yes, data can lie


My office doorway, leading out into policy analytics lab environment. This was a gift from one of my former vice presidents when he left to become a college president.

A couple hours after I published i have questions, my brilliant friend Tressie tweeted:

The Digital Goofball, I mean, Guru, above is wrong. Data do lie on occasion. They can lie for a whole bunch of reasons, from the simple to the complex. The lies can begin at point of collection and continue on through aggregation and analysis.

Another brilliant friend, Laura, published a new blog post on the same day that begins with a story of a failure in medical screening.  The nurse’s failure in this account suggests that her lack of questioning is her normal behavior, or hints at assumptions she makes about patients. Whatever the case, the collected data are suspect.

Data collection is an expensive process to do well. Putting aside Big Data, which generally captures data that are a byproduct of transactions, good data collection requires careful thought and planning. I wrote about counting to one almost two years ago and point to it again because it is the basis of what I do and think about. Understanding what you are counting, and why. What I didn’t discuss, and it is implied in friend Jeff’s (also brilliant) essay that is linked within that post, is choosing what not to count. Or who not to count. Every choice in collection defines the truth and reality of what the data can represent as information.

Once we move beyond collection into shaping we encounter the same choices. We shape (most people call it “transform” but I like to shape the data) into forms that fit our understanding and the understanding we wish to share with others. Data are like Play-Doh and can take all sorts of shapes and dimensions. It can be worked and reworked for endless variety. But, it can only stretch so far before it breaks and becomes separate pieces. This is what happens with data when you stretch the definition and structure too far, original meaning is lost and the provenance is broken. Small pieces can be lost during this shaping, or blended with other “colors” creating something new, but increasingly more abstract than the original data.

There’s a key word: “provenance.” Familiar from my art history/museum studies days. Relevant today as “data provenance” for both the ownership and meaning of the data all along the way. While one may be able to demonstrate a chain of ownership and handling of data, at some point it is possible to have shaped the data into something that violates the provenance, intentionally or not. Developing checkpoints along the way of shaping and transformation is needed to reliably maintain original meaning or at least the path to original meaning.

As data are aggregated, as the counting begins, the lies can take on new dimensions of possibility. This wonderful essay by Dana Boyd covers a number of examples. At the close of our first panel presentation at the Governor’s Data Analytic Summit that I mentioned here ,each of us were asked who the ultimate beneficiary of our work would be. We all gave the same answer, but I was naturally bit blunt about it, “Clearly the citizens of Virginia. If not, we are doing it wrong, and that’s all that really matters.” Later in the day I raised the need I felt – that every session should have some discussion about the ethics of data use and analytics. There was much less response to that than I had hoped for.

Data can be made to lie. They can also just be wrong. Errors do occur, and hopefully they can be corrected before damage is done. The data can also be right, but misused, misunderstood, and misinterpreted. For example, attributing an outcome to say, skin color, instead of attributing to differences in treatment because of skin color, is more than likely in most cases a complete misunderstanding of the data. Or a determined willingness to see an interpretation that fits your desired model, something along the lines of confirmation bias but with clear intentionality.

One has to know the distance between zero and one and what that distance measures and accept that distance in order to have an honest conversation about data. The fact that I am inspired/driven to write this post should be an indicator that I feel strongly about this topic. “Data don’t lie” is right up there with “the check is in the mail” and “don’t you trust me baby? of course I love you.” It is a crock of shit to say in an all encompassing way “data don’t lie.” Some of us work damned hard trying to ensure our data don’t unintentionally mislead. We spend hours wrangling with people about nuance, not just nuance of definition, but the nuances of calculation, why one way is more accurate than another. And why it takes longer to do it right.

Even when the data are pure as the driven snow, the provenance is impeccable, and the interpretation admirably circumspect, there is still room for doubt. What was left out? What assumptions were not valid? What don’t we know about what we don’t know?

In other words, we should be cautious with even truthful data. It is never, in my experience, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as there are always unknowns.




i have questions

I spent the beginning of the week at the Governor’s Data Analytics Summit. Talk about some serious geekdom. And generally overly serious people. Governor McAuliffe was an exception, his speech was jovial and positive as usual, celebrating things in the Commonwealth and his accomplishments. But it was all seriously geeky.

