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).

 

This Week in Upgrades: September 12

Monday, Monday. Let’s see what this week has in store. Hope you had a good weekend amidst the start of the NFL season, reflecting on 15 years after 9/11, and whatever else you may have been up to.

The past week was full of important happenings–and that’s in addition to the unfolding, depressing drama of the presidential election.

This was a fairly positive surprise: the Dakota Access Pipeline has been temporarily halted by the Department of Justice. “The recognition that the government may not have adequately taken tribes’ considerations into account is a significant achievement, but the decision by the Obama administration is far from definitive. In the meantime, the activists on the ground say they have no plans to move.” More work to do. Props to the activists.

This was not a good surprise: the most thorough study of ocean warming yet has some alarming findings. The oceans have been keeping the planet habitable, and they can’t take a whole lot more.

Tesla’s autopilot, “the best semi-autonomous system on the road today,” is upgrading in some crucial ways.

Yosemite National Park added 400 acres–the largest expansion there in 70 years. Wonderful!

Watch bacteria overcome antibiotics and turn into superbugs. Fascinating, yet terrifying.

Neuroscientists may have just identified the brain cells associated with schadenfreude. Why do we sometimes feel delight from other’s misfortune?

Babies are dumb so adults can be smarter.

Ever see floaters? A few visual disturbances are pretty common. Reassuring for my hypochondriac self.

A new drug has proven effective against one of the deadliest cancers without side effects. Immunotherapy findings like this are super promising.

Stay awesome.

 

Wherever You Start, It Ends Up in the Same Place

I had a little free time the other day, and I happened upon a very interesting interview with Andrew Zimmern. He’s perhaps best known for his show Bizarre Foods and some of the seemingly strange things he’s eaten on camera for it. The whole conversation is well worth a listen.

It was especially intriguing and thought-provoking because, ostensibly, this is an interview for a food website, with a former chef and current food television host, containing his thoughts on this or that bit of the current state of food. And yet, as the interview goes along, the conversation becomes about much more than just the latest ingredient fad or buzziest restaurant. It goes deeper into economics, creativity, globalization, class, history, relationships, politics, and more.

To be sure, the interview is not a one-hour retelling of all of human history through the lens of food. And it’s certainly not the first or even the best example of going beyond its immediate subject matter in a profound way. But I find it immensely fascinating and illuminating that an interview that starts out about one thing–food–quickly and regularly goes deep into many other things.

We live in a world that is incredibly specialized–perhaps even too specialized. We don’t just have athletes, doctors, and professors. We have wide receivers and punters; brain surgeons and orthopedic surgeons; professors of Western religions and professors of metaethics. Our entry points into the world–our personal areas of interest and expertise–are almost as numerous and unique as the number of people on this planet.

We each step out into the world and view it predominantly through the shaping and interpretive framework of those interests or fields of expertise. Andrew Zimmern’s entry point is food, and he can say and explain things about food and food culture that few others can. That alone makes for a compelling conversation. Food is awesome. Who doesn’t love finding out interesting things about it?

But as his Eater interview shows, you can’t really talk about food without talking about money and the exchange of value, globalization, human creativity, relationships, social structure, and the rest. Wherever we start, things eventually end up in the same place.

Where they end up is the core, essential humanity that exists behind every profession and area of interest. They end up at the heart of every person’s intentions, understanding, and experience.

You can start talking to an athlete about their career, their take on their sport, the business dealings of whatever league they’re in, their fan base, and the like. And sooner or later, things will either briefly or extensively broaden to dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; the power of mentorship, teamwork, and dedicated effort; the strength and fragility of the human body, and dealing with the inevitability of physical decline and retirement.

You can start talking to a physician about the curiosities and intricacies of their medical expertise. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the struggles of their work-life balance; the power and pride of healing; the agony and frustration of failed treatments and incurability; the daily encounters with patients at different stages of birth, life, and death, and supporting each person’s health to maximize their enjoyable time on earth.

You can start talking to a professor about the social construction of religion or morality in modern society. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the nature of belief and one’s own worldview; what’s right and wrong in the world–and what to do about it; the finitude of life and how to live it; and if there’s more to all of this than what we can observe.

Wherever you start, it eventually ends up in the same place.

Not in every single interaction. And not always for an extended period or in great depth. But if there is enough time and openness, things will eventually arrive at the universally human that undergirds everything else.

So the next time you listen to a podcast, or watch a news segment or sports match, or read a book, or talk with a doctor, co-worker, lawyer, or anyone else–watch and listen for the way things start to veer toward the universally human. And think about how that humanity is acknowledged, or supported, or suppressed, or thwarted, or celebrated by the entry point you started from (food, sports, medicine, philosophy, etc.).

To ask just a few:

How should we feel about a fish that’s essentially commonplace bait in Namibia but an expensive seafood plate in fancy urban restaurants? 

