If you've been listening to the podcast the past few months, you know that I have not fared well living in my brain, from the election on through the first month of the Trump administration.
By inauguration day, it had gotten so bad that I was trawling news sites, Twitter and Facebook several times an hour looking for people to argue with.
Inauguration day also happens to be my dad's birthday. As we drove to Charleston to visit and get some lunch (the dictate was at a place without televisions), I knew I had to do something to change direction.
So when we arrived, I opened my phone and deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps.
I'm still plenty active on both (Twitter | Facebook), but I really am only on the platforms when I'm sitting in front of my computer.
I do miss the opportunity to share from an app — most often Flipboard and my podcast app — but if there's anything I want to be sure to share out I'll email it to myself with a note.
There's something about deliberately visiting social media sites that makes my posting and commenting more deliberate. I have less time available, so I'm pickier about what I say and to whom I say it.
It's also led to some more in-person engagement. I'm certainly not pulling out my phone to look at it as often as I used to. I'm talking to more strangers, and I'm eminently more present around friends and family.
The brief backstory on Kotler is that he got Lyme disease, it was misdiagnosed and he was in bed for three years. Eventually a friend convinced him to go surfing and his body started to heal. "Hmm," he thought. "Surfing is not a known cure for chronic autoimmune diseases."
So he did some research and discovered that action sports with a fair bit of risk get us into a state called flow, a state that not only helps with decision-making in high-pressure situations, it's that state that gets us writing, conversing, coding or whatever for hours with a high level of correctness and efficiency.
Kotler figured out for himself while writing a book that he could get himself into flow reliably with a specific bit of exercise he would use any time he was blocked and trying to solve a problem. If you've ever sat down with a friend and started talking and all of a sudden four hours have passed, you've been in flow.
In The Rise of Superman, Kotler outlines some of the neuroscience behind flow. Meanwhile, I was taking another one of my random walks through the library stacks and Kayt Sukel's The Art of Risk jumped out at me.
She was a badass when she was younger. A climber who, after getting divorced, took her one-year-old son and backpacked around Europe. She got in an MRI machine and had an orgasm for a book and went around the country talking about it.
But she found herself taking fewer risks as she got older and wondered why, so she set out to figure out what goes on in a risk-taker's brain.
And fuck if she wasn't writing about the same bits of the brain that Kotler wrote about.
We'll come back to this later, but gamma activity is a signifier of flow.
Crazy. It was a sure sign that I needed to know a little more.
Here are some things we know about the brain. While I've been reading a lot here and there, the most succinct source for the historical stuff in this section is The Great Brain Book by HP Newquist.
Several thousand years ago, the Egyptians, in the mummification of the dead, were the first people to cut open bodies in an effort to preserve them.
They thought the brain was trash.
In the mummification process, the organs were removed so that the body could dry. The heart was returned to the chest. This is the organ the Egyptians believed handled thought, emotion and everything else, and that it would be useful in the afterlife to have it inside the body.
The lungs, kidneys and other stuff that sits in the torso were placed in jars and left nearby the body in the tomb (the Egyptians also left toys and tools and other things they thought the body could use in the afterlife).
Then they shoved a chisel in the nasal cavity, stuck a hook up there and yanked out what they could of the brain. They would later scoop out whatever was left.
They didn't leave the brain in the body. They didn't even put it in a jar. It just went out with the garbage.
Things go that way for about 1,400 years, until Herophilus, the "father of anatomy," cuts open cadavers and finds that the brain does connect to the rest of the body. This is around 300 BCE.
Four to five hundred years later, Galen posits that the brain actually handles a lot of functions, including moods. He gets the mechanism so wrong it's not worth discussing, but there's at least the understanding that the brain controls a good bit of what makes us people.
We're at about 1,900 years ago now.
Over the next, oh, 1,750 years, we get detailed drawings, but no real new science.
Then, in 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage is clearing some space to lay track. He puts dynamite in a hole, tamps it down, and BLAM! — the explosive blows before he can get out of the way and his tamping rod goes up through his jaw, behind his left eye and out the top of his head.
As he's laying on the ground, the rod still stuck in him, workers come over and collect what they assume is the body of their late colleague. Instead, they help Gage up, and he's walking around and talking just like normal.