And it happened again. The conversation that I find amusing. I go to events like this or hackathons and datathons and talk about what we do. I talk about our data, our longitudinal data systems (yes, plural – the agency’s and the collaborative system), and our data products. When I mention the wage & debt reports or the cohort lifecycle modeling, I often get this: “Wow, you must have one hell of a data scientist!”

“Thanks. I am pretty good at what I do, I’ve been doing it a long time.”

They look at my name tag again for a title again, or just say, “Oh.” Then we talk languages and tools and they learn that I am just not with it. My tools are old school. “Data Scientists” have proliferated at these events. Some are young and possibly credentialed as such, others are old, like older than me, and I find they haven’t picked up any new credentials. Nope, they have just retitled, re-branded, what they are. As far as I can tell, they just change tools occasionally to use the new, “cool” languages, or just new modules for old school software.

So, no, I don’t think of myself as a “data scientist.”

I’m not sure what I am. My title at work is “policy analytics director.” This gets at some of what I do. It’s also new, an improvement over “policy research and data warehousing director” for both brevity and accuracy, but I doubt it will be included most one-on-one introductions, unless I use it.

Recently I ran into a local college president. He introduced me to his son as “a numbers guy.” This is marginally better than “data guy”, a term I despise, (and yes, I know points to this site as sometimes you have to give in to the nightmare). “Data guy” is just so very one-dimensional. My life is not data. My identity is not data. But to a lot of people, that is probably all they see. Certainly, Virginia’s college presidents almost only see me talking about data – or rather what they think is data. I see it as something at a higher level than that, but I guess the difference between data and information and knowledge depends on where you stand. Or whether or not your thinking incorporates an understanding of the levels of abstraction that exist between a number and the people it represents. Where does data stop and information begin?

Data, for me, is the lowest level of observation, categorization, and measurement of phenomena. To address me as a data guy suggests that I am not worthy of the higher thought-levels in which you engage.

“Guru” is another nickname that just drives me crazy. It implies that there is some level of mysticism to what I do, at least in the way I suspect they mean it. There is no mysticism in this work, just hard work, a willingness to fail regularly, and an ability to learn from all that failure. Basically the same as in any profession. I’m not really a “data analyst” but it is a part of what I do. I can spend hours on occasion listening to the data and occasionally saying, “So what do you think about that?” Yeah, kind of the Carl Rogers of data science. (Would that work on a business card?) Or data psycho-analyst? Or psycho-data analyst others might suggest?

So what am I?

I am more than my job, that’s for sure.  If I am only a data guy, let me point out that I am generally the first person to make an argument for the liberal arts and humanities and their necessity for inclusion. I think about data and information in terms of policy objectives and people, it is more than just numbers. I also think about data in terms of the level of abstraction it represents, the distance from the measurement to the people, policies, transactions, or things measured.

I also see data everywhere. Everything is data. Every observation can be reduced to something identifiable as data or a collection of data. It’s frustrating, and sometimes damaging, because I notice things like timestamps on messages and will try to reconcile those with comments within a conversation, ie. reconciling data with storytelling. This can be unsettling to others but it is not intentional, it is just a byproduct of seeing and incorporating data. Because everything is data and it is all collectable. Especially stories. Stories are both data and a form of data collection and data sharing. They are also more than that as they are also informational and can convey knowledge and wisdom. That, I think is really cool.

Reviewing this last bit, I can almost believe that I am a data guy. But storyteller works too. I think storyteller is better, and more accurate. It won’t work on a business card for a state agency, but I could introduce myself that way. It makes sense to me, but it does it make sense to others?

Some years ago, in a context I don’t remember, I was part of an exercise about “Who are you?” The crux of this event was that most will identify themselves in terms of their job when any individual is generally so much more than that. The problem is that for some group of people that each of us knows, that is really all we are. That is my complaint. How do I, how do we, change that so we are seen as more than our jobs?

There was another aspect to the conversation above. The college president chuckled and said, “Tod always says what’s on his mind.”

I groaned, “Okay, what did I say this time?”

“Nothing, nothing it all. It’s just that you’ll have us all in a room, we’ll all be thinking the same thing, but you are the only one who will say it.”

Fair enough. I have little to lose by being straightforward, clear, honest, or just stating what sounds to be opinion but is more often my interpretation of what I see in the data. I also disagree that all are thinking the same thing as I know at least some are still struggling to catch up.

