Brain hate

Here’s a mental exercise: try to ignore everything that has happened in the news this week and answer this hypothetical.

List your top 20 situations that might justify a police officer yanking a teenage girl out of her desk, slamming her to the floor and dragging her across her classroom.

I’m sure you could easily think of 20. Maybe she’s pointing a weapon at the officer. Maybe she’s physically threatening a classmate. Maybe the officer noticed she is trying to destroy evidence and has to be stopped. Maybe she’s punching another student.

But I can GUARANTEE that “being disrespectful and disruptive” wouldn’t be in your Top Twenty. In fact, I’ll go further: prior to this week, if someone had suggested this as a potential situation, your response would have been “no, absolutely not, no fucking way does that action warrant that kind of treatment”.

Let’s up the hypothetical ante: the principal at your school is calling you at work to tell you that a police officer just yanked your teenage daughter out of her desk, slammed her to the floor and dragged her across her classroom, and she might have a broken arm. Because she was being disrespectful and disruptive, and wouldn’t put her phone away.

Would your first thought be “Boy, that sounds perfectly reasonable and appropriate”?

Of course not.

But this week we have seen people falling over themselves to justify exactly those actions AFTER they happened.

In my opinion, it’s because we have a cognitive bias towards justifying actions that have already happened, EVEN IF we would not be able to justify them before they happened. So we go from “there’s no situation in which that would be the right thing to do” to “well, it happened, so there HAS to be a justification for why it did”, purely because we need to create a narrative in which that makes sense. We don’t like living in an irrational world where violence is unjustified: our brains are extremely uncomfortable with that reality, so our brains struggle to find the bits of the story that could allow that worldview to survive. Our brains love to tell stories that make sense, and are REALLY uncomfortable when they don’t.

In this case, the brain immediately tries to put together a coherent narrative of cause and effect: Y happened, therefore the X actions that justify Y MUST have occurred immediately before, and our brains will go into overdrive to fit the facts into that narrative, no matter how much it has to distort the facts to do so.

What happened before? The student was disrespectful and uncooperative.

A ha! the brain says, slotting that fact into the “cause” box in the cause and effect flowchart. There is now something in the box, and your brain is taken out of its discomfort zone. The story now makes sense as a flowchart. Even though the fact you found doesn’t fit neatly and seems to be rather much smaller than the box you put it in, there is at least something in the box.

That is, if you don’t analyze it too much and ignore the poor fit. Because if you did, you’d realize it’s not a good cause for the resulting observed effect, and then your brain would be thrown into discomfort again as its worldview is challenged. And our brains HATE that. Our brains like stories, and like cause and effect, and like coherence.  The brain has its story, move on, nothing more to see.

This bias is so strong that if a person who has crafted this narrative is challenged on whether it makes sense and is justifiable, they go on the defensive quickly and strongly, because it feels like their entire worldview of cause and effect is being challenged. “I have a story!” says the brain, “and I have things in the boxes! Leave them be!”

And the way this works out in the conversation is that Person A questions whether Y is an appropriate outcome for action X. Person B perceives this as an attack on their worldview, and feels that criticism about placing the “disruptive, uncooperative teenager” fact in the “cause” box is a defense of the teen being disruptive and uncooperative.  It’s not, but the alternative is to take the fact back out of the box.

Oh, so you think the teen wasn’t being disruptive?  Even the teachers and the other students agreed she was!”

“Oh, so you think that we shouldn’t take any action against teenagers being disruptive and disrespectful?”

“Oh, so you think that the teenager was within her rights to do what she did before the officer showed up?”

Notice that none of those are really responses to the criticism that Y (being physically attacked and thrown to the floor) is not an appropriate response to X (being disrespectful and disruptive).  They are responses to a perceived defense of X, as if the other side were defending the students actions as appropriate and above reproach or response.  They are not, and no one has said they were.  But it’s easier to counter that perceived attack than respond to the real criticism, which means shaking up the boxes and putting the brain back in its discomfort zone.

And our brains hate that.  Hate it so much that they will reroute attacks away from the uncomfortable facts and towards unrelated targets that are easier to defend.



I had a tough life, therefore there’s no such thing as #whiteprivilege

Notice a pattern?)

For X = “a teenage student was being disruptive and disrespectful”, and Y=”a teenage student is body-slammed to the floor by a 250lb+ body-building police officer, possibly breaking her arm and then dragging her across the classroom floor”, my position is that both of those things are TRUE.  She was, by all accounts, being disruptive and disrespectful.  He did slam her to the floor.  Students being disruptive and disrespectful is something that should be addressed, appropriately.  But for me to say that X does not justify Y is not a defense of X: it’s a statement that Y is an appropriate response to a limited amount of actions, and X is most definitely NOT one of them.

But boy, do our brains not like the story we’re left with if we have to face that reality.  And that discomfort is at the root of our current conflicts on race, on gender, on privilege, on sexism, on religious freedom, on social and economic inequality.  It’s our cognitive bias towards stories that don’t disrupt our worldview, that make sense (as long as we don’t think about them too much), that don’t challenge the many other biases we hold.

