This Week in Upgrades: October 31

Hello, friends! How’s life? How was your October? How is the month already over? Sheesh.

Are you a big Halloween person? If I’m honest, I’m really not. Give me a Harry Potter rewatch or It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a few pieces of fun size candy (keep the candy corn as far away as possible), and a cool fall breeze. Perfect. Yes, I am old.

If you partied it up all weekend or have an awesome costume for today, more power to you. You’re wearing something tasteful, right?

This week had some interesting things beyond the Halloween shenanigans.

Tesla unveiled beautiful solar shingles. “Check out this sweet roof.”

If you like the tang of sour candy, you may be into sour beers. Here’s a great guide to get you started.

Cast iron pans can be intimidating, but this video makes it simple.

Is it “affect” or “effect?”

Listening to Ralph Nader interviewing Noam Chomsky will make you a lot smarter in one hour.

24 countries and the EU have collaborated to create the largest marine sanctuary in “the last great wilderness on Earth.” Well done.

At the same time, we just found out that worldwide wildlife populations have dropped almost 60% since 1970. Holy wow…

Everyone should join in with the Native Americans at Standing Rock.

 

People are the Worst…And the Best

The categories of good and evil have been around for so long, and are so ingrained in our ways of perceiving and judging, that it’s easy to interpret our daily lives as battles of the two forces like we’re in Lord of the Rings or something. This business is the epitome of evil. That pop culture thing is absolutely sinful. This woman is a saint. My co-worker is the devil.

More often than not such judgments are, indeed, about people (though some non-people things like mosquitos and brunch-flavored candy corn are obviously straight from hell). And–also quite often–we give ourselves a pass while condemning most everyone else. I am a good person. They are bad people. It’s easy to see the brokenness in the world; harder to see the brokenness in ourselves.

The truth is that we are all just a bundle of potential yet to be realized. We are born neither evil nor good. We are like a ball of clay waiting to be shaped into something more.

People can be the worst. Destructive. Deceptive. Ignorant. Dominating. Injurious. Lazy. Self-centered.

People can actively destroy the planet even as researchers make clear how damaging the effects are and what the long-term consequences will be.

We can know the truth and yet mislead others in order to avoid blame or to get credit/power/compensation/respect.

We can belittle, cut off, and cut down the people around us in damaging and disabling ways.

We can actively choose or passively allow ourselves to be ignorant of basic facts and features of our world when there’s good reason to know and act on them.

BUT people can, sometimes, be the best. Generous. Creative. Wise. Humble. Courageous. Engaged. Inclusive.

If we work to realize our human potential in a beautiful, flourishing way, we can:

Live long, robust lives by taking care of our bodily health and the health of our environment.

Donate our time and money to important and urgent causes.

Build vibrant relationships and community.

Strengthen other people’s dignity and self-love by making sure they get the spotlight and credit they deserve.

Be kind, forgiving, and reconciling–even with people who have hurt us.

Experience real joy and contentment as we better understand and fit ourselves into the world that we’re an interconnected part of.

At any given time, your actions are shaping your human potential for the worse or for the better. These directions of better or worse are how we ultimately start categorizing people as good or evil as we so often do. Others have described these possible paths in different terms. In The Great Turning, David C. Korten describes them as the way of empire or the way of earth community. The film The Tree of Life depicts them as the way of nature or the way of grace. The Harry Potter character Sirius Black (shout-out to Harry Potter) metaphorically says that, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Good/evil, earth community/empire, grace/nature, light/dark are all ways of describing the dual ways our potential can unfold.

And, of course, most of us are not fully one or the other. There are few human beings of the billions who have ever lived that could be described as completely evil or wholly good. We are, each of us, always on the way rather than at the final stop: on the way of empire or on the way of earth community; on the way of nature or on the way of grace.

It’s actually unlikely to be very beneficial to think about someone as good or evil. These are the extremes. And they’re also quite static. People are constantly changing–for the worse or for the better. Someone could seem hellish one day and the best of humanity the next. Our human potential is a long-unfolding thing–clay taking shape and being reshaped until it starts to finally harden into something more permanent over time.

So rather than classifying other people as evil or the worst or whatever else, and writing them off as irredeemable, perhaps think of them as having not yet realized their potential as a human being in a flourishing, gracious, communal kind of way. Maybe one day they might. God knows it’s not today–you’re going to try hard to wish them the best even though you half wish their iced coffee spills all over them. But hopefully one day. Because people can be the worst or the best. It’s not predetermined, static, or absolute. And certainly, you, me, and most everyone else haven’t fully realized our potential in a flourishing way either. Let’s aspire to the way of earth community, light, and grace (or whatever you’d like to call it), and be patient with one another as we go.

This Week in Upgrades: May 23

Alright…so I spent most of the week sick, and unproductive as a result. My usual mid-week post and Friday How to Adult were unfortunate casualties of that. Sorry!

I’m feeling much better today, though, so let’s leave that in the past and get the week started right. Just a handful of days left in May to give it all we’ve got.

Here’s what was good, interesting, and important in the last week:

Who knew that trees sleep?

Will the new food label help people eat smarter?

How can we combat an antibiotic apocalypse?

In encouraging health news, scientists have successfully removed HIV DNA from living tissue–possibly a step closer to a cure.

Is the idea of a biological clock simply a sexist myth?

India hit a shocking record-high temperature this week.

The price of solar energy is becoming more competitive, which bodes well for the environment.

Some scientists want to bring back wooly mammoths. Why?

A brief, but insightful Q&A with Noam Chomsky on current affairs.

The United States now has over a trillion dollars in credit card debt. Hooray! (Not.)

