Category: Activism

Almost Human

Not that anyone asked, but here’s what skeeves me out about Mark Zuckerberg’s recent attempts to tour the nation and pretend to be a normal person to everyone he meets.

He hasn’t announced a single thing of the sort, but no breathing human can doubt he’s considering running for president of the US. His ambitions are as naked as they are clumsy. This comes from a man who has zero experience in the political arena and, when he inevitably announces, will only reveal the extent of his entitlement to a candidacy to the absolute apex of political accomplishment.

This ham-fisted tour shows his lack of agility or circumspection. So does running a company which fostered an attitude that speed trumped care, craft, or empathy. So does making statements about the death of privacy as a “social norm” and then walking it back.

The bottom line for me is, the whole thing bespeaks a man who simply feels he gets to run if he wants. Trump opened up a kind of permission effect: qualifications are now off the table. Now only volume matters. 2020 will see a field of clowns campaign, each jockeying for attention. And Zuckerberg is entitled to his captive nation.

Who to Call When Someone is Having a Mental Health Crisis in Portland

Last week, I read a piece aimed at San Franciscans by a tech blogger who was so oblivious and insensitive that I got vicariously ashamed before the end. Soon after, I read another article that restored my hope—what San Franciscans can do when they encounter homeless individuals having a crisis.

Portland’s in the middle of its own crisis—one of dwindling housing and skyrocketing rates of homelessness which has led to a state of emergency. People sleeping outside in Portland now number in the thousands.

Despite Portland’s efforts in de-escalation training and its dedicated Behavioral Health Unit, the police may still not be the best option to call when someone is experiencing a crisis. The article I mentioned earlier does a great job of explaining why calling the police is not always the right answer.

Below I’m compiling resources to use in Portland if someone you know, yourself, or someone on the street is experiencing a crisis and needs intervention right away. I intend this post to be a living document—I may update it as I learn about more resources or make corrections. (The most recent update was on 22 Feb 16 at 16:47 PST).


Right now, the best resource I know of in Portland is the Multnomah County Mental Health Crisis Intervention service. They offer

  • crisis counseling by phone, with translation;
  • mobile crisis outreach for in-person assessment;
  • referrals to low-cost and sliding-scale services;
  • information on community resources; and
  • a no-cost urgent walk-in clinic at 4212 SE Division St, operated by OHSU and Cascadia Health, open daily from 7 a.m to 10:30 p.m.

Their number is (503) 988-4888, available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. (Their toll-free number is (800) 716-9769, and as of the time I write this, they can be texted at (503) 201-1351, a number which is monitored once a day.) Their page includes information on nearby counties as well.


Accessible through the above service is also the Multnomah County Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center (CATC) (direct number (503) 232-1099) which provides a temporary facility for people needing to stabilize from mental illness symptoms (provided by Central City Concern).


Cascadia Project Respond is a crisis service provided by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, also available through the the Multnomah Call Center (same number as the first resource,  (503) 988-4888). Project Respond also works with the Portland Police Behavioral Health Unit I mentioned before, pairing officers responding to crisis with mental health professionals in situations where 911 dispatches officers to incidents involving mental health. (I must state, from my experience, officers may not always be accompanied by mental health professionals when intervening.)


Rose City Resource offers a smattering of resources—hotline numbers and explanations of rights—targeted at homeless people, and they print these resources as a portable booklet. They’re a resource provided by Street Roots which provides jobs for homeless and indigent individuals via the local newspaper and media they provide.


If you can’t look up or remember the above resources, Oregonians always have 211 at their disposal to find resources on the fly. Call it from any phone!

Decentering Self

In school, we learn two things about Aristotle. First, we learn that he was profoundly influential for millennia, and probably smarter than you. Second, we learn that he was mostly wrong about everything having to do with the real world.

It’s not hard to figure out why. He used a rationalistic methodology rather than an empirical one, meaning that rather than going out to examine and measure firsthand, he mostly explored the universe as a mental exercise. Unfortunately, this means he didn’t have enough information available to challenge his own biases in his worldview. He even believed that women had fewer teeth than men, which is demonstrably false.

There are numerous examples, from Aristotle and afterwards directed by his influence, for which his methodology’s flaws are made manifest as theories in contradiction of available evidence. For example, Ptolemy’s Almagest protected the Aristotelian geocentric worldview, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, by inventing epicycles to explain planetary motions which didn’t make sense otherwise.

I see the same willful ignorance play out today in discussions regarding equality, empathy, and justice. Without giving specific examples or links, I have observed two major problems with arguments I hear from racists, men’s rights activists, and others.

First, their arguments only make sense if they completely deny the evidence they hear which conflicts with their point of view. Men’s rights activists thrive on stories of false rape accusations. Racists need racism to be “over.”

