All Known Health Frauds are, in Fact, Valid

Author’s Note (6/10/14): Huh! Looks like we’re at 9k FB likes. That’s 8,996 more than I expected! So, that’s a win. Apparently a lot of people think the system is broken. Ok. Now, what do we do about it it? I’ve added a new bit at the end.  

::::::::::: RANT ALERT :::::::::::

Remember how six months ago, everybody had a gluten allergy? Remember how, as of last week, nobody has a gluten allergy? Remember, she said as a casual aside, my last post about social systems and pendulums?

I walked into a meeting yesterday where four people who know nothing about medicine, were confirming to one another that gluten allergies have finally been proven a hoax. My boss, a super-intelligent biologist, handed me the links cited below as proof that there are no gluten allergies in anyone ever.

I have issues. For starters:

One: Both links (same article), actually say in the abstract they found some evidence of gluten sensitivity. Just, not as much as people have been saying there is.

“Recent randomized controlled re-challenge trials have suggested that gluten may worsen gastrointestinal symptoms, but failed to confirm patients with self-perceived NCGS have specific gluten sensitivity.” Article (Absract 1)

“Gluten-specific effects were observed in only 8% of participants” Article (Abstract 2)

Two: the gluten conversation resembles all broken conversations between the alternative medical community, the conventional medical community (known here as The ‘“Damn That Hippie Medicine” People’), and humans. It is a social system with a broken feedback loop.

To say that gluten allergies don’t exist and/or cause anyone serious symptoms, is not only not factual, but it’s not even indicated. The new “DOES NOT EXIST” gluten mantra is hyperbole, driven by a knee-jerk reaction to the preceding hyperbole, which is “EVERYONE HAS IT.”

It is time to shut up about gluten

At this point, pretty much everyone talking about gluten, is making things worse. Here is what is happening.


I call particular attention to the little dude in the middle left panel, who actually does have a problem with gluten. Most people don’t. That little stick dude, does. The hype helped him figure that out, which is great! But because it was hype, it got tons of people on board who in fact did not have the problem, and when they realized that, it was mad embarrassing. Because who wants to look like a dupe, right? So they deal with it by shaming the crap out of the one dude who has finally figured out that gluten is what has been making him sick. Now he can’t have gluten, OR respect. Awesome.

That is what is happening with gluten. It is also what ALWAYS happens, with EVERYTHING. I have been watching this medical hoedown up close for 20 odd years (also, 20-odd years), and I have been rendered incapable of writing about it without invoking THE CAPS LOCK OF JUSTICE. SO HERE IT IS.

This superior CAPS LOCK OF JUSTICE was supplied by mystery man and new favorite person, Bret! Thank you!

This vastly superior CAPS LOCK OF JUSTICE was supplied by mystery man and new favorite person, Bret! Thank you, Bret!

A Letter to All Parties:

In the following open letter to all people who use medicine everywhere, I will attempt to drain the abscess of communication between alternative and conventional medical communities. I do so not merely about gluten, but also every other medical medical fad in the last, and next, ten years (Let’s play Med Libs: St. John’s Wort, heavy metals poisoning, Atkins, whatever.)

[Internet feedback: A: Several wonderful medical practitioners on both sides have reminded me that we are seeing advances in these two communities sharing ideas and techniques. This is true and awesome.
B: But there are not nearly enough of them. I’ve been watching this (tbf, very ranty) article bring a LOT of the pent up tension between the groups to the surface. This tension is exactly what we need to defuse if we’re going to turn A into most of reality.] 

Dear “Damn That Hippie Medicine” Doctors:

Hi there. Thanks for occasionally saving my life with your crazy robot chemistry ninja magic. Also, please stop debunking everything you don’t understand.

We are not talking about whether [insert medical phenomenon here] exists for all people, or no people. Edge cases exist. I call to the witness stand: math.

By definition, 3 out of every thousand people are an edge case in some damn thing, and there are a lot of “damn things”, so that makes most of us an edge case in something.* I, personally, have had at least four edge-case medical conditions, that my doctor had never seen before!** (I’m fine now, thanks for asking.) In fact I’d say that 25% of my friends have at least one super-rare condition!

True Thing: Each rare condition is rare,
but having a rare condition, is not.

You may have noticed that there are a bunch of people floating around who seem to be dying for no reason. There actually is a reason, which is that they are an edge case that science hasn’t figured out. You, “Damn That Hippie Medicine” Doctors, are mostly focusing on the causality chain of the 80% of average things, instead of the 20% of complicated things, and therefore, you have not figured out some complicated things! Which is fine, but then at least have the common decency to shut up about it!

I get that your job demands that you act like infallible gods. It’s a broken system putting you in a tough position and I’m sure it sucks. But just don’t forget it’s an act. Don’t believe your own damn marketing. When you do, it can kill people.

* Defined as 3 standard deviations from the mean. I use another definition in the next paragraph. Shrug.
** Two of which are still not recognized by the regular medical community as real things. But guess what, “Damn That Hippie Medicine” Doctors! Remember how I used to be dying? Well now I’m doing crossfit. </me nods encouragingly at you.> There are a bunch of me. You should be taking notes.

Dear Alternative Medicine Doctors:


News about important edge case solutions, is not currently being targeted to people who might have it. It is currently broadcast everywhere, all at once, in an information dissemination pattern similar to that used by hormones (which flood the whole body until the right organ hears them), radio (which does that same thing to the air), or TV advertising (which does it to your brain). This is the method society is currently using to distribute this information to the 3 in a thousand people for whom it actually makes a difference. This is a terrible method of communication and wastes everyone’s energy and time.* It is also and massively discrediting.

* mutter mutter creates oscillation in systems mutter mutter

To The “Damn That Hippie Medicine” People:

Guess what? When the alternative medicine IS paired appropriately with your actual illness, it actually works! For example, herbs that lower blood sugar, work! So it would be awesome, if you didn’t, for example, act with reprehensible irresponsibly and take 10x the dosage because you think it doesn’t do anything, and then die, and then rise from the grave in the form of a grossly-misspelled forum rant, crucifying the whole of alternative medicine! That shit is on you.

To The Alternative Medicine People:

I once went to a naturopathic store to buy, on the recommendation of a real doctor, some raw adrenal gland extract. I asked the woman behind the counter, how much should I take? She literally said the following:

“I mean, consult your intuition. Your body knows.”

Sooo…. by the way? THAT SHIT CAN KILL YOU.*

Alternative Medicine People, do not say “trust your intuition,” or your angels, or your energies! Ever! Use data! And science! Please! And please publicly discredit the ones in your midst who do not! Because of many facts, like the following:

One: People’s instincts say lots of unreliable and conflicting things, and therefore, people following said intuitions will do ridiculous things until they kill themselves, and then they will blame you.

And two: Alternative medicine is not a cosmology. Quit slipping spiritual riders into the bill of edge-case medicine. You wanna hand out cosmic leaflets, do it on your own time.

That said, I have had some great alterna-docs tell me: “The tests don’t prove X, but everyone like you who I put on thing Y, gets better. ::Shrug:: Want to try it?” That is great. You are acknowledging that we don’t yet know, or have the ability to collect data on, all the things in the world that are important. Which statement is patently, obviously true. So, great! Now keep records, and look for objective criteria to validate your hypotheses. With science ‘n shit.

* Probably.

To The “Damn That Hippie Medicine” Doctors:*

Will you PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, stop shaming people who are out there solving their own edge case medical problems, on their own steam, using actual data? Christ almighty, do you realize what you sound like? You might as well spit on us. Yes, I understand there are a lot of ridiculous Alternative-Medicine Patient hacks currently knitting natural fiber dreadlock tams in your waiting room.


Seated next to them, if I may point out, are the “Damn That Hippie Medicine” People who would rather have you give them four bottles of medication than choose to eat fewer than four Buffalo Ranch McChicken sandwiches a day, and who then whine at you about it.

The differentiator you are searching for isn’t “allopathic medicine people” VS “alternative medicine people.” It is “people who don’t give a fuck,” VS “people who do.” So when you talk to a smart person, treat them like a smart person.

* And also, everyone!

And finally:

To The Marketing People who Capitalize on Health Fads:

You guys are dicks.


In closing flourish, I hereby revoke the name “Alternative Medicine.” You are not an alternative. You are complementary. You are now called Edge-Case-Medicine, working arm-in-arm with Standard-Case-Medicine. And as long as you work from data, create data, and do science, you are officially valid.

The moral to our story, is that edge cases exist. Some people do have gluten allergies. You are probably not one of them. But you might be. To find out, try science.

</me puts away the CAPS-LOCK OF JUSTICE>

This topic makes people (like me) super mad. I mean, why shouldn’t it? It is literally a life and death issue for some of us. Of course we’re mad. But if we want it to change, we need to do more than just tell each other how mad we are. Here’s what I, personally, want to see happen.

Discussion about this topic, between people who don’t already agree. 

By “discussion,” I mean “good old-fashioned meeting-of-the-minds”, as distinct from, as a random example, “the rabid, screaming invective of torch-bearing mobs.” Shouting at the other guy is not useful at all. Shouting’s what got us into this in the first place.