Well, as normal as you can be with a tamping rod sticking out of two holes in your head.
Gage lives another 12 years, with the only real noticeable side effect being that he turns into a really grumpy dude.
Doctors, of course, started examining him right away, and they studied his brain long after he died.
The biggest discovery early on from Gage's examinations was that different parts of the brain handle different things.
In 1861, a French physician named Pierre Paul Broca meets a patient named Louis Victor Leborgne. Leborgne could only say the syllable, "Tan." He seemed perfectly normal otherwise. His body language suggested that he understood everything that people said to him or asked him, but he couldn't say anything but "Tan."
Broca postulated that Leborgne had damage in the part of his brain that handled language, and, sure enough, when they opened his head upon his death, one part of his brain was badly decayed.
In the 1870s, a pair of doctors figured out that the right side of the brain handles the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right — in other words, the two sides of the brain work independently.
Over the ensuing half-century, we learn that the brain sends out electrical signals, and in 1924, we get the EEG, which worked then pretty much the same way it works now (we of course now also have the MRI as a more comprehensive way to look at brain activity).
In the 1950s, Wilder Penfield discovers he can get physical reactions by stimulating different parts of the brain.
And that's it, until very recently. Quick review:
• 1700 - 300 BCE: We go from throwing out the brain to learning that it's connected to the rest of our inside.
• Around 100 CE: We start thinking the brain controls our feelings
• Around 1500 CE: Anatomists start drawing things
• 1848-1950s CE: We learn basically everything you and I learned in science class about the brain.
In the 60 or so years that have passed since then — and we all know people who are way older than that — we've learned so much more. We've developed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines that can read what's going on in the brain. We know what each part of the brain does, at least to some extent. We know about neurotransmitters. We know about brain waves.
And we've been manipulating pieces here and there, with more and more accuracy. With the development of earlier drugs like fluoxetine and sertraline (Prozac and Zoloft, respectively), we figured out how to do things like block some neurotransmitter receptors. More and more specific drugs have been developed as well, and a current fad is over-the-counter nootropics like Alpha Brain and lion's mane-and-chaga mushroom "coffee" (both of which I'll recommend, but the Alpha Brain much moreso than the mushroom coffee).
As much as Alpha Brain help you with your focus and thinking abilities, there are other supplements for other things, for example, I have been using ligandrol for almost 2 months now and I absolutely love it ligandrol testosterone booster.
Kotler also recommends a recipe for getting into flow predictably, though I won't post it here as (a) he put the work in, (b) I haven't tried it to be able to recommend it and (c) it might not be legal everywhere.
We're only going to get better at manipulating our brains, too, and the speed of information gathering is going to continue to increase.
Exciting stuff, huh? And what amazing creatures we are!
We as a people have been griping a lot on Twitter and Facebook. While social media can be an informative and instructive tool — as well as a good medium for discussion if you can stay out of echo chambers and petty sniping — these posts largely are not read by anyone who actually makes laws.
We have the ability to contact our elected representatives, and, as with other rights, this is a use-it-or-lose-it responsibility.
You'll need to know two things: Who your Senators and Representative are, and how to contact them. Reminder: Senators are elected to six-year terms with a third of the Senate up every two years, and are not currently term limited. Members of the House of Representative are elected to two-year terms without term limits, and the entire House is up for election every two years.
Hey, look! Tools!
To find your Senators — every state has two of them, and they both represent everyone in the state — go here and select your state in the dropdown.
You'll get both Senators' names, along with their websites, phone numbers, office addresses and email addresses,
The House is a little trickier. Each state has a varying number of Congressmen based on population, and districts aren't always drawn with intuitive boundaries (that's another discussion for another time).
The best thing you can do is to start here with a ZIP code finder. If you happen to live in a ZIP code that has been divided by district boundaries, you'll have to go deeper.
Just like with the Senate search tool, you'll get your House member's website, email address, office address and phone number.
One of the things that a lot of people have been talking about with this incoming administration is fear. I've been trying to put into words what those fears are, and, well, we're going to go ahead and work this one out. Basically, it comes down to this:
I'm an American, and I don't feel the president has my back.
