Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas 1955

Christmas 1955 - I was seven years old and my little sister was age two when this photo was taken of our Christmas tree and all the loot underneath it. My Dad was a veteran of WWII, he had just gotten a good paying job as an engineer and we had moved out to the San Francisco suburbs only a few years earlier. My Mom was the stay-at-home kind.

The motivations for practicing Duck-and-Cover drills at grade school were beyond my comprehension; I was living in total middle-class heaven. Needs I didn't even know I had were met with excess. I could look through the Sears Catalog toy section and be reasonably assured that some of those treasures would end up under our tree. The only downer for the season was when I opened a gift that turned out to be a shirt or sweater - I felt gypped.

I must have gotten an new bicycle every-other Christmas. The toys were always cool - Erector sets, Tonka trucks, Lionel train, even an Atomic Canon once. These things made up for my Dad drinking too much on Christmas Eve and my Mother going to be crying. I took the toys in my room and played by myself with the door closed. These were times of excess - materialistic and alcoholic... and everything in between.

My parents struggled. My mother went to a psychiatrist and took Milltown. My Dad drank. There were no marriage counselors (other than the Catholic priest) and no self-help empowerment books. My parents foundered in guilt, self-pity, anxiety and cruel words between them.

A Christmas of "stuff" never really seemed to make up for it, though it did provide escape. I wasn't able to truly escape until I went away to college. And even then, I had to return home during Christmas break. Nothing had changed.

Today my wife and I spend practically nothing on Christmas; we don't buy gifts and we don't even attempt to compete with the other grandparents showering our grand kids with toys. We put up lights on the house and a lovely Christmas tree... it even has an angel on the top. We Atheists celebrate the holiday like most everyone does, with family and friends and good food, wishing for peace on earth and good will toward us all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Media Generated Empathy

The following type of stories appear repeatedly in the news: A person or family, down on their luck due to unforeseen circumstances, perhaps due to illness or economic downturn. The story airs on national news... and suddenly they become the recipients of a huge outpouring of contributions of money, job offers and scholarships.

For example recently the CBS news show “60 Minutes” ran a story about homeless children in Florida; parents laid off work, living in their car, using a gas station restroom to clean up for school. The story had a huge impact on viewers; so much so that a follow-up story was broadcast about viewers sending in nearly one million dollars in contributions. One of the little girls in the story was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of a university – that particular university offered the girl a full scholarship. [1]

I see these stories and think: "Great… but what about the hundreds of thousands of other families who weren't lucky enough to appear on '60 Minutes'. What do they get?"

The answer is, they get nothing! People see these stories in the context of an isolated incident. They know that there is widespread poverty and deprivation in the world, in their community. But until it becomes personalized, most people are blind to issue.

Yet oddly we recognize that most humans are generally obsessed with a sense of morality. Granted how we each of us personally defines morality varies widely from individual to individual. But a sense of morality infuses a large percentage of how we interact with others. A number of scientific studies have actually been conducted in an attempt to find a biological basis for our sense of morality. At the biological level, we know that when levels of oxytocin are raised in the blood stream, we feel more magnanimous and interested in moral abstracts.

Interestingly the mere acting or invoking of empathy actually causes the oxytocin; some have begun to call it it the “moral molecule”. But oxytocin has a very short half-life and our ability as humans to summon empathy is equally short lived. Empathy rapidly attenuates as the demand for it becomes more widely spread. A story about four specific homeless children in Florida strongly evokes empathy in a large population of television viewers. But a story instead about the hundreds of nameless, faceless homeless children, often entirely misses the empathy bulls-eye. In fact often the opposite happens; the sense of morality instead generating indignation and the feeling that empathy is undeserved.

I often find myself dealing with negative emotions when, confronted at some check-out counter at a store or restaurant, there is the seemingly ubiquitous slotted can next to the cash register: "Help little Timmy get that liver transplant, his parents have no insurance." I’ve even dropped spare change in such cans myself. But I wonder what would that store would look like if there was a slotted contribution can for every needy Timmy, Johnny, Sally… all the thousands of needy people just in my area alone? Slotted cans would be stacked on every surface up to the ceiling, all over the floor and rolling out the door!

I find outrage in the realization that most people are unable to generate even the remotest sense of empathy, and remote sense of morality, to those they have no way of individually connecting to? Who decides who has earned a donation jar or nightly news story in their name and who will continue to suffer silently in anonymity?

1. Homeless teens on "60 Minutes" get free college, December 3, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fear of Flying

In the course of five minutes, Air France flight 447 dropped from cruise altitude down into the Atlantic Ocean; none of the 228 passengers and crew on board survived. There was nothing mechanically wrong with the aircraft until it hit the the surface, sinking two miles to the ocean floor.

The opposite was true of US Airways Flight 1549 whose twin engines flamed dead out after climbing through a flock of birds during takeoff. The captain and first officer ditched the plane in the Hudson river; all 115 passengers on the flight survived.

The reasons for the diametrically opposite outcomes between these two airplane crashes reside entirely within the differences in the brains of their pilots. It involves the response of the human mind to situations of stress, fear and cognition.