Second, relatedly, they believe they don’t even need to hear others’ points of view to inform their worldview. In other words, it’s not necessary to listen to people of color to learn what they need about racism. They don’t need to listen to women to invalidate their discomfort or fears. They don’t have to listen to disabled people. It all makes sense to them, without the inconvenience of going into the world.

I can forgive Aristotle drawing the wrong conclusions about nature, but I have trouble with those who apply methods of rationality to the people around them. It’s leaping to conclusions. It’s judging a book by its cover. It’s hubris. Aristotle thought the world was the center of the universe because it just seemed that way. Do you feel like the center of your own universe?

We all need to take time to stop and listen. We need to make room for others’ feelings in our world. We need to decenter ourselves sometimes. Not always, but very often, kindness flows from doing so.

Disclosing and Consequences

Before writing “Disclosing,” I would’ve given anything to peek into the future and see this post I’m about to write. I was fearful of the consequences of putting information out in the world that I could never take back. I don’t know what I expected. I just know I’ve never been so worked up about a piece of apparent non-information ever.

Afterwards, I was happy to have ripped the bandage off and have done with it. It did ease my anxiety in a lot of ways. I’ve formed a lot of habits around controlling information about my private life (even up to being cagey about my full name), and it’s freeing to lower that boundary.

It reminds me of the attitude I carried with me early in my transition, about the importance of visibility. It was important to talk to people, even do activism (including lecturing before doctors and nurses). I didn’t necessarily like the position I was in, but I knew that I had had so much false garbage in my head about transsexuality growing up that I went through years of needless self-inflicted pain. It felt good to shed that, once again.

The long and short of the actual response was that nothing happened at all. There were no consequences whatsoever, whether good or bad. The tweet got some few supportive replies. (Many people missed it entirely and possibly are learning about it from this post.)

One other nice consequence of all this is that it might be possible now to revive some of my past writing from about five years ago that I had to hide away. I learned a ton; no reason not to share that now.

Disclosing

I’ve dog-whistled this relatively loudly already, but just so everyone’s on the same page—I have a transsexual history. Reach out to me privately if you have questions, but I’ll cover a few points here.

  • To clarify, I’m a woman, and I consider myself transsexual. Specifically, I say I have a transsexual history. I also consider myself homosexual, attracted primarily to women. I consider intersexuality as part of my history, but I don’t claim intersex as an identity (a really complicated topic).

  • I have a complex relationship with this history, my body, and my gender, which includes a history of activism, lots of therapy, and in general, lots of feelings. Consider the delicacy this implies if engaging me on the topic.

  • It’s cliché, but if you didn’t know my history before, this changes nothing you know about me.

  • I prefer to retain whatever control possible over this information. I understand this post constitutes a public announcement, and that necessarily means I’ve sacrificed most control, but when possible, avoid assumptions about my history, my body, or my gender. Point people to me for clarification or questions.

I’m doing this now for a few reasons.

  • First of all, I trust the people around me in my life and in my work enough that I feel this disclosure won’t risk me bodily, psychologically, or financially.

  • Also, it’s pained me for a very long time to keep the amount of distance I need to dissimulate my history. It’s prevented me from explaining much about why family isn’t in my life, why I’m in Portland in the first place, or what my life has been about in the past.

  • It frees me to pursue medical interventions without having to come up with a weird cover story.

  • It gives me a voice, once again, on issues of transsexuality and gender which I used to self-censor out of fear of speaking out.

  • Finally, it reaffirms why I did this in the first place. The goal was always to look and feel more like who I’ve always been, not just to sell an identity or history to others.

On Being Brushed Aside

While writing about the warp zone hacking in my last post, I mentioned offhandedly how I lost interest in video games in the 90s. I wanted to talk a little more about that because I’ve noticed this pattern in a lot of women.

I had never considered a pattern might exist until I discovered my friend Shawna’s story matched mine very similarly. I asked around and heard similar things—girls seem to have plenty of interest in video games, and then at some age or another, while still young, the interest peters out.

It’s not a universal trait by any means, but it’s a noticeable pattern. Someone pointed me to a nice list of points of privilege that lead to becoming a geek, and my attention focused on the fifth bullet point in particular (emphasis mine):

If we were girls, no brothers. (A study in the early 90s showed that in households with both boy and girl children, a computer or video game console was likely to end up in the boy’s room, with all the usual sibling territoriality that entails. My straw poll in a women’s meetup at the Game Developer’s Conference some years back showed only about a third of the women in the room had brothers….)

Shawna and I both had younger brothers, and more especially I had older cousins I spent time with. I haven’t conducted any studies, so I can only relate my personal experiences on the subject. It seems like several things happened right around the same time which caused me to become an outsider to video games early on. From my point of view, I saw the following trends push me out as the 90s wore on and became the 2000s.

