Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Getting Back In The Saddle. Or Writing After Illness.

I have never ridden a horse though I have sat in a sled pulled by a horse, called Lotta.*

Okay.  That's the entirety my post title produced inside my feeble brain. 

The goal of this post is to get the writing machinery started again, which may mean that its contents are not going to be exciting for anyone else.  Or who knows?

Here it goes, a list of the brilliant thoughts  my recent illness has incubated:

On online political commentary in social media:

1.  I am stunned by the innumeracy of so many otherwise intelligent people.  It's not about most people not understanding the difference between the mean, the mode and the median as measures of central tendency or that the concept of exponential functions (important during this pandemic) is so often utterly misinterpreted.  Those gaps are normal for people who have not taken statistics in college.

It's the more basic type of innumeracy which frightens me.  Not seeing a difference between very small and very large numbers, not understanding that "minority" implies a head count of less than fifty percent of the total,  not seeing that one example of something does not, in itself, tell us anything about how common the phenomenon in the example might be. 

Percentages are often interpreted incorrectly when the size of the base used in the calculations is ignored.  If the prevalence of some illness in a country rises from ten cases to twenty cases, the percentage rise is 100% and looks enormous, but the absolute number of new cases is quite small.  If the prevalence of another illness in the same country is initially one hundred cases and rises to 110 cases the percentage increase is ten percent while the increase in absolute numbers of new cases is the same. 

This matters when we compare, for instance, two states with very different initial Covid-19 cases and the later increases in those cases.  It also matters when interpreting percentage increases in some phenomenon which starts from a very small base.  Any increase will be a big percentage increase when the base is tiny and doesn't necessarily support writing about "the group where the rates are rising most alarmingly."

2.  Because of the nature of online commentary, its major focus tends to be in words and persuading others by using words.  Words and gestures do matter, don't get me wrong.  But what might matter even more is how material resources are distributed or re-distributed.  Or at least the two, communication and resource provision, must dance together.

Take the Black Lives Matters movement.  For the US to really improve racial justice it is ultimately necessary to address racial and/or class inequalities in wealth and income.  There are various ways of approaching the needed re-allocations**, but ultimately money must change hands.  And social justice movements must also focus on the necessary work to achieve that outcome.

3.  While sick I spent some whole days reading political comments on Twitter and in many other places.  Doing that made me think how very important it is to go back to one's basic principles about fairness and justice, or at least to visit those principles once in a while.  Specific examples of injustice are important and useful, but that is because they put flesh on the bones of the underlying principle***.  It is that principle we must remember.

Whenever I get confused about some specific example of unfairness, and in particular about an example where the rights of two groups or individuals clash or appear to clash, I get clarity by going back to the basic principles I hold about justice and fairness.  When I don't do that I sometimes drift into focusing on other aspects of a particular example than what it truly is about.

On reading while bed-ridden:

Do you ever re-read books which changed your life?  And how do they seem to you on that re-reading?  I have read a lot in the past month, for obvious reasons (didn't have the energy for ditch-digging, say), and when I found nothing new that looked interesting enough I began to read my old favorites again.

Some of them retain their initial flavors to me, some now read outdated, and in a few cases reading a book again made me detest it. 

But what I certainly learned from that project is that the "me" who once existed does not exist today, and the "me" that exists today does not need the same literary diet the old "me" benefited from.  The Buddhists who say that there is no such thing as a constant and permanent "me" are most likely correct.

Then there's the odd realization that my memories of many books were distorted.  I would remember, vividly, one scene from a novel, thinking it provided the major focus of the book, and then I would read the book again and find that this vivid scenes took all of two paragraphs in the story.

Okay.  That was pure fluff.****


*  The horse belonged to my grandmother and my father borrowed it one Christmas eve when a late snow-storm and lack of plowing made the roads otherwise impossible to navigate.  We had presents to take to my cousins so my father harnessed the horse to a sleigh and I went with him, wrapped inside a thick blanket like a hot dog inside a bun.  It was great fun, until the sleigh overturned on a steep hill and I flew out of it like a rocket, landing in deep snow upside down.  My father dug me out and the horse was not hurt, but this memory is one of my earliest ones, both because nobody used a sled-and-horse anymore and because of that rocket flight.

** From reparations for slavery to changing systems so that they don't produce systemically racists outcomes, even as an unintended by-product.   Making sure that schools and health care and grocery stores and so on are equally good and equally available in all areas would be a small beginning of what is needed.

*** This particular thought also links to the previous one in that any single anecdote just tells us about that particular example and not necessarily about the total number of such examples occurring during a year, say.

****  Then from the wider angle everything is fluff.  We are born, we struggle and we die, while the gears of the universe go grinding.  Can you tell my illness has made me severely depressed, too?