Dare to Disagree

Interesting few days at Wimbledon, the US Supreme Court, and the humble blog. It all started when I criticized “Mr. Money Mustache” in his comment section for ripping into one of his readers. As I explained in the previous post, MMM is a wildly successful blogger who writes about personal finance and early retirement.

He provides excellent details on how he’s managed to retire early and offers no-nonsense advice on how to replicate his success. Understandably, his legion of readers dig him for the tangible help he’s provided them. He typically responds to every tenth or twentieth reader comment, and because nearly every one is in essence an “amen to that” I thought he’d return serve following my critique. But he didn’t. That is, until his next post, in which he not only referred to my criticism, but linked to my previous post titled “What Engineers Get Wrong”.

As a result, on Monday and Tuesday, I had a month’s worth of page views. An unintended part of my fifteen minutes of fame. Most of the mass of visitors just quietly poked around, some engineers however, took the time to rip into me for my criticism of them. If the thought of me being ripped into brings even a small smile to your face go back and read their comments. Or at least Allison’s who it doesn’t seem likes me very much. All I have to say to Allison is I’m much more charming in person. Ask my mom.

I’ve dared to disagree with MMM before and felt some of his readers’ wrath, so now I know what to expect. It’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s almost like he’s a cult leader whose followers refuse to question him. He’s even charismatic, but unlike most cult leaders, he’s not selling his personality or whacked out made up ideas, the vast majority of his content makes excellent sense. What I now realize is hIs readers so appreciate his writing that they don’t take kindly to anyone disagreeing with him. Which of course threatens to make his readers’ comment section a sleep inducing echo chamber.

But then again, you might argue the internet writ large, just like the media more generally, is an echo chamber. The sad truth is civic discourse, in which reasonable people disagree about topics that matter, is a lost art. One reason for that is no one likes to be criticized. We’re all defensive, to varying degrees. So much so we struggle to process contending viewpoints.

For example, MMM wrote that I “criticized his blog’s approach,” but my criticism was of a specific aspect of his thinking. The truth of the matter is I’m down with 90% of what he writes and if we had the chance, I have no doubt we’d enjoy cycling together, drinking a craft beer afterwards, and talking personal finance. I’m not lifting weights with him though.

Especially initially, I struggled to process all the engineers’ criticisms of me too. I’d zero in on one particular sentence that I believed to be especially wrongheaded and slight everything else. Just as my criticism was somewhat muddled in MMM’s head, their messages were muddled in mine.

The youngest daughter got a kick out of these events. “You’ve gone viral!” After she read Allison’s lengthy criticism of my last post, she asked, “So did what she write change your thinking?” That’s the all important question. After the first reading, I would have had to answer no, not at all, because I read it defensively. But thinking aloud, I said to youngest daughter, “It would be awfully hypocritical of me to blow her off when my whole point is to promote critical inquiry.”

Then I considered the criticisms more carefully and realized they had one thing in common—that I had unfairly overgeneralized about one group of professionals. Even though it was a literary device of sorts, I understand why it was upsetting. Because they showed the courage of their convictions and took the time to disagree with me, my thinking was challenged and deepened, and hopefully, that of new and old readers’ as well.

And as a result, my little slice of the internet, for at least a brief moment in time, was anything but an echo chamber.

The Electronic Guillotine

As recent events in Brazil and Turkey, and on the Food Channel illustrate, it’s difficult to exaggerate Twitter’s influence. It can destabilize governments and vaporize a Southern, white woman with a successful television cooking show. That is, if the woman allegedly uses the “n” word off screen.

Until a few days ago, Dean was the Southern, sixty-something host of a popular cooking show on The Food Channel. Some combo of her emails, transcripts, and audio-recordings recently surfaced, materials filled with racial epitaphs. Pre-twitter, you would have never heard that story. It would have been buried inside an industry-specific periodical or local paper. Now, thanks in part to Twitter, most everything is national or international.

Pre-twitter, Dean would have been in human resources hot water. She would have been required to attend diversity training workshops and probably been placed on some sort of probation. But given her show’s advertising revenue stream, the suits in charge would not have fired her. However, when the Twitter wave turned large and angry enough, the suits sacrificed her job on the altar of electronic public opinion.