• My wife is an American, and I don't feel the president has her back.
• My parents are American, and I don't feel the president has their backs.
• My nieces are tiny Americans, and I don't feel the president has their backs.
• As an American, I am lucky to be able to be an example for the world. I don't feel the president cares that the rest of the world needs us.
I want to start with the media, and before you roll your eyes, let's do some civics. This won't take long, I promise. Maybe. I guess we'll see how much I ramble.
The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle popularized the moniker "fourth estate," referring to the three estates of the UK Parliament, checked by the fourth estate, the media.
It translates well to the U.S.
I know you learned this in middle school, but let's have a little reminder. We have three branches of government with a check-and-balances system. The Executive branch has veto power over the Legislative branch and appointment power over the Judicial branch. The Legislative branch has advise-and-consent power over both branches, along with the power to override a presidential veto. The Judicial branch has the ability to strike down laws written by the Legislative branch and enacted by the Executive.
What happens, then, when there's collusion?
You are aware of what the government does because of media. If the three branches of government are our three estates, then the media are our fourth, and it's their job to tell us what they see — not what they're told to tell us.
CNN, some of you might be old enough to remember, brought us the first Iraq war in real-time. It doesn't get a lot less fake than that. Has CNN developed something of a bias over the years? Maybe, but even if so, that's not super-important (we can argue about it here, or you can go read my post on objectivity vs. transparency in media).
Flash forward to Trump's inauguration. It was well-attended. In fact, it was probably the third- or fourth-best-attended inauguration in the past 35 years, and certainly the most well-attended inauguration for a Republican in that time.
It was not the best-attended ever, as the president's spokesman, Sean Spicer, asserted Saturday during his first press conference — right before not taking any questions from the media at all.
You read that correctly. The press secretary lied to the press, then didn't take questions from the press.
How do I know Spicer lied? I have eyes. Here, take a look at these photos (I'll explain what you're looking at underneath it).
There's a camera on top of the Washington Monument. It provides a live feed. These are screengrabs from that feed. The top is from Barack Obama's first inauguration; the second is from Donald Trump's. Both are taken at the time the incoming presidents are taking their respective oaths of office.
Can you objectively look at that bottom photo and tell me there are more people in it than in the top photo? Even if you have no idea how many people are in either, there are clearly more in the top photo. However many people there are in that top photo, there are certainly more people in it than however many people there are in the bottom photo.
There's not a partisan issue here. The media are responsible for telling citizens the truth when their government lies. That's the issue.
Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway went on "Meet the Press" Sunday morning and told Chuck Todd Spicer didn't lie to the media, he merely had "alternative facts."Here's the clip.
Here are some alternative facts: I'm a seven-foot-two Mexican midget.
Conservatives like to make fun of special snowflakes getting butthurt? We officially have the most special and unique snowflakeever in the White House, and he hasn't even been there a week.
It appears that the president and his administration are at war with the media. Remember that this isn't the media's fault. Media aren't combative by nature, they're skeptical. Without a skeptical media, you get whatever the president wants you to hear. Like in North Korea, or Russia.
And before you ask me why media gave Obama a pass? It's because you weren't paying attention. Even an outlet like The Washington Post — which is certainly reporting on Trump from a contrarian position — rated Obama's administration one of the most secretive ever.
Again, media should be skeptical. That's how they protect us. It's their check against all three branches of the government. Really, it's our check against the government.
OK, so I lied. I rambled a lot.
Let's talk about what's really bothering me about this administration. And by bothering, I really mean scared. Honestly frightened. Like, it might be time to start selling stuff and become a prepper frightened.
Like I said at the top, I don't feel like the president has my back as an American.
It's the government's job, above all else, to keep its citizens safe. Not safe-space safe. Safe. Like I don't have to worry about going to the gym and having a racist blow me up safe.
If the president does nothing else well, he certainly talks — and tweets — a good game. He said nothing last week when several dozen synagogues and Jewish Community Centers across the country had bomb threats called in.
The thing these incidents all have in common is that they've happened since the election. Some were accompanied by "Make America Great Again" accompanying it. The vandalism is by people who feel empowered by Trump's election to bully others.