What should be done about the head trauma NFL players experience and what that entails for their well-being later in life? 

Why are issues of religion so often plagued by othering and scapegoating, anti-intellectualism, and hypocrisy?

Everything is connected to everything else. Food to politics. Sports to relationships. Academia to meaning. Our conversations begin with each person seeing the world from a slightly different angle. We’ve separated things out in thorough specialization, but really it’s all meant to fit together. As we take time with others, with various interests and expertise, we see more clearly the breadth and depth of our shared humanity. And the better we see our universality, the better we can pursue the common good together from the entry point that intrigues each of us most.

 

This Week in Upgrades: June 6

Hello, friend! How was your weekend? I’m on a much needed vacation right now, and I’m feeling super refreshed. Very little phone and Internet connection here, so it’s been a bit of a digital detox too. I’m not mad about that.

A little shorter vacation version of Upgrades because of that, but still plenty of interesting things this week.

Tesla has reportedly offered up its autopilot data to the US Department of Transportation.

Norway is set to ban all gas-powered cars by 2025. Well done, Norway!

Is this why smart people do dumb things?

Sad news for Hamilton fans: it appears creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is leaving the show in July. Have a few thousand dollars to see it before he’s done?

Dogs may not have become humankind’s best friend the way we thought.

The United States is trapped in a neoliberal nightmare. How will we wake up?

Is compositing a better way to get rid of medications?

Have an excellent week!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: March 28

Oh, hello! It’s the start of another week, and I’ve got Upgrades to make your Monday better. Hopefully you had a wonderful Easter if that’s your thing, or just a great weekend.

Does it feel more like Spring now? The New York Times had a cool feature this week on the ways nature tells us it definitely is the Spring season: the smell of bacteria in the soil, the return of gray whales, and more. Check it out. (How neat is that?)

Unfortunately, this week also showed signs that climate change is really starting to take its toll. A new paper by the father of global warming science suggests sea level rise will be greater than expected over the next several decades, and this year may have been one of the last Iditarod races in Alaska because there’s no snow for it anymore. The time to act for the sake of our future and the future of the planet is now, clearly.

So many interesting and important human things on the inter-webs in the last week. Here are just some of them:

As demand for grass-fed dairy grows, how do we maintain standards for it? Do you look for grass-fed at the grocery store? How do you decide what’s good?

Speaking of food standards, is it wrong if the best chef of Mexican cuisine is not Mexican? A new series on the podcast The Sporkful explores “other people’s food“.

Also in food, there’s a Madagascar vanilla shortage. Some vanilla ice cream enthusiasts are worried. It’s always the things you take for granted.

Glass-blowing is awesome. Here’s a very enjoyable 10 minute film of pros doing their thing. Love the guy smoking a pipe at the same time.

British English is more than a great accent. Here are 41 things Brits say differently than Americans.

Increasingly, teachers cannot afford to live in the communities they teach. This is a problem. How do we get educators properly compensated for the difficult, vital work they do?

Thanks to medical innovation, people are living longer and longer. That’s great, but there are some important things we need to talk about.

In excellent nature news, after 140 years, a herd of plains bison will return to their native Montana home to roam free as millions of their ancestors once did.

 

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.

This Week in Upgrades: July 11

Braces Teeth
kninwong/Bigstock.com

Have a great weekend!

Why men always think women are flirting with them. The Science of Us

Screen addiction is taking a major toll on children. Probably not a surprise, but no one seems to be doing much about it. New York Times

Habits of people who are achieving work-life balance. Solid list. Fast Company

People age at dramatically different rates. What do you think your real age is? The Guardian

An animated history of transportation. Just brilliant. The Atlantic

Performance wear for classical musicians. Is it a baselayer or a tuxedo shirt? Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? Violinist

According to one researcher, “we are very close to having gene therapies that can restore hearing loss from a wide range of causes.” NPR

Introducing probiotic skincare. Absurd or ingenious? Slate

Braces are more popular than ever. “The choice to leave one’s mouth in aesthetic disarray remains an implicit affront to medical consumerism.” The Atlantic

The Emperor of All Maladies

Emperor“Hope is a funny thing. You have to base hope on something.” “In medicine, you always want to believe.”

Sometimes the truth is difficult to confront. Who wouldn’t rather reside in a happy place in our minds that makes us feel like everything is going to turn out splendidly than engage uncomfortable or undesirable realities? If only merely putting on a pair of yoga pants suddenly made excess weight and cholesterol dissolve without the sweat, soreness, exhaustion, and discipline of real exercise and healthful diet. If only we could just wish that our lazy, credit-stealing boss was less of a tool and he would become better without having the awkward, status-quo-disrupting conversations to actually make it happen. If only all of our financial, relational, ecological, and other mistakes of human nature would sort themselves out well without any of the ugly, painful consequences. If only we were not mortal creatures and could live forever.

