Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Understanding Empathy

One of the ways I’ve been working on upping my writing game is by paying attention to what people are reading here on my blog so I might get an idea of what moves my readers. I have now posted well over six hundred times and about 90% of these posts are essentially essays regarding my thoughts about various things, e.g. politics, religion, life, the universe, and everything. The other 10% are tests and sharing things I’ve come across but have little to say about. I also occasionally have reason to look back myself, even if no one has recently read a particular post of mine I find interesting.

Suspension of Disbelief
To Open Up And Believe

Because there have been many highly emotional news stories lately, and emotions are high to begin with, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the role of emotions and, especially, how they relate to empathy. Turns out I had written about empathy over eight years ago, long before Donald Trump’s presidency. Since the reality has hit us that he is entirely without empathy, I would like to share a concatenation of the two posts I wrote in late September of 2012. It’s my hope these two are as pertinent today as they were when I wrote them; perhaps more so because I was only writing then about my feelings and now what I wrote seems so pertinent to what we’re all experiencing in the waning days of this disastrous presidency.

The willing suspension of disbelief. What a powerful, magical, and exceedingly frightening thing it can be – at least for me. Not always, though. It’s been quite a while since my last venture into the genre but, a long time ago – in a galaxy far, far away – I read a lot of Science Fiction. Reading it can’t possibly be enjoyable if you aren’t able to suspend your ability to think critically. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of what many an author hated being called Sci-Fi.

I’m normally somewhat cynical and am a fairly skeptical person, so I’m continuously surprised at how easily I can get sucked into a compelling story, especially if the characters are even moderately complex. I think it actually frightens me to realize how deeply I have disappeared into many a television drama.

This tendency has no doubt been exacerbated by my becoming a father at the ripe old age of 55, when my wife and I culminated a decision we had made a couple of years earlier and traveled to the People’s Republic of China to adopt our first child. We repeated the process four years later and, at the tender age of 59, I once again became a new father.

I now find myself immersed in shows where children are involved (it happens far more often than one might think) and I can’t help but identify with the parents, which sometimes brings me to tears – occasionally racking sobs of grief.

It has always been this way. I’ve been told the men in my family – many of them – were blubberers. Though I couldn’t have been older than five or six at the time, I recall the first time I saw my father cry. He had just received news that my Bubbie Jennie, his mother, had died. He hadn’t seen much of her since moving to Southern California. She had remained in Chicago, where both my parents were born. It was eerie, and not a little unsettling to see my father, a young boy’s tower of strength and resolve, break down like that.

It was made more difficult because I had only met her once, when she came to visit for a week, and she was unfamiliar to me. On the other hand, my maternal grandparents lived with us and I felt a strong emotional tie to them I could not summon up for her. She was by Bubbie, though. My mother’s mother was just Grandma.

I frequently ask myself, however, why I am so deeply and painfully drawn into these stories. I’m not entirely certain I have the answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s not so much the story itself as it is the relationship those stories bear to my own life. defines empathy as follows: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. That seems pretty straight-forward, yes? I am a fairly empathetic person and I tend toward the second part of that definition, i.e. I feel the pain of others vicariously. However, I don’t think this captures the essence of what is happening when I am fully immersed in a story.

Perhaps it’s too fine a point and the distinction isn’t all that great, but it seems to me what’s really happening is I’m overlaying the experience in the story onto my own life. I’m not so much experiencing the feelings of another as I’m experiencing the feelings I would have were I to be in that situation. I don’t think they’re the same. Then again, maybe that’s the mechanism that actually facilitates empathy.

This is a minor conundrum that comes to me most every time it happens and, usually, I forget about it within a minute or two. Lately I decided to try and get a descriptive handle on it and this is my first attempt.

Empathy is a valuable and deeply human trait. It is one of the five traits listed as characteristic of emotional intelligence which, in turn, is seen by many as a valuable business and leadership skill. It’s important to understand and to cultivate in order that we may better understand the people in our lives, whether at work, play, or home.

I want to understand what is moving me when this happens. On some levels it seems patently ridiculous to get so emotionally involved in a fiction story. On the other hand, perhaps it is really what makes us human. I’m wondering if someone with a more classical education than I have knows more of the thinking humans have brought to the subject. I’m sure some in the Arts (especially the Theater Arts) have tackled it. I’ll have to do more research. In the meantime, I’m glad there’s plenty of tissue in the house.

