Some Order in the Chaos

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I sense that many people think the world works something like this:

If you do good, good things will happen to you.

If you do bad, bad things will happen to you.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are will determine how well or arduously your life goes.

In other words, people reap what they sow. If good things are happening to you, it’s because you did good things. If something bad happened to you, it’s a result of something bad you did. Powerful people are powerful because of the good that they do. Poor people are poor because of the bad decisions they’ve made. Etcetera, etcetera.

But in reality, things frequently go like this:

Bad things happen to people who do good.

Good things happen to people who do bad.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are seems to have little bearing on the enjoyment or difficulties that come your way.

A power-hungry asshole gets the job instead of you–the more intelligent, empathetic person. A benevolent doctor has a career-ending stroke. The corrupt businessman gets a bonus larger than you and fifteen other people will make in your combined lifetimes. You give everything to your significant other, and they leave you for someone else. Things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy–injury, illness, loss–strike all kinds of people around you.

The only discernible law about how things work is that no matter what kind of person you are, a number of good and bad things will happen to you without much rhyme or reason. Life is frequently unfair. The world is not perfectly karmic. Beautiful, awesome, rewarding things happen. But so do tragic, painful, gut-wrenching things. Sometimes, it’s because of your choices and actions. Other times, it’s pure happenstance. A meaningful and enjoyable life has a lot of luck involved.

So does that mean we should all give up on trying to be better people? If so much is coincidental, shouldn’t we just take as much as we can for ourselves and let other people fend for themselves?

I think it’s actually the opposite. With so much of what makes our lives enjoyable or difficult outside of our control, what we should do is collectively try to bring a little bit of order to the chaos.

We should think about what we can do…

To create support structures that alleviate each other’s suffering and misfortune.

To establish more accountability and transparency–especially with institutions and positions of power.

To ensure that the most vulnerable people have the same basic standard of living as everyone else.

To take care of our mental and physical health so we’re more resilient in the face of adversity.

To be more kind and patient with one another–knowing that each of us is probably struggling through something we didn’t ask for.

How the world works isn’t regularly what we expect or want. It’s up to us to come together and do what we can to make things more just, humane, and enjoyable for everyone.

This Week in Upgrades: Jan 30

OK. So that was not a good weekend for humanity. The Trump administration’s Muslim ban on Friday was already a lot to handle. The shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center, and the six people who died there, was a terrible bookend to the unfolding drama. If you’re trying to wrap your head around the immigration ban, this is a good place to start.

These kinds of things are the reason that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about human nature and the common good. I know it’s not as fun or easy to digest as cat videos and comfort food recipes. I would love to quietly mind my own business and go about enjoying those things all day. But we’ve got some serious individual and social issues to work through, too.

Just in the last few days, we’ve clearly seen that people are a mysterious mix of altruism and fear. Humans can be the worst, and the best. Sometimes there is a unified, compassionate weAnd other times we seek to erase those who are different. Things can flow in a direction of community and hope and kindness, or toward despair, cynicism, and cruelty. We’re not anywhere close to realizing our individual and collective potential. Sometimes we take steps backward.

So keep organizing. Keep aiming for the best of who you can be, and believing that every other human being can get there, too. Keep searching for empathy and commonality. Keep donating. Keep looking for the truth behind the illusion. Keep looking for–and being–the helpers.

 

Here are some other things from the last week worth checking out:

Loneliness is terrible for your health. No one can go it alone all of the time.

Some of our best creativity happens when we’re bored, but we’re too busy on our phones trying to make boredom disappear.

Alcohol has been shaping culture for a long time.

Butter makes everything better. These guys take their butter very seriously.

Props to the restaurant, Syr, near Amsterdam, which was set-up to help Syrian refugees settle into the country.

Rachel Carson was a hero.

I like the occasional soda or box of Sour Patch Kids as much as the next person, but human beings consume way too much sugar. France’s ban on free soda refills is a step in the right direction.

Millennials are spending a lot to exercise.

Here’s a nice little side-by-side video of several references La La Land made to older musicals.

I hope your week is full of love and calm.

 

This Week in Upgrades: October 3

Hey, it’s October! Does it feel like fall where you are? Southern California is a bit warm still, but that’s not keeping me away from wearing layers and eating the flavors of the season. A little roasted pumpkin soup was just right last night.

But enough about me. What a week, huh? The first presidential debate was last Monday, and I had some thoughts about that and our overall political situation in America. I hope some of that resonated with the way you’re feeling about things. I think these Nevada youngsters are seeing things pretty clearly. We need to build a movement for a better future.

Elon Musk unveiled SpaceX’s big plans for Mars this week. It’s clearly an ambitious and expensive project, but probably a logical and necessary one. It doesn’t seem like we’re going to stop wrecking our planetary home anytime soon, so it’s wise to strive to be an interplanetary species.