So, who am I? Is it what I do for work? Is that really a problem when it seems from my perspective that I do for work flows naturally from how I see the world and interact with it? Why do I object to certain phrases so viscerally when I can see their rightness, especially in the full definitions or synonymous meanings of words like guru?

I’m probably antagonistic by nature (full stop, maybe?) to the idea of being defined or described by two simple words. Might was well just call me a number. 219 works. I answered to that in both basic training and Air Assault school. Maybe this is my ongoing reaction to current sensibilities of reducing everything to a handful of numbers, a handful of words (bullets on a slide), key performance indicators. We’re carrying this too far, losing any sense of nuance or complexity, losing any sense that the data represent real people and their movement through life.

It reminds me of the racist, dehumanizing language used in the military to describe the opposing forces. Sure, it is shorthand, but my dehumanizing, by making them other, it reduced the psychological impact of killing and maiming. It makes it easier. The more we reduce measurement and description, the easier it becomes to forget the people that are the basis and the whole point of measurement. That’s my problem.


Lost stories of a lost world

I know only only a few songs by the Moody Blues.  I had one album on cassette way back when, but I don’t even remember which it was. On  the way home tonight, I heard “Lost in a Lost World” and it struck a chord. I’m always impressed at the timelessness of some song lyrics.

I woke today, I was crying
Lost in a lost world
So many people are dying
Lost in a lost world
Some of them are living an illusion
Bounded by the darkness of their minds
In their eyes, it’s nation against nation against nation
With racial pride
Thinking only of themselves
They shun the light

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good story, whether the ending is happy or sad, that mirrors how I feel.  So story songs are my favorite. I’m an unabashed fan of Harry Chapin’s music. Certainly Taxi is in my top 10, but A Better Place to Be is probably my favorite and the one I am likely to sing to someone at bedtime – that is if John Prine’s Sam Stone was not enough to put a child to sleep. Zach is probably fortunate that he grew up before I discovered Tom Waits and did not sing Tom Traubert’s Blues, A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis (I actually knew a call girl in my time at SIUE – she was my girlfriend’s roommate and had spent the summer working in a brothel in Nevada – but that’s another story), and I Hope I don’t Fall in Love with You. Then again, these songs might have softened his temper a bit and are perhaps a bit cheerier than Puff the Magic Dragon and some of the folk songs I sang to him.

Back when I was involved in the scout troop, storytelling was a key ritual. It built and reinforced community.  Friday and Saturday nights of our monthly campouts found the adults sitting around a fire telling and retelling the troop’s stories. For newcomers it often seemed off-putting at first since most of the stories were about boys that aged out already. But these stories were the core history of the troop. It was a small, but truly boy-led troop. The adults were there primarily for oversight and instruction. And to keep things from getting too out of hand. With this model, there was lots of room for stories to develop since there was very little, “No, don’t do that.” Zach created quite a few stories for the troop.

Saturday night campfires involved mandatory skits. It was more than entertainment, it was about encouraging creativity and performance for peers. A lot of the skits were rehashed versions of skits from Scouting or Boy’s Life magazines . Occasionally they were new. For a couple of years, Zach and one or two others would steal ideas from “Whose Line is it Anyway” and do improv like “Scenes from a Hat” where they would draw random slips of papers with scenes to act out. It ranged from groans to laughter. Adults had to had participate as well. But, other than Scout Vespers there was almost never any singing around the fire. Occasionally one of the assistant scoutmasters would sing ballad of the “Uneasy Rider” to which I would respond with the “Talking Ben Tre” blues and thus kill any further song. Apparently, anti-war songs weren’t the right tone.

It was all about the stories though.

Storytelling with data is much of what I do. However, it tends towards the implicit more than the explicit. When I was in the MFA program, one of my colleagues at the museum was fond of criticizing my paintings as he felt the stories were too obvious.  “Tod, my problem with your work is it that it is story-based and the stories are too obvious. Good art is always implicit, never explicit, as David says,” (our boss). “I think if you want to paint butts, then just paint butts, no stories.” First, he may have thought the stories were obvious, but he never quite got the stories right , he just saw a story. And two, he was the one that did nothing but paint butts. That was his thing.

