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Musings

Empathy is overrated

This title isn’t intended to be provocative. Instead, it is meant to be an honest indictment of what I deem to be an unrealistic belief. Defining empathy as the literal feeling of what another is feeling, its pros and cons are immediately clear. For starters, empathy is likelier to be false and/or flawed than sympathy, given that no one person is exactly like another, and thereby some nuance of emotion may well be missed. Second, the pitfalls of empathy are well known, in that fully sharing a burden may be admirable but could result in similarly deleterious effects as having that burden oneself, potentially duplicating its ramifications.

Sympathy is somewhat more practical, while compassion may be the optimal quality to aim for, and here’s why: Being able to comprehend why someone else is feeling a certain way, or what their emotional and/or mental state is, already is more probable than feeling inherently similar immediately upon understanding. But compassion implies action of some sort following the achievement of sympathy, hence its featuring in so many religions, which all recognize that understanding without action is hardly virtuous.

Especially during the uniquely trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic, I frankly would not have been able to function were it not for staying in my traditional lane of sympathy and hopefully at times compassion. Empathy does not come naturally to me, and moreover, I am quite suspicious of it given how far removed from many people’s lived experiences I am (candidly, I consider myself one of the most fortunate people I’ve ever met, in nearly every way, which disqualifies me from having walked in so many others’ shoes). But sympathy (and again, hopefully, compassion) also were much more sustainable to practice for the unending months of the pandemic, and what is sure to be its frustratingly drawn-out conclusion.

Much like if you truly love someone, you tell them even unwelcome truths in as gentle a fashion as possible, one should not overstretch into something less than fully genuine or even practical. Empathy is overrated; aim for sympathy as a rule, strive for compassion as an ideal.

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Musings

Blues & Tough

The phrase toxic masculinity irks me a little. On the other hand, so does machismo. But then I turn around and the word empathy – now abused at the scale that only corporatism can pull off – leaves me feeling queasy. Unfortunately, due to my general work and reading selection this week, I’ve seen all of those phrases quite a bit already today – and it’s only Monday. Were it not Holy Week for us Catholics, I’d usually go pour a wee dram of Early Times bourbon into my rocks glass engraved with a quote from Alexander Hamilton and listen moodily to Robert Johnson’s genre-defining takes on guitar-powered blues, as an exercise in toleration.

But it is Holy Week, and as March of 2021 winds down, marking a year of the COVID-19 pandemic for those of us in the US, there is not much else to do but reflect on what being tough really is, while still listening to the blues. The funny thing is that toughness gets relatively maligned these days. We are often instructed to vent – which I think is healthy. We are often told to let it all out – which I can begrudgingly approve, contingent on circumstances, audience and method. We are often told to err on the side of complete empathy – which frankly I still am not quite sure I use correctly, but I’m pretty sure is confused with sympathy most of the time. We are often lectured at concerning the unhealthy repression of the past, especially by men, wherein the “stiff upper lip” and the “grin and bear it” mentality wrought so much havoc – which I can concede definitely can and did backfire.

But in the end, I think the real secret to toughness is actually to be found in the blues. After all, the blues are pretty straightforward. They are not endless, nor wishy-washy, nor repressed, nor that sickly, sweetly empathetic. They are just honest, oft-sardonic, lyrical, artistic treatments of the banalities that usually characterize the sadder aspects of the human condition.

That, I think, is the secret of toughness. You do not tamp down your feelings, nor ignore them, nor just exist in a state of perpetual emotional broadcast. Instead, you confront hardships head on, in a truly human fashion, by letting out how you feel in a controlled, creative endeavor that reflects the best of our ability to utilize our imagination and poetry of the soul, bluntly acknowledging how you feel about the scenario, and very often wryly noting there is not much resolution to be had other than to just accept reality. And then the song ends, and you move on, even if you may not ever quite forget. It unites the best of all the classic methods to dealing with grief, avoiding many of the current fashionable pitfalls that tend to lead to self-destructive loops of self-pity; it also maneuvers past the equally self-destructive cycle of repressed feelings and all-too-frequent resultant abuse.

In the end, the blues really are the blueprint.

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Musings

Business Maxims; Perhaps to Also Live By

  1. For every meeting you accept, decline two.
  2. (A modification of Hanlon’s Razor) – Never attribute to malice that which can be chalked up to a lack of context or forethought.
  3. Meetings should always be demarcated in units of 15 minutes, up to a multiple of six, for no meeting should exceed 90 minutes.
  4. Corollary: The length of a meeting should be inversely proportional to the number of attendees.
  5. You learn more about a person from a resume or a test than an interview, though all remain critical.
  6. You choose to be ruled by either your inbox or your to-do list.
  7. If you don’t respect your time, no one else will.
  8. You can generally outwait someone’s emotions during a conversation, but must address them before they harden.
  9. Most everyone who uses the word empathy nowadays really means sympathy.
  10. Most everyone spends most of the time thinking about their own affairs – nothing pertaining to you.
  11. Most everyone spends a lot of their life figuring out whether they need or want internal or external validation – some want both.
  12. It isn’t always about the money – but it usually is.
  13. Don’t impose your own traits on others.
  14. Meet people where they are at, not where you think they should be.
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Musings

Crass Gnosticism: We Have Met the Enemy, and They Are Us

(Thanks to Walker Percy, Jason Peters (heck, the entire Front Porch Republic crew, especially Jeff Bilbro), Cardinal Robert Sarah, Joshua Schwartz, Marko Papic, James Howard Kunstler, Chris Arnade, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (I really can’t stand him but his coinage of IYI does constantly inspire me), Neil Postman, Howard Marks, Grace Olmstead, Elizabeth Bruenig and many others who ended up writing much of what inspired the following rumination. Any of the following is not their fault, by the way.)