As it turns out, thanks to a friend I discovered an interesting answer through a wonderful TED talk by VS Ramachandran, a Neuroscientist who has studied the functions of mirror neurons. It would seem there is overwhelming evidence we humans are more closely connected than I was hinting at.

In his talk he says, “There is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons.” I find this resonates in many ways with my understanding of Systems Dynamics, Quantum Theory, and Zen and goes a long way toward answering my question. Frankly I find it a meaningful addition to my understanding, but still find myself wondering why it manifests itself so powerfully in some . . . and not at all in others. After all, the world is filled with people who are anti-social in varying degrees of severity from mild conduct disorders to outright sociopathy or APSD.

Regardless, there is much value in this talk. He speaks of the wonders of the human brain and, with respect to the issues I raised yesterday, uses words like imitation and emulation, ultimately winding his way to empathy. Rather than repeat any of his talk, I urge you to listen to it. There’s at least one very cool surprise a little more than halfway through. At less than eight minutes, it’s really engaging. Here’s the video. I’d love to hear what others think of this:

How To Be A Patriot

Photo by Pixabay on

It seems to me that anyone who really cares about their country, who is a genuine patriot, has to care for everyone. Life is NOT a zero-sum game, where the gains enjoyed by others are a loss to you and yours. No, life and human society are highly complex, interdependent systems where every part has a role to play, and when we don’t provide optimal conditions for the health and well-being of some of the parts, the whole body suffers. Would you want your car’s engine to go without one of its spark plugs? While it would still get you to where you were going, it wouldn’t do it as efficiently, nor as effectively. In the end, it would almost certainly cost more to deal with the results of an imbalance in the engine than it would to ensure all its components were kept in good working order.

Yet many approach life as though they are living on an island. It’s difficult to fathom the level of insensitivity, blindness to reality, and the callous lack of empathy it takes to turn one’s back on people who may not directly affect your life in a way you can feel immediately, but who nevertheless impact the organizations and institutions you deal with all the time.

For instance, by not ensuring all children receive healthcare, adequate nutrition, and early education, we ensure our up and coming workforce will be less prepared than they otherwise could be for the kinds of jobs that will be available in the near future. The net result is we not only handicap those children, we also handicap their families, their friends, and the entire nation. By guaranteeing they need more help for far longer than might otherwise be the case, we add to both their burden and ours.

We hobble ourselves with mistaken, outdated, unsupportable notions that give far more importance to diversity as a bad thing; as something that takes away from our sense of worth, of self. Instead of understanding, celebrating, and taking advantage of all the ways in which we complement and enhance each other, too many of us turn those virtues into imaginary vices and use them to divide and separate us. What a pity.

Better Understanding The Franchise

We’ve taken voting a little too much for granted, methinks. That would include yours truly, though I have never missed a vote since June 4, 1968, my 21st birthday. I think I made the mistake of believing all that mattered was that I voted and I encouraged those close to me to vote as well. I’m pretty certain that’s no longer good enough; probably was never good enough, but it took the tender ministrations of the tangerine shitgibbon to make it clear we need to take the franchise a bit more seriously.

What, perzackly, that entails is unclear to me, but I’m sure a lot of us have ideas and many are already working on it. That’s what VR and GOTV are all about, no? But I am thinking a little beyond those two things, which we’ve been doing for a long time. We need to talk more about what it means to be an informed citizen. We need to find ways to present it that aren’t tres wonky. Therein may lie the greatest challenge.

Working Remotely? Here’s Some Help

The need to address the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic may have done more to accelerate the digital transformation many have been working towards for years, than all of the bitching, moaning, hand-wringing, and pearl clutching heretofore expended on cajoling knowledge workers to adopt and adapt these technologies.

Five years ago I served as the developmental editor on the 2nd edition of “The New Social Learning.” I had the pleasure of working with the co-author of the 1st edition, who was the principal author of the 2nd, Marcia Conner. Marcia is one of a handful of people who recognized the need for, and the power of, such a transition . . . and this book was an attempt to help leaders and organizations move forward to adopt these new ways of working, and working together.