All Trump had to do was say, "This kind of thing won't be tolerated."
It's too late now, I think. I don't think I'd believe him at this late date.
I've been saying since the election I want to be wrong on Trump. If he succeeds, America succeeds, and if America succeeds, I succeed. Unless he succeeds in making us something else.
If you've been listening to the podcast the past couple of weeks, you know I've been worried to the point of paranoia. I didn't really have words for what I was actually scared of until now.
If the president doesn't have my back as an American Jew, he definitely doesn't have my back as an American who works in news media.
With no details of the president's health plan rolled out, I'm concerned for my parents, who are getting up there in age. If Medicare goes away, if Social Security goes away, will they have insurance as they head toward retirement? Will they be able to afford it?
I'm also worried about health care for my wife, of course — if we go back to a private, largely unregulated insurance market, should she get pregnant, will that be seen as a pre-existing condition? Will she be able to be covered at all?
This is not to mention all the allegations of sexual assault and that tape that got Billy Bush fired. They may or may not be important politically, but knowing what you know, would you let Trump date your daughter?
And my nieces. Again, Trump's problems with women. But also, did you watch those Betsy DeVos confirmation hearings? She's more concerned about grizzly bears coming into schools than mentally ill adults with weapons. She's long been a proponent of for-profit charter schools that have no requirement to meet any educational standards.
She's a candidate for education secretary who can't be bothered to proofread her own tweets. I'm no angel when it comes to social media and grammar, but this, more than any other time in her life, is a time to be a good example for students.
As my nieces' parents have to decide where to send the girls to school, will there be viable public schools? If not, will charter schools that get federal money actually teach them facts, and the tools they need to survive as adults?
Fixed Betsy DeVos's tweet. She can thank the _public_ elementary school, middle school, high school, and universities where I was educated. pic.twitter.com/A9fmIXRVlB
And finally, the US has never been out front on human rights. We've declined to sign the United Nations' Universal Decleration of Human Rights. I get that. But after Trump spent a part of his campaign slamming the UN, a few Republican congressmen on Jan. 3 introduced a bill to have America leave the UN, removing us, essentially, as a world citizen.
I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. During his campaign — and now on the White House website — he prefers the phrase "America First." While this sounds merely isolationist on its face, it harkens back to a racist, anti-Semitic group called the America First Committee, which wanted to keep America out of World War II — not because they wanted to keep citizens safe, but because they wanted Europe to worry about Europe.
They clearly hadn't thought about what that meant for trade or innovation.
That group disbanded shortly after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
I've been thinking, again, about political correctness, civility, and how far we need to go to be nice to each other. Forgive me as I ramble here, and work some of it out.
Kelvin and I did a podcast on rules for good communication. One of the rules is that the communicator should come in without malice, and that the listener should come in assuming the communicator is coming in without malice.
That is, if I say something subtly offensive, I probably didn't mean to offend you. If it's bothering you, speak up. On the other hand, I definitely shouldn't come in overtly offensive.
This is more-and-more front of mind as I see the way our outgoing president and our president-elect interact with people in public. During Barack Obama's farewell address, people started booing when he mentioned handing over the reins to Donald Trump. His response to people criticizing a political rival? "No, no, no, no, no."
Trump's response to someone like Meryl Streep criticizing him? "She's overrated." The number and variety of awards she's won is actually an objective measure of the fact that she's not.
She just disagreed with him. It's OK to do. Seriously.
Then I read something about university students in the UK demanding philosophers like Plato and Kant be removed from syllabi because they are white. While it's totally beside the point that Plato was probably not white, coming from the Mediterranean some 3000 years ago, the fact that great thinkers were members of the dominant culture doesn't diminish their work.
I haven't heard any calls for the art works of da Vinci or van Gogh to come out of museums. Or for John Grisham and JK Rowling to be excluded from bestseller lists.
At its heart, I think a lot of eye-rolling at "political correctness" these days is lazy people refusing to be civil to other humans. But it's another thing altogether to decide how much work to do to do what someone else might consider polite.