1: 2021

Never one to pass up an opportunity to pilfer the murky, swampish depths of my brain, I selected the subtitle above with a distinct purpose. I want to avoid anything that smacks of whataboutism, pointing fingers, ever-so-slightly casting blame or really anything that avoids the sad brutal crux of life at really any point: If you are very unhappy with what is going on in your life, it’s usually on you. Not that you deliberately chose for everything to happen to you as if from a menu, with full knowledge and consent; in fact, pretty much every one of us has not had a say in most things that have happened to us. But what is done is done, and how we respond is up to us. Also, it is worth noting that we may have contributed, usually by way of omission, more to our current state of affairs than we’d like to admit.

The same often goes for broader states of affairs, especially in a democracy or republic. We reap what we sow, more often than we’d care to think about. At this present moment, in the early days of 2021, Trump fans are still declaiming wildly that the leftists are enacting the true coup, while progressives shriek that Trump must be taught a lesson or fascists will be emboldened, just as Hitler was after minor punishments for a putsch. Neither will care to hear that they both in large part brought this outcome upon themselves – the former for enabling a clearly inept, narcissistic blowhard that never should have been elected president, and the latter for softpedaling earlier violent riots and refusing to even compromise on pretty much any issue. I quite enjoy doing this, so I’ll state one more: The complete failure on the part of many pundits on the left to acknowledge how the Obama administration was mediocre at best and deathly passive at worst is only matched by the not-so-subtle racism and faux-conservatism exhibited by many on the right in their kneejerk opposition to much of what the Obama administration tried to do.

It would be too easy to go on for forever, but the takeaway is pretty clear. In other words, we have met the enemy, and they are us.

That subtitle comes from a Walt Kelly comic, Pogo. I’m not really familiar with the strip or artist, apart from some passing references in reading interviews with Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame, but I learned of the phrase’s origin when Googling it on a whim, while writing this introduction. In a way, that search also hints at some of the themes in the following, in that for much of my life I have been offhandedly referencing or using that phrase with a decent approximation of its meaning, but never once put two and two together and connected it to the famous American military quote “We have met the enemy, and they are ours” that it parodies, nor realized the Pogo quote originally applied to environmentalism. Our minds are marvelous machines, capable of much abstraction, but only so much. In fact, I often wonder if the rabid push toward AI is a tacit acknowledgment of the sheer degree of abstraction required in many fields now for original research that is beyond our capability. We’re not all John von Neumann, sadly. But like him, we are human – we are half-holy hybrids, an odd chimera of body and soul. It’s our blessing and curse, and grappling with it has been one of our perennial struggles. The problem is, right now, we have the tools to make that struggle worse than it ever has been before… and perhaps better.

2: A cut-rate Gnosticism: the vague unifying belief that underlies the early 21st century’s zeitgeist

Like any younger millennial, I know how to write a good research paper, so let me show off: 1) Go to Wikipedia; 2) find what seems like the most reputable batch of articles; 3) cull from the citations at the bottom of said articles the array of related materials that may or may not support your hypothesis. In addition, let me quickly Google the definition of Gnosticism, as frankly speaking that’s kind of a weird one.

From the illustrious Britannica: “The designation gnosticism is a term of modern scholarship. It was first used by the English poet and philosopher of religion Henry More (1614–87), who applied it to the religious groups referred to in ancient sources as gnostikoi (Greek: “those who have gnosis, or ‘knowledge’ ”). The Greek adjective gnostikos (“leading to knowledge” or “pertaining to knowledge”) was first used by Plato to describe the cognitive or intellectual dimension of learning, as opposed to the practical.”

And in addition: “Many of the so-called gnostic groups are characterized by a mythology that distinguishes between an inferior creator of the world (a demiurge) and a more transcendent god or order of being. Another frequently encountered theme is that there is a special class or race of humans that is descended from the transcendent realm and is destined to achieve salvation and to return to its spiritual origins. Salvation is understood as a revelation that reawakens knowledge (gnosis) of the race’s divine identity; […] it is often asserted that in the gnostic myths there is a far sharper dualism, involving a much more negative attitude toward the inferior creator god, the material cosmos, and the human body.”

Identifying the primary intellectual force behind the early 21st century’s zeitgeist as the above may seem out of left field, but bear with me. It’s easy to establish that much of the rich, primarily western world is, with all due respect to R.E.M., losing their official religion at a rapid clip, turning toward more dynamic, personal belief systems. (That is as of now, although I strongly suspect in a decade or more much of the Middle East will follow suit.) What is it, you would say, that the typical secular human in a developed nation nowadays actually worships? Even if nominally Christian or Muslim or any related denomination, if they don’t attend a single religious service at all or do anything recognized as prayer, what do they do that ancient humans would recognize simply as worship?