We’re bored with this blood feud. We want the best of both worlds. To get that, we need both worlds talking to each other. Meaning:

People respectfully telling the medical community what they want.

Let’s start by openly asking our doctors to do things differently. I don’t know if it’ll help, but let’s try it. If you do, I recommend assuming they are good people who genuinely want to help you.

The medical community responding with what they need in order to make it possible.

There are forces acting on you that we don’t know about. Constraints and incentives. What makes it hard to do what we’re asking for, and how can we fix it?




P.S. The title of this article is hyperbole. Some things are frauds.

P.P.S. I release articles first on fb, where I follow any feedback I can see. It makes me better informed, and I appreciate it, even when it is full of fire, brimstone and flecks of monitor spittle. But the weirdest responses I’ve seen to this one, is conventional medicine people, furious that I’m validating all of alternative medicine; and, in the same thread, alternative medicine people, furious that I’m trying to debunk their real and serious medical problems. That’s just the point, guys: I’m saying the opposite.

Each community here has a big beef with the other. Each one is partly justified. But, not entirely. And the turf war between them is driving the tension through the roof. Which makes us defensive. It makes us choose sides. And react explosively. Instead of listening.

Wanna comment?

Here’s the comment policy on this blog. Short version: don’t be a dick to people! Listen, add value, no shouting. For this article, I’m most inclined towards comments about why you think the system is broken, and what we might do about it.

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The Politics of Pendulums

You’re pissing me off. I haven’t said anything, but frankly it’s been going on quite a while. And you have finally said the last goddamn thing I am going to take from you. I slam down my cup of coffee and I snap at you.

And, who knew? Turns out you were also getting pissed at me. So when you come back at me, you come back hard. Now I’m twice as pissed. I yell at you. You slit your eyes and cut me down.

You and I are a charged, oscillating system.

Put differently, we’re both pendulums. Each of us started this conversation pulled way over to one side, charged with potential energy. You add the final critical-mass electron, and I explode out. Now, the innate neural physics that pushes us around, sucks us hard back towards the middle. But, we both overshoot. Now we are amplifying one another, taking turns lashing out and reacting, charging each other up with anger. The swings get wider and wider. If we swing too wide, our relationship might break.

I wish I explained pendulums better

I see pendulums everywhere. And if there is one thing that I’ve learned about pendulums over the last two decades of seeing them everywhere, it is that I am terrible at explaining to other humans why they are a big deal. But they totally are. Everything breathing, and humans in particular, are composed of swinging forces – ideological, physical, neural, emotional – that are trying to reach equilibrium. Zoom out, and you get this giant human fractal of interference patterns, with everything dampening or charging up everything else. It’s lovely and super geeky, and damn it, why don’t we talk more about pendulums.

Not literal pendulums, obviously, but pendulum behavior: oscillation and feedback loops in social systems. (Note: this article is about Social Systems Theory, a field which may or may not exist. My last article about it is here.)


Engineering types refer to this mechanic as a “control system.” They usually start with the metaphor of a thermostat. A thermostat contains a goal state: keep the room at 72 degrees. It can be good or lousy at that job. A lousy one might look up every half an hour and say “Oh, hey, it’s only 60 degrees in here, let me help.” It cranks the heat on and then checks out for a while thinking about whatever it is that lightly personified thermostats think about. In half an hour, it checks again, and says: “Who, dude, how did it get to be 90 degrees in here?” And turns on the AC. Now you’re freezing. Back and forth, in big overcompensating swings.

In other words, this control system can’t maintain its goal state, in this case because it doesn’t sample its environment often enough. An equally bad thermostat might sample enough, but its corrective mechanism is the wrong size for the job (“Oh gosh, it’s cold in here, let me go turn on the flamethrower.”)

Human systems do this: oscillate, and try to converge. But it doesn’t work out as simply as a mechanical control system, because human oscillations can be in different energy states.

You can charge pendulums.

Charged pendulums swing farther, faster, every time they swing.

All kinds of things can build charge in humans. For example: being trapped between two social networks which both matter to you, but which each want you to do opposite things. In social network theory, you would be referred to as a “bridge” between densely connected groups; in this case, say, the one who raised you, who demand you condemn gay people; and the one with a lot of gay people who you like a lot. If this goes on long enough, you might blow up at one or both of them; alternately, you swallow it for a few decades, it eats you alive and eventually kills you. Either way, the conflict builds a charge, and it has to go somewhere.

Another gold standard charge-builder: raise a kid to think sex is evil, and watch the rubber band draw back over 7 years of raging hormones. Just Add College, and you’ve got a promiscuity slingshot. Depriving someone of basic human needs builds charge. Poverty & loneliness do it. Shame does it. Fear does it.

You can manipulate pendulums.

By which I mean, you can manipulate people. Groups of people, even better. When groups get into a shared mindset, we combine into a giant Voltron of collective force.

Take the #YesAllWomen phenomenon. Which, if you haven’t been watching it, is amazing, and not just because “Yay, feminism!” (though also that). Hundreds of thousands of women who didn’t dare tell anyone how scared they are, and decided as one organism to compile their latent static charge into one giant mega-ball of pissed-off electricity. Then, they (ok, we) fed off each other. We read each other’s tweets and got so pissed that, damn it, we had to add our own. Providing charge for the next person. We crossed the streams, a la Ghostbusters.

YesAllWomen magnified that community’s energy, to build enough escape velocity, to break past the disincentive to speak. This is what social change is made of. It’s literally how revolutions start. It’s also how stuck conversations finally move again, for better or for worse. Riling up collectives enough that they’ll talk about something difficult, stretches the Overton Window; meaning, it changes the range of things that polite society will permit people to say out loud. Charging pendulums is my favorite systems dynamic.


YesAllWomen was emergent, but plenty of other charge manipulations aren’t. Top-down rhetoric* is great at engineering a movement out of latent energy (usually fear). Take for example Hitler, or your least favorite political party, or also, your most favorite political party. That’s part of what we hire politicians to do: charge us up enough to make us act as one, even when it’s not in our individual best interest.

Manipulating systems on purpose – say, rallying a country to war – doesn’t just change that group, or that moment. It sets the system oscillating for a long time. You might win the war, but your enemy holds a hard grudge (a charge), and plans, conspires, and gains allies. A generation later there is retaliation, to which you later retaliate, because pendulums.

*Lateral rhetoric (rumor) works too: it creates violent, idiotic mobs.

You can let pendulums wind down.

The YesAllWomen created a huge initial charge, but it’s slowly losing momentum. Unlike mechanical control systems, which just keep doing the same thing forever, pendulums are always trying to approach a state of rest. If no energy goes in, they swing in smaller and smaller arcs until they just sit there pointing down. Sometimes that’s annoying, because it happens instead of interesting change. But sometimes it’s great, like when you’re fighting with your friend. Over the next half hour, you’ll both yell at each other a little bit less, calm down a little more, start to communicate, and over several dozen exchanges you’ll come to terms.


You can actively dampen pendulums.

LightDampingApply a little resistance on each swing, and you’ll converge faster on the middle. Dampening pendulums is my other, more favorite systems dynamic. Big fan.

When human pendulums are charged, dramatic and reactive, things get noisy, dumb and mean. We spend months rolling our eyes at ridiculous news headlines that intentionally misinterpret everything so they can shout more. Or, alternately, we intentionally misinterpret everything so we ourselves can shout at somebody.

When we dampen the pendulum, though, things get interesting. The less we swing, the faster we converge, and the fewer licks it takes to get to the tootsie roll center of public discourse! Then we can get on to the next interesting problem! Sentimentality aside, it’s just plain better geekonomics.

This is why I have such a thing about information moving. Withholding important information almost always charges pendulums. I should have talked to you about why I was getting mad, sooner. You should have talked to me. We didn’t. It would have been uncomfortable and maybe scary, but it would have saved a hell of a lot of time, and we would be out watching Witching and Bitching right now instead of actually doing it.

That’s what conflict mediation is: an oscillation dampener. Subduing our reactivity so that we can exchange real information. That’s what you’re doing when you go take a walk and think before you slam down your coffee cup and yell at a person, or at the entire internet.

Instinctively, we don’t want to dampen them.

We don’t experience pendulums from the outside, because they all pull at our heads with an almost literal gravitational force. We experience them from the inside, like kids riding a swing. Remember? You get excited! You want to get more excited, so you kick! You don’t want to slow down, you want to go up! But now your mom calls you and SwingPendulumit’s time to go home. Now you have to drag your feet on the gravel. It’s loud and jerky. It fights your momentum, it pulls at your body, makes you dizzy. The disappointment as you let go of the exhilaration of riding the high. Dragging your feet doesn’t feel right.

We experience pendulums like this. You get excited, or mad! It feels like things! Are happening! And you probably should do something about it right now. Dampening that energy feels unnatural, because it is. We are wired to think with our limbic systems first, our brains second. Check out this interesting Radiolab podcast on how the brain prioritizes information. The relevant bit goes from 3:40 – 6:30 (but all of it is awesome).*

Anything that raises your stress response, gets cognitive priority. You don’t get a choice about that, it’s the bargain your lizard brain made when it reluctantly agreed to wrap itself in your cerebral cortex. In the contract, it says: think all you want, buddy, but when we see a threat, lizard brain is calls the shots. You sit there contemplating the nature of the bear, and we get eaten, bucko.

