Saturday, May 06, 2017

Other Choices/ Other Realities/ More Questions

Way back in 2015 I was feeling swept along by a rapid river of changes. So many new ways of communicating, learning, moving, building and exploring were all coming at me at once. I was concerned that the changes were so pervasive and affected so many aspects of our lives that we have been unable to keep track of them. Most of us were just trying our best to act as if we know what we’re doing. All the while we were in the midst of realizing that in order to survive we would need to develop new skills. How we relate to each other is also changing, as cultures from all over the world merge and new lifestyles emerge. In many ways, we are changing our bodies, brains and minds, both directly and indirectly.
As my interest in all of these innovations grew I became excited, and wanted to be a part of the whatever the future would bring. I began to read books and articles (see below), attend conferences and trade shows, and learn about new companies.  All of the people I met were extolling how we would soon have our lives transformed at the touch of a screen or just by uttering a command or asking a question. I began to believe that these changes would have more of an impact on our lives than just the thrill of capturing animated warriors, who were posing virtually, in the park across the street.
I was eagerly anticipating driverless cars, a cure for Alzheimer’s, genetically modified tofu that tasted like Boston cream pie, enriching relationships with new people from all over the world; new, cheap, sustainable sources of energy, and more time with my grandchildren.
But in the Spring and Summer of 2016 the clouds began to form as the political landscape began to dominate the forecasts and darken the future . There seemed to be a resentment growing and an anger brewing in many people. These people began to feel overwhelmed. The changes that I found so exciting, they felt were ruining their lives. People began to express how uncomfortable they felt with new people and the new lifestyles. They were unclear if it was the Chinese, Mexicans or robots taking their jobs. They were not happy that it often took pushing buttons on three remotes to find the TV show that used to be there if you pushed one “on” button. And where has Bill O’Reilly gone?
People seemed to want to stop, or at least slow down, the flow of these changes and reestablish the sense of security that came with living with what felt familiar, even if that feeling only came from nostalgia and nothing that really ever was.
But the pace of change has not stopped. New things quickly began to get old and newer new things were arriving. Every next thing seemed more complex and different, and whatever it did, it did it faster than before. New books kept coming, and so did web sites, articles, studies and ideas. But now, the tone began to change. There were questions raised about whether these new things were really bringing insight, knowledge, ease, comfort or joy. People began to focus on the downside of all of these changes. Who were these new people? Is Artificial Intelligence smarter than I am? How did so many people know I needed a hub cap? How do they know what kind of medicine I’m taking? Who else knows so much about me? Can I trust the new information I am being given? Can I trust my employer? Can I trust my government?
We are learning, once again, that every new technology that humans develop brings many changes, and they all come with mixed results. This has been true for fire, axes, wheels, agriculture, gun powder, internal combustion engines, plastics, nuclear energy, Twinkies, digital computers, the Internet, and now CRISPR, Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning.
Like all of those innovations, there has never much discussion about how and when to use these new tools. There have been very few times in the history of human civilization when any planning or preparation of this kind has been done. What usually happens is that a group of creative folks come up with something new. Sometimes, if they’re in the right spot at the right time, it either fills a need or creates it’s own need. Then other people figure out different ways to use it. Some of those ways work and sometimes it blows up. Clear examples of this are the internal combustion engine and the iPhone.
But soon after every innovation, the same kinds of societal difficulties begin to appear
Who gets to own it and control it?
Governments, Corporations? Individuals?
How much power does it bring to whoever controls it?
Who gets to use it?
How much does it cost, and who gets the money?
Who else is necessary? Who gets included? Who gets excluded?
Usually, the ones who develop whatever is new get to profit and to control it’s distribution and use, at least for a while.
Then, if it becomes a very powerful tool, it gets taken over by a government or corporation. If the developer is powerful and well managed, such as Apple or Ford, then they keep their advantage for a while. They get to make the market and attempt to ward off competition. The public has to pay for it, or not have it.
Problems almost always arise because the distribution and use of whatever is new and powerful is never equal across any society. The new advantages almost always go to those who had the old advantages; those with the power, access and money. This creates anger and resentment in those who are left with old tools to deal with new problems. If you are left with your horse and buggy or a land-line, you suffer.
What adds to today’s confusion, is that many of the new tools and machines that have been designed to bring us a marvelous new future of happiness, creativity and freedom, are also being used to distract, manipulate and control us. Tools are just tools, whether they are axes or Deep Learning. They can be used to cut up firewood, or chop off your hand. They can be used to treat your medical problems or change your political beliefs. It depends upon who can get them, who knows how to use them, and what their goals are.
There has never been a successful way to limit or plan the usage and distribution on any new technology. Occasionally, a government will decide that it must be the one to control something. That is usually true for any major military item, from a tank to a nuclear weapon. But we are seeing that even those can fall into the hands of non-governmental fringe groups, as so many “independent” military suppliers exist around the world. Thankfully, so far, it has not happened for nuclear weapons.
Another factor is that the confusion creates more confusion. One of the major new creations has been instant world-wide communications. Everything changes so quickly, and everybody knows about it immediately. An idea can spread so fast that is difficult to sort out all of the interpretations of what is happening. Everyone has an opinion that is usually based on partial facts. Communications run through many channels at once. Often what comes out is distorted or incomprehensible. Eventually, the truth becomes clear: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” (trite but true)
The ideal, the “mission statements” behind many of these new developments, is to make the world a safer, healthier, smarter, and more harmonious place for everyone. But that requires a complex set of skills that our species has talked about for a few thousand years, but is yet to show that it is capable of performing. This includes caring about people we don’t know, sharing with those who don’t have as much, and the other ideas from the enlightenment, such as freedom, justice and equality for all. Those are my values, revised to really include everyone. I’m not ready to give up on them.
I’ve seen those things written down in a few places, but it seems as soon as there are a few dollars left unguarded on the table, the ideals seem to vanish.
But perhaps, maybe, this time, we can devise the right algorithm that can lead enough people in the right direction, and convince both the rich and greedy, AND the angry and confused, that if things are better for all of us, then things are better for all of us. And if you need a yacht that badly, you can still have it.
We are at a tipping point. The future still looks cloudy. We all will have an influence, either active or passive.