God help us all, one of us may have thought of Sunday brunch. However, beyond such accursed inventions, what many of us aspire to, rather than what we actually end up doing (classic hallmarks of religious practice, as most of us aren’t that good at our own religions), is the pursuit of being… them.

And by them, I mean that group of people that various elites at times try to persuade everyone and especially each other that they are. This superior class is always physically fit but body-positive, charming but inoffensive, knowledgeable but open, connected yet individualist, genteel but woke… They are unburdened and uninhibited by the sins of their ancestors, no longer just not racist but antiracist, free of the messy reality that is the human body that confines us into particular identities.

They do not exist. Not only does the vast machinery of modern consumer marketing try to sell us on all the products and services that will enable us to become them, but also growing movements in academia and media are trying to establish them as the apotheosis of post-liberal, post-capitalist, post-religious society.

Tell me, how does this worship differ from being a crasser slant on the transcendent race of superior beings that the Gnostics sought to be on their route to salvation or tacitly proclaimed they already were? How does this not reek of a clear rejection of actual mental, moral and material limitations in our world?

To walk through one example, one may say that the trend of body-positivity goes counter toward the silent, subtle nudge of so much of our culture toward achieving the hairless, toned, wrinkle-free physiques of the superior beings we should all be. I concur – the body-positive advocates are pushing back against this worshipful rat-race toward the unattainable. I just think they’re losing, because they also try to swing the pendulum back too far in the other direction (e.g., if a role model like Lizzo gets decried just because she posts about a diet she’s trying out, then such reactionaries are approaching the ludicrous). Furthermore, in a way, the philosophical underpinnings of that trend and others of its ilk are equally Gnostic: They proclaim that their selves as they stand are superior already, with no need for change – “I’m doing me” and “This is my truth” – as they are, in a way, their own higher authorities.

With either the absence of a God or the relegation of any religion to more of a vague, benign background of atheism, agnosticism or belief in higher powers, much of the richest, most technically advanced societies on earth are lost in the worship of their conceptions of their highest selves. What is slowly killing all of those seeking such a realization, those who half-embrace it yet half-emulate traditional hallmarks of personal achievement and happiness in their culture (e.g., homeownership, marriage, financial stability), those who repudiate it by embracing its opposite – unfettered hedonism – is the cold truth that without an objective system of absolute truths, there is no firm measure of worth. To take one example of a new iteration of the path to this higher selfhood, how can a well-off white person in the UK truly flagellate themselves in all the ways necessary to maintain being an antiracist, given their inevitable complicity in a legacy of imperialism and racism? Who will help this person define their true antiracist status?

Oh, and the internet has ruined and will continue to ruin most illusions around the superiority that some people have ostensibly achieved. For those who adulate billionaires as self-made genius visionaries, there lurks the specter of Jeffrey Epstein. For those who still believed in completely noble politicians, there are plenty of drone killing videos to select from that were done at the behest of the Obama administration. But ironically enough, despite all this, the fever dream at the center of this 21st century flavor of Gnosticism still remains a firm belief in humanity’s ability to invent technology and advance science, which will save us from our many flaws.

Part 2 of this post to come (it was all getting rather long).

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Musings

You Are Probably a Bad Person

Or, the Cure to Anxiety

Maybe you expected to see this subhead say something like “and here’s why that’s okay” or “and it doesn’t matter”. But this is not some ode to self-care. Nor is it some weird segue into explicating the doctrine of original sin (I’m no theologian, though I am a notoriously bad Catholic). No, it is a simple observation that in general, you are most likely a bad person, on a basis of sheer probability. So am I, though my ego is already trying to assert that if anything I am probably worse than you, in some perverted desire to stand out from the crowd.

The reason why you are probably a bad person is largely by virtue of the classic sin of omission, by the way. You may donate to charity, and yet how much of your income do you actually contribute versus, say, your spending on clothes? Perhaps you could have helped save some lives by buying off-brand, but you did not. Do you donate blood? Oh, you don’t because you are afraid of needles? Well, that blood would surely have been appreciated by that person who just died in a hospital because they had no matching donors. How many times a day do you judge someone silently or aloud, consciously or unconsciously, blithely assigning a complex, unknown person a label, epithet or verdict without taking barely any time to truly know them? If you are scrolling Instagram while you read this with half an eye and little of a mind, did you pause to consider how exploited the labor that assembled your iPhone is?

This series of increasingly inane accusatory questions was designed to lead to the inescapable conclusion that we do not truly have a way of knowing whether we are actually doing as much good as we should. Sure, we can strive for the bare minimum accepted by nearly all cultures worldwide since time immemorial, i.e. not murder anyone. Perhaps we also do not steal, and try to maintain that with the utmost scrupulosity. I’d wager, however, we’ve all stolen here or there, e.g. via a slightly adjusted timesheet, or a purloining of office goods. How bad is that? Well, how bad were any of the notes above? What truly IS our obligation to our fellow people?