AND WE ALL DO IT.  In fact, if you’ve reached this far down in this particular story, it’s probably because (a) it helps you put things into the boxes in your brain that make you feel comfortable or (b) you are looking for the nitpicks to tear the argument apart so that you don’t have to shake up your brainboxes.   But if you are in (b), hopefully at least this helps frame the discussion away from the “you’re defending X” position that no one is taking, and towards the “X does not justify Y” discussion we should be having.

Our design game is STRONG

[ Interior, office, 2010. BIG BOSS MAN scowls, sitting at the head of the table, chomping on a cigar and staring at his employees. ]

BIG BOSS MAN: OK, we’ve made all the mechanisms work in the exact opposite way of how they do in the rest of the world, and that’s a good start. But it doesn’t feel *perverse* enough. What else have you got?

[ JOHNSON timidly raises his hand ]

JOHNSON: How about if we… if we… <cough>


JOHNSON: …if we remove all the descriptive labels?

[ Silence. ]

BBM: Johnson?

JOHNSON: ….y-y-yes sir?

BBM: Congratulations, you are our new VP of Design!

[ Cut back to JOHNSON, who suddenly also has a cigar in his mouth. Confetti starts falling from the ceiling as other employees burst into cheers. Champagne, celebration, patting on the back. ]

[ CAMERA PULLS BACK. Company sign on wall becomes visible: it reads “ASSOCIATION OF HILTON HOTEL SHOWER CONTROL DESIGNERS” ]

[ JUMP CUT TO ME, 5 years later, IN SHOWER. After 15 minutes of staring in confusion at a label-free unrecognizably-designed shower control, I tentatively turn it a quarter inch to the left.]

[ Suddenly, BOILING HOT WATER pours out of the shower nozzle for 3 seconds, followed immediately by FREEZING COLD WATER, followed by MILLIONS OF SPIDERS ]



Same light, same windows

KY county clerk Kim Davis’ lawyers have announced (and the Vatican, when reached for comment, declared they would “neither confirm nor deny”) that Pope Francis met with her to offer her support in her battle against doing her job, thanked her for her courage and told her to “stay strong”.

If true, and considering the Pope also took time in his very short visit to meet with the Little Sisters of the Poor to offer support for their legal fight against the ACA (because they don’t want to allow insurance companies to provide contraception to their employees, even those who don’t share their religion), it certainly casts the “new, progressive, liberal” Pope in an interesting light.

Which looks remarkably like the old light, filtered through the same dusty stained-glass windows.

Imagine for a second the uproar if a foreign Muslim leader came into this country and met with people to encourage disobedience against the rule of law for religious reasons. Imagine the bio cleanup that would be needed in Fox News as everyone’s heads simultaneously exploded. If you can justify a Catholic leader doing this but not a Muslim one, or if you can justify Kim Davis but not a Muslim DMV clerk denying driver’s licenses to women, then you and I need to have a conversation about what religious freedom means.

For those of you who think this is a new, improved Pope, so much better than the ones before: yeah, not so much. He just has better PR, and the ability to oppose abortion, oppose contraception, oppose stem-cell research, oppose women in leadership positions, oppose same-sex marriage, all in a way that sounds so much gosh-darned nicer than the previous Popes. If you still think you like him, consider what his opinion must be on Planned Parenthood, and the likelihood that he provided support for the fight against it during his visit to Congress (happening coincidentally on the very day legislation to defund PP was being discussed).

You may be able to square your opinions on Kim Davis, the Little Sisters, the ACA, Planned Parenthood, same-sex marriage, equal rights AND the Pope in a way that allows you to still think he’s progressive and liberal and nice, but I spend too much time on sidewalks being yelled obscenities by people who are supported, organized, funded and transported to the clinic by the organization he leads to share your opinion.

The Birth of the Pill

Just finished “The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution” by Jonathan Eig

Summary judgement: a capably-written book, oh so VERY dry and limp, but the subject matter is important as hell and (IMHO) deserving of better.

Just as important to the history of the Pill as the contribution of Sanger, McCormick, Pincus and Rock was, the role of the Catholic Church in opposition to any form of pregnancy prevention whatsoever is crucial to understanding the state of birth control today. Religious objection, back then and now, was and is the ONLY reason birth control is considered in any way controversial, and the only reason this country has any trouble covering what should be standard, freely-available services in its healthcare plans. That, to be completely honest, I find disgusting beyond belief (no pun intended).

No matter how progressive and liberal you think the current Pope is, the Church’s then-and-current position on life-saving, disease-preventing and abortion-reducing contraceptive measures is disgraceful. The fact that the organization has not progressed an inch since the tale told in this book should be a mark of eternal shame.

Anyway, read the book if you get the chance. It’s not great, but it’s a history everyone should know, because it tells you why we still have to fight the battles.

Is it the Apocalypse yet?