The difference between implicit and explicit art or storytelling, is interesting. The explicit leaves little for the audience’s imagination to do.  Perhaps. I think it depends on how much they are engaged in the story. A two-dimensional painting or drawing can only do so much of the work. A video or movie can do much more, but still can’t do everything. And a story read or recited leaves as much to the imagination as the storyteller chooses. Implicit art simply leaves out detail allowing the audience to make more choices and assumptions, even as far as what the basic point of the piece is. To my mind, it can be somewhat lazy, if it is not somehow clear that the work is only about the aesthetic.

Transcending the discussion between implicit and explicit is Picasso’s “Guernica” painted in reaction to the use of town (of the same name) for bombing practice by the Nazis. The nearly monochromatic approach to color, Cubist style, and general abstraction take this painting far from the explicit save for a clear depiction of death and woe.  At the other end of the spectrum is John Singer Sargent’s “Dr. Pozzi Comes Home.” On the surface, this is simply a beautiful full-length portrait of an apparently beautiful man. It is pretty explicit on that level. On the other hand, there is seriously implied humor in the painting on multiple levels – especially with knowledge of about eight or ten words of the backstory. Both paintings tell stories and are deserving of hours of study and appreciation.

I used to try to write enrollment reports and a couple of special region reports that were storytelling about the data leading to an inevitable conclusion based on the presented data. It didn’t work. Every report or whitepaper had to have an executive summary that told the answer, and that’s where ninety percent of readers stopped. Also, agency heads in the past really wanted to impose an authoritative voice that was generally dry and matter-of-fact. My response was to reduce my writing to the bare minimum, and provide more and more data on the website making it a Pandora’s Box of higher ed stories. The stories are there, you just have to pick one to follow and know that the ending may not always be happy.

In participating on a forum for people with acoustic neuromas and associated brain tumors (like mine) I have experienced first-hand the power of individual stories when shared in such a forum. The sharing of a common struggle with a new member who is equal measures of terrified and curious lead to a reduction in fear from the comfort of knowing that others have been down a similar path and have had successful outcomes. Knowing further of the challenges and the less successful outcomes creates likely boundaries that reduce the fear of the unknown. My own story tends to scare the hell out of newbies, so I always warn, “I am not typical. I am an extreme case, and look at me now.” (Some might say this applicable beyond my my brain tumor.)

Forums, blogs, social media, Listserv archives, and all the other digital methods of sharing, capture the informal storytelling on the Net. These stories range from the mundane, the silly, pointless, to the powerful, the life-changing.

I stumbled across this while catching up on Twitter:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

“The empty brain”. Aeon, Robert Epstein.

Is this another way of saying that the observer interacts with the observed and that only at the end of the story do we know if the cat is alive or dead? Taking it further, doesn’t this tell us that the status of the cat changes for both observers as the chronologic distance from the original story increases? (Yes, I tend think about time in terms of distance instead of interval.) Our stories change the listeners and the stories change through retelling by others, and even ourselves. Recording our stories, by writing, painting, song, whatever medium is appropriate, gives them a bit more permanence and the ability to reach a greater audience. Not necessarily a much bigger audience, but one outside our relatively small circle of social existence, to others that might need to hear our stories.

There is an audience for every story, especially those that are most difficult to tell. It may seem otherwise, but there is comfort in knowing that someone else has been down the same path. Perhaps they merely survived, maybe they thrived, or died. But knowing the story and similar stories provides path ,and a path is generally more comfortable to walk than to break trail. But there will always be those who wish to break trail to write new stories.

While I think we will never not need stories, especially good stories, I think more than ever we need true stories right now. I think we need to dig past many of the contemporary retellings that have transcended myth and become fact in today’s news cycles. We need the stories of individuals as actors in history, as everyday hero and protagonist, who struggle to make their own path or follow the paths of others. I’ve learned recently just how important some of these stories are because they rarely are told. When someone stumbles upon a story, and reaches out to the teller, a connection is made, strengthening both, and letting each know they are not alone.

There is an audience for every story. And a need for it to be told.

The Weeds, the Sidewalk, and Me

20170330_155035.jpg Wednesday afternoon, I was returning from my favorite coffee shop. I don’t think it is really comparable to some place tucked into a corner near the Champs-Elysees, even if it feels like it is, but it is a good place with good memories. I noticed these weeds. And I knew something.

They are kindred spirits. They are me.


