This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 5

Hey, you! Welcome to December. Is yours off to a good start? The weather has been pleasantly wintry in LA all week (as far as wintry Southern California weather goes). And I was delighted to watch my Green Bay Packers play in a game featuring lots of snow. Snow angels included. That’s as close as I’m going to get this year to the white Christmases of my childhood. I’ll take it.

I was also extremely delighted to find out shortly after the game that the Dakota Access Pipeline construction is being halted and rerouted. A huge victory for Native Americans and other peaceful protesters. This could be a major turning point. Though it’s just the beginning for a better relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government, and for breaking our fossil fuel dependency and the future of the climate. So much to do still.

Here are some other things from this week you may find interesting…

Social media could be a powerful tool for good, but right now it’s too much like television.

Over-planning your free time can take the fun out of it.

ICYMI: The Baby Groot Movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser Trailer

Warming global temperatures may release a lot of carbon from the soil. Everything is connected. We’re setting off some dangerous feedback loops.

Ever wonder whether a fake Christmas tree or a real one is better for the environment?

Looks like Apple is going to make a (self-driving) car after all.

Give it up for an invention that meets a real need. Well done.

How about that? Raising the minimum wage works out pretty good for communities. Let’s do that nationally, yeah?

If the holiday season has you in the mood to be generous, these are some of the best charities you can donate to.

Have a great week!

Presents

After World War I, mass production was on a roll in the United States. Assembly-lines had been vitally used for the production of tanks, planes, ammunition and more. After the war ended, millions of personal goods were able to be produced through the same efficient assembly process. Corporations were worried about overproduction.

Up until that time, the average person bought things primarily on need. Necessity, functionality, and durability. What would happen when nearly every person had all of the things they need? How would stuff continue to be sold if most everyone felt like they had enough?

Business executives realized they would have to transform the way people think in order to keep turning a profit. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers declared, “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire—to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

A new desires-based culture took shape in a short amount of time. An anonymous journalist declared in 1927 that, “a change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” Thanks in large part to the propaganda techniques of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the masses were effectively manipulated into buying things they didn’t need. It’s more subtle than ever. From Bernays to today there has been an active effort on the part of businesses, media, and others to nudge you into fulfilling desires with stuff. This is what keeps the gears of our economy turning.

Black Friday is nearly here. It’s the perfect storm of the tradition of gift-giving during the holidays and modern consumerism. You’ve probably already seen enticing deals over the last few days. In 2015, American holiday retail sales totaled over $626 billion. Whether it’s out of nostalgia, a desire to be generous or seen as generous, a sense of obligation to do what everyone else is, getting a little something for yourself, or otherwise, we all collectively spend an absurd amount of money during the holiday season.

We have allowed too much room for wants in a world of needs. We get nudged from all directions and spend without much pushback or critique. It would be banal to point out the major, persistent human problems that could be fixed with $626 billion. But I’m sure that you can think of a handful. What if we addressed some of those problems instead of keeping the consumerist machine running?

I often wonder how many people have been sucked into maxing out credit cards or the promise of layaway because they feel like there isn’t another choice but to handover hundreds of dollars this time of the year. But after a major recession less than a decade ago, with many people struggling to find full or liveable employment, who has a bank account that can keep up with the desires culture we’re tangled up in?

This holiday season, don’t be a consumer. Be a person. Consumer is too simple and loathsome for the complexity and uniqueness of who you are. The common good is not contingent on buying everyone you know something wrapped in a box with ribbon.

I love Christmas. I will shamelessly bump Christmas music at every opportunity and make and eat all of the holiday treats I can. But this season does not have to be about stuff. What are the wants on the wish list–on yours, your children’s, your significant other’s? Can we maybe indulge fewer of those?

What are the needs around you? Everyone is going through something. Tight finances, health battles, struggling to find reasons to wake up and go out in the world. Sometimes the depth of the holiday season is not the blissful cheer of cookies and carols, but the way you can humbly and simply be there for people.

Perhaps your “gift” to others this season is just to be a better human. Is there someone who could really use you taking them out to coffee and listening for awhile? Can you cook for friends or family? Can you do someone’s chores? If there’s gotta be something wrapped up with a bow, can you figure out a thing they need and will use for awhile?