  • Game consoles became more varied, competitive, and expensive. As a member of a family having trouble making ends meet as it was, Nintendo’s waning dominance meant other consoles competed for the market, and in turn, competed for our own dollar. After the Super Nintendo, we didn’t buy a new console for perhaps a decade.
  • Games themselves introduced game play styles requiring more dedication in terms of time. As the id Software–style first-person shooter proliferated, along with fighting games with extensive “move lists” and 3D games requiring more elaborate controls, games began to demand new and more challenging skills. This led them to become less accessible to inexperienced or new players, favoring those who had time to practice and develop those specific skills. Without the same amount of practice, I could never hope to provide meaningful competition or cooperation in Goldeneye or Halo later on.
  • At the same time, games could further evolve their graphics, character development, game play mechanics (competitive versus cooperative, for example), and so on, which allowed the games to target ever more specific demographics. Violence grew to be a salient trend. Protagonists could become more distinctively male. I imagine these trends tracked closely with the type of person making this generation of game. To me, this meant it was harder to find games that held my attention, and it was hard to find people with whom to play.
  • The shift in demographic manifested itself in the result of the study mentioned above: Boys came to dominate console time. If the boy said, “You can play when my turn is over,” his turn would last far longer than yours. That fed into a feedback cycle where girls got less play time altogether, fell behind in terms of ability, lost interest in waiting, and found other things to do. This particular issue didn’t affect me quite as much, given the first point affecting me more, but I’ve heard it in multiple anecdotes from friends who were better off.

I imagine age plays a major role in what I experienced. Some girls grew up among first-person shooters and may have developed a fluency with them that I can’t imagine. “Casual games” have made something a resurgence, as making games for tablets, phones, and computers have become more accessible. So this problem might not even be a problem anymore, but I imagine it’s still left a troubling gap, and it’s definitely affected me (and probably a wider generation of disaffected women out there).

“One of my friends said I should ‘shake it off.’ I told her I shook off the last 999 times.” —Kronda

On Distinguishing Microaggressions

While for me the word “microaggression” made sense immediately, I’ve met people for whom the meaning doesn’t land right away.

The distinguishing feature of a microaggression is that it inflicts damage mainly by attrition. That renders the damage invisible, when taking any one isolated incident. It’s a siege tactic; like any offense, though, it ultimately works towards the same defeat, oppression, and hegemony as an outright attack. It’s only when taken in the aggregate that the damage reveals itself.

Most importantly, an invisible attack is hard to rebuff. You certainly feel it, but no one else knows what’s going on, maybe not even the attacker. By consequence, your defenses are lowered because any response looks like escalation, possibly alienating any sympathy and provoking further attack. This feeds into a kind of gaslighting where you’re not sure anything even happened, even as the inflicted damage remains.

That’s why I feel pretty glad the idea of microaggressions is being spread, to mitigate that cycle.

Caprice

I want to talk a little about caprice. I want to talk about its invisibility; its influence; its implications on privilege; and its implications on me.

What is caprice? They’re the things that we can’t control. It’s the agent of luck, acts of God. It’s unfairness. We’re all subject to caprice to some extent, and it’s treated some of us very well, and in other cases, it’s treated us pretty badly. Or maybe it’s been a mixed bag for you. Either way, we have no idea what it has in store for us.

I have the fortunate quality of seeing caprice’s role in my life because I haven’t always had a safety net. I’ve spent a little time in jail. I’ve spent a little time being homeless. I’ve spent a lot of time being broke. I’ve let health issues impact me for years out of lack of options.

I realize that caprice is a bit harder to see when it’s always helped you along, silently privileging you and your accomplishments. This is due to a pretty well understood cognitive bias, and we’re all subject to it. We can begin to internalize “good” caprice. Now, as I write, I’m at a shiny conference full of rich people, watching them socialize in a big room full of expensive computers and robots, and I wonder how many people in this room recognize the role of caprice—of privilege—in putting them there.

I think my favorite talk so far of Open Source Bridge has been Cameron Adamez’s talk about labor, ethics, and computing. She did this really awesome thing that led to these thoughts and underscored the contrast I’ve seen in my adult life so far. First, she played a clip of a documentary about San Jose’s tent city. Of course, she followed this right away with a small clip from Chris Anderson talking to an audience of “makers” leading startups.

What does this have to say? The juxtaposition spoke volumes: about elitism, about exploitation, about class, and most especially about how caprice unites all these factors.

Disadvantaged and marginalized people know caprice much better than those whom caprice has treated well. We know the world is unfair. This plays into our impostor syndrome, unfortunately. For those whom caprice has mishandled, we’ve internalized, at some point, the idea that only some people deserve to be where they are. In other words, we are subject to a different cognitive bias, a kind of survivorship bias, which blinds us somewhat to role of caprice in others’ success or to valuing our own accomplishments later on when they’re recognized and rewarded.

