Saturday, November 28, 2015

You can learn a lot about people by going to a buffet

I took my son to lunch yesterday. What better way to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving than to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet? It seems that our culture has determined that the proper way to give thanks is to gorge ourselves on loads of comfort foods on the fourth Thursday in November. So going to a buffet the day after Thanksgiving must show double gratitude.

We chose a nearby buffet because my son was famished, having missed breakfast that morning. One of the advantages to a buffet is that everyone can get something to eat right away. There's no looking at menus, waiting for someone to take your order, etc. You just grab a plate, put some food on it, sit down, and start eating.

Actually, I noticed that many diners didn't wait to get back to their seats before sampling the fare. At a buffet it's no problem if you end up picking something you don't like. Just leave it and someone will eventually come by and whisk it away while you go back for more food.

My son noted that the word buffet (meaning self serve meal, pronounced buh-FAY) and the word buffet (meaning to strike a blow, pronounced BUH-fit) are spelled the same way. I pondered on the deeper of meaning of this coincidence as we chose a table and then went to select food from the bounteous spread.

Before long I decided that this type of restaurant would provide great fodder for another son that occasionally does stand-up comedy. I watched one painfully thin girl spend 10 minutes at the salad bar carefully crafting a huge pile of well ordered leafy stuff. Now, I like salad as much as the next guy — which is not that much. I mainly eat it to ensure that I get some roughage in my system. But I could never understand spending dollars on a buffet only to eat cents worth of leaves.

In the neighboring booth was seated a family with young children. The problem with sitting in a booth at a buffet restaurant is that anytime someone that isn't seated at the open end wants to go back to the buffet, everyone between that person and the end of the bench must first exit. They must again exit when the diner returns.

Perhaps this is thought by parents of young children to be an advantage, because mom and dad can act as gatekeepers. I think that's what these parents were thinking. The plan seemed to work well for most of their children. But not so much for Jackson, who appeared to be four or five.

During the 20 minutes or so that we spent dining, I must have heard Jackson's dad call Jackson's name at least 200 times. When the dad told Jackson to do something, Jackson would do pretty much the opposite. After the fifth, sixth, or seventh repeated demand, Jackson would finally sort of do what his dad had demanded, but definitely not in the way the dad intended.

I had not discussed the Jackson situation with my son. After all, what needed to be said? Wasn't it obvious to everyone in the restaurant? At one point I quietly said with intended understatement, "Jackson doesn't seem to be very obedient." My son returned a sly grin, as we heard the dad say, "Jackson, get back over here!" for the umpteenth time.

We then glanced down at the floor to see Jackson doing an army crawl past our booth. The exasperated dad then repeatedly said, "Jackson, get up off the floor!" Which Jackson, of course, did not do. "Well," I said to my son, "someone has to clean the floor in this place. He seems to be doing a nice job of it."

Actually, I was somewhat proud of Jackson's father. I well remember the frustrations of going to restaurants with young children in tow. The dad never physically corrected his child. And while he was clearly frustrated throughout the meal, he never really lost his cool. Although, I must admit that if his goal was to have Jackson behave, he pretty much failed. Maybe this hefty fellow's parenting style differs when he's not in public.
There's something about buffets that tends to make people notice the more corpulent diners. Is it just my imagination, or are there really more obese folks at buffet restaurants than at other styles of restaurants? Maybe it's just human nature to fear that these folks will eat more than their fair share, leaving inadequate pickings for the other diners.

I noticed one particularly bulky couple conversing with several of the workers at the restaurant. "Tony," one of them said to a young man who was working hard behind the counter, "we haven't seen you here in the evenings lately." From their conversation, it became clear that these folks were very regular diners. I got to thinking that if a customer knows a lot of the staff at a buffet restaurant on a first name basis, it might be a sign that they're spending too much of their time there. Their steadily increasing girth might be another sign.

Have you ever watched the blocking strategies some buffet diners employ to hold other diners at bay while they consider their potential quarry? I notice that most buffet diners approach the counter with a kind of lustful gleam in their eyes. As they make their approach you can see their faces change. Their breathing goes from even to intense. When you see a kind of wild look in their eyes, it should be taken as a caution to avoid getting between those people and the food.

For a few of these folks, the whole event is clearly a competition of some sort. Most manage to keep it from turning into a contact sport, but they're not above using physical methods if necessary. I watched one 300-lb fellow deftly shift his weight in such a way that young Jackson, who was again on the loose, ran headlong into the man's fleshy leg. Jackson rebounded away from the dessert counter and back toward his frustrated father, who was saying something about being unable to understand what Jackson was saying with his mouth full of food.