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Some of the Books that are relevant:
Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, 2011
The Gene Machine, by Donnie Richmond, 2017
The Body Builders, by Adamd Piere 2017
To Be a Machine, by Mark O’Connell, 2017
Our Grandchildren ReDesigned, by Michael Bess, 2016
Homo Deus, by Yuval Harari, 2017
Thinking Machines, by Luke Dormehl, 2017
Heart of the Machine by Richard Yonck, 2017
From Bacteria to Bach and Back, by Daniel Dennett, 2017
The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly, 2016
From the Web:
Oliver Cameron’s transmission about the technologies of self-driving cars
Backchannel, on Medium
Future Tense, ASU and Slate
Mate Labs
The Who

Many, many others

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Standards? What Standards?

Spring has finally come to this New England sanctuary city. The wind stopped, the clouds disappeared and the sun filled up the the sky. The crocuses popped out of the ground and there are buds on everything. I got up and walked away from my Internet connection and spend time with actual, live people. It was a refreshing and life-affirming experience.
My son’s kids were driving their parents a bit crazy; five and three year-olds are experts at doing that, especially now that there is Spring work to be done, both inside and outside of the house. So, it was GrandPops to the rescue, strapping the kids into their car seats, handing them a cookie, and actual 100% juice-boxes to let them know that good times are on the way.
Fifteen minutes later we were in my city, and driving past the newly opened elementary school. As I wrote recently to a friend who lives in a vastly different part of the country, I am quite sure that the price of building this school equalled the entire education budget for his state. We pay a lot of taxes here, and we expect to get things for the money.
The new playground behind the school is amazing. It consists of climbing things, sliding things, spinning things, running areas, ball areas, and even musical structures. The climbing things were nothing like the big wooden platforms of the last decade. Now there are rope climbing, spinning, bridge structures, with bouncing platforms. The kids were thrilled. The park was packed.
It was a relief to be out in the world like this. There were kids and adults in the park of many different colors, with several different accents. They were wildly active, yet were still able to be curious and courteous. The big kids were careful and helpful to the little kids, and the little kids let the big kids move on by. It was great to see. It made me happy and hopeful.
The contrast to the virtual world, even to that here on Medium, and also to many of the interactions I have with adults, especially through businesses, was so striking. Sadly, we are living in a time where so many people keep their hostility and mistrust close to the surface, and let it out much too frequently.
Yes, I live in a bubble. It’s a great one to be in. It’s prosperous, creative, friendly. well-educated and expensive. We are very aware that there are mean, nasty, ugly things going on right around us. These days we hear about and witness more gratuitous acts of bigotry and meanness than two years ago There is also a much greater acceptance of crude behavior in general, and that includes more lying, bullying, cheating and distorting just in order to make a profit. i began writing this before United Airlines decided that it was Ok to drag a paying customer off a plane, and then blame him for being a bad volunteer. The fact that he paid them to sit in that seat didn’t seem to matter.
A short while ago I highlighted a sentence on a post here on Medium that stated that a woman had voted for Trump because of his integrity. This woman has many posts that are provocative, but they are well written and seem to be thoughtful. And I know people voted for Trump for lots of reasons, many of which I disagree with, but I understand their thought process. But when I read that sentence I first thought it was a joke. I still cannot grasp how anyone sees integrity in a man who has just paid $25 million dollars to settle a fraud case, will not show his tax returns, is known to have been sued by thousands of people for not paying his bills, has discriminated against people to make money, and has lied and fabricated stories loudly and publicly for the last thirty years. That use of the word “integrity” bent my mind out of shape.
Certainly, she’s not alone, and I see that standards like that have pervaded the culture. I have had to deal with many people over the last few months as I shopped for certain expensive things I need to by to keep my home running and to keep some members of my family healthy. I can tell you, without the slightest doubt, that almost all of the salesmen I dealt with were charming, friendly and welcoming. They would answer any question and erase any doubts I might have. Except, none of them were really honest.They were trained how to avoid talking about any of the known difficulties with their products, even when directly asked. They skipped mention of things they knew, distorted other things, and rushed the process. It was difficult to get accurate pricing information, even as they continually talked about how much I’d be saving (compared to what?). They also had been trained on how to use my name, keep smiling, compliment me on my knowledge and to up-sell when possible. All charm and technique; no substance.
It’s worse than the old model of “buyer beware” because it’s possible that most of these salespeople know more about me than I can remember. If I’m buying a stove, they know how long I’ve been looking, which ones I’ve looked at, and what I paid for the last one I bought. They have a good idea of what I can afford, how quickly I spend, and my credit score.
