Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Just the Facts? A Non-Binary Proposal

All my life I've been told humans are binary. Look, people say, there is man and woman, the most basic binary. However, as I've grown older, I've learned about hermaphrodites, who, though rare, deny the proposition of a binary nature.

How about straight or gay? Well, what about bisexuals?

And war and peace? How about truce states?

And finally computers: aren't they the ultimate binary?

Well, I've studied some computer history and here's what I've learned. Yes, the basis of a computer is small "switches" that are either on or off. However, a single switch is not a computer. It provides nothing but the limitations of binary. It is only when those on/off switches are combined into bigger groups, 8, 16, and 32, that they start to do something. They only find meaning when exceeding their binary nature by being grouped together. It's not if switch A is on or off but if switch A, C, D and F are off while the rest are on that makes a computer or program work.

Anyway, you might wonder where all this is going so let me explain. The concept of humans being binary by nature has supported the dualities of good/bad, right/wrong, and true/false in such a way that many, when presented with a fact they don't know, see only two possible options: it is true or it is a lie.

I, personally, think life is more complicated than that. One fact may be true within context while another, opposing, fact may also be true when its context is known.

That may sound obscure, but think about it in relation to some examples:

* A shirt is green. Seems simple, straightforward and factual. Either the person making the statement is right and you agree, or wrong and you disagree. However, take that same shirt to Afghanistan and the "correct" answer becomes the opposite one. Did the shirt change? No, but the context did. Afghans identify colors, most noticeably blues and greens, differently from the Western world.

* The situation that stimulated this thought also seemed simple on the surface. A person asked about submission manuscripts. One person provided an answer that contradicted the answer later provided by someone else who has credentials in the print industry. The "correct" answer prize was then given to the credentialed person while the other was slammed. But wait! The first answer is actually the standard for several online and academic publishers based on a guidelines search. So, does that make the first answer correct? No. Does it make the second answer incorrect? No. They are both correct within their contexts.

* Another binary is taking someone else's life. Americans, as a culture, accept murder is wrong. And yet, murder in a situation of self-defense is okay and even considered heroic. Similarly, a soldier sent to kill our enemies is not then sentenced to life or the chair, but is the person attacked any less dead?

A binary world is an easier one to live in. There isn't the need to ask questions or discover whether the fact, truth or evidence (whether your own or that provided by someone else) has a context within which it is true or false. In a binary world, one truth or fact can be legitimately battered over the heads of people who do not agree or who present a different perspective. In a binary world, such an act is approved of, encouraged and lauded.

I don't live in a binary world. When presented with information I don't know, even that which appears contradictory to what I know to be true, I try my best to avoid the "You're wrong" answer in favor of opening a dialogue. People are resources, not just because of their jobs or the fancy letters after their names, but also because they bring to the table unique experiences and have been exposed to concepts I might not have. Shutting down the discussion at the first sign that my own truths or facts might be called into question, slamming the evidence provided without taking the time to listen and explore, maybe even researching on my own, could take from me an opportunity I'm never likely to get again.

There's this golden tenet that crosses many religious and cultural boundaries. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you. Take a moment to evaluate how you've reacted to someone else's opinion or knowledge and make sure you haven't slipped into a closed, binary world. "You're wrong" shuts down a dialogue forever and most likely on every topic rather than just the one you opposed.

When you run into something you cannot discuss, a simple "Let's agree to disagree" stops the conversation without severing the possibility of future exchanges. When you run into a fact you "know" is not true, keep the dialogue open, provide some information, but be just as willing to revise your understanding if the information the other person provides proves both facts true within context or even that your information is flawed. That's how people learn, grow and expand their knowledge.

A binary world is one computer switch clicking on and off in the darkness. Even Morse Code has long, short and pause because a true binary communicates nothing.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

New Mailing List: An End to Guilt ;)

Hi everyone. I can't tell you how fun it is to know I have actual readers out there, but I keep running into difficulty posting with any consistency. Now, blogger doesn't seem to have any fancy features like mailing lists available to the basic customers, but I've come up with my own solution. You will see two new links on the left-hand side. It's a simple email you send to me if you want to be added to the Stray Thoughts mailing list. Whenever I make a new post, I'll send out a note alerting you to another stray thought. That way, you won't have to keep checking back and the thought of you all checking won't guilt trip me into posting not so stray thoughts :).

Just the standard disclaimer: I won't use this mailing list for any other purposes and you can leave at any time, just click the remove and send the email.

I hope this helps things. Thanks so much for sharing my mental moments :D.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Can I help?

Hmm, well, it is two days past the end of the month and no stray thoughts. I've had them, but I've been in too much of a mad scramble to write any down. Instead, I'm going to talk about fate, cats and doing the right thing.

I like to help people. It's part of my nature and always has been. I'm the type that sometimes comes across as nosy because when you express frustration, I jump right in with an offer to help. There are a lot of things and people in need in our world, and just as many people who ignore those needs. I may ignore the global, turn aside requests for money or even walk away from a homeless person a time or two because I can't trust them to use my help appropriately. For example, I very rarely give cash to street people. Food, drink (of the coffee type) maybe, but cash no. My reasoning is simple: How do I know they won't use my cash to make their situation worse?

However, all those confusions slip away when the simple question is: "Do you need some help?" This question frees me because what I can offer is my knowledge, my time, my personal effort. If I know something that might help you, I'm willing. This mostly happens with computers and the like, but also works when someone is lost in an area I know, when someone just needs to vent, or when I can help with my writing experience.

All people have something they can share if they'd like, moving us back in some ways to a bartering society but where the currency we barter with is help. Given a no strings situation, would you choose to offer some time to help another person? The concept of pay it forward has been around a lot longer than the movie sharing the same name, but it is one I truly believe in. It's the reason I moderate at www.fmwriters.com, and why I make a point of answering questions when I have some bit of knowledge to share.

Now, this open willingness has made me a victim before where I was sought out before people would try to do things on their own or they came back every time rather than actually learning how to do things. I've had to develop techniques where I encourage knowledge transfer rather than information, the difference being summed up in the old parable, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime." Still, for the good we can each do, it seems a small enough risk.

Sometimes the help one person can give is a small thing with little impact and sometimes it's a huge thing, but the size doesn't matter. Whether it's one child sharing pinata candy with another who wasn't quick enough, a grown-up holding the hand of someone who just experienced a major loss, or someone listening to the frustration in another's voice long enough to stop and show how to display that image, each moment makes the world as a whole better.

So, what do you think? Is the life of a Good Samaritan limited to people like Mother Teresa or can all of us make a difference, make one other life a little brighter?

I guess Meep's story (fate and cats) will have to wait for another time. I found a stray thought to follow.