Consciously exerting force to dampen a pendulum doesn’t feel right, because your nature wants you not to do it. You’re putting your precious wattage into pushing against your animal instincts and the physics of being human. It sucks a little. It doesn’t happen by accident. This is an act of free will, so we only do it when we would rather get somewhere, than ride the swing.

*You can also read about these two separate parts of human cognition, in Daniel Bernoulli’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Pendulums cause trouble when they are invisible.

Pendulums can be so huge that humans can’t see them. The longer the string, the slower the pendulum, the wider its sweeps. Sometimes the string is so long, it takes centuries to complete one sweep – and to our eyes, it looks like nothing is happening. Huge masses of people – genders, races, political movements, religious movements – are constantly building up charges of fury and fear, lashing out, and pushing their counterpart into the swing. Big, lengthy cycles of dominance and retaliation. Not for nothin’, but: I wonder what we could do to dampen some of those big swings. Or, like: initiate fewer of them. Just throwing that out there.

Pendulums can also be invisible because they’re too close to see. And, speaking of which…

Look. I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’ve been carrying this big baseline charge around. I let my swing pull back too far, with you, for too long. So I lost my shit and treated you badly. I could have handled it better. I apologize. I’ll try harder to drag my feet.


Addendum: Pendulums are beautiful.

It isn’t just social physics. It’s art. It’s God’s kaleidoscope. Here is an ugly site featuring a pendulum mash-up that for some reason just dazzles me. I didn’t adjust the timing – they’re perfectly serendipitous. The lowest pendulum is the same as the music. Mesmerizing. These are the real, deep mechanics of the world. We’re made by them, stuck in them. We spend our lives pushing and pulling on them. So pretty.

Note: My husband, who is usually right about things, reminds me that physics metaphors for social behavior have a down side. They can encourage people to see the world in a mechanistic, reductionist way. Meaning, that if you add up all the rules, the system is just a sum of its parts, and everything is predictable. With humans, nothing is further from the truth. It’s emergent and complicated. That’s why it’s awesome.

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I Constantly Talk About Social Systems

You’ll probably notice that I talk a lot about a possibly nonexistent field called Social Systems Theory. There is a truly terrible wikipedia page on it that hasn’t been updated since 2009. Yet, I am positive it is a thing.

“Social systemics” learns from topics like cognition, complexity theory, economics, anthropology/sociology, psychology, and the structure & dissemination of information. It takes inputs from things like data feeds (data science), intelligence analysis, and neurological / cognition studies. It studies the dynamics of crowds, organizations, social networks, etc. It studies incentive structures, reputation systems and feedback loops. See also: cybernetics (which is not about robots or fake religions, as one might think).

The outputs of social systems study, should be something that real humans can use to impact real human well-being. This isn’t about the clever algorithms, although they are useful and cool. It’s about the social applications, built on a backbone of real data and scientific process. I’m curious to see where this part goes.

Picture Niccolo Machiavelli with a PhD and a pocket protector. That’s what we’re talking about.

Dr. Machiavelli, Berkeley CS Department, 2008

Go Go Gadget Moral Ambiguity

As with Machiavelli, the one thing about social systems analysis is that it might be evil. I’ve been thinking about that for a while, and it’s definitely a risk. The point of tweaking social systems is to make people do stuff without thinking about it. We like free will around here. Mostly, anyways. It does have its down sides.

But, one way or another, we’re all already using systems constraints and incentives on each other all the time. That’s what schools, games, companies and governments *are*. Smart people design social systems to guide our behavior and belief systems. Once in a while, those smart people are narcissistic assholes who do not have our best interests at heart. So, the way I see it. we might as well learn how it works.


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Poverty Solved in Four Words

Originally published as The Moderator, on Will Someone Please Address.


Hello World.

I’ve been planning to start this blog for a while, but until now, I wasn’t sure how I’d kick it off. Then I read Linda Tirado’s article about poverty, and the reactions (like this onethis one, and this response), and that answered that.

I’m not going to lie, folks. I did not want to write about this topic, even before those articles came out. Watching the internet take its ritualistic bite out of Tirado, as it turns out, did not make me want to write about it more. But apparently this isn’t going to leave me alone until I write it, so here it is.

Long story short, over the next four entries, you will rapidly notice that I have a lot to say about this subject.(1) But poverty is just one of the things we’ll talk about on this blog.

Ok. Let’s do it.

(1) Yep, it’s long, but I do use a lot of swear words, so at least there’s that.

A round of Introductions

Hello! My Name Is: Wealthy

Hi there. We’ve just met. You may know me as a happy, successful person, on a fast track to an exciting professional future. Things have picked up for me in the last year. I’m being regularly introduced to people I’ve previously heard of on the internet. Colleagues have begun to ask me – even badger me – to speak about my work at schools and conferences. I am contacted about twice a week by recruiters; in fact, I was recently recruited for an executive role at a large international corporation.

To be fair, this isn’t that unusual for someone who moves in my circles. I’d say at least 60% of my friends nowadays have advanced degrees. I have one, too. At least half of my friends make over six figures’ income. And, there are a lot of those friends. They are kind, balanced, interesting, intelligent people about whom I genuinely care, and who genuinely care about me. I’m active in my community. My input is valued. Friends of all ages come to me for advice. I’m athletic, attractive and charismatic. I live in a safe neighborhood in a beautiful condo with a security door and a loving spouse.

In short: I live well. Specifically: I live wealth.

What is wealth?

This is wealth.


I don’t need to know anything about the cost of the furniture in this photo to know it is a picture of wealth. This room is a statement – a fantasy – of its inhabitants’ complete mastery over their environment, options and circumstances. It is an urban dream of peace, stability, cleanliness and safety. These people have the time to change in some fresh flowers, and to balance pretty things precariously upon other things. A week from today, it will still look just so. Their white will stay white, their vases intact. Knowing nothing else about this family, we can say with 99% certainty that dad has not just come home drunk and thrown the Christmas tree across the room. Nor is he expected to. This is a world composed entirely of knowns.

What is poverty?

This is poverty.


World, meet my 18th year. Eighteenth year, meet world.

Right after I graduated from high school, my main parent succumbed to long-term illness and began quickly to die. My other parent, a distant, abusive psychopath, had chosen that moment to cut off my only other trickle of financial support. We had never had much. Now, “we” became “I,” and I had nothing. I followed a classified newspaper ad to a woman who was willing to rent me her unfinished, unheated basement for $125 a month. She was a petty tyrant, like many I have met before and since. She and her series of thug boyfriends had loud sex and louder arguments, stomping over the thin, spider-infested floorboards above my mattress. During my first week, a recently ousted tenant returned for her things with a full police escort.

The landlady had had me move her boxes aside to make room for my things: boxes on one side, me on the other. There was no lock on my door, and she and her partners would wander in and out of my room to rummage through boxes or do laundry. It was late fall. The walls weren’t sealed, and the first time it rained, it flooded, soaking my mattress and my meager belongings. My problem, she said. She could evict me at any moment, for any reason, and I knew it. And if the truth be told, I was paying my rent by stealing someone else’s social security checks. I would have done anything, and said anything, to be allowed to stay in that hellhole for another month.

One morning, in some weird fit of inspiration, I took a piece of white chalk and wrote words all over the white concrete walls. I wrote words like “hope”, “safe”, “love” and “home.” I tried to make them just bright enough that I might read them subliminally, but not bright enough that I would get caught. I hoped they would make me feel a little better. If you look very closely at that picture, above the green dresser on the left, you can see the word “kind.”

And if you think this is my only story about poverty, well, have I ever got news for you.

That was then. This is now.

I live wealth. But I am not wealthy. I will never be wealthy, no matter how much money I make or what title I hold, because I have spent over thirty years of my life, the overwhelming majority, orbiting poverty’s gravity well. I have not just “been poor.” I have drunk poverty straight from the jug. I’ve been over, under, and through it. I have at various times hated it, hidden it, rebelled against it and worshiped it, and after 35 very long years, I seem to have clawed my way out of it. But no matter how long or far I walk in the other direction, it’s there. It’s always there.

It’s hard to capture the depth of my sincerity when I said I didn’t want to write about this. If I’m any indication, the last thing your average Recovering Poverty Citizen (RPC) wants to do, is talk about being poor. You don’t climb out of the poverty tar pits by accident. If you get out, it’s because you really want out. Talking takes you back in.

But you know the other thing your average Recovering Poverty Citizen doesn’t do? Besides talk about poverty on the internet? The other thing we don’t do is exist. Because the view from where I’m sitting is that almost nobody makes it out.

And the ones that do? We have to talk about it. There is just no other way to beat this thing.

So. Here, you can find me, talking.

Over the next couple of months, I’m going to post what’s currently looking like five follow up entries about poverty. I predict that they will be as full of opinion and subjectivity as this one was. You do not have to agree with them. In fact, don’t! Disagree with them all over the place. Nothing would please me more. As long as you talk about poverty.