How we react to this situation interests me. Some people seem to look at their marginalized peers, see themselves and their accomplishments, and conclude they do not deserve their own success.

I’ve had a little time to observe the situation and think about it, and I am much more tempted to conclude, on the other hand, that others do not deserve their success anymore than I. I look around at my peers and wonder, why aren’t you guys as awesome as I am? And it has little to do with me. There’s not necessarily anything special about me (though I do need to own my accomplishments). By and large there’s an element of stupid, uncaring, meandering luck.

I keep wondering, how can I spread this professional success, my tech accomplishments, to my friends who may be struggling, who are equally talented but in another place in life?

I’m suffering less, maybe, from an impostor problem and more of a survivor guilt. Or maybe a success guilt. Maybe impostor syndrome is just a way of turning this success guilt inwards on ourselves rather than acknowledging the fundamental unfairness of the world around us.

Tolkien’s Racist Geography: Reading with a Conscience

I’ve been rereading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings lately. I’m going to set aside all my other thoughts and feelings about the series and about Tolkien as a writer to talk about something that’s been bugging me.

First it started as this little tickle in the back of my mind, whenever Tolkien mentioned the West or the East. Cardinal directions play a huge role in Tolkien’s legendarium, along with geography in general. If you’ll indulge my elision of many of the subtleties in Tolkien’s plot, it suffices to say that the further West one goes, the more one ventures into peoples Tolkien characterizes as familiar, idyllic, and—even further west—a kind of heaven or paradisaical hinterland. On the other hand, every mention of the East is accompanied with shades of evil or mystery.

I had trouble getting into this world view because I grew up in the southeastern United States, and I subconsciously imprinted Tolkien’s geography on top of the US, the place I grew up in and learned about in school. I especially wanted to think of westness as a kind of frontier land, projecting my feelings from popular culture in the US. Adventure in the US is more often than not a journey from east to west.

That doesn’t accord with Middle-earth at all, and once it bugged me enough to provoke conscious examination on my part, it struck me as likely that Tolkien was projecting a Eurocentric tradition onto his own geography. The Shire, far flung up in the northwest of Middle-earth, embodies the English countryside—in terms of names, customs, and in a rough geographical reckoning.

It’s not hard to imagine then projecting the inhospitable desert lands in the south of Gondor and in Mordor onto regions with a similar geographic relationship to Europe—namely, the Arab regions of the Middle East and Africa. Beyond Tolkien’s eastern horizons lay cultures he didn’t understand, unfathomable distances, and alien climates. The same holds true for the inhabitants of Middle earth. For example, in The Two Towers, Gollum describes what’s south of Mordor:

And further still there are more lands, they say, but the Yellow Face [the sun] is very hot there, and there are seldom any clouds, and the men are fierce and have dark faces. We do not want to see that land.

A Eurocentric description of Saharan Africa is not a difficult stretch from that description, especially considering Gollum is speaking to the hobbits while they are situated directly outside of Mordor.

There are, of course, other similar references that have been noticed by other critics. Tolkien’s descriptions of Easterlings and more notably still the Haradrim (who are likely referenced by Gollum above) have obvious racial tinges that reflect a Eurocentric world. Later on in The Two Towers, Faramir encounters a group of Haradrim, and the leader is described a brown-skinned man leading soldiers with scimitars.

Placing these regions, I personally drew some conclusions about Tolkien’s European compass, as he projected it onto his legendarium. I guess this leads me to ask a few questions about the series and myself. First, I could ask myself, was Tolkien himself racist?

Well, probably so. It’s easy to search the web for critiques of racism in the series, while on the other hand, it’s equally easy to find a lot of sources (drawing from letters or other places in his writing) which apologize for Tolkien or even lionize him rather uncritically. It’s clear that most consider his views on race rather progressive. On the other hand, I read his series and find his geography undeniably influenced by a European perspective, and I personally find that aspect of his creative works problematic.

This leads, though, to a second question, one that’s probably a lot more relevant. Does this Eurocentrism detract from my enjoyment of his works? Well, when Tolkien writes something that draw my attention to the problem, I find it at least distracting on a superficial level. I can regard this work as being in a high fantasy context, but even high fantasy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I can’t ignore the problem or apologize for it.

On the contrary, I think I’d derive a lot less enjoyment and edification from The Lord of the Rings—or, really, any work of art—if I didn’t hold it in a critical light and explore its flaws. Finding racism in Tolkien’s writing doesn’t negate its artful qualities, ones worth experiencing. Rather than weighing the qualities of this work of art (or, again, any other) towards a single value judgment, in my mind, it’s likely more useful to bring a holistic examination of Tolkien’s writing to the conversation.

So I don’t bring this up to shed light on anything particularly novel about Tolkien. I’m not the first to point out racism in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, I bring it up to participate in that conversation—a conversation which serves a necessary role as a conscience and without which the community of art and literature doesn’t really work.

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