A much holier and better person than I, Pope Francis I, would say, much as he did in his most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, that our obligation is to love one another. I’d concur, and once again conclude that by that measure most of us once again are bad people. Do you really love even many of the people you interact with? And by love, I mean, knowingly and willingly put their best interests above your own, consistently? I’ll be frank in that I don’t, being relatively selfish.

With the rate of our failures as high as they are, it is understandable why our nature is hardwired to try to think of ourselves as “good” people, deep down. The cognitive dissonance of coldly accepting that we fail most of the time, and are bad people that do not live up to our full potential is ultimately often too painful. But ironically, it is the only path forward to a key insight: Once you accept the daily struggle, it becomes a liberation. Much like how cleaning or exercise or any of the minutiae of rewarding habits can seem too difficult if you think there is a nearby finish line, but find yourself needing to expend effort daily just to keep up, avoidance of the reality that this is your lot in life is likely to culminate in depression. I’d wager that the skyrocketing rates of mental health issues being diagnosed in the early 21st century, the Age of Anxiety, are in no small part driven by the disjunct between this calm acceptance and many business models relying on spurring us into a cycle of endless consumption in pursuit of “end goals”.

To those tragically contemplating suicide, perhaps that does actually seem like an end, the only actual closure. Unfortunately, your life is a hefty amount to wager on such a reality. Succumbing to despair is alien to the essence of humanity; please reconnect with someone, anyone, and learn how much you matter beyond your wildest dreams. And that, interestingly enough, is perhaps the oddest secret of all that you discover once you accept your flaws as well as those of others: You realize that we are all in this together. Rather than expecting more from others, you more often than not exist in a state of astounded gratitude at how, despite all our flaws, so many people end up doing the right thing, in a given moment. Sure, they may fail later, but isn’t that part and parcel of being mostly bad?

If so, maybe the secret of calm, poise, equanimity, whatever you care to call it, is in the simultaneous recognition of personal and external flaws. You don’t cut someone else slack because you are the better person – you cut someone else slack because you look at them and say, with a smile: “I see you, my brother/sister/fellow/comrade.” It is not necessarily that in that moment you find peace because you find yourself to be equal, because it is very easy for many to then follow that moment of clarity with self-doubt, a negation of your personal virtues and pride in favor of returning to contemplating your own flaws. Peace only follows for a time, as long as the balance of that recognition and knowledge of self-worth is maintained. It is a delicate balancing act, one the world’s current state plus the vagaries of human nature are not inclined to tolerate.

But this is not an age of tolerance, despite what woke/social justice movements may want you to think. We tolerate each other less than ever before; we tolerate ourselves less than ever before. Suicides are skyrocketing; children injure themselves; drug abuse abounds; the coldest of cold wars spreads steadily across the globe, sparking internecine conflict in every nation.

There are many symptoms of this intolerance, and even more potential causes. Clergy and demagogues will appeal to the better angels of our nature as the solution, but I propose a more sardonic approach befitting this very nihilistic (if not quite completely) age: Let’s reveal the worse devils of our nature. Let’s begin, not with self-care, but with self-recognition. We are probably bad people, in many ways.

The thing is, if we all are, maybe no one of us can or should feel superior to another, for any reason. And if that’s true, what then follows? I don’t know about you, but when I realize that, I breathe a sigh of relief. The pressure is off, the rat race is a lie, the comparisons are all invalid. No, all I need to do is accept that likelihood, and then go about changing it. And even if I don’t get too far, at least I got somewhere.

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Musings

The Art of Disagreeing

Is learning how to disagree an art? You may disagree. However, that is entirely within your rights. Art is notoriously subjective, after all. Moreover, I acknowledge that the fact you disagree is very unlikely to be motivated solely by the desire to somehow hurt me; if it is, then I regret to inform you that although our opinions are, in some mysterious way, part of ourselves, I am well aware that they are opinions and thus I should not attach any personal attachment to them. So let us note that we disagree on this matter, and proceed with our discussion.

The above paragraph contains much that I aspire to be, and also does remind me why some tell me that at times I give off every sign of being somewhat android-like. But hey, as a mid-millennial (born in ’91, so barely old enough to remember pre-Internet days but young enough to be shaped very much by it), I’ve been exposed to enough disagreement that a strategy had to be developed to survive and indeed thrive online. More personally, as a Catholic raised conservative (although now a known troll with a grab-bag of oft-conflicting views) in Seattle, learning how to disagree politely was a necessity in maintaining amity.

It’s interesting that such a thing is not taught, but rather expected to be learned. When you think about it, humans are hardwired to find agreement if possible in your own tribe, and then dwell comfortably ensconced in an environment where your shared beliefs are reinforced and peace of mind remains unchallenged. But that is difficult to do, as the near-limitless network of the internet will both enable you to find likeminded others but also dooms you to the potential for exposure to ideas and facts you may find downright distasteful. So why not learn how to disagree? I am hardly an expert in anything, but given a rich history of disagreeing passionately, disagreeing purely for the hell of it, disagreeing casually, disagreeing to the point I have incurred considerable costs both financial and physical by doing so, and disagreeing because I have an odd mix of beliefs and principles, I figured I may as well spell out the art of disagreeing.