To Linda Tirado, I say this: You got people talking. A lot of people. For that, I thank you. I don’t need to know one thing about you beyond that. Thank you. Your article caused me to write this one, and the many more I expect to follow it. Maybe they will cause someone else to write, and lather, rinse, repeat until we figure out what to do about this shit. Linda, you could be Little Orphan Annie in a pinafore or a trophy wife with diamonds on the soles of your shoes. In the inimitable words of Bo$$: I don’t give a single, solitary fuck. You keep doing your thing.

To the internet, I say: with respect, you are watching the wrong metric here.

The measurement of truth of an article about poverty, is not the financial status of the person who wrote the article. It is the number of times the article was shared by poor people.

Put another way, if you’re not sure whether Tirado’s reflections on poverty are right, I have good news for you. Linda Tirado is not the only poor person you can talk to about this topic. You see, we are right here on the internet with you. We may not be in your offices, your schools or your neighborhoods. But we are here.

A whole lot of us.

And that's just the US.
Wanting to talk to you. About poverty.

So be a sport, would ya, internet? And don’t be a dick about this. All it will accomplish is making a lot of already miserable people, even more miserable. Show us your good side this time. Show me your best impression of the chalk words on the concrete walls. Because god help us all and damn the odds, I believe in you.

Now let’s talk.



Footnote: this “wealth” image is not a picture of my home. It is a random picture off the internet. It is a metaphor.


Poverty is not About Money

Or: What we are talking about

In the last segment, I introduced myself and why I care about this topic. In today’s segment, we’ll illustrate, then decimate, the current modern-day conversations we are having about poverty. Enjoy.

Behind Frenemy Lines

I’m good at talking to strangers. The stranger, the better. overhearI’ve talked to liberals and conservatives, old and young, CEOs and cab drivers. In the process, I have been in attendance at many, many conversations about poverty. Specifically, I’ve overheard conversations about poverty held by wealthy people, who did not know I was poor. As I mentioned in my last post, I can now pass.

Talking about poverty seems to be one of the social rituals of the wealthy. Which is great, right? We like talking. As long as it’s getting somewhere. But it isn’t. It’s just the same conversation, over, and over, and over again.

And it sounds a little something like this.

What we are talking about

How the Wealthy Talk About the Poor, the Flowchart

How the Wealthy Talk About the Poor, the Flowchart

The first thing that we do in a conversation about poverty, is review whether it’s a conversation worth having. We do this by evaluating whether poor people are redeemable. Poor people are either noble, good people who are trying to get hard to get out; or, poor people are lazy, degenerate jerks who sunk to the bottom of the pile. This decision point creates two swimlanes: the “bad people” camp, and the “good people” camp. (I’m not naming any names here, political wings, but you know who are.)

Let’s take Swimlane 1 (the left side) first: the poor are not redeemable. They’re lazy jerks, and if they ever decide to knock that off, they’ll figure their way out. Boom. Conversation over. And the time is? One minute, six seconds.

Swimlane 2 has more phases. If we decide poor people are redeemable, we review why they’re still poor. This breaks down to a kind of ritualized systems analysis: poor people try their best but can’t get money. Mostly, this is because they can’t get education. If they had education they could get money, and if they had money, they could get education. It’s a problem, and one (we heavily imply) we’d have a pretty good handle on if those guys in the other swimlane would just leave us to it. But, they won’t, so…

But in the end, all this is neither here nor there because who, really, are we to talk about it? At this point the conversation degenerates into several rounds of what I’m going to call the “Four New-Yorkshiremen Ritual,” detailed in an upcoming entry. And there, as above, the conversation ends.

So I’ve heard this broken record a number of times. Usually, I just listen, but as of the whole Tirado thing, I’m officially tired of the tune. Now I’ll attempt to take it off the record player, throw it out the window like a Frisbee and shoot an ironic bullet hole smiley-face into it, so that we can dance to something interesting for a change.

Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.

Lane 1, your ritual is the shortest, so you get to go first. There’s a lot to talk about here, but the biggie is this: once you decide that “poor people aren’t motivated to escape poverty,” the next step is not “the end.” The next step is “why not?”

If your answer is “because they are bad,” that’s predestination: the idea that we will always be the thing we were made to be. I recognize this is an old tradition, and it worked for a while. But predestination just ain’t the wave of the future, guys. It doesn’t “have legs.” This is because people who believe they’re predestined, don’t waste energy trying to do things they think they aren’t destined to do. So, Predestination Camp people try fewer things. People who try more things, succeed at more things, and people who succeed at more things take the future. Trying shit, and learning from it, is the future. It’s also the present. If you’re not sure, check out this thing the kids are doing called The Internet. It is basically wall-to-wall, 24-7 “people trying shit.” Folks seem to like it.

The only people who get out of poverty, are those that try. Whether “poor people are bad” is true or not, is immaterial. What we want is fewer poor people. Right? So if you want fewer poor people, you need more poor people trying to get not poor. If your main message is that poor people are fundamentally flawed, you’re telling them not to bother.

So, what do you want, here? What do you, Lane 1, want from this conversation?

Point #2: Poverty is not about money.

Lane 2: first of all, I know you folks are trying here. You want this poverty shit fixed, and I personally really appreciate that. But progress means change, right? That’s your whole thing. So how are you going to get change from having the same conversation over and over again? You don’t get change from doing the same thing again. We all already agree on this one. You don’t need me telling you this.

In my personal opinion, the lack of momentum produced by this conversation is mainly because the poverty you’re talking about, in no way actually resembles actual poverty. What you’re talking about is a tiny shorthand notation about poverty, with a vastly simplified physics. Trying to solve poverty starting here, is like trying to ID a criminal using only a child’s stick figure drawing. It is a huge waste of time.

Step #1 to getting any traction at all on this topic is to think bigger. For the rest of this blog, when I say “poverty” and “wealth,” I want to be clear: I am not talking about money.  I’m talking about options and motion.


The wealthy experience moving through the world as though they’re in aboat with a motor and a rudder. The rudder = options; the motor = motion. Poverty, on the other hand, is being in a boat with, max, one out of two. You can go quickly (but not steer), or you can steer, but make no progress. When you have both motion and options, you    move    forward. When you don’t have both, you don’t.

Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.

“Motion” and “forwardness” are made possible by resources. Money is one of them. Others include, but are not limited to: community, lifestyle training, social training, health, looks, mentorship, mental stability, psychological stability, perspective, sense of self-efficacy, ability to plan, and education. You can have money and have no other resources. You can have the other resources, but no money.

The more resources you have, the more you can gun the engine and steer. Wealth, aka the ability to move forward, is having so many resources that you can deftly steer the boat away from things human beings don’t like. Namely: pain, death, fear, shame, illness, violence, chaos, loneliness, humiliation, and all the petty predators swimming around looking for easy prey. Poverty is not being able to steer away.  (Footnote: geek definition)

The wealthy are people who have gotten so good at navigating away from those things, that they almost never encounter them anymore. Families who have been wealthy for several generations, have often forgotten they exist. But, they still do exist. They haven’t gone anywhere. They are the default state for most of the world. And if God forbid you ever become poor, they’ll be happy to see you again. The world hasn’t changed. You have.

Poverty is not money. Take the first entry in this series. What makes a smart, driven person try to solve their problems by writing comforting words in white chalk on a white wall? Which so pathetically, flagrantly, obviously will not help? Because they honestly think that of all the options before them, that’s their best bet. That is the secret. That feeling, that moment. That’s poverty.

Not convinced yet? Still think poverty is about money? Let’s test it out. Story problem:

Use case A is a single guy with two kids, who was doing ok until some shit happened and he lost his job. Fly over him with a helicopter and air-drop him some money. Does he get out? Probably.

Use case B: same parent, but this one is third generation American poor. He has never had a stable relationship with anyone who was not poor. He has never seen people plan a future (direction) and successfully act on it (motion). Air-drop money. Does he get out? … Maybe?

Use case C: same guy, but now he has a low sense of self-worth. Why? Lots of reasons, but it doesn’t help that he’s mildly schizophrenic. He’s outside the medical system, undiagnosed, no social support. All he knows is that people think he’s weird and that inside his head, everything sucks. So he self-medicates with booze, and when he can get it, coke. Back when this guy had a job, on payday, his two kids would hide behind the sofa. Now fly over and air-drop money on that guy. How’s that going to go?

Guy A has $600. Guy C has $700. Which one is poorer? Choose A, B or C.

Lots of people go through a period of time when they don’t have money. That’s not the same as not having motion or options. So when I say “poverty,” World of Wealth, I don’t mean someone who went through a rough patch after undergrad. I mean someone whose plight scares the living shit out of you. That person over there in the corner that it hurts to look at. That is who we’re talking about. That is the poor person you’re trying to help. That’s who’s here, reading your articles, on your forums, in your internets. If you want to work with us to solve poverty, which you so clearly do, then look it in the eye. Look us in the eye.

Big problems mean big conversations about big ideas. You can’t hold big ideas in one metric. Thinking big is one of the greatest luxuries of wealth. So think big.