Statistically half of all airline crashes can be attributed to “pilot error”.[1] However, these statistics are not entirely unequivocal. For example there are cases of what is termed: “controlled flight into terrain” where pilots, completely unaware of a dangerous situation, believing that they were fully in control and on course, still crashed their aircraft. Then there are fatal incidents directly resulting from the pilot’s incorrect responses to emergency conditions; disregarding warnings or not following accepted procedures.

The latter was the case of Air France 447. While at cruise altitude and on automatic pilot, ice caused the plane’s airspeed indicator to read incorrectly. Unable to reason through the situation, the co-pilot did the unthinkable – failing to consult the checklist for this situation, he disengaged the autopilot. Attempting to fly the aircraft manually at that altitude, he pulled back on the controls, placing the aircraft in a stall condition.

Student pilots learn from their earliest training that pulling back on the control is exactly the WRONG response to a stall; a condition where the nose is lifted up to the point where the plane loses all lift. Even through every pilot knows that placing ANY aircraft in a nose-down attitude is the proper recovery procedure for a stall, the Air France co-pilot continued to attempt to pull back on the controls until the plane hit the ocean. Why?

Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder revealed that the co-pilot in command at that moment (the pilot was away from the flight deck) was apparently overcome with fear, unable to stop and reason through the predicament. Psychologists who study people’s reactions during periods of extreme fear sometimes refer to this inability to think a situation through as a “brain lock”. Deep within our brains the Amygdale processes our fear responses. If these responses override the Frontal Cortex, the “reasoning” portion of the brain, the person mostly likely will respond using instinctive behavior.

The crew of Air France 447 had almost five minutes to attempt to diagnose and recover control of their aircraft. Conversely, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger in command of US Airways Flight 1549, had mere seconds. But Sully did possess the benefit of both years of experience and specific training which had been programmed into his cognition. When the engines flamed out on his Airbus, his rational frontal cortex overrode the fear. By thinking and responding rationally Sully and his First Officer saved 115 lives. Reacting to fear without thinking cost the lives of 228 Air France passengers.

Fear can cause us to believe things that are not true, to draw to incorrect conclusions and take inappropriate actions; fear often is a response out of ignorance. The antidote to fear is knowledge – education, training, experience and critical thinking.
In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a U.S.-made MD-80 were attempting to land in northwest China when the aircraft crashed on approach killing all on board. The pilots were baffled by an audio voice alarm from the plane's ground proximity warning system. Recovered from the wreckage, the plane's cockpit voice recorder picked up the Chinese pilot's last words: "What does 'pull up' mean?"

1. accident database and represents 1,300 fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft, world-wide, from 1950 thru 2009 for which a specific cause is known.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods...

Recently some friends were visiting us from out of town. The evening wore on and it was getting late; they had about a two hour drive ahead of them if they were to make it home by midnight. A couple of days later they called to thank us for the lovely evening and relate how their late evening drive home ended up being a 4-hour ordeal.

When my wife and I head north to Portland, we generally make the 12 mile jaunt over to the Interstate then cruise the remainder of the trip North at freeway speeds. But this is not the most direct route to Portland: Highway 99 is the old highway.

From our house, our friends had programmed their GPS to home and simply followed the device’s directions. Calculating the most “direct” route, it took them off the old highway, routing them along rural county roads until they reached the banks of the Willamette River. However, there was no bridge across the Willamette at this point on the route!

The GPS program didn’t know that the point where that little yellow line transverses the Willamette is actually the Buena Vista ferry; a small car ferry that stops operating at 7:00 PM. Our friends had to back-track on windy rural country roads to make their way to secondary roads which would eventually lead them home.

This isn’t the first time people have been led astray by errant GPS systems. In 2009 an Oregon couple on their way to Reno was directed up a remote Forest Service road by their GPS; it looked like the shortest route. They spent three days stranded in the snow before being rescued. These are not isolated incidents; there are countless stories of drivers being led astray by blindly depending on their onboard navigation systems. They may calculate the most “direct” route, but that may not necessarily be the quickest or most efficient route.

If I use Google Maps, for example, to direct me to the beach about an hour west of our location, the directions have me taking a circuitous route of twisty rural back roads before connecting into main route to the coast. But I know that if I drive three miles out of my way to the main highway, I can make it to my destination more quickly and comfortably.

I prefer to depend on maps. But even maps can lead one astray. I’ve seen bright yellow printed lines on a map that, in reality, don’t go where they indicate they do. Still maps give an overall perspective of starting point and destination. This allows you to strategize your trip rather than rely on simple “turn here” directions. Frankly, I like to see the the big picture, and I like to know roughly where I am at any point during a trip.

I appreciate that some people like not having to have to pull over and consult a map; and perhaps having that reassuring voice confidently directing them on their journey is comforting. But I probably won’t get a GPS anytime soon. Besides, I'm sure it would just keep asking: “Are we there yet?”

I love this Allstate Insurance ad:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Robert Reich: "The REAL Public Nuisance"

I recently came across this video by Robert Reich. I believe his is as significant a warning about the hijacking of our Democracy as the George Carlin video I have posted previously.

Please invest 2 minutes and watch this video, then pass it on.