If that sounds simplistic or boring, it’s likely because we’re so saturated in the culture of consuming. Being a better person is not something you can gift-wrap. Getting people things they need is not as flashy as breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be about the extra–about “packages, boxes, or bags”. When we do holidays right it’s about the people and the moment. The extra is truly extra, and we likely could do without. If you want to show someone this holiday season that you care about them, be sensitive to what they need and come alongside them. Presence, not presents.

This Week in Upgrades: November 21

It’s here, guys. Thanksgiving week. If you weren’t listening to Christmas music already the last couple weeks like me, we’re legitimately into the holiday season now. I wrote some thoughts about the holidays yesterday if you didn’t get a chance to check it out. Do you have traditions you’re looking forward to? Favorite movies and music? Places you’ll go? Are there people and things you miss that are no longer around?

Here’s the best that I could find on the Internet this week. Check them out in-between the dishes you’re cooking.

Nature at its most intense. A reminder that safety is not guaranteed.

We all really need to move beyond identity politics.

Some Native American tribes are reviving indigenous crops, and it’s much more than a food fad.

Speaking of food, vegetables may be your secret weapon against illness this winter.

Is now finally the right time for electric cars?

Breakthrough success is not about waiting until you’re old enough. Get going!

CRISPR has been used on humans for the first time. The start of a new era of medicine.

If you’re still trying to make sense of the election, this is worth checking out.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that excessive screen time can rewire youngsters’ brains. “I would minimize it.”

Weekly global warming alarm bells: the North Pole is 36 degrees above normal and Arctic sea ice is at a record low.

National Bird looks like a must-see documentary.

“Post-truth” is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. I’ve got some thoughts on what’s true and how we know in a post coming soon.

Have a wonderful week and Thanksgiving! (if you celebrate it).

 

How to Adult: Holidays

Los Angeles has, at most, two seasons. There’s a sunny and hot one, and a sunny and slightly cooler one. There are very few days with rain. Few days that are even overcast from morning to night. On most days out of the year, it could be any month if you weren’t looking at the calendar.

This was quite an adjustment for me. I spent nearly 25 years growing up in Wisconsin where there are four clearly defined seasons. You can watch and feel the transitions from one to the next. The summer thunderstorms. The colorful fall leaves. The first flakes of snow. The plants climbing out of the spring dirt.

These natural beats mark time throughout the year. They give you a sense of the change as time passes. Yet also a sense of rhythm and familiarity as many of the same beats happen from one year to the next. The more true seasons and seasonal signifiers, the more connected to time we feel.

We, humans, have added to nature our own markers through the year: holidays. In the United States as recently as the 1830s, there were only Independence Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Christmas. Since then, we’ve expanded to days like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Labor Day. And there are several more informal holidays like Super Bowl Sunday, Black Friday, and national food days for everything from Baked Alaska to leg of lamb.

Holidays give us more beats to mark time through the year. And unlike seasons, we control what holidays are and what they entail because we constructed them. Being relatively older, Thanksgiving and Christmas have particularly deep roots. If you celebrate one or both of them in your family, you’re likely to have a whole host of traditions, favorite things, and memories associated.

The foods you eat, the decorations you put up, the things you watch together, the gifts you give and how you give them, the religious rites you partake in, and more. It can go from the super specific to the broad and ineffable: from the dish that grandma works all day to make and serves at 4pm to an intangible feeling of love and warmth.

Holidays give us rhythm like seasons. You might not circle National Leg of Lamb Day on the calendar, but you undoubtedly look forward to holidays with more depth and memory–Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. They are moments and spaces in time we come back to year after year so that we can remind ourselves of who we are and what we care about. In places like the endless sunshine of Southern California, or in the distracting bustle of work, school, errands, and bills we can lose track of the passage of time, and with it our self-identity.

Holidays are pockets throughout the year that, no matter what is happening or will happen, we stop and come together with the people we care about. For at least that day, we’re making life happen instead of life happening to us. We have ways of honoring and relishing that day with others.

So as we move into Thanksgiving week and the rest of the major holiday season, spend some time reflecting on and enjoying the traditions, the favorite things, and the memories. And make some new ones!

The heaviness of the election still weighs on many. Amongst family and friends, there are starkly different political views. It happens. We should absolutely talk about those things together when it’s the right time–openly, patiently, respectfully, constructively. But before you go on a rant about who won and why the world is either saved or ending, reach out for a hug, tell them you’re thankful they’re there, and peel some vegetables for the casserole. Put on the movie or the game you all snuggle up and watch together. Reminisce about the travel obstacles you overcame in years past to be together. Grieve the emptiness left by family and friends who are no longer around to celebrate.