California is warming up to the idea of self-driving cars. I’m glad my state of residency is starting to take the lead on this since we all suck at driving. Obviously we need to do autonomous vehicles the right way.

The world has permanently passed the dreaded 400ppm carbon dioxide threshold. The more time passes, the more we can only hope to minimize the worst effects of climate change. It’s discouraging to realize that the United States does not have the policy in place to meet the Paris Climate Agreement targets, which are actually rather modest.

Bees update: “After years of study, the US Fish and Wildlife Service have placed seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees on the endangered species list, the first time any bees have received such classification.” We’re not going to have much left to eat if we cause bees to go extinct.

With so many weighty, urgent things going on in the world, I’d be down for the entertaining escapism of an Indiana Jones animated series. Please make this!

Are you paying off college debt or accruing it as a current student? Do you ever feel like college is primarily just a debt-machine? My wife and I have plenty to pay off. Student debt is a heavy burden, and shouldn’t be what continuing your education is all about.

Is your workplace a culture of stupidity? I bet this essay describes too many employers.

What makes a jerk–and are you one? We could probably all use some self-reflection on our jerkitude tendencies.

Have an awesome week!

 

 

Who Needs a Gun?

It’s happened again. The horrific violence in Orlando is at least the 133rd mass shooting of 2016, and the 998th since Sandy Hook in 2012–a moment in history when any reasonable person would have thought: surely the slaughter of twenty kids and their six teachers will change gun policy in America. Nope. In fact, the tragedy at Pulse in Orlando is now the deadliest mass shooting in US history. They seem to be only getting worse.

There’s reason to worry that the frequency of mass shootings and the absence of any gun policy change are making us desensitized to gun violence. These kinds of tragedies in the age of social media have a very short half-life of attention. In a few weeks, will you still be mourning the victims in Orlando and clamoring for changes to gun laws in America? Will I?

Maybe instead of losing the forest for the trees with the particulars of each shooting as they happen–the number of casualties, the religion and mental state of the shooter–we need to ask more poignant, all-encompassing, difficult questions. A question like:

What citizen needs a gun in 2016?

If we’re objective and honest, nobody needs one. There are many people who want one–recreational hunters, for example. But no regular citizen of the United States needs–fundamentally, unequivocally–to possess a firearm. If you disagree, ask yourself why?

What exactly do you expect to happen that necessitates owning your own firearm? Hunting for meals? Someone trying to murder you in your home? Self-defense against a suddenly tyrannical US government?

How likely are those scenarios to happen?

The reality is that today, no one needs to hunt for their meals. We are thoroughly civilized and consumerized by the likes of superstores, farmers’ markets, convenience stores, and restaurants. They all are regularly supplied by reliable food production systems that ensure that even the family mart in Quaint Town, USA, has some organic meat and produce available. Even those who hunt primarily “for the meat” only make up 35% of hunters–not even close to a majority. And it’s not clear that nowadays it costs less to hunt for meat–should someone declare that regular groceries are unaffordable. To be sure, a game meat like venison is absolutely delicious–I grew up in Wisconsin with the occasional family-hunted jerky, steaks, and sausage. But it’s not essential to survival. Just enjoyable when you can get it. And you could get it with weaponry other than a firearm. That’s not a need.

Nor does anyone need to own a gun in expectation of a home intruder. Statistically, it’s actually less safe if you do have a gun in the home. It’s much more likely a family member or close friend will be shot with it–domestic violence, suicide, or child-related accident–than a criminal intruder. Even if you are in the uncommon situation of an intruder in your home when you’re there, there’s a reasonable chance that: (1) the gun gets taken over from you; or (2) that you reactively shoot as soon as you see someone and discover it’s a person you know (that you may have been able to talk down), someone unarmed (and therefore not immediately life-threatening), or even someone innocently entering the house when you weren’t expecting it.

As for the so-called citizen militia scenario, let’s all simply recognize there is no modern Lexington and Concord to come. The United States today has a flawed, yet relatively stable democracy. Citizen paranoia is much more probable than violent state tyranny.

So, again, where is the need for a gun for the average citizen in 2016? There isn’t, it’s a want.

And if it is just a want, we better ask another question:

What does a gun do?

For too long, too many have gone along with the guns don’t kill people, people kill people cliche. But ask yourself: what is the purpose of a gun? What is its function? To have portable, quick-to-initiate, precise, lethal force, in a way that extends and amplifies the human physiological capacity for violence–like a punch or throwing a rock. In short, guns inherently wound and kill. You don’t use them as a replacement flower vase or to tie your shoes, because that’s not what they do. 

It’s a relatively narrow and modern application to use them in an intentionally non-injurious way like target shooting. And, even so, there are surely less risky and intense hobbies than loading up a firearm and trying to rupture specific places on a stationary target or objects flying through the air–even though that may be a fun skills challenge or stress-relieving.