I recommend this book highly for everyone who is now finding themselves either working at home or dealing with today’s need to be more “distanced” from our colleagues. There’s a wealth of good info here. I urge you to check it out. It’s about far more than just learning.

“The Workplace Has Changed. At this moment, your people are already learning through social media. They’re reaching out and connecting in powerful ways. The question is, can you recognize, appreciate, and take advantage of the power inherent in this new level of communication? Do you want to facilitate or debilitate? Do you want to play a part in what and how people learn? Or do you want to try to stop them? Will you restrict them? Or will you free them to do the work they were hired to do—and will you do it with them?”

Trevor Noah on George Floyd

Thought I would share a couple of videos from Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show (currently called “The Daily Social Distancing Show.”)

Trevor on How Things are Connected
Trevor on Looting and What Really Matters

Wear Your Fucking Mask!

The Headgear Might Not Be, But The Use Of Facemasks Is Serious Business

It’s still kind of mind-blowing to me how many people don’t seem to understand the argument for wearing a mask while we’re struggling to contain this virus pandemic. While it’s true the CDC and others have changed their recommendation over time, this is not something new. Because the Corona Virus is so new (hence the name “novel”) there’s very little we can say about it with any certainty.

For instance, it’s still unknown if exposure, infection, and survival confers any kind of immunity from another, subsequent infection. If it doesn’t, then antibody testing isn’t going to tell us much of anything useful. We’re just discovering that it affects children more than we had previously thought, and we’ve also discovered the virus affects far more than merely the pulmonary system.

While it seems to me it was always a good idea to wear a mask in public once this thing had spread far enough to make containment impossible, I can understand why—when there is a shortage of masks available for our front-line healthcare workers—the authorities would suggest we not wear masks, at least not the kind that are used in medical settings. That makes sense given how important those workers are, and how important it’s been to not overwhelm our healthcare system.

Now that we know more about how it spreads, I think there are a lot of people who don’t appreciate the concept of droplets and aerosols. I have an experience that I always wondered whether or not I would be able to share without sounding a bit daffy. I think it’s apropos now, however.

I believe it was in 2015, when I had returned as a contractor to the place I had retired from five years prior. I had to drive east to get there and west to return home. I distinctly remember coming home one evening, driving into the sunset. I had a Plantronics wireless earpiece, so I could talk on my phone while driving. As I was talking normally, I could see dozens and dozens of small droplets spraying out of my mouth with the enunciation of certain sounds. It was a bit disconcerting as I’d never noticed just how sloppy we are when we’re just speaking, let alone coughing or sneezing.

How COVID-19 Is Transmitted Through Aerosol Particles

Bottom line is this; as long as we don’t have a vaccine, nor a known, useful treatment for Covid-19, the disease caused by the Corona Virus SARS-CoV-2, we need to take steps to mitigate its spread. Not necessarily to keep everyone from being exposed, but (at the very least) to spread out (flatten the curve) it’s path of infection to prevent such rampant disease that we are incapable of handling it and thousands die because we just don’t have the necessary medical infrastructure, tools, supplies, and equipment to keep our healthcare workers safe.

I know some think wearing a mask makes them look like a dork but, in my less than humble opinion, if you’re too self-centered to realize wearing one is in everyone’s best interests because it goes a long way to preventing you from spreading the virus, in case you’re infected yet asymptomatic, then you actually are a dork . . . or something much worse.

If interested, and you want to learn more about how this deadly virus spreads, here’s a great article ‘splaining it for you.

Less Than Perfect

The following is a post from an earlier blog of mine, The Cranky Curmudgeon. It was posted on February 27, 2006.

Why do people, perfectly rational in other ways, defend the indefensible? Why do they continue along a path that is demonstrably wrong and easily abandoned? I’m not talking about the barbarous torture being carried out in our name, with our money, by our government. I’m talking about the indefensible butchering of the English language by educated, enlightened people.

I’m talking about people who are scientists, who make their living off understanding and precisely defining physical properties of phenomena in order to reshape the world and our relationship to it. People who demand, and thrive off of, minutiae – accurate minutiae.