Does power indeed corrupt?

Superdelegates will probably decide the Democratic Party nominee for president. Why do they exist?

What can we learn from the ancient Greeks about technology?

Consumerism and “free trade,” epitomized.

Speaking of consumerism, have you seen Century of the Self? More relevant than ever.

Show this week who’s bossbut don’t take yourself too seriously.

Dumblin'
via GIPHY

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

You Suck at Driving (And So Do I)

On July 1, one of Google’s self-driving cars was rear-ended. It’s the 11th back-end slam they’ve incurred on the open road, and this time there were some minor injuries to the passengers riding inside. Overall, the autonomous vehicles have been in 14 accidents, and not a single one was the fault of the Google-mobile. Each time, terrible human driving led to an unnecessary collision.

We know about these incidents because Google self-driving car project director, Chris Urmson, is openly talking and blogging about them. The whiplash-inducing collision did not have a police report filed, even though officers were at the scene, making it one of the likely millions of crashes that are more hidden from public awareness than ones that were officially filed. Based on all available information, reported and unreported crashes, in 2010, “there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.” Those are hard to wrap your brain around.

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but living in the Los Angeles area–one of the most car-saturated places in the world–I get genuinely worried when I see some of the people behind the wheel or about to be. Not just the drunks or the sleep-deprived; those are blatantly disqualifying for driving, and should be immediately reported. As worrying are the regular people who clearly have bodies and minds that are not fit for driving at any time, or are noticeably preoccupied.

There are some in their golden years–not all–whose cognition, hand-eye coordination, or general bodily strength and dynamism has diminished to the extent that they likely should not be on the road. Every so often crashes suggesting this as a cause become newsworthy. In February, a 92-year-old driver became panicked in his minivan in a parking lot and pinballed into 9 vehicles. It’s hard to understand how a focused, competent driver would do what he does in the surveillance video of the incident. Thankfully no one was hurt. Crashes like this make you wonder why all states do not require people to eventually retest on the actual driving portion and not just an eye or written exam. Only a few do.

Before this whole thing takes an ageist turn, let’s quickly note that the highest rates of reported crashes are among drivers 16- to 24-years-old. Just as in later years our bodies are less than their peak, in our teenage and early adult years they are still forming toward their prime–especially the faculties necessary for driving well. When we’re young, we make a lot of mistakes on the path to developing mature coordination, sensitivity to context and spatial awareness, and sound decision-making. When I was 15-years-old with my driving permit, I cleared the side view mirror clean off a parked car with the side of my vehicle while breezing down the street. Asking teenagers to command a vehicle is probably the most complex, demanding task they’ve ever encountered in their lives to that point. It’s undoubtedly compounded by the ubiquity of smartphones and the compelling urge to engage with them anytime they’re close at hand.

Which, of course, affects drivers of all ages. I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve seen on the road with one hand on the wheel and the other tapping and swiping away on their phone. They think vehicles grinding to a halt is an ideal opportunity to send or read a text, photograph, or another kind of message. And it often continues as the gridlock loosens and things are moving at regular speed again. Driving is an immensely involved task, and this kind of distraction is obviously dangerous, but most don’t appear to care. Several surveys suggest that the majority of drivers think they can smartphone and drive without any complications.

In fact, we all seem to be increasingly thinking of driving as more of a time suck when we could be doing other, “better” things. I’ve got that call to make; that text to reply to; that novel to finish; that album to listen to; that trumpet to play (Urmson’s team observed this actually happening). As Sheila Klauer notes in her book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, which Urmson cites, people “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat.”

Whether it’s the immaturity or decline of our bodies, distractions or substance-induced impediments, or just general human error, our frailty causes a lot of unnecessary collisions–a lot of unnecessary injuries and deaths, property damage, and general heartache.

With roadways full of only self-driving cars, it all could be made obsolete.

The Google vehicles’ culpability-free streak is over nearly a million miles of driving. Urmson notes, “Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted.” They are free of the limitations and inherent vulnerabilities that human drivers have. Unless a car is hacked (certainly possible, but probably preventable) or goes rogue on the driver (quite improbable, but that Ford Anglia in Chamber of Secrets was pretty bonkers), there aren’t significant foreseeable negatives. Even if the vehicles are expensive when they’re first publicly available, with the security they would bring there is much to be saved: insurance costs, necessary emergency infrastructure, vehicle replacement, road repair, the productivity and priceless individuality of people protected from fatalities, and more.

And, intriguingly, with autonomous vehicles, people of all ages get to retain their autonomy and dignity. If you’re 16 and inexperienced–parents hesitant to give you the keys on a Saturday night–or not yet licensed, you could quickly meet up with friends on the other side of town in a self-driving car. If you’re 85 and know that your mind, vision, and strength aren’t what they used to be, you could still run errands of your own accord, ride to your child’s house for a weekend road trip, or go out dancing with your soulmate. If it’s your 40th birthday and you have bacchanalian inclinations, you can fulfill them. The only errors you might make on the ride home are throwing up in the cupholder, passing out in the backseat, or bringing home a one-night stand that you later regret. That’s worlds better than potential drunk driving fatalities. Everyone gets to be where they want when they want.

Isn’t that precisely what we’re all after in getting behind the wheel? Don’t we crave a license in our teens so we can finally be the master of our mobility? Don’t we clutch our license with aged knuckles because we can feel the independence slipping away? It’s difficult for us to be dependent on others to get around and at the same time realize the kind of dignity and freedom we crave. The promise of self-driving cars means we can all be safe, egalitarian travelers. We’d rather be doing other things en route, anyway.