But what about freedom?

Indeed, the United States is a country wrapped in the necessity of that immensely powerful idea. “Life, liberty (i.e. freedom), and the pursuit of happiness,” are the DNA of this country. But freedom doesn’t mean everyone gets to do whatever they want. Each person in the United States surely should have freedom from violence–as much as people desire to have the freedom to buy many things they want. Needs are more vital than wants. And freedom from violence is unquestionably a need, whereas the freedom to own a firearm–a piece of technology that’s primary purpose is to wound and kill–is a want.

We should therefore question how that want can impinge and is impinging on freedom from violence. The terror in Orlando has given us a fresh reminder of that. The shooter was an American citizen–legally in the country–using a Sig Sauer MCX–a semi-automatic firearm legally purchased. The victims were innocently trying to enjoy their lives and pursue happiness.

Whatever the original intent of the Second Amendment, it doesn’t seem to fit the current era of guns and gun violence. And, in fact, Thomas Jefferson was mindful of such unforeseen times:

Jefferson
via @JohnFugelsang

Existing gun policy is clearly “unadapted to the good of the nation”–to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in 21st century America. It’s time to think outside the box–outside of dogma, partisanship, and prejudice–about real freedom, what guns are for, and who actually needs one. Too many innocent people have died or will be killed as we’ve maintained the status quo of lax laws to accommodate want.

 

This Week in Upgrades: March 14

Oh hey, it’s a new week! Hope yours is off to a good start. My Monday was so filled with other things I didn’t get a chance to post this Upgrades, but Tuesday is close enough to the start of the week, right?

The time change from the weekend has me still trying to adjust to a different rhythm. Is that you too? Maybe it’s time to actually, finally end Daylight Saving Time?

The US Presidential election continues to be a head-scratching, exciting, depressing, astonishing process. What will happen next? Can we at least agree to condemn violence wherever and whenever it occurs?

Today’s 2 Super 2 Tuesday includes some important primary states. Is it your turn to vote? Get out there and do it!

Plenty of other interesting human stuff from the last week. Here are just a few things:

Does your nose ever alert you that you’re in need of a shower? Do you almost pass out when someone is wearing a whole bottle of cologne? Here’s the long history of battling body odor.

According to one study, just three laws would reduce 90% of all gun violence in the United States. That seems like a pretty big deal, if true.

Do you know the difference between ambiguous and ambivalent? Another grammar upgrade.

The National Parks of the United States are one of my favorite things (probably said that a million times). Sadly, they may be getting “loved to death”. How can we preserve them for the future?

Space and space exploration are pretty rad too, and PopChartLab has put together this awesome poster of all the vessels that have been sent out to study our solar system.

A depressing note on nutrition in the United States: half of all calories consumed now come from processed foods. Yikes.

Surely one of the great obstacles to eating well is cooking. Maybe 3 new seasons of Chef’s Table on Netflix will be inspiration for us all to make meals at home more. The original season was probably the best food documentary I’ve come across. Have you seen it?

 

This Week in Upgrades: Feb 15

Happy Monday, and a good Presidents Day to you! Are you off of work? I hope you enjoy it, if so. It may be the weirdest holiday, but it gives a lot of people a three-day weekend–so there’s that.

I’m turning 31 this week, which is difficult to believe. Honestly, the numbers stopped making sense around 25. When you’re old like me, you start to get a bit paranoid about anything out of the ordinary with your health. Fortunately, tips like these are a good way to combat the worry. I’m truly grateful to be alive, and I plan to be around for a long time.

It’s been an incredibly historic week. Gravitational waves, proposed by Einstein, were proven. This will begin an exciting new era of science–possibly even leading to time travel!

In other exciting science news, researchers are hailing unprecedented results in clinical trials using the body’s own t-cells for cancer treatment. If these initial findings are any indication, we’re at an important crossroad in outsmarting cancer.

By now, you’ve likely heard that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away. May he rest in peace. His legal legacy is a towering one. As such, the impact his death has on the presidential race and future rulings may be even more significant. Apparently the intensity and importance of this election were just getting started.

Many other interesting human things this week. Here are a few:

In a self-driving car, who is responsible for the driving? Perhaps the most important part to be figured out.

It’s always good to listen first–even when you’re right.

Infrastructure is not a sexy political topic, but it’s essential. Made me think of this, too. John Oliver is awesome.

All countries should make a law like this for its unsold food.

Social media is not very kind to teenage girls. Heartbreaking.

“The most satisfying video in the world” is, indeed, extremely satisfying.

This Week in Upgrades: January 4

Hope you had an excellent New Year celebration! Here are some of the most significant human things from the last week.

 

How many trees are there in the world?

 

Toxic relationship habits many people think are normal.

 

How Donald Trump’s conversation style works.

 

You know about the natural disaster in California, right?