It’s worse if your trying to get healthy, because all of the new drugs and medical products don’t have a history. We are all told that the new ones are better than the old ones, but who really gets a good look at all the studies. We only get to read about the best ones; the ones that got the drug approved. Then we get about three pages of tiny print that tells us the possible ways the drug may stop our heart or shut down our liver. How much of a risk is a “slight” risk?
I know, as a therapist, than many people don’t trust their employers much any more. The larger the company, the less it seems they care about their employees. That is not a universal truth, but certainly there is a lot of truth to it. Once “increased shareholder Value” became the accepted goal of corporations, then both customers and employees were demoted being less important people. This has been worse since the recession of 2008. As unemployment rose and it became clear that people were easily replaceable, then the person in the job became less important than just having “a” person in the job. In many jobs, people are being replaced by machines of one sort or another. This is happening in jobs from assembly lines, to call centers, to book translation to doctors. It leaves everyone feeling a bit insecure about their future.
All of this seeps into a lot of areas, and it’s worse because few people trust any of the old, reliable institutions. Everything has become polemic. There are very few places that don’t offer an opinion, and those opinions are all more extreme. Newspapers, TV stations, churches, colleges, police, baristas, chefs, salespeople, finance people, all seem to look at the world through a more distorted lens than before. Everyone has their own agenda. Everyone is talking and almost no one is listening, at least not with an open mind. Everyone has learned to be more suspicious.
My wife and i have always enjoyed traveling. Very often we sit in a small restaurant and we are able to start a conversation with some of the people around us. We have done this many times, and all over the country. We’ve had memorable times in “Boston, in Philadelphia, PA, deep in the heart of Texas, and out near “Frisco Bay, all over St; Louis, and down in New Orleans…”
Everywhere, people are friendly, and mostly proud of where they live. But it’s changed slightly since the election. People try to get a read on each other to see which side you’re on. Everyone seems to feel that the person on the other side of the divide is the cause of lots of trouble. That implies that there there a differences that can’t be discussed, but also can’t be resolved; major differences about what is important in life.
I don’t know how I’d feel these days in the local restaurant in a small town in Indiana. I am sure that all the people would be kind and caring folks, who want what is best for their families and their country. But I’d also be aware that I’m also in the land that created Mike Pence, the new spokesperson for the American version of the Taliban.
How do we get things to improve from this state of affairs? I guess we need to start a dialogue to see if there is any common ground left upon which we can build a bridge across the great divide. Is there a way to create a foundation of respect, civility, and acceptance, with an understanding that despite all our differences. If we don’t get our act together, we will soon be living in an unsafe, unhealthy country, with a bad economy.
Is there anyone out there who would be an acceptable moderator for such a discussion? He or she may be difficult to find.
Stephen Colbet, Bill O’Reilly, Kloe Kardashian, Konya West, LeBron James, Bill Belichick
Lester Holt, Justice John Roberts, Judge Richard Posner, Gov. Charlie Baker
The duo of Niki Haley and Maxine Waters — that might be fun.
Anyone? Any trusted voice of reason who would be respected by 70% of the population?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

To Alpha Centauri or The Bronx and Mississippi?

I don’t know Yuri Milner.  I know that he made a lot of money by backing some of the biggest Internet social media companies.  I know that about two years ago he decided to use  $100 million of his own money to launch a project called Starshot, to explore outer space, way outer space.  His goal was to find a method to send measuring devices to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, which is about four light years away.
Now, four years doesn’t sound like an impossible amount of time to get to another planet, but, despite the “warp speed” button on the Millennium Flacon, going the speed of light is something that cannot be done, except by light.  Undaunted, Mr. Milner has assembled a top team of  scientists and engineers who want to be a part of this project, and they have come up with ideas that they feel, theoretically, could go almost 20% of the speed of light, if they can work out the many difficult details.  At that speed it would take 20 years to send tiny devices to Alpha Centauri.  What they would send would be a herd of very small chips. like the ones that are in your phone.  They would be sent there by a push from an array of focused lasers, which would give them a giant push, and get them up to 20% of light speed.

Will this work?  That seems to be only part of the mission of this mission.  The real fun is just getting all these skilled people to think and act together attempt to conceptualize technology, execution, and the future.  The odds of getting the machines there, getting them to work during the few moments of fly by, and then getting them to send data back through four light-years of space in manner that can be received and interpreted, are quite small.  But they have $100 million to start with, and about thirty years o figure it out.

Fascinating, encouraging, and hey, it’s his money.