I heard three words in a meeting the other day that just drove me crazy. These three words were:

  • Libary (for library)
  • Ec Cetera (for et cetera), and
  • Hierarchial (for Hierarchical)

Hearing these words butchered gives me the chills, but I learned a long time ago not to question an Engineer’s pronunciation of any word, lest one wishes to be the recipient of a surprised, somewhat pained expression followed by a derisive comment on one’s propensity for detail. Something like “Well. You knew what I meant. What are you? A Lawyer?”.

Well. Maybe. Maybe I knew what you meant and maybe I am a Lawyer. The latter part of the question is of no real consequence, and can be safely ignored as the silly attack it is, but the former isn’t necessarily all that clear. I knew what you meant? Could I be certain?

One of the simpler equations in physics is f = ma (force = mass x acceleration). Would an Engineer complain if I expressed it as f = na in a paper or in an analysis of a design or test results? Would it be OK if I said “Well, it’s only off by one letter and, after all, you know what I meant” (hee hee)?

I suppose, to be fair, there is the tongue twist factor to take into consideration. After all, library, et cetera, and hierarchical take a bit of concentration and practice to say properly. But here’s the real issue. Language is used to – now get this – communicate. Good, accurate, complete communication requires precision. It ain’t horse shoes or hand grenades.

So here’s what I have to say to those sloppy speakers who complain about merely being asked to correct their butchered pronunciations and complain they’re close enough to being “there”.

They’re ain’t no there their. You’re turn to figure out where your going (sic.)

Power to the People

Corporations, conglomerates, and industrial organizations aren’t the enemy, ipso facto. In fact, they make socialism not only possible, but necessary, IMO.

What is the enemy is unbridled greed, rampant cronyism, nepotism and, especially, the codification of deep income inequality. It is not good for a society when individuals can amass fortunes they can’t possibly spend. That they then turn some of that fortune into philanthropy and charitable organizations doesn’t change the fact that it should be criminal for one individual to take that much surplus value from the workforce that made their fortune possible. It’s estimated Jeff Bezos makes (not earns) around $2,500/second. Dafuque does he do, other than own Amazon stock?

I’m not saying inventors, creators, entrepreneurs, etc. aren’t entitled to profit from their efforts, but they shouldn’t be able to continue siphoning profit off an organization that has reached a point where it could easily survive without them. By the same token, intellectual property law has expanded patent and copyright protections way beyond their original intent, creating other avenues of indecent profit-making.

And getting back to what I said about making socialism possible and necessary, without large profitable organizations, we’d all be living off mom & pop’s and craft-making. Many of the products we enjoy, and that provide the grease that skids civilization as we know it, would not be possible without large factories, laboratories, and other institutions. By their very nature, though, they transcend the control and direction of any one individual, and I believe our pay/profit structure needs to take that much more into consideration, providing a larger share to the workers who have helped make the org successful.

Contemporary American History

I just came across one of the better summarizations of two disparate responses to infectious diseases by our two latest Presidents here in the United States. I am not the author of what follows, but I would like to post it here, as I believe it will ultimately get more exposure than it will on Facebook (where I encountered it.)

For those of you complaining about Trump being blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a little history lesson for everyone on both sides of the political divide. It’s important that we understand the truth, especially come November when it’s time to vote. Forgive the length, but hey, we all have time on our hands to read, correct?

In December 2013, an 18-month-old boy in Guinea was bitten by a bat and died a brutal death a day later. After that, there were five more fatal cases. When Ebola spread out of the Guinea borders into neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone in July 2014, President Obama activated the Emergency Operations Center at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC immediately deployed CDC personnel to West Africa to coordinate a response that included vector tracing, testing, education, logistics, and communication.

Altogether, the CDC, under President Obama, trained 24,655 medical workers in West Africa, educating them on how to prevent and control the disease before a single case left Africa or reached the U.S. Working with the U.N. and the World Health Organization President Obama ordered the re-routing of travelers heading to the U.S. through certain specific airports equipped to handle mass testing. Back home in America, more than 6,500 people were trained through mock outbreaks and practice scenarios. That was done before a single case hit America.