 [Footnote: poverty in geek terms.] Sure, let’s call it “poverty,” because that’s the standard index. But really, it’s more “non-motility.” These aren’t accounting-class deficits, they’re physics deficits. Newtonian poverty: no energy, potential or kinetic. The opposite of immotility is velocity: speed and direction. That’s wealth.

Point #4: Poverty is not one single thing.


Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.

Use cases A, B and C above are different types of poverty with different traits and dynamics. There are many, many more than that. Since poverty is a lack of resources, and there are a lot of different types of resources, there are one heck of a lot of types of poverty. Yet another type of poverty would include the Russian nesting doll of the developing world, with the thousands of different poverties that contains.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the developing world, talking to people. Lots of things are really different from our poverty in the first world. The main difference, to my eye, is that if you’re poor in Nigeria, everybody pretty much agrees that it’s probably because you’re in Nigeria. We here in the first world, don’t have that excuse. So for the sake of this four-part series, I’ll focus on the first world. (1)

And while we’re defining things, for the sake of this series, there is no “middle class.” Just “wealthy” and “poor.” Oversimplification? Totally. Wealth isn’t a set of categories, it’s a continuous spectrum. It’s not two classes (poor, and wealthy), it’s not even three (poor, wealthy, and middle class). It’s complicated.

But, words are way better than no words, so for the rest of this entry, we’ll just have to use them badly. For this series, “wealthy” means anybody who isn’t “poor.”

Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.

Are poor people good people? Or are they dumb, lazy jerks? The debate rages. Which is true?


Buckle your seatbelts, folks. Both are true.

Poor people are not only one way. We are people. Just like you, we have our share of garden-variety assholes, with no brains, drive, or morals. And, just like you, we have pillars of strength, kindness and wisdom who will go to any length, no matter how absurd, in order to be decent to each other. Some of us are extremely driven: our boats may be broken, but our motors are nuts.

There are different types of poor people. Some poor people, like Linda Tirado, even get out. Part of what affected me most about the response to Tirado’s article, was seeing the specific factors used to debunk her. For example: she speaks multiple languages, and has had some modicum of success in her career. She now owns a home, and has visited Las Vegas on vacation. She has been educated.

Linda is getting somewhere with life. She’s educated. Therefore, she can’t be poor. Right? She can’t ever have been poor.


You might think you’re a member of swimlane 2, the “poor people are good people” camp. But you might not be. Take a hard look, in the privacy of your own head. You don’t have to tell anyone what you see. We all have it. I have it too. It’s in our wiring. Check out this cognitive bias: The Just World Hypothesis. It’s the pervasive, ubiquitous human tendency to try to see the universe as fair. For the universe to be fair, poor people must deserve what they get. If poor people deserve poverty, they must be flawed. It’s written into our very neural code to think so.

It’s vile, but it’s real and it’s there. So we have to keep an eye on it, or it creeps into everything.

(1) That’s why I talk mainly about the first world here, not because I think it’s more important than developing world poverty. I don’t think it’s more important, I just think we’re going to need the home team advantage for this one. If we learn from it, that should help us make headway globally.

The Four-New Yorkshiremen Ritual

Multiple factors, multiple poverties, multiple personality types. Well, this is starting to get complicated. Let’s take a 3-minute comedy break.

This is the Monty Python sketch “The Four Yorkshiremen,” which deliciously illustrates a stereotypical old-wealth ritual: competing for who used to have it hardest. Myself, I don’t see this one so often anymore. What I do see, nowadays, is the opposite of that old routine. It’s a ritual enacted by swimlane 2 just before ending the conversation.


In it, we go around the room and take turns establishing how easy we each had it, and how much we had going for us, and how, therefore, we really have no right to talk about poverty. I call it: The Four New Yorkshiremen.

It’s another extension of ye olde Oppression Olympics: the more you have, the less you’re supposed to talk. It’s bizarre to me, because all day long, I hear people boldly hold forth about things they’re not authorities on. I hear about the Middle East conflict from 8th graders. I hear about what America is like, (constantly in fact,) from people who have never lived anywhere else. We talk anyway, because we want to see what happens when we talk.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when people acknowledge there’s a part of life they don’t know about. It’s literally the only way to learn. The problem is that it stops there.

Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.

This “we’re not qualified” ritual is an expression of helplessness. Rituals grow on systems like barnacles when systems stop evolving. Systems stop evolving when they work well enough, or when they are stuck. Wealth distribution doesn’t work well. It’s stuck. And the worst thing about this is that people assume it’s stuck because nobody cares.

No, we all care. Everybody cares. One, wealthy people really do personally care about the poor having miserable lives. On top of that, wealthy people care about how even with poor people living miserably all over the damn place, we’re about to crash the planet into a brick wall. Back in the day, wealthy people truly believed they were superior. But, those people made idiots of themselves and got murdered a lot, so we’ve backed down from that cliff, thank god. We really do want to give people what they need and see what they can do with it. We just can’t figure out where to put our energy in to get an acceptable result out the other side.

The human mind, however miraculous, is filled with all kinds of bugs called “cognitive biases,” which basically roll up to mean “ways in which humans are bad at thinking.” One thing humans are especially bad at making sense of, are problems with lots and lots and lots of factors. They’re “wicked problems”; when the human brain sees them, it just kinda runs screaming in the other direction. Poverty is one of these: there are many poverties, made of many factors, stimulating many human responses, some of which are sad and creepy. All of this creates a fascinating mosaic of countless unique, crystalline snowflakes of depressing shit and there isn’t a brain in the house that wants to look at it.

The lack of apparent engagement about poverty
is not a sign that people are selfish jerks.
It’s a software glitch.
Accusing people of being assholes, just because they aren’t doing anything
just makes them feel bad
it doesn’t make them more useful.

As a human race, we just haven’t got a bead on the resource distribution problem. It’s over our heads, it’s intimidating, so people shut down.

The conversation is stuck because individual people are stuck. And people are stuck for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that everyone is freaking out. When somebody opens their mouths to talk about it, somebody else rips their freaking head off and spits down their neck hole.

This conversation isn’t working for anyone. Let’s don’t have it anymore. Let’s start with what we should be talking about.


First World Poverty Solved in Four Words

(or: What we should be talking about)


Thus far, we have covered:

Section 1: Introductions: who I am and why I care about this.

Section 2:
 What we are talking about when we talk about poverty, including:

– A handy flowchart diagram of the current poverty dialogue
 Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.
– Point #2: Poverty is not about money.
– Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.
– Point #4: Poverty is not one thing.
     – Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.
     – Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.
– Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.

Which brings us to section 3: what we should be talking about when we talk about poverty. In this episode, I’ll present “The Moderator’s Official 4-Word Solution to Poverty.”

Numb and Number

Every time I see an article about poverty, it’s followed by a number. Numbers are an incredibly useful neurological convenience. They are a way of compressing truth into one single, universal icon, which transcends language and culture. But, as such, they are “low bandwidth”, in that they can’t carry much information.

Poverty is not money, but we reduce it to money for a reason. We don’t talk about the real big-picture poverty because basically we aren’t smart enough. Humans can’t hold the whole thing in our heads. And, we can’t do much about that. Computers help, but not nearly enough. We are nowhere near to understanding the large-scale systems of poverty.

So, to keep from going nuts, we fall back on numbers. Numbers are the lens through which the World of Wealth conceives of the poor. It is the tiniest aperture that can be opened between “us” and “them,” the keyhole through which the wealthy peer at the chaotic shit show on the other side of the door. With one number, comes one poverty. Under the poverty line? You are poor. Over it? You are not. But on the other side of that numeric keyhole are a hundred thousand poverties. Their situations, their worlds, their outlooks, are entirely different. And they need different kinds of help. That is why your attempts never really do anything. You are looking for one single way to help big groups of people. It does not exist.

The only way you can help poor people is to stop lumping us together.

Q: But didn’t you just say that was basically cognitively impossible, like, three paragraphs ago?

A: Good point! Yes, I did say something that was almost, but not quite, just like that. I said it was impossible to imagine the whole of poverty at once.

Q: Well at that point you’re basically talking about a custom solution for every single poor person. Which is also impossible. Nobody could design a solution that detailed. So isn’t acknowledging that, basically the same as admitting defeat?

A: Yes, that is what I’m talking about, and no, it isn’t admitting defeat. There is an answer. It’s free and everybody can do it. And I am going to tell it to you….

Right now.


The solution to first world poverty in four words, is:

Drumroll please…

a poor person.

Yes, that is it, folks. That’s the solution to poverty. To solve poverty, you must personally know a poor person. Perfectly-tailored solutions for every individual poor person: you get to know them, and as time passes, you find different ways to help them. Problem solved.

The remarkable thing about this statement – the only thing about it, really – is that it isn’t obvious. To demonstrate, let’s break it down into its two component parts.


I mean each and every wealthy person. I do not mean just the self-selecting social workers who are paid – and not paid much, by the way – to know poor people for you.

I mean actually, personally, deeply know a poor person and let them know you, for multiple continuous years. Not encounter them during charity work. Not listen to their talks and read their books. Not say hi to them in the halls at work. Not attend their political rallies. Not donate to them.