I was reading an update on the Starshot program in this mont’s Scientific American, which I still get in hard copy after all these years, even though it isn’t even American any more. The articles have been cut down to three or four pages to cater to an audience with today’s attention span. 
so I was able to keep reading new articles about attempts at using the scientific method to discover other factors that influence our lives.  Science continues to do this even if the results are not 100% accurate, and the struggle for confirmation usually demands “further study.”  The lack of clarity is part of what makes the real quest for knowledge unending.  Nobody, knows it all; even if they think they do.

About ten pages further along in the same issues (March, 2017) is an article by Kimberly Noble, who is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Teachers College.  She has studied the effects of poverty on children’s brain development and, not surprisingly, she has found that children who spend their early lives in homes with the lowest socio-economic level show impairments in their cognitive functioning.  These impairments are not due to their genetics, or race or location, as all those factors were controlled, they are due to not having enough of whatever is needed to develop their brains to their full potential.  This includes food, social and cognitive stimulation, attention, heat, stability, and all the other parts of life that come with poverty.

She cites that there are some programs that are somewhat effective and helping children who live in poverty to overcome those dangers, such as Head Start.  She also states that correlation does not always imply causality, as there may be other factors that just haven’t been discovered that may actually be the cause of these cognitive deficiencies.  So, this theory requires further study.

One type of study she suggests would be just to give the families money.  She wonders if fancy education or training programs are necessary, or if that would just be spreading the money around to consultants and teachers, and not the families who are poor.  Why not just give them money and see what good it would do?  Her “hypothesis is that increased family income will trigger a cascade of positive effects for these families.” And that these effects will show up in the  improved cognitive skills of these children.

Her experimental design is to give 100 families $333 a month.  That’s a bit of money.  But not much.  It’s almost $4000 a year.  It’s certainly something, if you have nothing, but not enough to really move anyone out of poverty.

That’s when I began to connect the two articles in my mind.  What if, in addition to his fun and fascinating interstellar Starshot project, Mr. Milner could see his way to dropping another $100 million of the estimated over $3.1 Billion he has parked around the world on Dr. Noble’s project.
Then we could really study what it would mean to a family’s life, including brain development, stability, achievement and future, if they could move out of poverty and into the lower-middle class.  

For around $100 million, 500 families could get $40,000 a year for seven years.  i would begin it at the birth of a child, just like Dr. Noble is doing. I don’t know what would happen; that’s why we do studies.  But my hypothesis would be that after seven years most of the families would have found a way to be able to keep running at that level on their own. It would allow them a better chance at keep the partners together.  It would give them a better way to have one parent at home while the other one worked, and each parent could find work without having the home fall apart or the kids go unsupervised.  It would allow them to keep jobs making $11 an hour long enough to move up and stating making $20 an hour.  Or it would allow them to go to school and get training to make $105,000 a year. It would relieve the stress that comes from not making the rent, or from choosing whether to pay for food, shelter or medicine. Perhaps even give the family resources to get a car, which would get them to work regularly and on time.

This kind of stability would assure that the child receives proper nourishment and proper attention from two parents; parents who would be relaxed enough so that the child would not be subjected to the tension that comes with poverty.

What this study would also be doing is testing the theory behind a guaranteed annual income. That is something that will come more into focus when self-driving trucks are introduced, along with all the other robots that will run our factories, deliver goods, clean our streets and suck the pollution out of the air.

So, if any of you reading this know how to get in touch with Mr. Milner, tell him to talk to Dr. Noble and see if they can work out the details.  You can tell him I sent you.

  •   *   *  *   *   *   *

Really, I strongly believe that both of these functions, basic research for space exploration, and practical research on child and family development, obviously should be paid for by our government.  That’s what governments do well, when they are allowed to function.  Mr. Milner, and all of those who possess  the top .1% and the1% and even the top 5% of wealth in this country should pay a lot more taxes to allow the government to do things like this for all of our citizens.  They should do this because the system in this country is designed to help those people become innovative, to take risks, and even to fail and try again.  They have benefitted greatly from the rules that were written to help them.  They should pay some it back to allow the society to benefit also, That way our society can develop more innovators and more problem solvers, using the talent of people from all socio-economic groups.

However, we are living in an upside-down time.  A time when science is bad and anger and scapegoating innocent people is in vogue.  We are still being sold the myth that rich people are better at distributing money, and that giving them more of it helps those with less.  We hear this often, even though it has not worked for over thirty years.  

But that is a discussion for another time.  Almost every other time it seems, which is good, because maybe, if it discussed enough, things will change.

Until then, whisper in Yuri’s ear, or anyone out there who you know who has $100 million that they don’t want to leave to their great-grandchildren because it will ruin their lives.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

So Messed UP



We drove up the west side of the east coast. Geographically, this is a beautiful country. I drove for three hours along the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway. It was built by the government beginning in 1935, in part to give people jobs, and in part to give everyone a chance to enjoy the wonders of our country.
Although it is one of the most visited sites of the National Park Service it was almost totally empty as I drove through dozens of magnificent curves, surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. Even with the hills dressed in their winter brown each new turn was a visual delight.