1: Emotion & Ego

Disagreeing is neurologically painful. As in, disagreement with others can produce the same chemicals in your brain that pain does. Much like heartbreak can actually reproduce actual physiological distress, so does disagreement to overall pain. That is because disagreements generally involve emotion and the ego. Our opinions, we like to think, are part of what makes us who we are. They are crucial to our identities.

But only to the extent that we consciously let them. Most of what we believe is likely not strictly provable and therefore not necessarily true. None of us is as objective or rigorously consistent as we like to think we are. So, when any disagreement over any topic whatsoever arises, especially in an emotionally charged scenario, we must recognize the role of the ego and the level of emotion that is currently engaged. Is this disagreement related to something that I like to think is a core part of my identity? How “heated” am I getting given this disagreement? Am I engaging in the classic signs of unconscious distress, e.g. biting my fingernails, rubbing the back of my head, ruffling hair?

In any pending or current disagreement, one must recognize consciously the roles of emotion and ego to start.

2: Detach & Engage

From there, one must emotionally detach, if possible. I say only if possible because although we should all be able to rule our emotions, we aren’t perfect. Also, one’s inhibitions may be compromised; shockingly enough, I find after a significant amount of booze I am somewhat less thoughtful and more prone to emotional outbursts. (On a sidenote, isn’t it hilarious how we can deliberately deprive ourselves of our rationality and self-control, some of our best attributes?)

But we shouldn’t detach just from emotions. We also must detach from the specific environment and recognize precisely what the other person is likely feeling as well. It is critical to do so to be able to lay the foundation to engage. That person is potentially also feeling discomfort, and, if they are being deliberately malicious, is also facing the same challenges to their ego. They may or may not really mean what they say, or understand the full implications, but they are using the imperfect tools of language and speech to try to convey something that may be meaningful to them. So just as you are, they too may be. It usually takes a step or two for me to recall that, and sometimes sadly I don’t, not having the hugest range of empathy (the flipside of having the emotional range of a teaspoon, as a dearly loved one once told me, is that my amount of empathy is not huge).

3: Repair & Relate

Many writers far more eloquent than I have found ways to convey how little other people think about you. That seems harsh, or even rude, but honestly, it’s true. People generally tend to be preoccupied with their own affairs. Disagreements are no different, and are arguably more exacerbated nowadays, because it’s never been easier to tell someone they are wrong, even anonymously. But once one has detached and engaged, then one can repair the thread of the conversation that has been disrupted by a disagreement. It’s not that the thread is irrevocably torn – perhaps if I was a better writer I’d use the metaphor of a flowing stream disrupted by a large stone.

And the surest way to repair that thread is to relate. It is not common in usual casual conversation to be frank about acknowledging a disagreement to the full extent that I have above, but as I am not a fan of many social norms or conventions, I happily flout them by saying something along the lines of “I see that we are disagreeing and it’s okay, for I respect your opinion and recognize that I may not be right, but we can leave it at that and move on”. One of my dearest colleagues has Slacked me the phrase “let’s move on” approximately 341 times thus far. If I were a better skilled conversationalist, maybe I’d have a defter tactic, but nobody has ever accused me of subtlety before, so it is what it is.

From there, as you will recognize in many conversations is a natural human instinct, people tend to find something in common once again to reassure the other person that they are on “the same page”. (That may be the most commonly used phrase, actually.) Next time you are at a bar and overhear a conversation, it is quite likely that you will recognize this pattern in many a dialog. It makes sense, right? After disagreement, you wish to return to harmony, to once again find common ground so that you can reassure the person you are speaking to that you are in accord. It’s the human and humane thing to do.

Why does all of this matter? Because in 2020, we are disagreeing more than we have in quite a while. It is quite likely that I do not share some of your most passionately held convictions, whereas you may have no idea what mine are. (Frankly, neither do I sometimes.) But disagreement is not the end of the world, despite what most of social media and nearly all media would like you to think. They profit from your outrage and pain, after all. It is okay – more than okay, it is good to disagree, because then we collectively have better odds of arriving at the truth, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket via unanimity. So embrace disagreement.

You can be assured that I shall.

P.S. After further thought and especially the furor around the latest nominee to the US Supreme Court, I wanted to make a note regarding when one ought to disagree. Should I disagree with the mugger who accosts me with a demand for my wallet and phone? Violently. Should I disagree with a friend on abortion? Sure, per my beliefs and worldview. But unless actual violence is set to occur, one can still disagree and value the relationship. Few relationships should ever be sacrificed over matters of principle, because most of the time they don’t need to be. Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were both avowed intellectual enemies and yet friends. Hector and Achilles bonded before their final duel. In the last days of 1914, soldiers played football in the no-man’s-land of France. Violence and toxicity – essentially, when the costs of disagreeing become too high to be borne within reason – are really the only occasions for letting an irrevocable rift emerge. Sadly, these times do occur. Over the next decade, I am likely to lose friends due to my beliefs. The thing is, that’s okay – to everything, there is a season. Sometimes it is better to gently fade rather than rage against the dying of the light.