For instance, New York City has a long list of acceptable gender pronouns. It's upwards of 70, I hear. And if you're an employer or a landlord and use the wrong one, the Post writes, you could be fined a quarter-million dollars.
Turns out that's not entirely true. You can be fined if you're an asshole about it. For instance, if a transgender individual asks you to call her "Miss" and you insist on calling her "Mister" after repeated requests, that's when you're liable for a fine.
It was while I was sitting there thinking about political correctness and wondering how we got here that I opened Twitter, and, ta-da!
We need to start growing up and tackling actual issues. Here's a game plan for moving forward:
(1) Go a little out of your way to be civil to people. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, after all.
(2) If you're offended by something, particularly speech, ask yourself if your expectations are reasonable. And by reasonable, I mean, put yourself in someone else's shoes — if doing so requires an entire overhaul of your worldview, you're not being reasonable.
(3) Understand both language and context. You might reasonably describe your teenage kid as behaving uppity, but understand that word means something entirely different to black Americans who lived through the 1960s and 1970s.
(4) Shut up and work on real problems. If using whatever words you want or stopping people from using the words they want are high on your agenda, maybe go volunteer down at the soup kitchen or something for a day. There are actual problems in this world.
Here are some more writings on political correctness and group relations:
You didn't get to where you are by yourself. The good things in your life, the bad things in your life, they all led you to today, and you had help the whole way.
If you're reading this, you're on the right side of the pavement. On top of the grass. Not among the dead. There's a thing to be grateful for. Also, you have Internet access, or a friend good enough to print this out for you. And you can read (or you have a screen reader, which means you can hear).
You're doing OK for yourself. That's all I'm saying. You may have some unhappy stuff going on in your life but hey, it's all a matter of perspective.
For as much as you say thank you to the universe, how often do you say thank you in real life? I've been fortunate enough to say thank you plenty, and to have people say thank you, even unexpectedly.
Here's a public thank you fest that happened recently; I'm going to assume it's among strangers, though I suppose I don't have any reason to believe Kotler and Sukel don't know each other:
If you want to really learn stuff, synthesize multiple angles. Example: Read @steven_kotler's Rise of Superman + @kaytsukel's Art of Risk
I've been thinking of the best ways to enunciate the fears I feel, and that others I speak to feel, under the coming Trump presidency. We've been having this tribe problem on social media, so let me offer a longer look, one that hopefully brings people who disagree together in discussion.
Note that my purpose here is not to change anybody's mind about your political party or candidate. It's to remind you that we're on the same team. As Americans, we have three different ideals we're working with. Let's oversimplify a little so that we can understand them but then get to the real point.
(1) Bootstrapping and the American dream. Think of everything you learned in school growing up, and everything you ever saw on film about immigration. From the California Gold Rush of the 1840s to the Mousekowitz family in "An American Tail," America has been sold as a place where, if you're willing to to the work, you can do anything and be anything. It turns out we have some systemic issues that don't allow for that.
(2) 40 acres & a mule / A chicken in every pot & a car in every garage. "Forty acres and a mule" was actually meant to be reparations for slavery, and was repealed very quickly after Lincoln's death. The point really isn't a "handout," it's a dream of property ownership for everyone. Hoover's 1928 campaign slogan, on the other hand, hints at a prosperity that many families have never been able to realize.
(3) A melting pot / A salad bowl. When I was in school, we started to change the language of America as "a melting pot" — a place where people of different backgrounds came together to create a new, American culture — to that of "a salad bowl" — a place where people of different backgrounds mixed with each other but kept their identities. It turns out lettuce and carrots and celery and tomatoes sometimes have a problem living and working together.
The common element running through all of these promises is that they're for everybody. But they're not. There are some things some people simply cannot do because the systems we have in place work against them.
With that behind us, I propose en emphasis on these ten terms as we move forward and live — and hopefully grow — together. If you feel like you "won" with this election, you should read this to learn about others around you. If you feel like you "lost" with this election, you should read this to learn about others around you. If you've moved beyond winning and losing, awesome! This can help inform your conversations with people who have not.
Nuance. The biggest thing we've lost in the social media world is a sense of nuance. Posts are by and large black and white and lead to shouting rather than nuanced discussions. It bleeds into real life, too, and it's one of the reasons we have such large swings in who's leading Congress every few years: we get too caught up in rhetoric that we forget that things aren't all or nothing.