DJB, Blue Ridge Parkway
DJB, from Blue Ridge Parkway viewing area

But looks can be deceiving; this great country is a mess. The politics are not the cause, they are the result of a society gone wrong. We are a prosperous, strong and creative country, yet so many are so lost, angry and stressed.
I am hardly working any more. I gave up my psychotherapy practice on the day with the most sunlight of last year. At that time I was tired. I had become almost immune to the craziness and suffering that was presented to me for nine hours a day. My view of life was becoming pretty cynical and suspect. I thought that if I could stay away from listening to misery for all those hours my mind would clear and my faith in the spirits and wisdom of the world would return.
That hasn’t happened.
The first thing that disrupts my feelings of peace and hope is that I am getting older, creakier and a bit crankier. I am still young-old and except for not being able to run or jump (lost my jump-shot), I am still very active. But surrounding me, many of my friends are breaking down. Several have already disappeared. Various chronic conditions have set in: diabetes, neuropathy, M.S., heart problems and several cancers. Due to the marvelous advances in medicines most have been patched together and are continuing on. But the cloud lingers over all of us. “Is this just a head ache?”
But the main disruption comes as I realize that the people I saw for therapy were at least insightful and brave enough to confront their difficulties. From them I usually heard about other family members who were raging destructive forces that negatively impacted the lives of dozens of people, but who never would come for treatment.
Now that I am away from the office I realize that it is not just the families of my patients, the entire world is full of these people. Every family has at least one. Anxiety, depression, anger, rejection, hyper-sensitivity, seem to be woven into our society, with few effective treatments. I am finding no difference between the people I interact with now, and those I was seeing at work, except almost all of my patients were much more open and aware about what was really going on in their minds and their lives.
(Yes, all of the following details are modified enough to protect the identities.)
A Patient: She grew-up with a very abusive mother and an alcoholic father who tried to protect her until he dropped dead. Five of her seven siblings are already dead from illnesses, accidents and addictions. She went through several abusive relationships as an adult and a long period of drinking heavily herself. She recovered and stabilized in her fifties. She still suffers from the physical pains left from all of the conflicts she endured. Now she takes care of herself, has a weekend man friend, and finally feels safe and in control.
A Friend’s Daughter: Grew up in an upper middle class home. She attended a good high school in which she faltered, so she was sent to a prep school, which got her into a private college that she didn’t finish. Her older brother is a software engineer with a nice family. She came home from college and got pregnant. Now, her daughter is twelve and being raised by her grandparents, while her mother watches TV, goes to doctors, goes shopping and complains about how difficult life is.
A Patient: She was raised by a father who thought he knew God, and a mother who believed that sex was the cause of all evil. She wasn’t allowed out of the house except for school until she was sixteen. She was married for six months but couldn’t take the pressure of a relationship. She now has learned some computer skills and works in a billing office. She has a few friends she sees on weekends. She has no TV and reads English novels every evening. She’s not a fan of religion.
A Friend’s ex-wife: In her early forties as her two daughters were becoming active adolescents, she freaked out and joined a fundamentalist church. All decisions were based on God, sin and the Bible. She started giving money to TV preachers and hovering over her daughters. Her husband finally divorced her and kept her away from their daughters. She now has limited contact with them, and they are at college. They think she is having an affair with the minister.
A Patient: He came from a wealthy, well educated family who had high expectations. They lived in a wealthy town and had an active social life. He started using cocaine on weekends with his friends. He really enjoyed doing that more than anything else. He started stealing from his family to pay for it. He lied to cover it up. He then began using heroin. He went into rehab. He went back to using. He went back to rehab. He went back to using. They sent him to live with an aunt who lived far away to get a new start. I don’t think it helped, but he wasn’t my patient any longer.
A Friend’s son: Same thing, except he’s living in a small apartment in another city and his parents pay his rent and send him a small allowance. He sends a text messages about once a month to tell them he’s still alive.
Those are three examples. I could easily give you sixty. I think that the mental health of the country has gotten worse, but not by a tremendous amount. What is different is that it is more apparent, and that it has less of a functional basis. By that I mean that in so many ways our lives are easier, safer, and offer more possibilities for fun, relaxation, creativity, community, and enjoyment than ever before. Everyone, except the very poorest and oppressed ten to 15 percent, are living with better food, shelter and safety than ever. There are difficulties, but there are usually pathways to improvement. Yet, it seems as if there is an uncertainty about the future which creates a constant underlying tension of insecurity. This insecurity creates a sense of distrust that make people very suspicious and defensive, and that limits cooperation, which stops progress.
It feels as if our primitive human brains are not equipped to take advantage of many of the technological advances that could make our lives so much easier and better. Technology has disrupted so many jobs and has intruded upon so many lifestyles that people need to learn totally new coping skills to survive.
But there is almost no one to teach those skills, because none of us have been here before.
Instead we have a plethora of gurus advocating old-style solutions, usually based on the usual aphorisms, cliches, and homilies. These are mostly derived from the old institutions of religion, pop-psychology or business schools: Faith, Mindfulness, Perseverance. Many are popular only due to clever marketing strategies.
Yes, there is certainly some wisdom in the advice they offer, but they no longer really address the problems we all have to deal with.. The world has changed. It operates very differently now. The tasks that people need to survive are very different. This is true because the way people work has changed. It’s mostly connected to technology. It’s much faster. It’s much more mental and less physical. Many jobs are not even necessary, as they can be done more efficiently by computers or robots. Because economics are different, relationships are different. Men and women now play different roles. People from other countries play different roles. Many people find this confusing and stressful.
For many of us, the goals we have in our minds as we wake up each day are less clear. It becomes easy to just chase after money, but that soon proves to be an endless grind that eats away our values, ethics and trust. So what’s next? People seem lost. It becomes an existential question about how to make life meaningful. If survival is easy, how can we feel accomplished? How can we feel grown-up? This seems especially confusing to men as it becomes difficult to prove masculinity when the tasks of life are so cerebral and require interpersonal and emotional skills. Perhaps that contributes to the difficulties many women have in finding a rewarding relationship with a man, as guys seem so 20th Century, and so immature.
The short term coping solution in this country, sadly has been what usually happens during times of transition. The major power structure plays upon the fears of the majorities, splits them into smaller groups and turns them against each other. As newer, lower skill jobs become scarce, the affected groups fight each other for the scraps instead of planning for a better, cooperative future. Hostility between people increases, stress increases. As things become more complex and more difficult more people become overwhelmed and just drop out all together, ending up hiding in bed, living in someone’s basement, or trolling on the Internet.
All of these struggles are sadly ironic. The hope was that new technologies would bring positive changes for everyone. Our survival could be guaranteed. There is already the means to feed and shelter all of us. If properly employed, technology could release us from meaningless work and grant us time for more leisure and richer, more satisfying lives. But the thought of that, and the lack of structure that comes with it, seems to frighten the majority of people. Can our brains, bodies and societies cope with so much freedom? Reaching those goals demands new skills, such as cooperation and sharing. It demands communicating and compromising; listening and understanding; inclusion and acceptance.
Those are much more complex skills than individualism, competition, and a quest for money, power and dominance. The most difficult part is that any lasting, positive change requires a basic level of trust. Humans have not shown a strong ability to do that, even within their own tribes or families. I’ve seen too many families in which a man has gotten way too involved with his brother’s wife. That usually upsets the family dynamics and trust.
But adaptation to a new way of living is possible. Our early ancestors lived in tribes and had lives based on sharing and cooperation. So we have those old pathways somewhere in our brains. I’ve read that agriculture and the idea of the ownership of land put an end to that.
We can’t go back to hunting and gathering any more than we can go back to all of us growing our own food. But we do have the capability to change, learn and adjust to new situations. The ones who are able to learn the fastest will be the ones who survive and have more children to whom they can teach those skills.
We are in a time a rapid transition. The old ways don’t work, but people are clinging to them desperately, even when it means denying obvious truths. Changes causes uncertainty. Uncertainty causes fear. Fear quickly raises the level of distrust.
Transitions are never easy or smooth. Just ask your five year-old to turn off the iPad, watch how happily she makes the change.