I mean yes, obviously, do those things, they add value to the world. But even if we all get together and decide to all of us do those things way, way harder, it won’t make a visible dent in poverty. It just won’t.

…a poor person

I don’t mean “someone who makes way less money than you do,” nor “someone going through a rough patch right now.” I mean someone with so many fewer resources than you have, that you’re almost sure that if left to their own devices, they will never, ever get out and have what they need.

I’m mean you have to know someone who is so bad off, that their poverty physically upsets you. To solve poverty, you must not only know that person, but you must invest in them and become a part of their lives.

Am I blowing your mind, here?

If so… think about that.

You remember my three case studies above (A, B and C)? We talked about how they’d each respond if you flew over them in a helicopter and air-dropped money. It usually doesn’t work. The secret is to land the helicopter.

You remember my metaphor of the wealthy and poor on either side of a door, peering at each other through a keyhole made of numbers? I’m saying stop rolling up dollar bills and pushing them through the keyhole. I’m saying open the door.

Stop trying to act in bulk. We are not smart enough. In geek language: The poverty conversation has reached a point of entropy. The anti-entropic force will not be a lightning bolt, but a million simultaneous sparks. Stop trying to zoom out further. Zoom in.

Not policy. Not charity. Actual human contact. It’s free. It’s 100% achievable. It is, literally, a custom solution for every single poor person. This should be nothingright?

Well, for some reason, it isn’t “nothing.” If it were nothing, we’d be doing it by now. But we aren’t.

There are very few bridges in the social network diagram mapping Poverty World to the World of Wealth. There are very few synapses connecting these lobes of the global brain. The ones that are there, are massively overtaxed and screaming under the load. The Peace Studies majors living full time in slums. The teachers who go into the public school system and emerge 5 years later, 20 years older. The notorious free clinic doctors who work 16 hours a day and make nothing. These are the social bridges: the desperately-strained saints and martyrs to our failure to know how to speak to one another. This is the tiny handful of heroic folks who make a kamikaze dash through the door and wind up embedded on the other side, entrenched in Poverty World, slowly letting it take over their entire lives and thoughts, and getting fewer and fewer invites to World of Wealth parties.

Point #6: The solution to first world poverty is to know a poor person.

I know this from experience. It took a personal investment of 5 World of Wealth citizens to bring me, personally, all the way out of poverty. They’re people who I met along the way, who I hit it off with, who happened to have a socio-economic status at least five levels above mine. I’ve met a lot of people in that tier, but these folks were different. Specifically, they weren’t scared off by the fact that I was in a desperate situation, and would be in one for a long time. We saw something in one another, and we decided mutually to invest in each other.

I think of them as friend-mentors – “friend-tors,” how about. They didn’t let me move into their houses or shower me with money. They simply talked to me. They hung out. Sure, they’d buy me dinner once in a while, or help out now and then with a random medical bill. But mostly, they spent many hours helping me troubleshoot my broken rudder (meaning, to help me find better options). In return, if I may say so myself, I spiced up their lives a hell of a lot. I hate to say it, but poor people are way funnier than wealthy people, and we throw better parties. When we are happy, we are so very alive. Ever been to one of our churches? It’s a whooole different scene.

We help you wealthy folks remember that life matters & the stakes are real. We take so much pleasure from the things you’ve gotten so used to. Poor people are holding a live wire, and when you get close to us, we wake you up.

And, yes. It makes a huge difference for the poor person, too. Without my five friend-tors, I would not now be speaking at conferences, or spending my (entire) winter vacation blogging about poverty. What I’d be doing instead, is being dead. I’d actually be dead three times by now, if I count them, in three different ways. I’m not exaggerating. You know who you are, guys.

Thank you.

So, to put it mildly: I, the Moderator of Will Someone Please Address, recommend this method.

To move the needle on poverty, and just generally to be complete and well-rounded human beings, poor people and wealthy people must physically know one another. The problem is not that the poor are poor. The problem is that the poor are outsiders. The only way to help an outsider, is to let them inside. Touch the untouchables. Make them a part of your lives.

Just that easy. And just that hard.

Point #7: Human beings don’t just think with our brains; we also think with our guts.

Poverty is old. And some of the reactions we have to it are old, like, animal old. The parts of you that want to kill, possess, eat, and mate. They’re raw and real and they are in no way pretty. So, it’d be much more polite of me if I didn’t bring them up. And yet I’m totally going to. FYI, if you like that kind of thing, then you’re going to love this blog.  : D

I shall now endeavor to take you on a brief journey through the spooky-yet-whimsical M. Night. Shyamalan movie that is the deep human unconscious. Let’s hold hands and make it quick. In this segment, we will cover:

– Four awkward things about communicating with poor people
– Five pointers for communicating with wealthy people
– Five ways to maintain a good friend-torship relationship across lines

To the WoW: Four awkward things about talking to poor people

1. Poor people give the wealthy a case of the screaming heebie-jeebies.

The emotional brain, the animal brain, operates on instincts that are by definition preverbal. They are “scents” – nuance we collect through our many, many subtle social senses like empathy, micro-expressions, body language perception, and even physical scent. People can literally smell each other’s emotions, and they’re contagious (Huffington Post write-up). Both literally and figuratively, we can smell poverty on people. Every blood-level instinct we have says to move away from it.

You remember my metaphor of wealth as being in a boat with a rudder (options) and a motor (motion). Well, there are shades of grey to wealth, too. The wealthier you are, the more your boat is like a yacht, and the bigger it is, the more status you have with other wealthy people. If it gets big enough, you join a metaphorical yacht club and everyone stands around in their Members Only jackets admiring how your yacht has a bigger motor (motion) and better turning radius (options). This means that the wealthy pride themselves on, and gain social standing from, their ability to access options and avoid hardship.

That’s what wealth culture is all about: skipping merrily away from the great sea monsters of this mortal coil, e.g.: pain, death, fear, violence, loss, shame, chaos, loneliness, etc. The flip side of that is that you never get used to those things. They are huge, mysterious phantoms, slithering ominously through the abyss. For us, they’re not “mysterious phantoms.” For us, they are “weekday mornings.”

So if you want to know a poor person, you’ve got to do the thing you never intentionally do. You’ve got to steer towards the smell of pain & misfortunate. You must disengage the ship’s autopilot. Crazy? No. Pain does not literally mean “stay away.” Pain is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Humans feel pain. It’s a symptom us not getting what we need. Pain is normal. For everyone. And it is way, way more normal for people with no resources.

“Avoid pain and failure” is in our programming. Which is fine. Until it means “avoid an entire class of people.”

You cannot both friend-tor a poor person and shield your eyes from the dark side of life. Even if you could, frankly, you shouldn’t. In appropriate doses, frankly, seeing real hardship is good for you. Being too sheltered makes people soft and irrelevant. If you don’t remember what poverty tastes like, get out your teaspoon now and then and have a little taste of the abyss. There’s nothing impossible or dangerous about doing it. It’s just extremely counterintuitive.


When you reach out and make contact with a poor person’s life, you will get your hands dirty. Don’t resist that. Go towards it. Ask poor people about what it’s like to be poor. When you find out, don’t ostracize them because of it. Quit with the “Outcast, Unclean” subtext. Remember that impoverished people don’t have control over their environments, and that means they’re one step closer to the primordial soup. Be ready to repeatedly face sexuality, passion, sickness and cruelty. Don’t change the subject. Don’t make up and, like, crazily insist upon some easy solution in order to make yourself feel better. Learn to become ok with things not being ok. You must be strong about this. If you can’t be ok with things not being ok, you will never genuinely know a poor person. That’s what poverty is.

2. Poor people want money from you, and if you don’t give it to them, you kinda get the feeling they hate you.

WoW, I put it to you that you are not that excited about giving poor people money, and there’s a perfectly valid reason for that. You don’t want to give it, because it doesn’t work. You see that. There is no point in giving $500 to that poor bastard on the street corner. It won’t get him out. You know it. You already know in your bones that money can’t fix poverty.

How do I know you know this? I know it because if it worked, you would do it. Giving money is the only thing anyone really suggests you do, so it’s all you can think of, and then you feel like a jerk for not wanting to do it. You care about that guy. I’ve seen the look on your face. You’re horrified by your own powerlessness. If you could genuinely help him by giving him $500, you would.

Poor people are also duped by this “poverty is money” social fiction, so they really, really want you to give them some. They want help a lot, so they ask for money. A lot. It’s awkward and it won’t fix anything, so in the end you move back from them so they’ll stop.

3. Poor people want to scream at you about how shitty it is to be poor.

Poor people are always like “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH POVERTY SUCKS, LET ME TELL YOU AGAIN” and then you’re like: Holy crap your intensity is…. Intense, but I still have no idea how to help you. And then poor people are like all “IF YOU CARED AT ALL YOU WOULD DO SOMETHING, YOU RAGING ASSHOLES,” and then you’re all Aaaa.

It’s a lot of raw emotion to deal with, especially when you’re not sure you can actually help, no matter what you do.