Time passes unceasingly. Seasons, holidays, freezing and thawing, growth and death. We never know how much time we have, but at least we have today. And once in awhile today has added layers because we’ve designated it a holiday.

Stop and take notice. Give thanks for the people around you. Embrace. Remember. Make life happen.

May you find rhythm, togetherness, and identity through the march of time.

The Common Good, Part 1

When someone says the economy, what comes to mind?

Does it feel like something that applies to your daily routine, or some kind of abstraction–a massive machine running in the background? When the nightly news talks about how the stock market performed, do you directly connect that with what’s going on in your life?

When you think about your job and your income and the things that you’re able to do when you’re not working, would you say that you’re well-off? Or do you wish that things were a bit different?

Why do we work in the first place? Why do you work where you work now (if you have a job)? There are likely a number of reasons. Some people genuinely love what they do–they keep coming back to it with eagerness every day. Others work to keep busy–maybe not in love with their labor, but busyness is better than boredom or unemployment. Still others work one or two or three (or even more) jobs simply because they’re trying to make ends meet. They don’t have a choice.

Even if you’re not in such a desperate and heartbreaking situation as working multiple jobs for low income, surely the great majority of us on some level are working to earn money. Few are those who can do what they love most or who are in such a stable financial situation that the paycheck is an afterthought. And even many of those who are quite well-off with what’s in their bank account continue to show up to work everyday to try to increase that amount.

Money–even for those who have plenty–keeps us returning to our daily grind. Why is this?

Think about what money does. Money is the way we quantify and exchange value as a collective. Increasingly, many things in the world can be bought and sold. All of those goods and services are assessed a value in terms of the dollars they’re believed to be worth or what people would be willing to spend to get them. Anyone with enough earned value–money–can quickly hand it over to acquire things. Amassing money can become an end in itself.

Money enables us to get stuff. The more money we have, the more stuff we can get. The more work we do–more hours or higher wages–the more money we have to get more stuff. More, more, more.

And there’s plenty of stuff.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans were predicted to spend over $630 billion on holiday shopping in 2015. That’s spending on stuff that’s purely for fun, in a short period of time. Through the year in 2014, the average American spent over $6,700 on food, $17,800 on housing, $1,700 on clothes, $9,000 on transportation, $4,300 on healthcare, $2,700 on entertainment, and $11,000 on numerous other things.

Each of us, over the course of a year, is spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on fast food, gas for the car, additions to our wardrobe, trips to other cities, medicines and beauty products, drinks at the bar, cleaning supplies for the house, gifts, and every other thing money buys us.

There’s a seemingly endless amount of stuff (to complement our endless pursuit of piling up more money). But what is stuff, exactly? What does it do for us?

Some stuff fills our wants. Some or most of the $630 billion for the holidays could surely be spent on a number of other more important or more meaningful things. It’s not stuff that we must have. I say that as someone who absolutely loves Christmas. I baked cookies and watched classic movies all week (Home Alone, anyone?), and there was more than one present under the tree for my wife. It’s a wonderful holiday of giving and receiving and sentiment. This isn’t about making you feel guilty for the money you spent on holiday gifts. But Christmas and the other Winter holidays don’t have to be so much about stuff. What might we be able to do together besides a drone or hoverboard for all with even $50-$100 billion of that $630 billion–one or two fewer gifts per person?

Of course, there are plenty of times when we should treat ourselves. Life would be utterly boring and incomplete if we were always calculating out and removing things that are merely pleasurable wants. Sometimes it just feels right to have some ice cream, buy a new pair of shoes, or head out for a cocktail. Go for it.

But, crucially, a lot of stuff fulfills a part of our human experience that is an actual need. It’s hard to endure without healthful food to eat, a place to live, a way to get around town, proper healthcare, and much more.

Stuff, whether it’s primarily for pleasure (want) or a fundamental necessity (need), fulfills many of the longings and requirements of being human. Stuff is important. And therefore money is important if we’re going to live comfortably. And to get an adequate amount of money we need a job of some sort.

Jobs, money, stuff, humanity. Our national conversations (in America) usually work in that order.