(references for many of the ideas mentioned are available upon request. )

Monday, February 20, 2017

This City, At This Time

We are down south, but not really in the South.
We are in the big city that is almost another country, but isn’t.
Many, perhaps most, people here speak another language, many languages.

I am high up in a high building.  I can sit and watch the planes come out of the clouds and coast to the airport.
I can watch the boats glide down the bay and wait for the drawbridge to open.
I see the sunset turn the windows blazing red on the tall towers across the bay.

Rows of forty and fifty story steel and glass towers line the water for miles.
All with balconies that almost no one is on, except for me, and a couple of people who sneak out to smoke.
Along the bay these towers are two, three, or four rows deep.
They are building more all over the city; higher ones to peek over the older ones. The noise of construction, the banging, the beeping, the grinding goes on from eight to five, everyday except Sunday.
The money for these buildings comes from all over the world.
The money finds a safe home here. It is safer, at least for now, than it is in Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Russia or China, or any country with oil.

Four blocks away from the bay the houses are one, two or three stories tall.
There are neighborhoods, some are going through transitions as the poor immigrants are being pushed away. Younger, more hopeful, but not yet prosperous people are moving in. 
These neighborhoods are vibrant, with night life going on late.
Cafes overflowing on the streets full of men, drinking and talking, making deals.
Designing businesses, designing designs, writing, playing music.
Flirting with women.

Women too, are now talking, drinking wine, designing, making deals, building businesses
Smiling as the men flirt with them.
The men and women who have come from the other cultures, live in these neighborhoods.  They dress beautifully, they present themselves to the world with a sense of presence and style.
This is a city.  The people have to have a style, a sense of themselves to be a part of it.
But this is not Brooklyn or Boston.  It is warm here.No big coats, sweaters, or flannel shirts,
Bodies are clearly on display, and they look good. Often very good. Certainly to an old man.