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What happened to Deen on Twitter reminds me of what happened in the public schools I attended in my youth whenever fist fights broke out. All of us went Pavlovian and immediately ran towards them. The mob mentality of our youth is alive and well on Twitter. Now that we’re adults, we’re still running towards fights, we’re just using Twitter applications to do it. The first to arrive on the scene are immediately outraged. Then independent of much meaningful knowledge of the case, Twitter friends and acquaintances figure they’ll be outraged too. You know, solidarity.

Read about another equally illuminating recent example of this phenomenon here. In both of these cases, the perps hurriedly offered heartfelt apologizes, which on Twitter, only fueled the fire of people’s disgust. Whenever an electronic mob gains sufficient momentum a tipping point occurs where the suits decide the potential long-term damage to their brand’s image is greater than the short-term financial rewards of the pre-crisis advertising revenue. At which point, the Deens of the world can prostrate themselves in front of news cameras all they want. They’re dead men and women walking.

The electronic mob forms so quick there’s no due process for the “defendant”. Perception is reality, whether it’s the least bit accurate. No need to try explaining. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

It also squelches reflection and meaningful dialogue about class, race, gender, sexual orientation—diversity in all its forms. We still have a lot to learn about how to live together peacefully. When hateful and hurtful private thoughts or words are made public we should take the time to talk to one another about where the hate comes from, why it’s so hurtful, and what might be done to right the wrong.

With Twitter, we’ve created a swift and lethal executioner. The way we’re using it, we’re robbing ourselves of teachable moments that we desperately need.

What Engineers Get Wrong

Mr. Money Mustache, a former engineer and Longmont, Colorado-based blogger, has struck a chord with his retire early gospel. To the tune of about 800,000 separate vistors and 3.5 million page views a month. A large part of his appeal is his directness about people’s tendency to waste money unnecessarily.

I like his thesis that community is far more fulfilling than material pursuits, but dislike the groupthink his followers often display.

His advice is to get a good paying job (easier written than done) and then work for 10-15 years saving half of what you earn. Then, when you have $500k or so saved up, quit work and spend time doing whatever you find most meaningful. For him that’s blogging, carpentry, and spending time with family and friends. $500k is far less than nearly every other retirement “expert” recommends saving. MMM believes everyone can do what his family does, live quite comfortably on about $25k a year.

Their house is paid off and they have one inexpensive car that they rarely use. Instead, they bicycle almost everywhere. His most recent post was titled “Bicycling: The Safest Form of Transportation”. That post has generated over 360 comments, many which consisted of a mathematical back and forth, some challenging his use of statistics, others defending him.

In reply to one commenter, he shouted, “You can’t disagree with the math by listing four pieces of anecdotal evidence!” And then, at the end of the of the same reply added what might be the engineers’ motto, “Calculations and spreadsheets for everything.”

These aren’t just the words of one widely read blogger, they succinctly articulate the central message of a wide range of policy makers that see data analysis as a panacea for nearly all of society’s ills. That belief, “calculations and spreadsheets for everything,” is what informs the emphasis upon STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—at the expense of the the humanities, the arts, and foreign languages.

I can’t help but wonder if MMM only interacts with other engineers with the exact same “calculations and spreadsheet” worldview. Mind boggling that someone as smart as him believes that any spreadsheet might make someone less afraid to ride their bike across a major metropolitan area. As if phobias are rational and can simply be argued away with math. If that was true, people wouldn’t see psychologists, they’d see mathematicians. “Let’s see, you’re afraid of flying in airplanes. Take a look at this spreadsheet then.”

Engineers think people are rational. If that were true, people would change their favorite Starbucks order based on their new calorie charts and every investor would always buy low and sell high. A more realistic counter motto is “Subjective emotions for everything”. Few people study calculations and spreadsheets when making friends, love, or decisions about how to get to and from work. They do it based upon a messy, unscientific, imperfect combination of intuition, feel, and emotion.

That’s what engineers get wrong.

Just Maybe The Most Important Thing to Look for in a Friend, Spouse, Work Environment

Generosity? Dependability? Energy? Care? Smarts? Loyalty? Connections? Kindness? Humility? Patience? Optimism? I’ll wait while you cast your vote. . .

My answer came to me Friday night at the Puget Marina off Johnson Point Rd in North Olympia. The Puget Marina has the single best view of the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier of any one place I’ve ever stood. I was there Friday night because Scott, a principal friend, was being celebrated for his ten plus year tenure at a local high school. He’s beloved by his faculty and staff in large part because of his sense of humor. Here’s a little flavor flav of his personality. He’s the guy on the scooter who can’t squat worth beans.