NEW YORK CITY - SEP 5: New York Stock Exchange closeup on Septem

Politics and political commentary is so often about the simple categories of job creation and unemployment. How many jobs were created last month? What’s the unemployment rate? If those things seem solid, apparently we’re all supposed to think the economy is good–and that each of us is in good shape then.

But if those basic metrics are out of sorts, then we start talking about money–loans, interest rates, inflation, wages, debt. Should we raise the minimum wage? The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates. Student debt is at an all time high. The dollar is weak.

If the money metrics are off, then the chatter moves to stuff. What’s the price of gas? What’s the cost of a gallon of milk? What’s the cost of tuition? Are the social programs in place working for the stuff people can’t afford themselves? Can people buy cars and houses and the rest of the American Dream?

The US leads the world with about 70% of our GDP coming from consumption–in other words, buying stuff. The way things are set up now, if people aren’t acquiring stuff, the economy is a sinking ship. Hence the strong emphasis on the jobs to have the money to get the stuff.

Rarely, if ever, do we talk about our human condition–the deepest, fragile, most profound part at the heart of the whole thing. All of the needs and wants–the ones we all share, and the ones that are unique to each of us individually–that define who we are. No human condition, no humans. No humans, no community.

When you think about the economy, do you think about this?

What if we started there and went in the other direction? Humanity, stuff, value, work. What if stuff, our system of value, and work were all concentric circles that always had to support and strengthen the humanity at the core? What if governments and public policy started not from securing and expanding a free market and gargantuan financial institutions, but basic human needs and desires?

Now that could be interesting.

Perhaps it would change everything about how we understand the economy and our lives together in society.

But that will have to wait for Part 2. We’re just getting started.

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 12

Apparently, putting periods in text messages makes you rude. Didn’t realize I’ve been a jerk all this time.

 

Finally watched Mr. Robot. Wow. Can’t wait for Season 2.

 

Keeping the planet habitable for our kind of civilization means we’ll have to become its steward.

 

I am not an Instagram husband. This is hilarious and depressing.

 

1 in 5 Americans use the Internet almost constantly. This is concerning.

 

Why Home Alone is a (Christmas) film classic.

 

Paleo or Vegan (or something else)? Maybe we should ask our digestive system what we should eat.

 

Hopefully that includes fish, which actually tastes better when it has been killed humanely. Choices like this make a difference.

This Week in Upgrades: November 21

 

COLOGNE, GERMANY - MARCH 27 : New conveyor belt system on displa
Photo: BIGSTOCK

Global hunger is about politics–not logistics.

 

In a long-distance relationship? How do you feel about the product Pillowtalk?

 

What’s up with those hoverboards? Is it on your holiday wish list?

 

The last 100 years of American dinners.

 

Making a root beer float from scratch–literally.

 

“We have this unsupervised drug factory in our gut. The question facing microbiologists today is how to properly tend to that factory.”

 

Getting angry is emotionally healthy, but we have to know what to do with our anger.

 

The halflife of online empathy.

 

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can transfer their resistance to other bacteria. Not awesome.

Us and Them

A little while back, I came across a really interesting bit of theory that has helped me tie together all kinds of different ideas I’ve had about people and society. In David C. Korten’s The Great Turning, he outlines increasing levels of “human consciousness”–what we think about each other and how we relate. Levels of human consciousness probably sounds nerdy and boring, but bear with me–it’s actually easy to understand and deeply insightful.

“First order consciousness” is called magical consciousness. As young children, we start out seeing the world as full of magic and surprise. Most things when you’re a child seem to happen rather mysteriously. Fantasy and reality are difficult to distinguish. Cause and effect are concepts just beginning to be perceived–perhaps when we trip and fall or cry out and receive attention. Our behavior is “impulsive, immediate, and emotion driven.” We depend on other people to do things for us, are confused and frustrated when they don’t attend to us, and are not aware of or reflect on the consequences of our own actions.

The next level is imperial consciousness. As we start to grow up, we come to see the difference between fantasy and reality more clearly. We gain awareness of predictability and consequences. We understand a little better how some of the basics work, and we feel a greater sense of control. We see that others have their own point of view, and “getting what [we] want generally requires some form of reciprocity.” Quid pro quo seems to be the name of the game. We may fantasize about having superhuman powers that would allow us to rise above the tit-for-tat to control certain events with unparalleled influence. In imperial consciousness, like magical, our perspective is primarily, “if not exclusively self-referential, even narcissistic.”