Today, September 23rd, is the beginning of the apocalypse (in case you weren’t paying attention), according to some people who are so arrogant that (a) they believe the supreme deity of the universe is speaking in a coded language only they are privileged to understand and (b) they believe themselves so important, there is no possibility the most climactic moment of the history of the universe might happen while they are not around.

I’ve never heard a prophet make a Rapture/Apocalypse prediction that doesn’t fall squarely within their lifetime. Ever wonder why that is? Ever thought how egocentric that is? And doesn’t that explain a lot?

Anyhoo… if anyone has seen a plague of locusts on the horizon or a river of blood replacing the otherwise normally hemoglobin-deficient Mississippi, let me know. Send me a message if half the cattle in Egypt suddenly breaks out in boils. And if anyone hears an apology from the erstwhile prophets of the end times for causing unnecessary panic, then DEFINITELY let me know ASAP: having any of those people actually admit they were wrong would be a surer sign of the apocalypse than anything they could have predicted by reading entrails.

Instead, MY prediction is this: over the next few days we’ll hear multiple explanations about why the prophets weren’t really wrong. Most failed prophets of the end times resort to a few tried and true tropes: the end times did actually happen, but they were metaphorical or “spiritual” (see Harold Camping), the end times were averted thanks to their prayers and intercession (YOU’RE WELCOME, SINNERS), or they start stretching the definition of common words to accommodate their prediction. For the latter, see the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their definition of end times, which started after multiple failed predictions by saying that the end of the world would definitely occur in 1914, then changed to saying that the end times would BEGIN in 1914, then changed to saying that the end times would begin within a generation of 1914, then that it would happen at some point during the entire lifetime of people who were born in or before 1914, and these days (as those people are dying) off it’s changed to “anyone who understands what happened in 1914″. In a hundred years they’ll still believe it, but it will be “in the lifetime of anyone who has a 1, 9, or 4 in their birth year.” And so on forever, until the Sun explodes in 5 billion years and someone can finally say “SEE!? I WARNED YOU!” as they evaporate.

But I think the excuse we see will be the typical one: we predicted that the End Times would happen, and they actually HAVE started (can’t you SEE all the SIGNS?) but everyone is too blind to see it yet. I remember that argument from when I first started getting interested in religion over 30 years ago, and I can guarantee that the people who used it fervently back then have an excuse for why nothing has happened YET, but definitely WILL ANY DAY NOW. Because there was an EARTHQUAKE and a METEOR and there are WARS AND FAMINE and there is TURMOIL and THOSE THINGS HAVE NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE IN HISTORY.

Live for today and stop worrying about the End Times, folks. If they come, it will be because we brought them about ourselves, because we were fighting about whose interpretation of the supreme command to love each other is correct. And if there’s one thing I won’t abide, it’s an ironic death.

I have opinions and I am not a supermodel

I have been very uncomfortable with the speed at which some of my otherwise progressive and open-minded friends on FB, G+ or other social media have jumped into mocking Rowan County clerk Kim Davis for her looks, or engaging in slut-shaming her for her marriage history.

I think calling out her previous marriages is definitely relevant to the discussion, but not because it means she’s a “slut” or a “whore” (as some of the posted photo memes have said: I’m not even going to link to them), but rather because it shows that she has been willing in the past to take advantage of the religious freedom guaranteed to her by the Constitution, as well as her Christian privilege, in order to obtain a marriage license in spite of the fact that many other people have religious objections to her getting one. But now, when she is in a position of authority to make a similar decision for other people, she is not willing to extend that same freedom and privilege to others. She has the right to not approve on a personal level, but the problem here is using her position of government power to deny the license (and also forbid her employees from granting it).

THAT’S the hypocrisy involved and why her multiple marriages are relevant to the conversation; that does not and MUST not (if we don’t want to be hypocrites ourselves) translate into slut-shaming. We don’t know why she got divorced; would you feel good about yourself making fun of her multiple divorces if you found out they ended because she was being abused?

Whatever the reason for her divorces, she was able to get divorced PRECISELY because laws are secular in nature and should never be subservient to religion or the religious conscience of the person in government with the authority to enforce them. That she is not willing to extend that same right to others is the hypocrisy in this case: we would not call a person showing up at her office to get their fourth same-sex marriage license a slut or a whore, and we should show her the same respect.

As to how she looks: you may or may not find her attractive, but that is completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Let’s have some empathy though, and realize that non of us are supermodels: if you were in the news tomorrow because of a civil rights issue you felt passionately about, would you want people on Facebook discussing the merits of your issue and the arguments you’ve made, or the size of your gut?

Let’s be better than those we criticize. Let’s be better than previous versions of ourselves.


[ Scene: doctor’s office ]

“There you go, you got your measles shot! Who’s my brave little boy!”

[ Internet commenter bursts in through door ]


“Wait, how did you get in…”


“How does the…”


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What makes a good data visualization?

A good data visualization is, in its essence, one that requires little or no explanation in order to understand.  I’ve made this Venn diagram as part of my (proposed) TED talk to help you understand.


(Fig. 1)

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if you are in any way associated with the TED scheduling department.