As I was pondering all of this, my son said, "I think I'm done." "Don't you want to try the..." I began asking. "No," he cut me off, "I really think I can't eat another thing." The look in his eyes told me he was quite earnest. He apparently had more than made up for missing his morning meal. He also clearly had more discretion than some diners at the establishment.

As we walked from the restaurant, I realized that going to an all-you-can-eat buffet is an interesting study in human nature, with parallels to both domestic and international relations. Not all those that have plenty of weight are good at throwing it around, but some clearly are. Just before the door to the building closed completely, I was pulled out of my reverie by the sound of a man's voice once again calling, "Jackson!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I was a stranger ...

"I've read most of the Koran," said the man, "and I can tell you that Islam is not a religion of peace." I knew that this man claimed to take his claims of being a disciple of Jesus Christ very seriously. So the next words out of his mouth rather shocked me. "I think it's time that we just eliminate the whole bunch of them."

Really? And how, pray tell, are "we" going to eliminate 1.6 billion people, roughly a quarter of the people on this earth? Yes, there are Islamic fundamentalist terrorists that are intent on inflicting harm on what we define as the civilized people of the earth. But even if you add up all of their atrocities, how — under anyone's moral compass — can the mass extinction of billions of innocents to get at a number of terrorists be justified? Is it right to judge an entire religion by the extremists among them?

Realizing his rashness, the man backpedaled, saying that he really only meant the elimination of ISIS. That's a relief. But nobody really knows for sure how many people are members of ISIS or who those people are. Estimates range from about 20,000 to more than a quarter million. The area controlled by the group is very fluid.

Even if we had better intelligence, how would "we" accomplish the goal of completely destroying ISIS? Bombing is not enough says one favorite LDS politician. We need to be "willing to devote whatever resources are required to win", including putting "boots on the ground." I guess the US needs to start another war in the Middle East because that strategy has worked out so well in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Going back to my friend's desire to eliminate Muslims based on what he reads in their scriptures, I can't help but wonder if he has paid much attention to what he has read in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. I love these scriptures. But quite frankly, I could easily find plenty of fodder in these documents to claim that Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism are evil, blood thirsty religions. Maybe those of us that live in glass houses ought to be careful about throwing stones at others' houses.

Noting that there could be (and probably are) terrorists among the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, hoards of 'good Christians' are insisting that our nation refuse to admit any of these refugees in the name of national security. Unlike what Donny Osmond sang, they insist that a few bad apples do spoil the whole bunch.

This seems to make a mockery of the words of Emma Lazarus' poem emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
It's true that acceptance of others should not go so far as to constitute a suicide pact. But consider what Jesus Christ said in Matthew 25:31-46. "I was a stranger and ye took me in." He doesn't seem to mention qualifiers in that statement. In fact, admonitions to embrace and show hospitality to foreigners pepper the scriptures.

During the winter of 1838-1839, Mormons were driven from Missouri. Many lacked adequate food, transportation, clothing, and shelter. As they trekked toward Illinois, most residents along the way refused to help the suffering Mormons.

Part of the problem that resulted in the expulsion was that there had been actual terrorists among the Mormons. They were only a fraction of the total number. But the fact that there might be terrorists among the fleeing refugees was adequate excuse for refusing to help any of them. (The expulsion from Nauvoo was no picnic either.)

Are we now using the same kinds of excuses to refuse to assist refugees from the Middle East? Modern prophets have directly admonished Latter-day Saints to "contribute to the Church Humanitarian Fund" and "participate in local relief projects, where practical." I've heard some say that doing so is fine, as long as those refugees stay away from here.

While we now recognize the atrocity of the Holocaust, bear in mind that most Americans were completely opposed to helping Jewish refugees before World War II (see WP article). It was feared that these people would bring their problems with them and inflict those problems on the rest of us.

Wide disparities exist in estimating how many extremists there are among the worldwide Muslim population. This site, which appears to be somewhat favorable toward Muslims, along with other resources, suggest that roughly 7% of Muslims harbor extremist views. That's actually quite a large number. But this doesn't mean that many of this number are willing to actively enact or support the kind of violence we saw in Paris last week.

Besides, Adam Taylor claims that being inhospitable to the refugees from the Middle East is exactly what ISIS wants. Do we really want to come down on the side of helping ISIS further its larger goals?

I'm not claiming to be any guru on how to solve the problem of radical Islam. Nor am I suggesting that bringing refugees into the US and other Western countries won't bring with it problems and dangers. But I do think that the gospel of Jesus Christ requires disciples to be willing to shoulder some of those burdens, and even dangers. The inconvenient commands in the scriptures aren't just ideological gas. It's what you must grow to love doing to become a celestial citizen.

Are security and hospitality really such diametrically opposite goals? Or are we perhaps harboring less sanguine fears about those that are different from us? Even if hospitality impacts our security to a degree, how would Jesus come down on that question?

