25 May 2020

It seems to be getting even more comfortable now. At first, the moment I would notice its presence it would suddenly disappear. Now it seems to linger a little longer after drawing my attention….unless I’m just becoming more sensitive to it. But I swear it’s not only in my dreams anymore. Just closing my eyes, any time of day, I can feel its eager gaze fixate on me from just beyond the corner of the darkness.

It almost feels lonely, yet it doesn’t want me to know it’s there. I’m not sure what it wants, but if I can find out, maybe it’ll go away.

24 May 2020

I’ve been having some pretty vivid dreams lately. All of them have been distinct from each other; different settings, different people, different stories, everything different….except one small thing. In every one, there’s this figure….or presence rather (I’ve never actually seen it) that watches me from a distance, and it’s been going on for a while so I thought I’d keep a record of it.

At first I thought it was a one-time thing, but soon it was every week. Then it was every other night, and now every night. I thought I could just ignore it. Ignore it and it’ll go away, I’d tell myself. But it’s still there and starting to become familiar. The thing is, it doesn’t feel particularly threatening. In fact, its presence is almost gentle, yet unsettling at the same time.

Now I’m not a huge believer in ghost or supernatural beings, but this experience makes me understand how people can believe in such things. Though I’m sure there’s reason for it. Probably just this whole quarantine thing messing with my brain chemistry.

An End to Care-Shaming

I always found it interesting how we often praise and admire people who “don’t care about what other people think.” It always seemed like a very selfish mindset to me.

While the intention of the ideal is to promote self-service, that doesn’t have to include being inconsiderate. Yet some people act like it does and I think we are seeing a lot of that in some public spaces right now.

I’ll be honest, caring less about what other people think is something I’ve aspired to because I think at times I care too much. But every time I see a “motivating” social media that tells people to ignore other people, I cringe a little because the people who don’t care enough probably see that as an affirmation of their indifference. And the people who care too much may feel like they need to step on everyone else around them to be successful and happy.

It’s ok to care. Just because you care what other people think does not mean you have to be dependent on what they think. Don’t be disappointed in yourself if you crave the validation of others. We are hardwired to seek connection and affirmation.

There are some people you are never going to get approval from, that’s the reality, so sure discount their opinions, but don’t discount their humanity and don’t let them harden your heart. The capacity for compassion and for empathy is a gift, if you let anyone take that from you then the bad guys win.

Compassion First

Chances are you’ve heard of the wild protests against the stay-at-home orders, business closures, etc. And so you’ve likely seen the footage of all these crazed people congregating in the street and on the steps on government buildings, often with zero PPE in sight. For most people with a shred of common sense, this sight in infuriating.

Before we get angry at these people, we should take a second and try to think why they are out there. Okay, a good number of them are probably upset that their beaches, bars, and hangout spots are closed, but I’m sure there are also those out there who want to get back to work because they lost their jobs and simply can’t afford to live of their current saving and government assistance.

I’m fortunate that I worked from home even prior to the onset of the pandemic and that I am currently writing this from my childhood home where I really have no expenses. However, not everybody is so lucky. Granted places like Huntington Beach are filled with affluent, privileged people who have no good reason to be protesting, but what about people who depend on their patronage?

If you thought that the $1200 “stimulus” payment was pitiful then you should be able to understand why some people want to get back to work.

Let me be clear though, I think the protests are misguided and dangerous, as are the people who participate. The question is how do we reach these people? Through yelling at them through our computer screens? What’s the purpose of getting angry?

You might be mad because that’s just your knee jerk reaction to seeing people do stupid stuff. But who is that for? Certainly not yourself, most people don’t like feeling angry. Maybe you’re angry so that the people you’re angry at will realize what their doing is bad, but that severely overestimates the empathic capabilities of people with a cause, especially zealots. Perhaps most reasonably, you are mad for the people that this harmful behavior is hurting; the healthcare workers, other essential service providers, the vulnerable but how does your anger and outrage help them? Anger may strengthen your resolve and your passion internally, but externally it cheapens them.

If you want people to see things from your point of view you have to appeal to things they care about. Fortunately as humans, we often share common values, at least when if comes to the most basic core values. Where we differ is how we live out/ achieve/ prioritize those values.