 

Defiance is sometimes exactly what’s needed.

 

Microbeads–the tiny spheres in your health products–will soon be a thing of the past.

 

The In Defense of Food documentary is steaming online for a limited time. Michael Pollan is great.

 

Netflix’s Making a Murderer is a devastating piece of documentary filmmaking. Have you seen it? “How do we as a society respond when injustice is exposed?

 

Essential Reading: Humans Are Underrated

Everything you’re skilled at will one day be done better by technology–if it isn’t already. So says Geoff Colvin, anyway, in his recent book Humans Are Underrated, and he’s got a compelling case. Artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson is not only becoming more and more proficient at things like sifting through data and logic-based activities like chess or Jeopardy, it’s also starting to outperform humans in creative tasks like composing novels and cooking. There are not yet robots preparing Thai-Jewish Chicken or an Austrian Chocolate Burrito at your neighborhood restaurant, but they’re both dishes with novel flavor combinations and preparations created by Watson. According to people who’ve cooked and tasted them, they’re delicious. It’s only a matter of time before a bot is able to do the concocting and the cooking–no humans required.

What place is there for a chef in the world if a machine is able to create more interesting and tasty dishes?

 Or for a lawyer if a computer can research, argue, and win cases faster and more successfully?

Or a doctor if medical technology can diagnose and treat patients far more effectively than any human specialist or even a whole team of physicians?

In light of what the technology we’ve created is increasingly able to do, the future for human work and value appears troubling.

This isn’t an entirely new worry. When the Industrial Revolution began, technology first undermined artisans. A factory could produce countless guns of good quality far more efficiently than a lone maker handcrafting each one from start to finish. Artisans were increasingly marginalized or out of work, and low-skilled workers transitioned into operating the factory machinery.

Then came the cultivation and spread of electricity. Factories grew larger and machines more complicated, requiring higher-skilled, more educated workers. Low-skilled workers became dependent on an education to become smarter and better skilled in order to stay employed. Most people succeeded in this broad societal change in employment, and the standard of living skyrocketed from 1890 to 1970.

But in the 1980s, the rise of information technology suddenly reduced and decreased the wage of many “medium-skilled” jobs that had arisen and that people had educated themselves to be able to perform over the previous several decades. High-skill and low-skill jobs increased–infotech couldn’t yet do the complex judgment and problem-solving required for high-skilled work, or the physical skills of low-skill labor. Those in the middle were left trying to figure out how to move up or down.

Now, with technology like Watson, we are settling into the fourth great turning point. “Infotech is advancing steadily into both ends of the spectrum, threatening workers who thought they didn’t have to worry.” Whether it’s the sophisticated cognition of a lawyer or the creative, manual effort of a chef, technology is rapidly catching up to and eclipsing so-called high- and low- skill human abilities after knocking out much of the middle-skill in the 80s and 90s.

What will be the place of human beings in society if everything that we do technology does better?

In such a societal shift, there are huge implications for things like dignity, personal growth, and sense of purpose–as well as more practical implications like job security and a living wage.

Is there any hope for humans to retain their humanity?

As Colvin notes, if we want to know if there’s any humanity that can persist into the future it won’t do to fixate on what technology cannot do. We’ve already tried asking that question, and we keep getting proved wrong. Many predicted that technology could never really infiltrate into the human territory of the abilities that make for, say, an excellent doctor or musician. Technology is advancing so quickly that a machine like Watson is already undermining those predictions.

Instead, we need to ask a subtly different, but perceptive and powerful question: “What are the activities that we humans…will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do?

We are wired for relationship and sociality. We have evolved for rich person-to-person interaction; for complex conversation and emotional entanglement; for creating ideas and problem-solving together; for empathy. Colvin describes it succinctly as “discerning what each other is thinking and feeling, and responding in an appropriate way.” No matter how proficient technology becomes, there will always be activities, vocations, and interactions that we insist happen between humans because of the capacities and cravings that make up who we are as people.

Perhaps at the beginning of this piece you cringed a bit at the thought of a robot preparing your meal for exactly that reason. It doesn’t have the choreography, the emotion, the ineffable humanity, of sitting down at the chef’s table of an award-winning restaurant, or stepping up to a bustling food truck, with an engaging person cooking the food.

There are countless other domains that we will continue to yearn for the social sensitivity of people navigating the experience. The sharing of a heartbreaking medical diagnosis; governance and diplomacy; the education and raising of a child; counseling and friendship; concerts, art galleries, and myriad other artistic endeavors. Even if those activities are aided by advancing technology (which is not necessarily a bad thing), we will almost certainly always hope for and require that there be human-to-human connection involved. It fulfills our deepest needs and desires as humans.

No matter what skills technology encroaches or supersedes, our connection to one another, our empathy, is the future of our flourishing and meaningfulness. That’s a future worth embracing.