The thing is, you can help, just by sticking around. Even when you get uncomfortable. If you want your friend-tor to simmer down before talking to you about something, you know what? Just say so. It’s good practice for us anyway.

4. Poor people seem to make a lot of bad decisions, so it’s hard to know who to champion.

Yes, that’s true. When you have no options (rudder), you choose from what’s in front of you. The choice isn’t usually ideal. If it were, you’d be someone with options, and then you wouldn’t be poor. Watching that from a distance, it might look like the person is crazy. Furthermore, it might look like they’re not even trying very hard. As one of our WSPA members reminded me, boats also leak. The whole time you’re trying to pilot that hoopdie boat, you’re also bailing water out. From a distance, it might look like they’re just sitting here.

So, close the distance. That’s all there is to it.

To the PoW: Five pointers for communicating with wealthy people

Ok, World of Poverty: I’m going to say some things to you that will sound totally insane. They are insane. They are in fact almost impossible for you. But if you can do them, you’ll have 10x more success communicating with the wealthy. This is one of those impossible things that’s worth doing. If you communicate successfully, there is a much higher chance they’ll invest in you.

1. Stop screaming at them.

You know how it seems like nobody wants to hear what you’re saying? Well, I’ve been there. I’ve tried the literary device of screaming at people quite a bit myself, and as much as I hate to say it, it’s not working for us. It does nothing but freak them out, break their hearts, and turn their heads away.

This is because the wealthy don’t live all day long with screaming people and emotions, like you do. As I said earlier, poor people are used to a lot of tough shit that the wealthy never really deal with. They’ve had lots of societal training you haven’t had, it’s true. But if you work it right, you can get some of that. You, however. You have something they will never have. I’ve heard military basic training referred to as “stress innoculation.” It trains you to be ready to handle chaos, emotion, & the desperate situations of a battle. As a poor person, you are getting that basic training. So, if and when you get out, you have some powerful tools in your belt. You’ve been taught to hold yourself strong, to fight for what you want, to constantly create solutions out of nothing. Imagine having that ability in a world where life usually works for you, instead of against you. As silly as it sounds: it’s a superpower in their world. I really mean it. And it doesn’t go away when you get here, either. On this side, for you, it’s aaaaall moon gravity.


WoW lives don’t usually feature screaming. So don’t scream at them. When you scream, they panic. We need them not to panic. We need them to think. We need them period, man. I’m here to tell you: yes, they’re softer creatures than we are. Being a softer creature is something we resent and long for. But they’re good people. They truly do want to help us. They just don’t know what to do.

So simmer down, a lot, before talking about what you and your community need. Scream, if you must, but do it in a different room. It isn’t easy, but, I’ve gotta tell ya. It’s been working really well for me.

2. Never ask for money.

I realize this sounds insane.

They have money. You need money. You have a wealthy friend, therefore it is insane to not ask for money. But you need so much more than money. So. So much more. Don’t be fooled by that keyhole view. This is not about money. This is about human contact. You need a real, living, breathing human being to stay in your life, learn your situation, and commit to you. They will teach you so much – about how to open doors, gain credibility & gracefully navigate the weird culture of wealth. They’ll show you what you’re good at and help you get better at it. They’ll show your skills off to other people. They’ll open your eyes to options you didn’t realize were available to you. You can’t buy that shit.

For whatever reason, asking your wealthy friend for money breaks the relationship. It isn’t because they don’t want to help you. You need that connection alive. Don’t reduce the relationship to money. It is so much more.

3. Forgive yourself and hold yourself accountable at the same time.

The secret shame of the impoverished is that most of us hate what poverty has made of us. When you don’t have options, you choose from what’s in front of you. Sometimes, all the options are bad. And once in a while, you have to live with sacrificing your pride or your standards, or sinking below your moral threshold. You do things you would not do.

Being poor doesn’t make you a good person and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do, is cause you temporary brain damage. I am not exaggerating. Here is a forty-minute podcast by This American Life that presents a lot of easily-intelligible research about what poverty does to your ability to think and behave the way you want to. Everyone should know this information. If you are really poor, you, specifically, need to know about this. Consider listening to it even though it’s really long. When I first heard it, I shed tears.

Poor people: keep your head up. You might say to yourself: I’m better than this. And you’re right. You are. You’re smarter, you’re more together, you are kinder than life allows you to be. You will come out of poverty with physical debt, and probably moral debt. You do what you do. But you are not that bad choice. You are a human being. Hold your head up. You are not broken. Show ‘em all.

People will believe what you think about yourself, if you think it with conviction. I don’t know why. But it’s scary powerful. So if you don’t want them to give up on you, don’t you give up on you, either.

4. Be patient.

One of the things that sucks about severe poverty is that it hampers your ability to track time. The acute stress response (fight or flight mode) is about dealing with whatever bullshit is being served up right now. There is no past or future for you. There is just this endless oily wrestle with the now; sometimes it goes down, but it never stays down. Time is one of the great, awesome languages of the wealthy. They literally perceive it differently. They can imagine how long it takes to get out of poverty, but you can’t. You can’t hold it in your brain. So have faith, and have patience.

Patience? Patience is insane. You are not ok today, and you have no control over anything, so how will you be ok tomorrow? It’s absurd. But still: do it. It’s impossible. But do it. Your job is to eat impossible for breakfast.

5. Get back up.

If you’re cutting your psychological losses and you can only save one thing, the rudder or the motor: save the motor.

When your friend-tor sees you for who you are, and chooses to invest in you, look them in the eye. You might fuck up in front of them. That happens. Hold your head up and try again. They don’t need you to be perfect. They just need you to throw yourself in and try, over and over again. Nobody can do this for you. They can only help you do it.

The only thing you have to do to get out, is try again. And again. No matter how bad it gets, and no matter how many times you fail. Try again. I know life is totally overwhelmingly complicated. But when it comes all the way down to the dirty old ground, you only have to remember one thing:

When you try something new,
you always fall down.
When you fall down, get back up
and learn something

If you’re not falling down, you’re not moving. Fall down, get back up, and learn.

There are no guarantees. It takes a very long time. And I’m not going to lie to you. It sucks. If you want out, there is no easy. But it is a whole hell of a lot easier if you’ve got some friends.

So when the WoW come to your door, try to meet them halfway. They’re weird. And possibly insane. I do get that. But let them be who they are. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even return the favor.

Five ways to maintain a good friend-torship relationship across lines

So you’re sold, and now you want to do this. How?

For the WoW:

    • Initiate. This relationship starts with you. We both know we can’t approach you for this. You must come to us.
    • When choosing someone to friend-tor, pick someone who still has a motor. The stronger the better. They won’t have a rudder; they have no resources. They may look like they’re spinning in circles. But damn it, they’re doing it hard.
    • Pace yourself. This isn’t something you can do in an hour or a month. It takes many years. So take it slow. Don’t just jump out of your fabulous boat into the water with a knife in your teeth and start wrestling sea monsters. Do the work, then go home, so you can come back again later. Have boundaries.

For the PoW:

    • Don’t just take just any friend-tor. This is important. Choose a friend-tor who is happy and who doesn’t want anything from you but your friendship. They should be surrounded by friends and family who trust them. They should introduce you to more people like them, and help you get oriented when they do so. Not least of all, you should like them. Pick someone who makes your life easier instead of harder. If they cause you drama or try to exploit you, cut ‘em loose.

For everybody:

    • Actually have fun together. Friend-torship works because you like each other. Go see a movie. Meet each other’s friends. Hang out at the PoW person’s house once in a while, even if the WoW’s is way better. Go to PoW parties (no, seriously, do). And, WoW – take ‘em to dinner once in a while. Someplace nice.

All of which actually sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? It is nice. It’s not easy, it’s often quite challenging for both sides. Challenge is good for people. Difference is good for people. But it is more than good for people. It reverses the lobotomy we’ve given the human race.

Point #8: God damn it, we need each other. 

For example: wealthy, you know how there’s this thing where you have lots of resources, so you’re always casually using them whenever you want something? Well, guess what? Poor people don’t have those. So, we make the most of what we have by using fewer resources. It’s actually, literally our entire deal. I put it to you that you guys just do not have training in making the most of your resources. Sometimes, you even fail to notice huge piles of resources that are sitting right under your nose. For example: us. We are the other hemisphere of the global brain.

WoW, look past our situation, and see our strength. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of poor people out there who will do absolutely anything to get out of poverty, including change the world. Am I right, Poverty World? Ever sucked your last drop of ingenuity out of a dry rag to figure out how to turn a dead car into a medical service, speak politely to your tyrant asshole neighbor despite having, what, 3 hours of sleep, complete five hours of work in thirty minutes, heal four broken hearts and make a buck while doing it? Sound like last Wednesday? AwesomeNow picture yourself with safety. Sanity. Rest. Some self-respect, how does that sound? A couple of bullshit weekends a month where you never actually do anything because you totally don’t need to. And one hell of a lot of social and academic education. I’m telling you. Superpowers.


Neither worldview is complete on its own. Neither is accurate. PoW and WoW are halves of a whole. We are hemespheres of the mind. We should speak to each other. That is how we get a vaguely egalitarian society. There is no other choice. We live in catastrophic economic disparity, or we talk to each other. We each choose. You choose.