I’ve often felt like I was squeezing life out of someplace I don’t really belong. After I had been at my agency for about three years, a former colleague from the agency told me there had been betting about how long I would stay. It seems I had rather quickly developed a reputation for not putting up with certain aspects of culture in play at the time. Sixteen years later I believe I have surpassed those expectations because of my flexibility and an ability to thrive in the spaces between hard places.

I have a thing for bricks. Brick walls, brick sidewalks, brick houses, brick outhouses, whatever the structure. There is a calming order to be found in brickwork. Order which has just enough imperfection to not be threatening in its orderliness. The varying reds combined with tuckpointed mortar is lovely. Brickwork also presents as strength and safety. Remember the third little pig? He built his house out of bricks.

There is something beautiful about these weeds. The mixture of greens, purples, and yellows is quite nice. They also have a protective prickliness about them to make one think twice about grabbing them with your bare hand to rip them out, or to eat them. They don’t comply with the traditional ideal of beauty, but they have their own. It’s a beauty born of fighting the system, of thriving in a place they are not meant to thrive, or desired to exist.

Against the orderliness of the brick work behind and below, the weeds seem wild. Extravagantly disordered. Unkempt and untamed. They transgress against the horizontal and the vertical. The weeds rise up, ignoring the lines that been set and create their own contours and their own sense of space. They break the rules. Mostly, they are ignored and unseen by the many people who walk these sidewalks.

So much of this is me. I don’t conform well against the ordered background. I stand out, when noticed at all. I have my own beauty, and my own prickliness. I try to thrive in the places that are least suited to me, and will generally do so. The lines of my life are anything but ordered, or straight, with few intersections of the perpendicular sort. The lines of my life are twisty and turny, with hidden surprises and pitfalls along at the intersections.

The weeds that grow in the spaces (spaces that are not meant to be spaces) between sidewalk and the wall live in a precarious position. They are unable to grow deep roots and can be easily pulled up and tossed to the street. They are unwanted as they challenge the status quo and what roots they have make damage by making the space between greater than it is. They slowly, so slowly, tear into the brick and reduce it to rubble, to dirt. Their beauty is not that of the rose, the tulip, or the lily, and is rarely appreciated or noticed.

If you pull them up, they come back. Persistently. As long as there is water and sunshine, their scattered seeds and the remnants of their roots allow them to be reborn. A cycle continues. And the slow rebellion of nature’s ongoing fight against orderliness continues.

Stories and heroes

In a very much heart-rending conversation chat this evening between two of us caregivers, this question I was asked:

And how do we write about this? How do we write when this story is our own and not our own?

I started to answer, but I stopped. One, I was walking laps around the top of the parking deck before leaving for home, and any reply might have been riddled with swipe text errors. Two, I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation. It was important just then to read the messages. But I want to answer it, even if just for myself, as I think it is an important question.

I’ve struggled with this in writing these posts about being caregiver. The stories are a mix of mine, of hers, of ours. I can legitimately only tell the stories from my perspective, save when I ask her to tell her side and to allow me to write that. She is not interested in that. So I write from what I know and observe. It’s a shared story, but from one side.

The more important story is probably hers, as I think is likely true in most patient-caregiver stories. By definition, caregiver is a supporting role. It’s not the leading role.

When my friend asked the question above, my thoughts went to a scene from the Lord of the Rings where Frodo is telling Sam that the great stories never really end, they just continue with new people, new heroes. And that’s the thing, right there. We are all part of one really big unfolding story with lots of side stories.

And lots of heroes.

I’ve said it before, sometimes we may need to be our own heroes. By being our own hero, we set an example for others, especially our children and others close to us. I continue to be amazed at the ability of individuals I see on a regular basis doing things I know are harder, or I suspect are harder, than what many  other people imagine. Just getting to an upright position and moving forward can be an act of courage when the day’s challenges of care (and hopefully some self-care) stretch across the horizon like deep sand. Doing it each day when it seems that the best you can do is grasp at straws of hope, or ignore any thought of hope because it is a distraction, is phenomenal effort. When those of us who’ve been there encounter a kindred spirit in the midst of such life, we experience empathy, terror, and a desire to help. The terror shows up simply because we remember.

Heroes are everywhere. Their stories need to be told. We need to tell our stories to keep in front of us why we are doing what we are doing, why we keep at it, and who we are. The others in the story can tell their story or not because it is their story. Our story is ours and is just as deserving of the telling. Because we are the center of our story, we are worthy of our story. Caregivers tend to subjugate themselves, to lose sight of the fact that they have their own story. We should not forget that we have an existence and story of our own. And we can be our own hero if we need to be, and are willing.