The third level Korten calls socialized consciousness. We start to see things functioning on a societal plane, and the cultural norms of the community become our point of reference. Rules and authority appear necessary to make sure everyone is playing by the rules and treated fairly. Our individual identity is shaped by adherence to others in our same reference group: “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, political party, occupation, employer, and perhaps a favored sports team.” We’re “commonly militantly protective of [that] group and prone to take any criticism of it as a serious affront.” We do not subject ourselves or those groups to critical examination. We expect to follow the rules of the groups we are attached to and have things go well for us in return.

The fourth is cultural consciousness. The more we grow and mature, we encounter people who have beliefs, perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences much different from our own. “The initial reaction to such encounters is commonly a chauvinistic sense of cultural superiority and possibly an embrace of cultural absolutism: ‘The way of my people is the only right way.’” But if the socialized conscious person is reasonably comfortable in their own identity, they “may come to recognize that culture is itself a social construct, that each culture has its own logic, that different cultural ‘truths’ lead to different outcomes for individuals and society, and that cultural norms and expectations are subject to choice.” We can more fully empathize with others; we begin to question our own societal assumptions; and act selflessly for the benefit of people who are much different than ourselves. The majority of people who live in modern societies never achieve cultural consciousness because “corporations, political parties, churches, labor unions, and even educational institutions actively discourage it. Each of these institutions has a defining belief system to which it demands loyalty. Those who raise significant challenges are likely to be subjected to a loss of standing, if not outright rejection.”

Finally, “level five consciousness” is deemed spiritual, or perhaps enlightened for those uncomfortable with an overtly religious connotation. The world is seen as a “complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole.” Those who have matured to this level support “an examined morality grounded in the universal principles of justice, love, and compassion…It approaches conflict, contradiction, and paradox, not as problems to overcome, but as opportunities for deeper learning.” “…[T]he sense of duty once reserved for members of one’s immediate family, ethnic group, nationality, or religion now extends to the whole.” They recognize that the rules and structures in place don’t always work for everybody, and actively transform society to benefit everyone.

So how does this have anything to do with anything?

Well, for starters, if you live in the United States, it reveals a lot of what’s going on with the upcoming presidential election. There is the obvious and endless fractiousness between Democrats and Republicans–perhaps the most blatant us versus them rift in existence. But there are also more subtle divides. Between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, for example, for myopically in-group reasons like gender and the desire to be a proud gun owner. Maybe you can’t stand a single thing about either of those people or what they support. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. But human maturity–expanding consciousness–would consider what each of them has gone through as a thinking, feeling, sensitive, fallible person, and try to understand why they do what they do. I’m trying to do that myself for certain candidates running for president.

With December 25th around the corner, we’re also getting into the Christmas season–and specifically “The War on Christmas” season. Christmas zealots decry alleged cultural affronts to “the meaning of the season”–this year, somehow the Starbucks red holiday cups–and everyone else moans incredulously that we’re doing this all over again. It undergirds a whole lot more us and them at a time of the year when many people are just trying to get the bills paid and take some time off to be with people they care about. Perhaps we could all aspire to a level-five moment and consider just how much we’re all in a similar situation. Few people are actively trying to denigrate anyone’s holiday, so let’s shoot for a little less outrage–and less outrage about the outrage.

The examples are endless. We’re really good at breaking people down into simplistic labels and categories that we can quickly accept or reject. But one of the best things we can do as a human being is to work to expand our in-group wider and wider until it encompasses all of humanity. Most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions.” We’re more alike than we are different. There is only us.

This Week in Upgrades: October 24

Cover Your Mouth
Dirima/Bigstock.com

Starting to see more sniffling and sneezing. Why do germs spread in the wintertime?

This presidential election is less about Democrats versus Republicans and more about the future of Capitalism. A good listen here.

Now’s a good time to start aging your eggnog for Christmas. Definitely making some this weekend.

Do you count your social media followers as friends? The number of friendships a person can sustain.

Speaking of friendship, what does it mean to have friends in adulthood?

How America compares to the rest of the world for paid leave.

At the federal minimum wage, you need to work 93 hours a week to afford basic well-being. Yikes.

Is it better to eat grass-fed beef?

How have glaciers changed over the last 100 years? Why should anyone care?