Perhaps we should not let our fears run our lives too much. John Meuller points out that the chance of Americans being killed by terrorism (even including the 9/11 attacks.) is so rare that it is about the same as your chance of being struck by lightning.

Mueller quotes John McCain as saying, "Get on the **** elevator! Fly on the **** plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You're almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you're not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That's not a life worth living, is it?"

This same logic can be applied to helping Middle Eastern refugees, who also happen to be God's children, even if some of them are legitimate terrorists. The chances of any individual in the US being directly impacted by the baddies among the group is pretty low. So suck it up and do what Jesus would do. Help those refugees.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Our dog hates the dog park

Earlier this year our city opened a dog park near our home. I very much appreciate the volunteers that spearheaded this effort and the city leaders that worked to make it happen. The original location proposed for the park was about a mile from our home, but they settled on a location that is just a couple of blocks away.

The first few times I took our dog to the dog park the place was deserted. That was likely due to timing. The park seems more popular in the late afternoons and early evenings. Saturday mornings seem to often draw a handful of dog owners as well.
When nobody else was at the park, our dog seemed to enjoy wandering around off the leash, sniffing the perimeter. But he also tended to stay pretty close to me. Then one time when we were at the park, another owner showed up with a couple of small to medium sized dogs. They seemed quite content to frolic and run around.

Our dog watched the dogs with quite a bit of interest, but he only interacted with them when they approached him. When they did, he seemed very uncomfortable. He stood rigid and resisted their attempts to engage him in playful behavior. In fact, he ultimately snapped and snarled at them — not in a playful manner like he does when playing tug-o-war at home, but in a way that clearly communicated, "I don't like this. Stay away."

The next time we went to the dog park when other dogs were present, our dog started drooling while at the park. I had never seen him drool like that before. I am told that excessive drooling is a symptom of anxiety. Although there is water available, our dog will never drink while at the park. He usually loves chasing water hoses that are squiring water, but he won't do that while at the dog park either.

This behavior has become increasingly prevalent as we have visited the dog park throughout the season. Only once has our dog engaged in playful behavior with other dogs. Then he seemed to enjoy scrambling through the mud puddle. (The park was built in an existing drainage basin, so there's a perpetual mud puddle.) This required us to clean him when we got home, but I think this was really the only time our dog enjoyed his experience at the dog park.

As the season has rolled on, our dog has demonstrated decreasing desire to have anything to do with the dog park. When we go into the entry area, he gladly lets me take off his leash. He sniffs the entry area. But then he wants to leave. He can see the dogs on the other side of the fence and he doesn't want anything to do with them.

I have spoken with many other owners at the park. I have repeatedly been assured that our dog will become more acclimated to the park as we take him there more often and as he gets more opportunities to socialize with other dogs. But the exact opposite seems to be the case. The more we go to the park and the more our dog gets to interact with other dogs, the less he likes it and the less he wants to be there.

I have wondered if part of the problem might be the layout of the park. It's just one large fenced area, unlike a park a few miles away that has several areas for different activities and different sizes of dogs.

Not all dogs that visit our local park are well socialized or well managed by their owners. On our last visit to the park, another male dog that initially seemed very affable kept trying to mount our dog. Our dog didn't know how to handle that situation. He snarled, barked, and nipped, but the other dog didn't get the clue. Nor, apparently, did its owner, who failed to do anything to manage the aggressor.

The Imo-Inu breed is known for its fastidiousness. Our dog doesn't like to get or stay dirty. But our dog took to sitting his white hind end in the dirt every time the would-be rapist dog came by. Our dog kept hovering near the park exit. He just wanted to get out of there.

It wasn't just that one dog that was the problem. Our dog just didn't like hanging out with any of the dogs at the park, regardless of how congenial they were. Our dog's general behavior and body language told me that he had had enough of the dog park. I felt like our visits had become a form of torture for him.

I haven't taken the dog back to the park since that visit. Nor do I plan to return anytime soon. I just can't bring myself to subject to the dog to something he has clearly come to hate. The main purpose of the dog park, as I understand it, is to provide a venue where dogs can socialize together. It seems to work well for many dogs. But not for our dog. If anything, our visits to the dog park have made his canine socialization skills worse.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The fear of self-driving cars

Big Think recently published this article provocatively titled, "Would You Drive an Autonomous Car if It Was Programmed to Kill You?" (If you go to the non-Facebook link, the article is more sensibly titled, "Here's the Math Self-Driving Cars Will Use to Decide if it Should Sacrifice Its Passengers.")

Let's get the symanical nit-picking out of the way first. You would not drive an autonomous car. You would simply be a passenger in the car. Now let's get on to the meat of the matter.