Telling our stories, telling my story, is part of self-care. It reinforces that I exist. And reminds me that I can be more than just a bit player.


Reality as construct

My first wife was batshit crazy. I did not pick up on this until it was far too late. I probably should have though, the clues were there. Both her mother and her were residents of reality that was occasionally not overlapping at all with the reality the rest of us were living in. When they weren’t rationalizing away their behavior, they were just lying outright. They would take a piece of truth and spin it into an outrageous warping of reality that one could almost believe – as long as you stopped thinking critically. They never let physics or workings of the universe get in the way of their version of reality.

It was all quite horrible after the honeymoon. She would do things that made no sense and come up with justifications that would make sense, if they were based on truth. She’d start with truth, but if the first rationalization didn’t succeed, she would lie and try again. Until you believed or gave up arguing. Or just gave up. Which I did too often.

Years later as Melinda and I were dealing with my schizophrenic son, James, that came out of that first marriage (that diagnosis did not come until after he was an adult), I often reflected on my first marriage, her and her family, and what I had noticed elsewhere about rationalization. I came to this conclusion. The habit of over-rationalization causes mental illness. Of course, this was prior to understanding that mental illness is a physical illness, and when I later learned that, I modified my conclusion to: Over-rationalization deepens mental illness. (My opinion only, I don’t know what practitioners think of this.)

I saw over-rationalization a lot while we were married (and afterwards, from a more comfortable distance). Much of it was to make herself the victim or the center of attention, or both. It got to the point where there were times I could not understand what she was talking about because her world did not correspond to mine. When she had a psychotic break during our time in Alaska, I was finally able to try and get some help. Not that the Army had all that much in support available, but we did get her seen by psychiatrists and tested. I was tested too, both as a control and to determine if I was a/the problem. The results were not good. Her, histrionic with borderline personality disorder; me, normal (whew),but passive.

[It makes me physically ill to revisit these memories. Writing about James, as Zach has asked, will be worse.]

A couple years earlier, while at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky I had the opportunity to go to the Marksmanship Training Unit for eight weeks to become a sniper. It was like learning how to shoot all over again. It was fun. It was cool. More important than learn to “shoot well and true” as Stephen King’s Roland of Gilead might say, I learned about self-honesty.

There were two instructors at the MTU. Both retired soldiers with experience in Viet Nam. Joe White had retired as a sergeant-major and basically seemed to view the MTU as part of his personal ministry.

When we went to the firing range, Joe would sit along side us with a big-ass spotting scope and watch each round go downrange observing it  impact on the half-inch thick mild steel targets. With each shot we made, he would say two words, “Call it.” Our responsibility was to then sound off with direction that the front sight of the rifle jumped upon firing.

Ideally, the we should have been calling “12 o’clock” meaning that the sight went straight up and straight back down. That indicated that our bodies were in the proper natural alignment with the target and that our breath control and trigger squeeze were properly timed. If we were to call “12 o’clock” when in fact the bullet’s flight path was to two o’clock, Joe would yell out. “Someone’s lying to themselves. Am I right? You’re Goddamn right I am.” Over and over again.

And again.

And again.

Retired Sergeant-major Joe White was a no-nonsense kind of guy. About half the class failed to qualify in the end. (Note for clarification: I qualified.] Everyone of those soldiers made excuses and rationalized why they couldn’t sit cross-legged or get quite right in the prone position. It was clear to me that this kind of ruthless self-honesty was at least a partial key to success. It wouldn’t overcome laziness or stupidity, but it would help ensure you recognize when those terms apply to you. It took time to really begin to integrate these principles in my life, but it was an experience I don’t expect to forget.

So, I carry these experiences with me and they define a lot of what I do, for good and ill. For the latter, the efforts toward brutal self-honesty have lead to an overabundance of self-criticism and worse. Yes, I have tendency to take things too far.

For the good, these experiences have defined my understanding and appreciation of the limits of data and data systems. You see, it would be nice to believe that data and their accompanying systems are always objective and free from bias, but they are not. Instead, they are almost always biased toward the majority or toward a specific agenda.