Walk around the corner and you have to step over a man sleeping on the sidewalk with his head resting on his backpack.  You won’t step on him because you can smell him a few feet before you see him.
If you pass a dark alley a young man with vacant eyes may step out and ask you, in a voice that you strain to hear, for a couple of dollars, just so he can survive.
He makes you feel uncomfortable and it’s very awkward, as you realize what it must take to ask like this. Even if he is just hustling he can’t be very good at it because he looks so lost and frail, but he still human.  So I give him a couple of dollars realizing that my wife just spend $15 on a glass of wine at the very good, hip restaurant in this transitional neighborhood, and our Uber will arrive in two more minutes to take us back to the tower that overlooks the bay.

In the building by the bay live hundreds of people from hundreds of places, speaking dozens of languages.  Riding the elevator early in the morning you ride down with people going to work. They are dressed in everything including sharp business suits, short dresses and very high heels, fine jeans and fancy tee-shirts, and hospital scrubs.  Everyone is cheerful, everyone is a little more than polite, they are friendly. Many know each other, and like being together.

Half an hour later the elevator is full of people with their dogs. Mostly women with very small dogs.  Many of the dogs are in their own strollers.  One women had four little white dogs in her stroller, all barking in slightly different tones

Later in the day, the old people are doing laps up and back in the pool, many using styrofoam floatations to help them along in their exercise programs.  Inside, in the elevator, as I got on with my three year-old grandson, a man joined us.  He stood about six-foot-five, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. His skin was the color of a frappuccino. He wore expensive business casual. His dreadlocks flowed down below his shoulders.  He spotted at my grandson, who immediately hid behind my legs. The man smiled and said, “Hey, is that Lightening McQueen on those shoes.”  The kid stepped out from behind my leg and spoke in his barely comprehensible english, “Yes, these shoes go very fast.”

Later, as the sun begins to set, it is Happy Hour all over the city. Since it is warm, or hot here, almost everything happens outside.  Families gather on the decks, in their backyards, or together in the neighborhood. They cook old recipes that have come from many different lands and have been modified by each generation that has been here. In the bars, cafes, restaurants, many that line the water ways, the people begin their evenings, sitting, conversing, and laughing. Many gather in family or ethnic groups, but also many in very diverse groups of people who work together, create together or just play together.  This is what helps the city grow, change, and evolve into whatever it needs to be. The world changes from here.

The TVs on the wall show mostly soccer games from Europe or Brazil. There are basketball games of the local team and local colleges.  There is also the news channel, but not the one they watch in Indiana.
On the news channel is our President, raving that he is treated unfairly. He is telling us he is making us safer, and he is the best that there ever was.
The people here who watch him are nervous.  They fear that he will deport their friends for no reason, to countries they have not been since they were six. He will deport these people to make the people living in Arkansas feel safe.  The people in Arkansas, twelve hundred miles away somehow feel threatened by the people in this neighborhood.  They feel that way because the President told them they were dangerous. None of these people look or act dangerous. Well, some of the women might be dangerous, but not in a way that would threaten Little Rock.

Away from the towers of steel, glass and balconies many of the neighborhoods are crumbling.  Many of the streets are full of potholes and with crumbling houses and littered lots.  They have found a way to distract people from the rubble by painting beautiful murals all over the city.

The schools struggle for funds, and face the huge task of having to educate people who speak so many languages, and have so many needs.  I do not live here so I don’t know the politics, but I’m sure it’s complex, and probably doesn’t work that well.

This is a very American city, but it is not typical, because everyone city is unique. This city will grow unless the sea continues to rise and covers it over.  What it will become is not yet clear.  Like every place around the world, it seems as if those who are already doing well will benefit the most.  Those a step away will strive toward to join in the prosperity, with a few making it. The rest will struggle in the shadows of the towers, living lives of increasing difficulty. This is the way it has been since cities first formed.  The castles were on the top of the hill. The garbage and the sewage flowed down. Why should it be different now?

Perhaps because we don’t need slaves and surfs or peasants any more to support the kings, dukes and earls.  We don’t even need kings, dukes and earls any more, although many people seem to pretend to royalty, certainly in their own mind.

Now we have robots. We have Artificial Intelligence, and sophisticated algorithms that can help run all our lives. We even have democracy, so that everyone can be a part of choosing our future.  
At least we made an attempt at it.  

Like this city, it still needs a lot of adjustments.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Like it or Not, It’s US!

sleepng in the Everglades by DJB

Look at the ‘gators, just sleeping in the sun.  It’s difficult for me to speculate about an alligator’s thoughts, because their ability to think is pretty limited.  But anthropomorphically, they look as if they are just relaxing in the sun, affectionately intertwined.  Their hearts are pure their bellies are full.

These ‘gators, and about a dozen of their colleagues, are laying in a muddy patch near a path through the Everglades National Park.  This is different than the park where the commercial tours run; the ones that also feature a guy who wrestles with alligators. The same tourist attraction they have run since 1955.  Looking over at these lizards it’s pretty clear that they have no interest in wrestling with anyone. They are living out their alligator life, in their protected alligator swamp, seemingly unconcerned about anything more than when to get up and find their next meal.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple any more, not even for them.  Although I doubt those two realize it, they are lucky to be here. In 1955, due in part to people who captured them and put them in shows, but more because people made them into shoes and pocketbooks, and even more  because people drained  the swamps for farms and housing developments, alligators  almost became extinct.  But the government stepped in and protected them and persevered great swaths of their habitat. By 1987, they were no longer endangered.