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Musings

Love & Death in the Time of Coronavirus

A few weeks ago, my good friend Alex died. It was not due to coronavirus, rather, some other illness took his life in what was a complete shock to everyone who knew him, from friends to colleagues to acquaintances. At the same time, the all-encompassing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic kept encroaching slowly upon everyday consciousness, like the incoming tide that so relentlessly, subtly creeps up to lap at your feet.

When there is such an unprecedented tragedy of epic proportions occurring, it is hard to contextualize something as final and personal as a friend’s death. It is difficult to, at times, walk or run past a bar in your friend’s old neighborhood and think, “Oh, that was his favorite spot, and five weeks ago we played pool together there for a few hours,” while thousands of people around you are facing a future rife with uncertainty. It’s as if a palpable tension lies in the air, like the slight smoky moisture in the air before a summer storm. And through that atmosphere you just happen to be strolling, with a much more immediate concern dwelling on your mind, even as the air imperceptibly clings to you.

Just before travel restrictions began shutting down airports, and on the same day bars and restaurants were closed, and a week or so before we were all ordered to stay home if at all possible, a group of friends and family were able to convene briefly at a beer hall. There is no agenda for such a thing, really; Alex’s sister just wished to meet all of the friends she’d heard much about over the past few years. (By the way, I have to come clean – I was a good friend of Alex’s, but I was in no way as close to him as some of my other good friends were, so I was affected far less than they. In addition, I am well acquainted with death, unfortunately.) And it was a remarkably cathartic experience, even if no overt emotion was expressed. People milled about and discussed this and that, calmly relaying plans to hold an honorary brewery crawl in Arizona where Alex had gone to undergrad, or learning about what his sister and her husband were doing in London.

It was one of those seemingly ordinary things, but performed as a ceremony of sorts, that we all cling to so fervently when the fabric of the everyday is rent and the shocking or the cataclysmic occurs. The mysterious comfort in a sadly customary ritual – a group of those who wished to pay respects, those who knew someone who is suddenly gone, gathering together even if their only tenuous bond is that one, absent individual – is easily taken for granted. Now, in the age of the first global pandemic in a century, it is even more apparent how even the most minor of liberties, taking a stroll outside, is suddenly that much more precious when it is lost. We are confronted with losses of all kinds in all walks of life; in response, we grasp for the familiar to rebuild our rituals, being a resilient species. Love, primarily, is what we’ll return to in unconscious instinct, whether it be eating out more than we care to, in order to keep local small businesses afloat, or checking in on friends we don’t speak to that often, or donating to healthcare-focused charities. It’s unfortunate it takes the worst to bring out the best in us, but that’s the way it goes.

There are thousands if not millions of words being written to express that precise sentiment, but probably only hundreds will acknowledge the inevitable: Upon the end of the extraordinary measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, we will also revert to old habits. Nearly all of us…will eventually cease to grasp the exhilaration of freedom of movement; will forget to truly appreciate an in-person conversation over a fine meal at a restaurant; may chafe at the economic, fiscal, monetary and social debts incurred to defeat the pandemic, forgetting how critical they may have been; ultimately return to much of what we were like before this truly global catastrophe. Much will have changed in, say, remote working, government powers, public health approaches, etc. But people won’t really have changed all that much. (Including myself, frankly, I am already a tad wistful for a return to normalcy.) Maybe a little. People don’t change much; and if they do, it usually takes time, as well as often a tragedy or triumph…so just perhaps the pandemic may qualify…among other things.

Perhaps there is another thing, as of late, that belongs among those other things. One thing that won’t change is our memory – my friends and I, that is – of Alex.

Categories
Musings

The second wave of digital addiction is coming…or is it?

Thesis: Even as modern societies struggle with the adverse effects of digital immersion on mental and social health, a second wave of even more immersive experiences is imminent, with unanticipated yet not wholly negative consequences for cultural norms.

Virtual reality is quite hard – augmented reality may be even harder, all said and done, based on my considerably uninformed knowledge of its inherent engineering challenges when interacting with the physical world. But as Oculus and other companies aided by massive capital infusions despite the fact they may never release a viable product *cough* Magic Leap *cough* continue to slowly advance the basic tech within the space, it isn’t inconceivable that we could encounter an even more immersive digital experience than that currently proffered by smartphones.

That does not bode well for the human brain’s ability to resist the chemical rush of notifications, always-on communication and the rare yet always treasured brand-new, high-quality meme. If you think memes have broken the ability for everyone under the age of 30 to converse normally now, wait until they are interactive (arguably, Tik-Tok is already doing this). But however much more compelling a more seamless digital-physical reality in major urban centers boasting advanced tech capable of simulations may be, there may actually be some more positive outcomes than may be supposed at first.