Get angry. Just don’t let them see it. When you see those angry protesters, do you think, “These people must be educated, knowledgeable, and conscientious!” Don’t stoop to their level. Throw a fit. But then think critically and try to solve more problems than your create. Physical distancing and isolation are currently the most effective way to reduce the number of preventable deaths, but it’s not a perfect system. Be humble, stay informed, and act accordingly.

Borderless

It’s been another one of those months where there seems to be a theme that keeps popping up in my daily life seemingly unintentionally, but consistently. I’ve thought about how technology connects us to the rest of the world in unprecedented ways before, but usually in terms of digital technology (likely because of my generational bias); the internet, computers, cell phones, smart phones, etc. In finishing off the The Sixth Extinction and watching Tiger King on Netflix and in light of this global pandemic, I’ve been thinking more and more about the physical borderlessness of our modernity.

Today a person, animal, or plant (or virus) can be on the other side of the world in less than a day. Animals use to evolve in ways that best suited them to their environment, and now we alter environments to best suit humans. Rivers, mountains, oceans, are mere inconveniences to modern man.

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert describes her conversations and experiences with some of the top experts on human history, one of which is trying to complete the Neanderthal genome in order to see what makes us, Homo sapiens, so special. The  expert talks about the potential existence of a “madness” gene(s); something that compelled Homo sapiens to look at a mountain range and decide to climb over it, to look at the ocean and try to cross it. And to not only try those things, but to believe something worthwhile would be on the other side. The same “madness” that compels man to explore the depths of the ocean and the endlessness of space–to be borderless.

Countless species, human and non-human, have existed on this planet for lengths of time that make humanity look like the smallest dot of Jackson Pollock painting, and yet none have single-handedly altered this planet as quickly as we have. This impact is largely to our complete disregard for the natural barriers (for whatever reasons) that have controlled the spread of so many species before us. Even now with the world at our fingertips via the internet, during the present shelter-in-place situation, we have this itching to escape the confines of our homes.

This isn’t meant to be an indictment against man or to condemn those idiots who disregard social distancing guidelines, because our “destiny” to change this planet and to explore is etched into our DNA. There’s no “going back” to living with nature because that was never (at least according to current evidence) how humans lived. Plants and animals across the world were going extinct due to human influence (likely unbeknownst to the humans of that time) long before we started burning fossil fuels. The damage is done. The world is now pretty much borderless, a “New Pangea as some like to say, and many of the effects are irreversible for one reason or another.

You can’t really blame us though. Humans, like all living things (and some non-living ones) do what they know. In the absence of limiting forces, all species on this planet would take over the entire world. The only difference is humans were actually able to overcome most of our limits, and as a consequence we have been responsible for the destruction of many unique and irreplaceable organisms that the world may never see the likes of again. In the absence of absolutist morality its hard to say if that’s for better or worse–it just is (as was the case in the previous 5 mass extinction events). In all likelihood, any other species would do the same if given the opportunity. Though unlike any other species, we may be able to actively do something about it (again for better or worse).

Humans are amazing creatures. The command we now have over the physical world is impressive, and at times scary. We have been able to send man into space, to directly engineer new life forms, and uncover secrets about the very fabric of existence. In our infancy we lacked the foresight and knowledge to know how our actions would effect our future and the future of this planet. Now all we lack, generally, is the foresight. Living in a state of equilibrium with our environment is humanity’s oldest problem, and we are finally able to fully recognize that.

We are at turning point in the history of this planet, and I would love to be a historian/ paleontologist equivalent (maybe even extraterrestrial) hundreds of thousands of years from now trying to figure out, based on what humans know at this point in time, what we will choose to do and how that plays out for us in our now borderless world.

Thoughts On Social Media “Challenges”

I’ve never been a big fan of chain texts, social media challenges, etc., often choosing not to participate when I get nominated for stuff. My aversion to these types of things is 2-fold: (1) I don’t like being told what to do. (2) They often seem to misunderstand what the word “challenge” means. I am not some lemming that will just attempt some stupid task because the internet told me to.

Nowadays, with social distancing and quarantining going on the presence of these challenges has grown to the delight of some and the disdain of many. I admit to participating in a few, and while I’m still not a huge fan, I realize my old attitude towards these challenges was perhaps a bit pretentious.