For example, when I got to Virginia, I found that our collection standards prohibited institutions providing data to us from reporting gender as unknown/unreported and race/ethnicity unknown/unreported. Institutions were required to default such values to match the majority of students at the institution. This creates bias in the data. Any reporting done from these data creates an illusion of objective fact that is simply that: illusion. Fortunately, the bias created from these numbers is likely small as eliminating those reporting rules and allowing for unknowns resulted in trivial changes.

The rationale for these rules was ultimately this. IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System of the US Department of Ed, did not allow for reporting unknown/unreported in either element. The agency at that time was creating and submitting the annual IPEDS survey data on behalf of the institutions. Thus it made sense to collect the data in a way that maximizes alignment with federal reporting. Sort of. Reporting is just that, reporting, and reporting is a series of decisions about collation, grouping, and aggregation. There is no reason to collect data inaccurately to make it easy to report. Inaccurate collection of data damages its usability for a wide variety of purposes, especially for such things as studying student success.

So, how do these tie together?

It’s about my bias towards clarity of fact and knowing. With my ex-wife, it got to the point that the only things I knew were true were those things I observed myself or that had a verifiable paper trail. In sniper school I learned to know myself better through self-honesty and awareness of when I was not being honest with myself. The story about our data system is about how inaccuracy and, to my mind rationalization (of collection standards), leads to biased systems…and biased thinking. I think while these have been important lessons and structural points in my development, as usual I’ve taken them a bit too far, as I said earlier, I have tendency to do that.

I’ve become far too critical of just about everything, anyone. I find it difficult to trust. This includes trusting basic statements. It becomes too easy, too natural, to start parsing everything someone says. This is especially true in a digital context, like email or messaging. While I am generally comfortable with unknowns, I get very discomforted when things seem to be left out. Or worse, when I can’t reconcile other data directly related to communication, such as digital footprints and timestamps. And then there is the whole self-criticism thing. Not only do I beat myself up for making mistakes, or for lying to myself “Goddammit Tod, stop lying to yourself,” I hear myself say, it’s often followed by the self-critical shouting, “Well, you should have known! You should have seen it coming! Idiot.”

Idiot indeed for treating myself this way. Time to stop. I think now though I have a better understanding of why I do it, which should make it easier to stop. I hope. This self-criticism has (had) just gotten to be far too much and unnecessary. So also has this constant parsing of things said and unsaid. Political speech is one thing that needs to be parsed, but not every other conversation. It is painful and unhelpful and leads to more criticism generally. It needs to stop.

I also hope this makes sense to anyone who has lasted this far, if not, let me know in the comments.



Anger as Lifestyle

Anger has been a potent habit in my life. There were a lot of things in my youth and young adult life that justified anger. Anger, real and synthetic, was prized in the Army to make you fierce. Killing and wounding is easier in a rage or or anger.

Anger stimulates production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These push you higher physically. It can take a toll on you physically in the aftermath, leaving you feeling drained, but the  adrenaline-fueled rush can feel powerful, reinforcing a sense of invulnerability. I think this can be addictive, at least in my case. Being angry or allowing a near-constant presence of anger, allows suppression and numbing of other emotions. It became easy to just let this stuff sit beneath the surface and call on it between one breath and the next.



I’ve had enough. I am running away from my old lifestyle of anger and into a new, more positive lifestyle.

any other addiction it begins to wear thin over time and you need more anger to keep your “high.” This is hardly a problem as there is a lot to be angry about. Even better, you don’t even need a legitimate reason to be angry. You can spend time running conversations in your head with someone who have a minor issue with and give them responses and reasons for their responses that justify being angry at that person. This also allows you to be at least be ready to angry at them in real life when you meet to talk. One can also just create all sorts of justifications to be angry at something in the news even if one is totally ignorant of the subject. You can be angry at the weather. Or you can be angry at the weatherperson for being an hour off on a projection or for your lack of understanding what probability means.

Basically, there are a whole of ways to be angry, real and imagined.

The thing about anger is that it has a spillover effect as it rarely stays contained. This is especially true as anger becomes habit. And not only do you then spend time being angry with people you have no reason to be angry with, especially people you care about, you start becoming angry at yourself. You get angry at yourself for being angry at someone you shouldn’t be, you become self-critical in a way that leads to more anger, whether the criticism is legitimate or not. Ultimately, this leads to self-hate and self-doubt, well beyond imposter syndrome.