As #InstagramReality is already proving, it’s irresistibly tempting for people to try to portray themselves in as flattering a light as possible online – that’s just human nature. With more virtual reality overlays possible in videosharing and photos overall, the norms of any reality are going to be so obviously reset to impossibly glamorous, stylized levels that more authentic communication will become chic again to some degree. This is already happening to some degree – people will still obviously want to look their best but a new median will arise that tries to blend digital polish with physical imperfections more closely. (I tend to agree with Alex Danco – https://alexdanco.com/2019/12/17/ten-predictions-for-the-2020s/ – that glasses or headsets for virtual reality are a tough sell beyond probably just gaming, hence why I think its applications will still be primarily conveyed via smartphone interfaces.)

But another intriguing possibility pops up here. Deepfakes are already starting to proliferate, so it’s only a matter of time that they become a two-way street. Rather than used for lulz or cons, both governments and individuals will likely employ AR-empowered ‘live’ filming and photography to further their agendas, e.g. evade facial recognition or find hidden details or promulgate whatever narratives they want. Services to help evade identification and/or preserve privacy will pop up as tools available for any imagery editing while still being able to use social media like normal. Heck, that may be finally another use case for crypto-based payments that will help popularize them even further.

I’d argue that’s more of a social positive than may be suspected when one contemplates a future a la Blade Runner 2049 wherein AR displays are primarily for advertising or, well, overlaying a VR presence onto a human woman for reasons you can probably guess at. Holograms are still likely a ways off, but there could also be value in rendering communication in even more lifelike of a fashion via screensharing, or any manner of telehealth. Think of any given virtual appointment via videosharing you can conduct with a primary care physician right now – One Medical comes to mind – and imagine a much more lifelike consultation session wherein your phone’s camera scans whatever portion of yourself is visible and recreates it in a 3-D model for the physician to analyze on their end. (Yes, this will lead to hilarious videos that will inevitably leak online.)

All in all, there could be quite a few more positives to AR in the future than an even-worse digital addiction epidemic. As always, there is more nuance in reality than may be suspected at first.

Categories
Musings

The Cycle of Centralization, Part 1

Thesis: What makes the most sense to be decentralized? The maintenance and operations of the people closest to doing the thing. What makes sense to be centralized? The most common denominators and broadest parameters of the scenarios, e.g. laws that apply to all humans based on human nature, and decisions directly pertaining thereto.

Human history rhymes, but it does not repeat, as the saying goes. Composed of intertwining cycles, history often lurches between one extreme to the other, although it’s worth contemplating just how much more swiftly such lurches have become given the compounding powers of technology. A critical cycle that often seems to provoke significant division is the basic swing between centralization and decentralization. Especially nowadays, as we head into the Roaring 20s 2.0 (as if that wasn’t confusing enough already) and Bernie Sanders appears to be somehow gaining steam again, Venezuela rampages toward complete failed-state status, Putin appears immortal and Boris Johnson proves UK voters only trust politicians with terrible haircuts, it appears that the center truly cannot hold.

However, there is much more even tension and potential balance between the two forces of centralization than may seem at first glance. I’d contend that right now, several different phases of the centralization cycle across political systems, economies and sectors (all of course related) are occurring:

  1. China is attempting to stick the landing of a pseudo-capitalist yet centralized state, but there are more troubling signs for China than many suspect.
  2. The US is recentralizing somewhat and potentially will recentralize even further if, as seems likely, antitrust talk becomes action in the next couple of political cycles. However, the groundwork at the fringes is being laid for decentralization.
  3. The EU is slowly decentralizing, as potentially the most audacious experiment in recent political history starts to totter.
  4. Centralized online information flows are approaching senescence and thus are likely to start splintering; the decentralization/destruction of traditional news media is nearly complete.
  5. Entertainment within the most developed nations is mostly centralized but beginning to fray at the edges as consolidation reaches its apex, e.g. Disney becoming a monolith in the US. In less-developed nations, however, entertainment cycles are still oscillating significantly.
  6. The energy industry is looking set to start decentralizing very slowly over the next several decades.

What’s interesting and instructive about all the above is that they all exemplify how and why centralization SHOULD occur, as opposed to where it often naturally comes into being due to system design and/or sheer scale. Let’s examine each of the three main arenas above that have contributed to these different phases of the centralization cycle:

Information Flows

Is it now time to declare that open source has won? Or will another attempt at a Microsoft-like monopoly potentially rise again in the future? I think not, for a variety of reasons, but the most compelling one is there is no point in trying to wall off access to and ability to innovate code bases when you can instead own the infrastructure behind it and learn from the best of what unpaid volunteers decide to offer. It’s simply better business.

For a similar reason, Apple is pivoting mainly to services as they have seen the writing on the wall and know that trying to still offer the best hardware & software fusion in the world for mobiles is not possible for much longer given the degree of competition and innovation already beating them (for example, it’s arguable Google has been making overall better phones for at least a few years).

In short, it’s much easier to profit from a relatively open, accessible database for experimenting in code and/or offering the infrastructure for people to get their projects up and running. (That’s why Google Cloud, Azure and AWS have grown so massively in the past several years.) The primary reason why is that decentralization works extremely well for systems with unified rules of logic that operate in intangible environments.