But now, we may be seeing a government that doesn’t care as much about spending a lot of money to protect swamps and mud holes.  Also, the water that comes into the swamps and mud holes maybe coming in too quickly and getting too deep, and is changing the composition of what kinds of creatures can live there.  In addition the water now contains a lot of strange, man-made chemicals that are toxic to many of the creatures that live in those swamps.

But really, although I do like alligators, as well as great blue herons, ospreys, and piping plovers, and also the southern toads and pig frogs, and every other fish, animal, bird, plant and bug in the Everglades, I care more about my grandchildren, and the kind of world in which they will be living.  I know that if the Everglades, and many of the other estuaries that provide the basic nourishment for the bottom of the food chain become greatly diminished, then everyone’s ability to to grow and find food, all the way up to the top of the chain becomes diminished.

But, really, this isn’t really about climate change.  What these two sleeping reptiles don’t seem to be thinking about is how much the lives of all of us, every creature on earth, have become so much more intertwined over the last hundred years.  What happens in the Everglades affects the lives of people and polar bears in Alaska.  What happens in Washington and Beijing can be a matter of life and death in Syria and Brazil. The way you treat your neighbor affects how I treat mine.  It has become almost impossible to live a life in isolation.  Everyone is connected, whether you want to be or not.

I realize, having walked out on a starry night deep in the desert in Arizona, or up in the mountains of Idaho, that it can feel as if the rest of the world is far away and that I am alone, independent  and self-dependent. But as soon as I want to eat, find water, or to talk to another human being, I will be affected by, and have an affect on, the rest of the world.  Not just the town, the country or the state that I’m in; the world.

This is true because the people of the world are all now in constant communication with each other.   People in Afghanistan were watching the Super Bowl (great game, wasn’t it). People in India were watching Lady GaGa( I didn’t like those shoulder pads). China holds billions of dollars of America’s debt. On my table in Massachusetts is coffee from Africa or Central America, fruit from South America, on dishes made in Portugal. People in those countries are eating bread made from American wheat, and driving American tractors across their farms. Many people are dependent on life-saving drugs made in America, Switzerland, Germany, Israel or India.

People are moving all across the world, some running from terrible conditions, others going to seek better educations and opportunities.  They are inter-marrying, and often their children are moving to new places. This isn’t going to stop, even if one country decides to build a wall.

Ideas are flowing even more quickly across the world. Some people are trying to finding ways we can all benefit from each other’s knowledge, and improve the lives of everyone, all across the globe.  Others a still pretty primitive, and are spreading ideas about how some people are different and should be driven away, or blown up.

To those who say that if everyone would just take care of themselves, and not hurt anyone else, that’s enough, I have to answer, sadly, that is no longer true.  We now still have to take care of ourselves, but also be aware of how we do it, and how it affects everyone else.  You can’t leave your garbage in the woods.  You can’t burn your garbage in the back yard. You can’t leave the water running all day.  You can’t drive a car that doesn’t run clean. You can’t text while driving that car. Burning down the rain forrest in Brazil affects the air quality in Russia.  Insider trading undermines the trust necessary to financial transactions.  Discriminatory housing practices create tensions and anger that can ruin a city. Not paying taxes undermines the fairness of a society. Corruption and unfairness make doing business much more difficult.  Everyone who feels cheated starts to cheat to protect themselves.

The fact that the rest of the world didn’t care that the Israelis and Palestinians never settled their differences for eighty years has affected almost everyone in the world. It has created the chaos and conflict through-out the region that has now affected almost every country in the world.

If people can’t support their families in Mississippi or Wisconsin it affects me here in Massachusetts, even though my kids have good jobs and my wife and I have just stopped working after forty years.  It affects us if kids in Kansas go to terrible schools and won’t be able to understand the world in which they are living, even if my grandchildren do.  Those Kansas kids will struggle and get angry and who knows who they will blame.

I would love to be able to relax and read a good mystery without feeling that something is going terribly wrong and I need to help fix it.  I would love to just post pictures of my grandchildren playing with ducks, or only spend time telling you how amazing Isiah Thomas has been for the Celtics. — which he has been and I do spend time talking about it. 

To all of you who spend part of the day meditating and being mindful.  And to the others who are reading about how to be wildly successful by focusing on your goals, that’s great, and go for it.  But be aware, that you can’t achieve your goal on your own, and also it’s worthless if the world you are living in is falling apart. If you just take care of yourself you may not notice that the freedoms of other people to just take care of themselves is slipping away. They are not sliding down a slippery slope, they are falling off a cliff, and once they go we all soon will follow.

We all have to be aware of what we are doing and how it affects other people, even, and perhaps especially, the ones who don’t know, who we think of as different from us. We are all in this together.  We will all live together in a better world, or we will all live like the poor people of Somalia, with constant conflict and chaos.  Those are our choices. The choices are becoming clearer each day.

So, as they say at the check-out counter: “Have a great day.”