desire to attain a reward. Even though this all occurred in the past, my current ability to think logically is superseded by my strong negative experiences of the past, and that wins out. My brain is not capable of separating the past from the present. It conflates it into one.

That’s how are brains are supposed to work.

I am not being a bad person by wanting to avoid others from my past who mistreated me. But rather, my brain remembers what happened last time I encountered them and made sure to encode it so that it was easy to recall, and warn me in the future to stay away next time the opportunity arises.

I think that this is a powerful feature of our brains, and it goes to demonstrate that the way we treat others matters. We don’t operate logically (or maybe we do?).

Am I missing out on something? Maybe. But I have plenty of friends who have never mistreated me.

Am I holding a grudge? Maybe. But I don’t dwell on it except when I write blog posts, and I also sympathize with others who go through the same thing.

I may never get over this.

But frankly, I’m okay with it.

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