Most of them are just for fun with little to no social stake (in terms of whether or not you actually do it). Participate if it makes you happy, ignore them if not, but don’t be condescending to those that do partake. Most of them take less than a minute, so it’s not like it’s consuming anyone’s life (unless it is, which case please stop). And perhaps before you judge others, ask yourself why you let it bother you so much.

Back to “Normal”

I’m sure you’ve heard the news: dolphins and swans have returned to Venice, elephants are unwittingly reclaiming territory in China; nature is making a comeback!

As flashy as these headlines appear, and as much as we would like them to be true, they unfortunately are not. Apparently the video of dolphins wasn’t even from Venice, the swans are already regulars, and so are the elephants in China (who weren’t even drunk).

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer about all of this, but truth is important. The article I linked above puts it quite nicely; we want to believe these things to be true — we want to believe that nature has the power to bounce back. But that hope and a few months of people limiting their commuter miles is not gonna be enough.

It is true that the water in Venice is clearer and air quality in various parts of the world is much better seemingly as a consequence of the recent pandemic. In a way I think it’s beautiful, and shows that by changing our habits, our behaviors, our routines, we can make a difference, but we need to hold on to that.

There’s a post by the nature photographer Paul Nicklen that is much more eloquent than what I’ve presented here with respect to how current protocols may be applied to a post-COVID-19 world for the good of the planet. On it, someone commented, “Yeah everyone’s talking about when things will get back to ‘normal’…more like ditch “normal” lets make some shifts while we’re at it!”

That’s the attitude we need to adopt. And in this era of COVID-19 I think and hope the world is realizing that we don’t need all the things we think we need. Simultaneously, hopefully people are appreciating their own lives and life that is all around them.

People are suffering and people are dying because of this terrible disease. But this is the situation we are in now, and the world has mobilized more or less appropriately to fight the common enemy, COVID-19 (or rather SARS-COV-2).

Why haven’t we had similar movements against climate change, poverty and homelessness, world hunger? Because they don’t affect people immediately, more specifically, they don’t affect wealthy privileged humans immediately. We care about COVID because our favorite actor now has the disease, or because sporting events and theme parks are closed. Meanwhile there is plenty of evidence of the negative effects of poverty and climate change around the world, just not so much in affluent areas.

And don’t tell me now is not the time to talk about climate change, because according to history and recent events the best time to care is when some TikTokker’s Malibu house is underwater. But by that point people in other countries may be on the brink, and in nature, reefs, rainforests, and the millions of species that depend on them may be severely endangered or extinct.

This planet we live on is truly a marvel, and the life that inhabits it is amazing and beautiful and serendipitous. We as humans are so unbelievably lucky that we may* be the only organisms in the history of the universe to consciously experience how awesome Earth is. And at the same time, is it just as heartbreaking that we are currently responsible for it’s destruction.

All that said, if the Sixth Extinction has been teaching me anything it’s that, yes life will likely go on even if we continue on our “normal” business-as-usual path, the question is what will that world look like, and whether or not we want/ care to be a part of it.

 

*jury is still out.

Calling a Spade a Spade

I was always curious about where this phrase comes from. Why as spade? It could be any other object. The origin according to Wikipedia is not very satisfying as it just talks about it’s first usage in the 1500s and not really at all about why a spade. In fact it seems completely random as to why a spade.

I am currently reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, which to me offers a more interesting alternative, even if it’s not the “true” origin of the phrase. In 1949 there was a psychology experiment by Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman in which people were shown cards from a deck of playing cards and asked to identify them. Interspersed among the standard playing cards were abnormal ones; red spades, black hearts, etc. When tested quickly, these abnormalities caused people to default to a card they knew. For example, they would call the red spade a diamond or the black heart a club. When tested slowly, they seemed unable to process what they were seeing, saying the cards looked purple or rusty, or in some cases being at a loss of words. They were so averse to calling a red spade a red spade that their brain either replaced it with what they wanted to see or they were left in utter disbelief. Of course this story still leaves you with the question of why spade and not any other suit, but to me its a better story than “someone used the term 500 years ago.”