Three months after President Obama activated this unprecedented response, on September 30, 2014, we detected our first case in the U.S.A. A man had traveled from West Africa to Dallas and somehow slipped through the testing protocol. He was immediately detected and isolated. He died a week later. Two nurses who tended to him contracted Ebola but later recovered. All the protocols had worked. It was contained. The Ebola epidemic could have easily become a pandemic, but thanks to the actions of our government under President Obama, it never did. Those THREE EBOLA CONFIRMED CASES were the ONLY cases of Ebola in the U.S.A. because Obama did what needed to be done THREE MONTHS PRIOR TO THE FIRST CASE.

Ebola is even more contagious than COVID-19. Had Obama not acted swiftly, millions of Americans would have died horrible, painful, deaths like something out of a horror movie (if you’ve never seen how Ebola kills, it’s horrific). It is ironic because since President Obama acted decisively we forget about his actions since the disease never reached our shores.

Now the story of COVID-19 and Trump’s response that we know about thus far:
Before anyone even knew about the disease (even in China) Trump disbanded the pandemic response team that Obama had put in place. He cut funding to the CDC, and he cut our contribution to the World Health Organization (WHO). Trump fired Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, the person on the National Security Council in charge of stopping the spread of infectious diseases before they reach our country – a position created by the Obama administration.

When the outbreak started in China, Trump assumed it was China’s problem and sent no research, supplies or help of any kind. We were in a trade war, why should he help them? In January he received a briefing from our intelligence organizations that the outbreak was much worse than China was admitting and that it would definitely hit our country if something wasn’t done to prevent it. He ignored the report, not trusting our own intelligence.

When the disease spread to Europe, the World Health Organization offered a plethora of tests to the United States. Trump turned them down, saying private companies here would make the tests “better” if we needed them. However, he never ordered U.S. companies to make tests and they had no profit motive to do so on their own.According to scientists at Yale and several public university medical schools, when they asked for permission to start working on our own testing protocol and potential treatments or vaccines, they were denied by Trump’s FDA.

When Trump knew about the first case in the United States he did nothing. It was just one case and the patient was isolated. When doctors and scientists started screaming in the media that this was a mistake, Trump claimed it was a “liberal hoax” conjured up to try to make him “look bad after impeachment failed.”

The next time Trump spoke of COVID-19, we had SIXTY-FOUR CONFIRMED CASES but Trump went before microphones and told the American public that we only had FIFTEEN cases “and pretty soon that number will be close to zero.” All while the disease was spreading, he took no action to get more tests. What Trump did was to stop flights from China from coming here. This was too late and accomplished nothing according to scientists and doctors. By then the disease was worldwide and was already spreading exponentially in the U.S. by Americans, not Chinese people as Trump would like you to believe.

As of the moment I am posting this, the morning of April 20, 2020, we have 770,076 COVID-19 CONFIRMED CASES and 40,316 COVID-19 DEATHS in the U.S.A. The actual number is undoubtedly more than triple that amount.

As if you needed one more reason to vote, here it is.

Casual Everyday?

I wonder if this pandemic, and our response to it, will change how seriously we take ourselves. If you’ve been watching television—and I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume most everyone is—you may have noticed some changes in much of live news and late night programming.
Since nearly everyone who’s reporting is at home, by themselves, it’s obvious that the women anchors, reporters, and pundits are having to do their own hair and makeup. Regardless of how well they might do it, it’s not the same and it’s noticeable. I haven’t noticed how much, if any, makeup the men are wearing, but I have noticed a whole bunch of them has decided it’s not worth shaving right now (I’m one of them.)

So . . . what I’m wondering is, after we are able to return to some semblance of a normal life, where we can gather again so that newscasters and performers can return to the studio, when knowledge workers can return to their cube farms . . . will we? Better yet, should we? I spent the last few years of my career at Rocketdyne working from home. I’d like to think I was at least as productive, if not more so, than I was when I was going in to the office each day.

When I first started working there, I wore a suit and tie each and every day. By the time I left, the only time I wore a tie was if the “customer” (usually NASA) was visiting and we had to blow smoke up their asses. Knit polo shirts and chinos became acceptable and, on Fridays, everyone wore denim. I’d like to think one of the lessons we’ll glean from this (and there will be dozens, no doubt) is that we can be a lot more casual and still perform at a high level. And there are numerous ways to communicate, connect, and collaborate, especially if we’re not hamstrung by unnecessary and awkward notions of propriety.

What do you think?

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