However, as those systems create increasingly improving and more widely accessible tools that are used to promulgate the multifarious viewpoints of individuals, the degree of decentralization was likely to regress for a time. Why? Because even though each person is unique, it’s not by much. We all share the same biological makeup, and thus tend to be co-opted by particular narratives of fear, passion and humor. Accordingly, there is much money and power to be had by owning the largest publishing platforms where narratives can proliferate and draw in attention, which is therefore monetized in a variety of ways.

Social media platforms are the current primary actors in this drama, and in their efforts to finetune that monetization machine they’ve kinda made a mess of it much faster than even yellow journalism did in the 1890s. Once the intended audiences and participants in narrative design become aware of manipulation – however benign the intentions of those who designed the narrative algorithms on Facebook, Twitter and other media hubs actually were – then fragmentation was inevitable even for those ostensibly trying to be merely the marketplaces/publishing platforms.

For providers of news, it is even worse. Media centered on news in general is notoriously difficult to centralize unless total control over citizens’ existences is in place, because shades of interpretation of even something as simple as a tragic helicopter accident can spin out of control and spawn a thousand lines of discourse in a matter of hours, in the online world. Granted, much of the discourse is the same, but as it is communicated in varying degrees of proficiency it all appears checkered until usually a few main strands consolidate. News is necessarily ephemeral; decentralization is inevitable. Technology has only accelerated the ebbs and flows of the news decentralization and recentralization cycle. Only the most advanced brands have resisted destruction in online news, e.g. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and even they are feeling the pinch. I don’t think they’ll die completely but will be recast in a new paradigm that honestly I haven’t quite figured out yet. It makes sense that at the very end of the traditional news breakdown, the last entities standing are the ones that encapsulate tried-and-true clusters of human mentalities and traits; by that I mean the WSJ is the brand for conservatives and the whole host of associated narratives, traits and ideas, likewise for the NYT and liberals.

The good news is inevitably new brands will arise as discourse and economic political realities evolve. Centralization will rise again, though it’ll take some time. What is difficult to anticipate is the degree to which augmented/virtual reality may help transform the experience of news and information access in general. Trust will be at a premium, so brands could resurface much faster than anticipated as people instinctively flock to what providers they can trust, but it is also possible a prolonged era of distrust and fragmentation is upon us. Whichever outlets figure out the best way to present immersive news with significant messaging around a balanced perspective will be the Fox plus WSJ, or CNN plus NYT of the 2030s. Exciting times, indeed.

Up next are nation-states, where some truly interesting events are occurring.

Categories
Musings

Surprise with joy

The sentiments of Christmas are so enduring because they so powerfully combine both the nostalgia and idealism intrinsic to human nature. Peace on earth to all humankind – who would openly disparage that? Joy to the world – however you follow that up, or for whatever reason you mention it, it is hardly a declaration that many would take exception to.

But joy is harder and harder to come by as you age. It’s not quite like the joy I observed this morning on my six-year-old nephew’s face, as he unwrapped a Lego Batman set, and his entire hour, or maybe even day, was made joyful. When you are younger, it is much easier to encounter joy, and also despair, and such intensities of emotion in general. But as you get older, joy and similar intensities are necessarily muted due to accumulated experience…and sadly, often worries. It becomes rarer.

As with all things rare, however, it becomes more valuable. And in a way, as that sensation of joy rarefies, it is also refined. It becomes more surprising, and almost always is found in establishing connections. Given the pressures and vagaries of life, adults usually know that time and connection – whether it be enjoying the company of friends or family or even finding connection within oneself between warring sentiments – are priced at premiums. Consequently, they value time spent with others over material expressions of value (if their priorities and ability to communicate are attuned, which is not always the case). Children may not value the joy of explicit connection with others as consciously, but they can more easily reach the joy of being in a particular moment, or receiving a particular thing.

It’s harder and harder to preserve that sensation, nowadays, and even harder to achieve the joy of true connection. We are drowning in information even as we thirst for connection – sitting at home alone because going out is either expensive or doesn’t seem like precisely what we want right now or both, bombarded with images and headlines of surpassing negativity and/or appetite-inducing, as those are what hack our brains all too effectively. It is possible to achieve some connection online, and feel some approximation of joyfulness thereby, but we are physical beings who will always crave the full ability to speak face to face and approach as close a connection as possible.

But we all unconsciously comprehend and are more openly grappling with these phenomena. And so we reach for the trappings and traditions of the holiday season, making the effort to go home both near and far and see friends, family, loved ones. It may be stressful, and it would certainly be easier at first to try to grasp once again the immediate joy that my seven-year-old goddaughter reveled in when she woke up Christmas Day, but past a certain age, deep down you know what type of joy you really wish for. The more difficult, and more refined, joy of connection.

I suppose they are both joys of connection, tied together in a perpetuating loop, for to my nephew and goddaughter, the gifts received were hard evidence of love and attention – children are savvy and thus look for such proof constantly, after all. But once you can fend for yourself, the gifts we look for are more difficult to come by as they necessitate giving first. You must reach out, whether in word or deed, gift or gab, and meet your fellow men and women, your tribe by blood or bond or both, or even acquaintances to strangers, in just the smallest gesture. It’s difficult – and thus surprising when successful. But it’s the holiday season – it is not the most wonderful time of the year, to surprise with joy?