When our new high school grad watched that vid she said, “Our principal could never pull that off.” Few principals could because they’re keenly self conscious, just like people more generally. Most principals continuously worry, what kind of persona am I projecting? Authoritative enough? Professional enough?

Faculty and staff told funny stories all night. There was a moving mixture of laughter and tears. One person said Scott’s greatest talent is being able to switch smoothly from serious to silly and back again. There’s a lot to having and using a sense of humor thoughtfully. I think it’s at least partially learned. Too bad we don’t think, talk, or teach about it.

Day-to-day life is challenging; consequently, pressures continuously build. Humor is an indispensable pressure relief valve. It’s a salve for the super serious and the sad. Or in other words, all of us at times.

Friday night I realized Scott is wonderfully comfortable in his own skin and with those he works. Somehow he’s learned to sidestep the trap of self-consciousness.

I dug the evening because the informal vibe stood in such amazing contrast with my work environment at a university. Sometimes I wonder if PhD stands for Prior humor Disassembled. I challenge you to find a less humorous setting than a typical university faculty meeting. Just brutal. Everyone wondering if they’re coming across as smart enough. Maybe Scott should consult with Deans on how to make their own rap videos.

The other day on my Twitter feed, another reminder of humor’s value compliments of Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia fame. She tweeted, “Walked to my friend’s house to pick up my bike, cycled home, took a bath. Pretty sure I just completed the Portland Triathlon.” Anyone know Carrie? I want to be her friend. Maybe I’ll invite to her a faculty meeting.

Tonight I’ll Be Arching My Head Back A Wee Bit

To prevent tears from spilling over while watching my daughter’s high school graduation. The head tilt is a subtle technique men have been steadily perfecting since the Neanderthal Age. Look for signs of it at the next especially sappy romantic comedy you see.

How does this jive with the previous post, “Can’t We Please Stop Celebrating High School Graduation?” That was written by my social critic self. It applies to all the other graduates, not the special, tall, slender, blonde one walking across the stage at St. Martin’s University tonight. The one for whom middle and high school presented lots of challenges. Girlfriends that ran hot and cold. Obsessive compulsive disorder. A dad afraid to cry. The one who has weathered those and other challenges amazingly well. The one who has come out the other side a beautiful, kind, sensitive young woman with a bright future.

I’ve been a rock lately because marriage is like nature—it requires homeostasis. I’ve had to compensate for My Betrothed who has been an emotional roller coaster with life changes beyond her control, in particular her parents getting older and her daughters becoming more independent. My blogging around those edges, as demonstrated here, only makes matters worse.

Even writing this is making me emotional. More specifically, grateful, for all too many to count blessings in my life—that my mom is hanging in there, that Betrothed has been such a great mother to both our daughters, that the pantry is full of food, and we’re mentally and physically well.

Despite inevitable changes, the inevitable passing of parents, the independence of our children, my own death, I’m looking forward to the future. It’s the cycle of life. Resistence is futile.

And yes Dear Wife, the graduate read and approved a draft of this. All she said was, “I’ll be looking for the head tilt tonight.”

Can We Please Stop Celebrating High School Graduation?

Like it’s an amazing accomplishment that means something significant. Note to the graduates. We expected you to successfully finish all twelve grades.

For shit’s sake, my cycling training is suffering and I missed a triathlon in Portland last weekend because of the first of an endless number of graduation-related events that dot the Byrnes family social calendar.

We’re long overdue on updating our traditions. Forty-fifty years ago a high school diploma was meaningful. High school graduates could get manufacturing jobs and support families. Now, a high school diploma is simply a ticket to continue around the game board of life. That’s all. It’s not an amazing accomplishment. And to the well intentioned people congratulating me in church on Sunday, not necessary. I didn’t sit in boring class after boring class or complete any homework. I did inquire about school at dinner (to no avail) and I did drive the forgotten violin to school a few times, but that’s hardly grounds for congratulations.

Here’s what graduating from high school means, plain and simple. Instead of having most decisions made for you, you get to make more of them yourself. Enlist in the military or enroll in a vocational program, a community college, or a four year college or university. In a few more years, if you apply yourself in one or more of those settings, you will have sufficient knowledge and skills to begin making a positive difference in people’s lives and get paid a living wage. And you’ll be economically independent.

And then we’ll party hearty.