People rarely change their minds over the course of debate, but nuanced discussions can help people see the other side and to give some ground here and there, to make compromises. Let's think of some examples.
Want to know why people really voted for Trump? Stop stamping "racist" and "sexist" on their foreheads. Ask about jobs and faith. Want to know why people are really afraid under Trump? Ask, then actually listen.
Want to have an honest discussion about gun control? Talk about mental health, criminal history and multi-state licensure. And don't forget keeping firearms out of toddlers' hands.
Context. I've written about context recently. It's important because we don't live in a vacuum. Every experience we have contributes to the lens through which we see the world and colors our interactions.
History also provides context.
Empathy. While it's true that we do live in a bootstrapping, reward-the-lone-wolf-hero society, we don't even have a society without empathy. We have to care for others, understand and respect where they're coming from and fight for people who don't have a voice. It's actually one of the things that got America to the top. People came here from England to find some religious freedom and we wrote it into the Bill of Rights. When the French sent us the Statue of Liberty, we inscribed on her:
... "Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me ..."
We're not going to make it if we throw these very people back.
Culture. I had a very brief conversation with my grad school advisor about culture. She thought she didn't have any. But here's the truth: Being a member of the dominant culture doesn't mean you don't have a culture.
Here is where I, and other #NeverTrump folks, need to understand something: White working-class (primarily) Christians in middle America are concerned that their culture is in trouble. Empathy works both ways — we want people to understand that just about every Muslim in America just wants to go to school and work and worship like just about every Jew in America does and just about every Christian in America does, we also have to understand that if people in the dominant culture feel their culture is threatened, it's the same feeling every member of a minority culture feels when they're threatened.
The dominant culture isn't bad, it's just invisible as a culture because it's dominant.
Facts. It worries me that, in 2017, with America well behind the pack in STEM education across the world, we are falling even more into a post-fact society. When political and religious dogma are the basis for arguments instead of facts, we're throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Michael Shermer proposes methods for discussion when facts don't help, but it's where I just walk away. You want to know why Kobe Bryant went to Germany a few years ago to rebuild his knees? It's because under the George W. Bush administration, we decided that we shouldn't harvest stem cells and store them and do research because we were worried people would get abortions and sell stem cells from their unborn fetuses. Remember that? Meanwhile, plenty of other countries moved forward with their research, didn't see an uptick in abortions, and are way ahead of us.
Abortion arguments are another one. It turns out we don't have significantly more abortions when abortion is legal. What we do have, though, is fewer women dying from botched abortions because the procedures are safe and performed by doctors. If you're "pro-life," you should be in favor of the lives of adults, too, not just unborn children.
The scientific community isn't split on global warming, but somehow politicians are.
More than half of Republicans think Donald Trump won the popular vote. Their source? Donald Trump. His source? Donald Trump. The popular vote was 64.1 million for Clinton, 62.2 million for Trump. The source? The people who count the actual votes. That doesn't mean the electoral vote is invalid, it just means Donald Trump didn't win the popular vote. Why is that even a discussion? Because political dogma is more important than facts to some people.
Safety. I'm not talking about so-called "safe spaces" where people go to be alone or get counseling if they feel uncomfortable because someone disagrees with them. I'm betting that happens less than we think and that we're blowing a lot of it out of proportion. I'm talking about physical safety. If you show up somewhere in a Klan hood or call someone an "oven-dodger" they're going to assume you mean to kill them. You don't need to love everybody, but you do have to live alongside them.
Civility. "Political correctness," I've come to believe, is a term used primarily when someone is too lazy — or too rude — to be civil to others. The answer is yes, you should go out of your way to be polite to people. Didn't your mother ever teach you any manners?
Trust. So if facts don't matter and people are unwilling to be civil and lots of us feel unsafe, whom do we trust? I'm actually not sure. If you're willing to cite political or religious dogma in a factual argument, or you're not willing to be polite to someone just because you're lazy, I don't know if I can trust your word.