Self-hatred and self-doubt (which is really fear and anger is very often a response to fear, after all it is part of the “fight or flight” response) just fuel a cycle of anger. I think once you are at this point, habit is not only ingrained, it is self-feeding. Cyclical, and the cycle itself is pleasurable because anger is familiar, it’s comfortable. Something unusual happens, anger occurs, “Ahh, I know this feeling, I am on familiar ground. I am comfortable. I’m angry.”

Ultimately this lifestyle is exhausting. The body just can’t handle the constant flood of these stress hormones and the following recovery. High blood pressure, weight issues at either end of the spectrum, and a wide variety of mental health issues, are affected by the anger lifestyle. There are ways and resources to the break the habit, to change the lifestyle, but they all depend on two things (which will be familiar): recognizing the problem and choosing to do something about it.

This is what I have been trying to do to move away from anger as a lifestyle.

First, I have spent a lot time and self-searching to recognize that a lot of my unhappiness is based in the habit of being angry. I mentioned earlier that anger numbs and hides other emotions, allows one to ignore them. Happiness, joy, sadness, sorrow, frustration,  and all the normal emotions of living never really get experienced or processed. By recognizing that I have not truly appreciated and fully experienced positive emotions in a great many years, I’ve learned the real price I have paid for my anger. So, no more. The lifestyle must change.

Second, as evidenced by previous blog posts, I have been wrestling with the fact that vulnerability and weakness are not synonymous and that there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable. According to some, vulnerability  is a necessity for a full life. I have not fully come to turns with this, but I can articulate it and I am beginning, I think, to accept it as truth. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Third, following the advice and modeled behaviors of someone I truly respect, I have been engaging in a great deal of self-care. Complete change of diet, commitment to an hour of exercise each night and achieving 10,000 steps daily when possible (sometimes schedules just don’t allow for a walk at lunch), and simplifying my life to create greater focus. And now that some of these changes have sunken in for 17 weeks, I am tackling sleep and making seven to seven and a half hours per night a priority. Along the way I will also reduce my coffee intake, less than half what I drink now. I have also been talking or writing through things, working to articulate where I have been, why I have been there, and where I want to go – and these have helped greatly.

Fourth, I am practicing kindness. Even towards myself. I have put the inner critic on notice, and am working to silence the external critic. It’s hard. Attitudes and habits of thinking and responding at the age of 55 are hard to change. Especially if they are habits based on sloppy thinking. But I am being more kind and supportive. This also means ending the inner dialogues that have too often become habit when wrestling with difficulties. It is far more successful and productive when I am accepting of people as they present themselves and remove my expectations and pre(mis)conceptions.

Fifth, I’m letting others help. I’ve stopped trying to do it all or to carry it all.  I’m learning to ask for help and allow help. This does worlds of good for reducing resentment that leads to anger. I’m also back to encouraging others, particularly colleagues, to ask for help, to not spin their wheels struggling with a problem for more than a couple hours before saying something. Struggle is good, developing self-sufficiency is good, but there are reasonable limits for that. I’m also encouraging Melinda more and more to be responsible for her own care to take it off of my shoulders.

Sixth, I have reduced input. I have reduced screen time of all kinds. I struggle with this a lot because these pocket computing devices (smart phones) were what I was waiting for much of my life. (And I said the same thing about my Casio  PocketPC.)  Also, where I used to always have the TV on as audiovisual wallpaper for both entertainment and to drown out the tinnitus, I am on my way of making tinnitus my friend. Accepting it. In the last six weeks I have spent more time in silence than I have in the last seven years, excluding outdoor activities. Reducing screen time has helped to starve some of the anger and irritation away, stripping it of its power.

Finally, I am learning to accept that I, Tod, have limits. There is only so much I can do, only so much I can be responsible for, and only so much I can do well. So I must learn not to be angry at when I hit those limits. I must accept there is absolutely no reason for me to be angry if I mishit a silly little white ball in the middle of a manicured pasture. It is a damn stupid thing to get angry about.

Anger can be positive force. There are things we should be angry about, such as injustice. It is all around us. Injustice feeds my anger but I know how to use that anger positively. I have avenues for working for justice and fairness, for equality for all. Anger helps me know when I need to step up my game there. But it shouldn’t stand in the way of living an emotionally engaged life fully connected and intertwined with others.

So not “no more anger” but “no more of anger as a lifestyle.”