So, which is it? Go big? Or go home?

My money’s on go big.”

Therefore: I declare an official end to the Four New Yorkshiremen Ritual. It is done. Poof! It’s over.

Point #9: I officially, here in front of the entire world, give you permission to talk about poverty.

You may recall from our first entry, that I, the Moderator of Will Someone Please Address, actually do not give a fuck about Linda Tirado’s past. Well you know what? I don’t give a fuck about yours, either. If somebody tells you you aren’t qualified to speak about poverty, you tell them yes huhI bloody well say so.

I know this because I, myself, am qualified to speak about poverty. Let’s face it: in the Oppression Olympics, I took a silver. I’ve lived all over the world and I’ve talked deeply with many hundreds of people about their lives. My story’s not the worst I’ve ever heard, and it’s not the best. I’m a person. I’ve got my blinders just like everybody else. Hell, now I’ve got both poverty blinders and wealth blinders! I judge, I dismiss, I’m incredibly stubborn! I write lengthy polemics on the internet about things nobody wants to talk about! I am frequently stupid and wrong.

Nonetheless, I am here on this blog to speak about poverty and many other important and scary things. We need flawed human beings with limited visibility to talk about important things, because that’s the only kind of human beings there are. So, despite my many copious flaws and shortcomings, yes, I am qualified to speak about poverty. But vastly more important than that, is that I’m qualified to ask about poverty. I’m qualified to listen to the answers. And so are you.

So let’s do this, people. Let us set the global mind alight with thoughts, by doing nothing more or less than speaking across the lines. It’s hard. It’s huge. But you can to this. You have not given up.

You haven’t given up.

I know you haven’t.

I know it because I believe in you.

All of us must choose someone who is badly stuck and trying like hell to get out, and help them become whatever fantastic, useful thing it is that they’re trying so hard to be. That’s the big secret. Each of us must choose someone to believe in.

Internet: I choose you.

This entire article in three sentences and one picture.

I, personally, don’t think we can solve poverty by bucketing poor people into two groups and summarizing them with a number. I do think we can solve poverty by literally, personally knowing one another and learning to communicate.


“All of which is great, but what can I actually, physically do right now about poverty?”



How about this. How about the following totally mellow, free, achievable thing.

So, look, I’m a geek. I watch my blog referrals. Looks like the vast majority of WSPA’s traffic is coming from Facebook. Not twitter, not other blogs: Facebook. I like that. It tells me the folks who post this thing, do it where they can talk about it with people they know. I think that’s fantastic. The Facebook conversations I can see, teach me a lot. But, I can’t see most of them.


If you find your own Facebook thread cooking up something interesting… why not turn your Facebook conversation into a Branch, like the ones on this blog (scroll down). It’s a tool that lets specific groups of people have conversations in public. Branch is easy to use, and free. You can use a twitter account or an email address. You can limit a Branch to just the people you invite (which I recommend). You can share a link to your conversation with other people who are having it too, and let your ideas collide. If you want extra bonus points, you can include one or two real, actual poor people, who still poor, and ask them what they need.

You can even send those conversations to me. If you’re following the basic codes of conduct of this blog, I’ll even link to them here. Hell, if you like where they’re going, or you want some feedback – you can invite me to them. My time is real limited, but honestly, if there were too many productive conversations about poverty going on for me to help with, frankly, I think that’d be amazing.

Shrug. Consider it a challenge. Some prompts to play with:

  1. What other ideas do the wealthy/poor have about each other that are wrong, harmful, and pointless?
  2. What are some successful ways that the wealthy find a poor person, specifically one with some fight left in them, and meet them? Also, how can that kind of person become more findable?
  3. Once you’re connected: how do you keep it from blowing up in your face? Have you ever friend-tored someone who was really bad off? What did you learn?

All right, party people, let’s get out of here. I thank you for your time. I’m taking a break. Talk amongst yourselves.

Not vent. Not react. Talk.



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Brosie the Riveter

This was originally published as a guest post on the Hawkeye Initiative.

Thanks, Skjaldmeyja.

I work with an all-female team of data scientists, in the gaming industry. This makes me the professional equivalent of Amelia Earhart riding the Loch Ness Monster.

I love my job. Our company in particular is great. Firstly, our game (HAWKEN) is beautiful and people love it. Secondly, half of our executive branch is female. Half of them are punk rock, and all of them are badassed. Our gender awareness standards, compared to the industry at large, are top shelf. We are talking Amelia Earhart in Atlantis, at a five star resort, getting a mani-pedi from Jensen Ackles. I have it good.

For the last six months of my tenure at Meteor Entertainment, there has been only one thing I did not love about my job. This picture:


Our CEO loves this picture. It is to all appearances his favorite piece of comic art for the game. He had it blown up poster-sized, framed, and displayed on the out-facing wall of his office. There, it looms over the front room like a ship’s figurehead. It is the first thing workers and visitors see when they enter the building and the last thing they see when they leave. This little lady’s undermeats have been the open- and close- parens to my work world for the last six months.

I loathe this picture.

Why do I loathe it? How, you ask, can I stay mad at a sweet young belle who has so obviously taken a break from her important welding to offer me apiping hot cup of coffee and/or a vigorous hand job? (And probably, given her apparent safety consciousness, simultaneously?) If you don’t already know the answer, you might want to check out things like #1ReasonWhy, and the Bechdel Test, and also this, and this, and this and this, and all these other things. (And while we’re talking you should check out this other bullshit right here.)

So at our office holiday party, while our CEO was having everyone in the company sign it, I stand there grinding my teeth into tiny shards. Until, suddenly, it came to me: a vision.

And so it came to be that I approached Sam Kirk, a wickedly funny co-worker who shared my sentiment. Sam, turns out, is a very talented artist who can be bribed-slash-inspired using a medley of feminist indignation, hysterical giggling, and two $90 bottles of añejo tequila.

A month-and-a-half later, our vision was a reality. I give you:
Bro-sie The Riveter.


I want to make it completely clear that everything in this prank that required actual talent was done by Sam. Find this, and more of Sam’s art, at

We blew (ahem) Brosie up poster sized. We framed him. And then, at 7:30 on Monday, April 1st, we snuck into our CEO’s office and switched them.

I stood in the entryway, dizzy with joy. It was glorious. There Brosie stood, proud, nipples testing the air like young gophers in springtime, the post-apocalyptic breeze gently swaying his banana hammock. Brosie said, loud and proud: “Get ready, world! I am here to lubricate your joints and tighten your socket.”

I basically spend the next few hours having a joy-induced neurological episode.

As the morning progressed, Brosie (ahem) revealed himself to our co-workers. The air resounded with startled, suppressed gargles of mingled joy and horror.  Some take pictures. Some instantly turn and flee. Several men blush and grin in vindicated solidarity. Several women ask us for prints. At this point I am in total rapture. This is the moment I have been dreaming about for six months.

Yet somehow everyone in the office manages to keep quiet about it. Until, finally, our CEO arrives.

We hear a loud: “What the hell is this?!” And then all goes quiet. Ten minutes pass. We panic.

We are both suddenly and painfully aware that we have, in fact, just punked the CEO of our company. He is by all accounts an awesome dude. He is also a late-50s ex-army guy who happens to determine our employment futures in an at-will state. Meep.

Twenty more minutes pass. And then our CEO comes up to my desk, taps me on the shoulder, and says this:

“That was a brilliant prank. You called me on exactly the bullshit I need to be called on. I put up pictures of half-naked girls around the office all the time and I never think about it. I’m taking you and Sam to lunch. And after that, we’re going to hang both prints, side by side.”


Ruby Underboob and Brosie the Riveter, together at last

Yeah. That happened.

This wonderful experience has taught me two things that I hope to carry with me for the rest of my career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and in gaming. It taught me this:

  1. Lots of men (like Sam) are already sympathetic to the stupid, constant crap women put up with in gaming/STEM, and they are ready and willing to call that crap onto the carpet.
  2. And, most importantly, many of the guys who are behind that stupid, constant crap are totally decent, open-minded human beings who just don’t realize they’re doing it. You know how sometimes you don’t realize how much you and your girlfriend are talking about shoes or menstruation until some dude walks into the room? Well sometimes guys don’t realize how much they’re talking about titties.

We just haven’t been around enough for them to notice.

There is only one solution to that, ladies. Bust out your baby-Gap tee and your protective welding goggles, and let’s turn this damn industry into the environment we want it to be. It’s hard work, and yes, there are a couple genuine assholes along the way. But if Ruby Underboob can brave the occasional droplet of molten metal, so can we.

Speaking from experience, it’s worth it.



Information must move. 

About our CEO, Mark Long:

Mark has a long and storied history with, among other things, research, games and comic art. He’s a partner in the RoqlaRue gallery in Seattle, representing “chick art.” Mark considers himself a feminist activist. He is proud to have created a graphic novel trilogy with Nick Sagan (Carl’s son) that features a female hero so strong, Hillary Swank is attached to star as her.

Mark and I are now in an open dialogue about gender in comics and gaming.

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