Echo chambers. Do me a favor. Hop on over to Facebook and scroll through your feed. Of the first 15 or so status updates, how many do you disagree with? If the answer is more than zero, you're in a minority. If your answer is more than one, you're in a tiny minority. Over on Twitter, it might be slightly higher (that's because follow relationships aren't mutual), but not a lot.
If one of the great possibilities of the internet was that we'd get to hear a wide variety of viewpoints, one of our great failings as humans is that we've actively sought to shut them out. It should be the other way 'round.
Silos. Even within our echo chambers, we are in what some call silos. That is, we may have our political leanings, but other people with those same political leanings have entirely different reasons for having those leanings than we do — and they are also not in our timelines. We've actually managed to segregate ourselves not only from diverse opinions but also from those that are close parallels.
We need to bust out of these echo chambers and silos and actually get out and speak with each other. And we need to do it civilly, with empathy and having some context.
We also said goodbye to the likes of Abe Vigoda and John Glenn and Umberto Eco and Harper Lee and Alan Rickman and Antonin Scalia and Nancy Reagan and Morley Safer and Garry Shandling and Merle Haggard and Prince and Muhammad Ali and Elie Wiesel and Zsa Zsa Gabor and George Michael and Fyvush Finkel and Alan Thicke and Garry Marshall and Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and Edward Albee and Glenn Frey and Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder and Leon Russell and Gwen Ifill and Florence Henderson and Fidel Castro.
It was like The Great Hand-off. So many people who shaped news, entertainment and politics for the past 40-plus years are gone. They left it for us to figure it out. I don't have a lot of hope, but am hoping to be proven wrong on that.
We also said goodbye to too many people shot by toddlers, because the "gun rights" people and the "gun control" people are too stubborn to talk to each other about gun safety.
I'm a little afraid for the world right now. I fear empowered white nationalists following both a Brexit vote and a Trump election. I fear we don't understand context and that our memories are too short. I fear that we're choosing teams, protecting our tribes and forgetting that we're one species.
But I'm also optimistic. People have a good habit of surprising me sometimes. So, here's to 2017.
There's a phenomenon in statistics called regression toward the mean. You can read a good explanation of it here, but the short version goes like this:
(1) Give people a test (say, driving a golf ball, but don't worry, this isn't going to be a sports post), then plot the results. You'll notice that there are some outliers (those with really long drives and those with really short drives), but most of them will cluster around a mean, or average.
(2) Add a new variable to all of them that you'd expect will change their drive. An example might be a golf lesson (which you'd expect to increase the drive distance) or wrist weights (which you'd expect would decrease the drive distance).
(3) Test them again, and plot the results. You'll find that there are still outliers and a cluster around a mean. The mean may be different, but there's still a mean and there are still roughly the same number of people clustered around it.
OK, cool. Now, let's look at life.
Can we all agree there are outliers? We might have different measures and have different tastes, but I'm going to suggest as success measures not having trouble paying your bills, generally enjoying what you do, and not worrying about what other people think.
I'm going to suggest the "positive" outliers — people who are "winning" at life, if you will — are people like Richard Branson, Joe Rogan and Kim Kardashian. They all seem to be pretty happy folks with successful business ventures (look, I'm a fan of one of the three of them and I did absolutely no research).
Then there are "negative" outliers — people who maybe aren't doing so well. People who are homeless, hungry and unhappy about it, maybe. (Yes, I realize it's a very American-centric view of things, can we move on, please?)
Then there's some line that is the average of those people.
Depending on how you measure things, now you have people clustered around that line. We're going to stick with the generally subjective items I seem to have come up with here.
There are people who have no trouble paying their bills, have a generally satisfying family life but hate their jobs. Or people who are wealthy but alone and miserable. Or people who like their jobs and like their home lives but are just scraping by, sometimes eating just rice for a couple days at the end of the month to keep the heat on.
When you add up their "scores," they wind up somewhere in the middle, give or take.
This is regression toward the mean.
Now, let's add some measure of happiness to everybody. I don't know, maybe one day each week, every person gets some sort of dopamine release that launches them into absolute bliss for 16 hours. Or maybe everybody always gets all the sleep they need every night.
There are still outliers now, but everyone's happiness went up. Most people are still clustered around a mean, just the mean is higher than it was before we added our new thing.