Science and technical innovation are perhaps the most optimistic and hopeful human endeavor of our lifetime, and nowhere has belief and reality collided more than in the area of cancer research and treatment. The quotes at the lead are two of many poignant ones from the excellently crafted recent PBS documentary series Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, based on the book of the same name by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Through the all-encompassing history therein, it is apparent that the crucial questions at the core of any discussion about cancer are: What do we really know? What can we now do to address it? We always want to believe that we have the right answers and that we know how things will turn out, but cancer has challenged our understanding of our bodies and our world in ways that few other things have. As Mukherjee states early on in the first part of the series, “to imagine that we will find a simple solution doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the problem.”

Over the course of human history, medical experts of all kinds have run the gamut of nearly every possible explanation for cancer’s causes and viable cures. Is it punishment from the gods? Is it black bile run amok? Is it from a virus, genes, or chemicals? Is there something in the apothecary for it: boar’s tooth, fox’s lung, or crab’s leg? Can’t it just be cut out? Maybe an intravenous combination of some potent synthesized chemicals will wipe it all out? Can’t our immune system do this on its own?

It all is, or at least should be, rather humbling: humbling in both the sense of being humbled—lowered or destroyed—and to be humble—not arrogant, honestly assessing one’s power and understanding. Our bodies are humbled by this debilitating, complex disease that attacks from within: the very constituent parts of our bodies that keep us alive and healthy will under different circumstances kill us. And also, the mysteriousness of cancer and our feeble inability to fully perceive and treat it, despite many and varied efforts of trial and error, should remind us of the limitations of our understanding of the world and our capacity to control it in directions of our own will. Somehow there has been little humility of the latter sort despite the persistence and even increase in cancer’s ravaging humiliation of the former. We always want to believe. We want to believe there’s nothing we can’t understand and course correct it the way we want it to go.

With little or no truthful understanding of cancer’s genetic origins and unpredictable, metastatic spread, we spent decades administering more is better therapies. More cutting: notably the radical mastectomy—barbaric removal of not only a breast with malignancy, but the entire musculature and other tissue below it. More drugs: ever-increasing doses and combinations of chemotherapy—pushing patients closer to the brink of death from treatment than the cancer had itself. One of the most heart-wrenching personal stories shown in the documentary is a young boy who receives aggressive chemotherapy for his leukemia, only to develop a second cancer from the chemo and later die from graft-versus-host after a failed transplant to try to treat the second, medically caused cancer.

Is it better to do something than nothing? What lengths are we willing to go to before we have a better understanding of what’s going on?

Though we now have more accurate concepts like genes, mutations, and pathways rather than humors, we’re not necessarily this close to cancer being fully manageable—as much of the rhetoric of researchers, popular news sources, and some physicians would suggest. After things like smoking, obesity, radiation, viruses, and sunlight, the other 40% of the causes of cancer are not yet known. Prevention and early detection can go a long way, but we’re still seeing through a glass darkly about how the switch is flipped on for a huge set of cancers, and have not found low side-effect treatments that will cleanse and heal the body of the majority of cancers. A few bright spots like the drug Gleevec, a once-a-day pill especially for a form of leukemia, and some immunotherapies—different versions of empowering a body’s own immune system to fight the cancer itself—are exactly that—just a few bright spots in the strive for full cures for all cancers.

Importantly, the documentary spends a meaningful chunk of time near the end exploring the importance of palliative care. It’s difficult to watch as some patients are told there is nothing medical science can do to help them. They will have weeks or maybe months before cancer ends their life. The conversation shifts beyond even a glimmer of hope in this or that treatment to be tried to what is a good death? Eventually, mortality and bodily fragility catch up, and medicine—however advanced and powerful—reaches the limits of its ability to restore. There is no medical expert in eternal life. But doctors still have an important role to play in helping people live out the last days of their lives as well as possible.

As we continue the worthy fight of trying to subvert cancer’s enigmatic power, we need to perpetually ground ourselves in a posture of humility. Too often, medicine (like many other scientific disciplines) has told stories about what cancer is and how it can be defeated that amounted to false hope—acting in overconfidence, and worsening bodily health beyond the destruction of cancer alone. The fight requires ingenuity, patience, a willingness to be dead wrong, collaboration, an emphasis on sustaining the highest level of well-being of patients, honesty, and a tempered optimism, rather than buoyant expectation, that perhaps one day we just might get it all figured out. It’s not a given, though. It’s not inevitable, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be without setbacks. Hope has to be based on something. The way to that something—to truth—requires a humble approach. The limits of: what we know, what we don’t, and what we’re willing to subject people to. Our power to investigate, learn, and understand is as personal and finite as our vulnerable bodies.