In the context of the book, Kolbert talks about the debate between catastrophism (extinctions are caused by singular catastrophic events) and uniformitarianism (extinction occurs slowly over time), and how people, including scientists, often ignored evidence in order to maintain their current beliefs. They didn’t want to call a red spade a red spade. Similarly, many of the greatest revolutions throughout history were met with great resistance. We used to think the earth was flat; we used to think everything revolved around the earth; we used to think all of life was created in a few instances. None of these ideas went down without a fight.

People are afraid of change. They are afraid to admit that something they have believed for their whole lives might be wrong. Perhaps because they think that to do so would mean their whole life is a lie. And so when reality doesn’t match up with what they are seeing/ experiencing (cognitive dissonance) they make up stories to fit their perceptions or yell, CONSPIRACY! While I think it’s important to fight for the things you believe it is just as important, if not more so, to have humility and an open mind. The world looks different if you look at it another way. Nobody has all the answers, and to think your way is the right way is naive. That statement itself may be naive, because perhaps there is an ultimate truth out there.

All I know is that when things get uncomfortable, that usually means big things are about to happen, especially if you lean in. Just as we can’t change the laws of physics to fit our own desires (unassisted flying would be awesome), we shouldn’t change or pick “truths” to fit our own perceptions, and yet it happens all the time.

Just be careful out there.

My mind is telling no…but my body…my boodyyy……

….does what my mind tells it to do.

The section I just read from Homo Deus talks about free will. We as humans pride ourselves as unique amongst all beings on Earth because our free well, our ability to choose. Harari argues that free will is an myth, as much a fiction as any Disney fairy tail. How do we choose? How do we make any decision? It’s all based on algorithms we go through in our heads (mostly unconsciously). Things we like. Things we avoid. All of it has a reason behind it. I choose to do certain things because the story I tell myself about myself says I should do it. That story is informed by my experiences, which are decided by my previous story. Every word I’m choosing to write at the moment is based on my personal story of who I am, which was created by my past experiences, which were based on my personal story at the time, etc. etc. from the time I was born.

To further the argument Harari describes experiments currently being done on rats. Using implanted electrodes, scientists have been able to basically remote control rats to go through mazes, climb ladders etc. This may seem cruel to some, but supposedly the rats don’t experience any pain or discomfort, in fact they feel rather euphoric. They don’t feel as if someone is controlling them, rather the electrodes stimulate the brain in such ways that the rats want to do “as they’re told.” Are we as humans much different? We are encouraged to act according to our true selves. To do what feels good. Are we not just responding to electrical impulses in our brains?

All that being said, not all algorithms are not definite. Existence is not predetermined. Our “choices” have a random component to them and are partially influenced by random events outside our control. That uncertainty/ randomness is where our feelings of choice and will comes from. Perhaps humans do not have “free will” in the sense of complete autonomy. But what really is the difference between my brain telling me to do something and my self telling me to do it. If nothing else at least we can take solace in that our fates are not predestined, maybe, though of course there is no way to see one way or another with absolute certainty.

When’s all’s said and done, this is kind of a useless discussion for various reasons, but it’s interesting to think about.

This Goes to Eleven

I recently finished season 4 of the Amazon Prime series, The Expanse. Briefly, its about the social, political, economic, cultural, etc. tension between the people of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt far into the future (obviously). The show is interesting and draws on a lot of themes that are relevant to modern society and societies of the past. I’m not here to talk about any of that though, go watch it yourself, I highly recommended it (despite the coming comments).

While I think the story overall is captivating and interesting, some of the writing tries too hard in my lowly opinion. There is a lot unnecessary swearing and overall brutish character interactions. Sometimes it’s like, why the heck are you yelling? And it feels like they want some characters to spew expletives just for the sake of being edgy. For example, Chrisjen Avasarala (for those who have seen it) is an old lady and government official who swear like (worse) than a sailor; I get that maybe they are trying to make her seem badass and no-nonsense, but sometimes is just too much. She averages at least one F-bomb per sentence and it really takes you out of the scene sometimes. I’m not saying I prefer she didn’t swear, I’m just saying I’d believe it more if they toned it down some. There are better, more subtle, and frankly more tasteful ways to show her character’s strong personality.

Also I think the main character, James Holden, might be the dumbest guy in the universe.