Still with me? Good, because this is where it gets important.
We're all making this up as we go along, trying to get a little bit better, day by day. Some of us have figured out some things. Some of us have figured out other things. Some of us haven't figured out anything.
But we can all get better. The top outliers can become better, the bottom outliers can become better, and everyone who regressed toward the mean can get better — it just gives us a higher mean. The distribution remains the same, but we're raising the mean.
Let's make up numbers. Let's say the outliers at the top are 90 and the outliers at the bottom are 10 and the mean is 50. What if we bump the top outliers to 100 and the bottom to 20 and the mean to 60? Everybody got better. What if we bump the top outliers to 200 and the bottom to 120 and the mean to 160?
Same distribution, but the mean is higher.
Here's the point: Nobody has to get worse for you to get better. There's room for everyone to improve, for everyone to rise, and it doesn't detract from your ability to also rise.
So lift people up, don't put them down. As you rise, bring people with you. It'll be easier at the top if you have people around you.
In case you don't follow stories that many media outlets largely ignore, here's a brief overview of what's been going on in North Dakota the past few months (this is a huge simplification, because most of us don't have the attention span for the long, technical version as an introduction to a blog post; there's plenty of information out there if you want to do some more in-depth research).
(1) A large company wants to build an oil pipeline, called the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL.
(2) The original route went just north of Bismarck, a city full of white people. When the Army Corps of Engineers said they couldn't go there, the route was redrawn.
(3) This new route would go under a river that serves as a drinking water source for Native Americans half a mile south of the proposed route.
(4) Pick your term — Water protectors, demonstrators or protesters — have been out in force to try to stop the pipeline. They've been subjected to violent treatment by police (more. They've camped out for months and really gone above and beyond what most permitting processes would call "public input."
(5) The Army Corps of Engineers just this past Sunday decided they would not issue permits for this route, either.
(6) On Monday, the company building DAPL said they're going to build it anyway, on the route they couldn't get permits for.
In other words, the company basically said, "Well, we asked for permits, we didn't get them, and we're just going to build without the permits."
The fine for digging without permits, then, must be worth the cost of doing business.
Go listen to the podcast at the bottom of this post. The podcast was aired, and the post written, before the events of this past weekend. But this provides some good background and resources for us ignorant folk.
Here in Savannah, we have a historic district. It's beautiful, and comes with a bunch of rules. Want to build a fence in your yard? Public hearing. Permits. Want to build a porch that isn't an exact percentage of frontage? Public hearing. Permits. Want to put up a modern-looking building? Don't bother asking. Signs? Hearings. Permits. Awnings? Hearings, permits.
This is not unusual, especially in older cities, and municipalities that are near-saturated with buildings.
Imagine if people just skipped permits and did whatever they wanted to? We'd have shoddy construction, weird-looking buildings, people hitting gas lines and sewer lines and buried electrical lines, and property values would plummet.
This is actually why we have permits.
In the case of DAPL, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has very reasonable concerns about their drinking water. Drilling and digging are potentially polluting activities. Pipelines leak all the time (way more often than I thought — I figured there were probably a few every decade, which still makes for reasonable concern on drinking water). Talk to the people of Flint, Michigan, about what it's like to have water problems.
(1) Why do we have a public input period if people have to camp out and face violence for permitting bodies to listen?
There's another whole problem here, and that's a matter of sovereignty. While the pipeline wouldn't actually go through Native land, it would pass really close, and have environmental implications on what is technically sovereign territory. If we were getting really close to Canada, we'd be talking to their government. Same with Mexico (yes, even under a Trump presidency). We should be doing the same for the Standing Rock Sioux.
I'm no legal expert, but the way I understand sovereignty is...sovereignty. Many Nations have allowed easements for interstates to go through their land, but sovereignty says they could certainly place toll booths on the road and collect whatever they want for tolls. Or they could put walls across the road and you'd just have to go somewhere else.
Sound ridiculous? So does walking a half-mile away from the border and sending a pipeline under a river that serves as a drinking source.
One more for you...this appears to be some white guys threatening some Native Americans. Hard to get some context, but it's out there.