The article points out ethical and legal issues surrounding decisions the technology must make in determining how to handle situations where some people are likely to die. Should it try to preserve the lives of the car's occupants at all costs or should it be more altruistically programmed to try to save the highest number of lives? A linked video asks, "If your robot commits murder, should you go to jail?"

While these are interesting questions, Google consultant Brad Templeton argues in this blog post that they are largely the domain of philosophy class debate. Such questions, he contends, are so far from reality that they don't rank "anywhere high on the list of important issues and questions." He notes that most drivers never face such decisions, thus implying that the same will be true of the vast majority of autonomous cars.

Judging from how things have worked in the past, it seems that social acceptance, ethical viewpoints, and legal interpretations will evolve as these questions arise in real time. I do not believe that all of these things need to be fully determined in advance, nor do I believe it is even possible to adequately anticipate many of these things in a realistic manner until the issues arise in the context of that day and age.

Besides, we regularly turn our safety over to much more fallible human machines today. Every time you are a passenger in any kind of vehicle operated by a human, you are at the mercy of their fallible capacities. Perhaps even more importantly, you are at the mercy of every other vehicle operator you encounter along the way. This is true of travel by ground, sea, or air. I don't see the shift to more technology as a hugely different issue.

Technological advancement has always been both welcomed and feared by humans. The term Luddite is commonly used to refer to those that fear technology developments. (This Smithonian article explains that the Luddites were fine with machinery; they just wanted to preserve high wages for machine operators. Still, the term is used the way it is used today.)

In my (admittedly limited) experience, Luddite well explains the initial reaction most people have to autonomous cars. When the subject is brought up, people seem to respond with the following fears:
  • The loss/reduction of personal freedom.
  • The imperfect technology will cause some crashes, injuries, and probably deaths.
These fears are not always expressed in that order but both are usually mentioned. I find it interesting that people seem to respond with their fears first. Most seem to only reluctantly consider opportunities and improvements autonomous cars will likely bring, such as:
  • A massive reduction in driver error, the #1 factor in the vast majority of crashes. ( reports that "Over 95% of motor vehicle accidents ...involve some degree of driver behavior...."). More on this later.
  • Getting problem drivers (elderly, distracted, impaired, novice, etc) out from behind the wheel without limiting their transportation.
  • Freedom of people with driving limitations to get around. Frankly, I'm hoping that autonomous cars are ubiquitous by the time I am no longer capable of driving safely.
  • Increase in Über-like services that allow people to get rides when needed and only paying for what they use, instead of paying 100% for a car that is parked 95+% of the time. This will mean that most places that have parking lots today will need smaller lots but perhaps larger dropoff/pickup zones.
  • The ability to use your time commuting doing something other than driving the car and worrying about other drivers. How would it be to sleep during a long trip to a vacation spot?
One thing I find mind boggling is that people seem to simply accept the status quo, which includes more than 5.5 million car crashes, 2.3 million injuries, and 30,000 deaths each year (see USDOT database, NHTSA overview). While the rate of crashes, injuries, and deaths per 1,000 has steadily declined, this still represents a huge amount of property loss, injury, and death.

Pretty much everyone agrees that self-driving cars will radically cut the number of crashes over time. But most people speaking from a fear base seem to demand zero crashes caused by the new technology. This is not even remotely realistic. With systems designed by humans to move humans around humans, some crashes will occur. But demanding zero crashes from new technology while accepting 5.5 million crashes involving human drivers each year makes no logical sense, whatever level of freedom one thinks operating a car brings.

Most experts agree that crashes involving autonomous cars will be highest during the crossover years, when there are still lots of human operated vehicles on the roads. At first autonomous cars will be very unusual. But just as gasoline powered cars overtook the horse and buggy, autonomous cars will eventually become the rule. The time will come when human-driven cars are considered unacceptably dangerous on the public roads. As it is with horses today, there will be places where people can go to drive cars, but those places will mostly be off the public roads. As this change occurs, infrastructure will morph to address new realities.

Don't worry, this change isn't going to happen all at once. We will be eased into it a little at a time. Automobile manufacturers have been adding "driver assist features" for years. We've had cruise control since the 70s. You can already buy high end cars that find a parking spot and park for you once you pull into a parking lot.

More and more features will become available, first in high end cars, then moving down to the mid-level cars, and finally pushing their way into low end cars. People will use these features for the convenience they bring. Then one day they will be sitting there using their mobile device as the car hauls them somewhere, thinking how glad they are that they no longer have to pay attention to traffic.

Autonomous cars are coming. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when. You can fear it. But that won't stop it from coming. And like our ancestors, you will eventually find yourself using the new technology, even if you continue to express misgivings about what it is doing to society.