Monthly Archives: April 2014

Sorry, in a manner of speaking

The word sorry has so many meanings that I nearly got lost looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

There’s the perhaps less common lament – a sorry state of affairs – and of course the go-to apology – I’m sorry.

Interestingly, the word sorry seems to have the same Germanic root as sore, but not the same root as sorrow, though the words are often thought to be related.

As the OED explains, sorry and sore “denote both physical and mental suffering in early use (and are now largely restricted to aspects of pain),” while “sorrow and its cognates primarily express the idea of mental and emotional suffering.”

What I find particularly interesting is the varied meanings of the expression, “I’m sorry.”

While commonly used as an apology – I’m sorry about something I am responsible for – I am a particular fan of sorry as…a sort of universal acknowledgement.

I use “I’m sorry” colloquially in place of longer expressions such as, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” I’m sorry that reality exists the way it exists,” or perhaps more informally, “I’m sorry that what you just described totally sucks.”

I don’t think sorry needs to be an apology. I prefer to think of it simply as an acknowledgement. A quiet head nod, a moment of understanding. These things happen, it says. These things happen, and that’s too bad.

Sorry.

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The Accelerating Universe

While we’ve known for decades that the universe began with a small, densely packed blob of matter that suddenly accelerated rapidly in all dimensions, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that we began to truly understand how the universe might end.

For a long while, there was the romantic notion of the oscillating universe.

If the universe began with a big bang, perhaps it would end with a big collapse. Beginning its life with a rich expansion, gradually decelerating, then ultimately collapsing back in on itself – only to explode outwards once again.

If only enough mass stayed at the universe’s center, this model could work. The gravitational attraction could overcome the initial explosive force of creation, and the universe would forever be caught in a poetic cycle of life and death.

But, alas, it is not to be.

In 1998, observations indicated that the universe was still accelerating outwards. Coupled with measurements of the density of the universe, these observations indicate that we have passed the point where collapse is possible.

Indeed, the universe will continue to accelerate – expanding ever outward into the inky blackness of nothing.

The skies will grow dark, the universe will grow cold, and finally, in this lifeless existence, everything will be forever static, unable to change.

Welcome to the accelerating universe.

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Empty Time

Time can be described with a number of different moderators. Work time. Nap time. Free time.

But what about empty time?

Free time is free of structured content. You may or may not do something with your free time – well, by definition, I supposed you must do something with your free time – but you can do whatever you want with your free time. It can be productive time or unproductive time. It doesn’t matter – it’s free for you to use.

But empty time is different.

Empty time is like empty calories. The time is there. The seconds pass. But the substance is gone. The meaning is missing.

Empty time is both productive time and unproductive time. Something is happening. Something is getting done. But your brain isn’t there. And your brain isn’t accomplishing anything, either.

You might encounter empty time while stuffing folders, waiting for the bus, or, quite possibly when someone you don’t care about is going on about something that you don’t care about.

Empty time.

Ideally, I suppose, no time would be empty. Every second you would live in the moment, focused on the here and now, excited by whatever you could glean from a given opportunity.

Waiting for the bus is a chance to reflect on your day, observe the world, or learn something new. Every person who speaks to you should have your complete an undivided attention. Even stuffing folders can be meditative.

But is that really possible, or feasible, and is it ideal after all?

I don’t know, but perhaps I’ll ponder that next time I’m waiting for the bus.

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People watching

You can watch people any time of year, but spring is really ideal people watching weather.

Especially after the cold hush of winter, when people huddle about, hardly whispering words as they pass. In winter, you may meet your friends indoors – but you rarely meet strangers outside. You don’t hang out on street corners or porches, passing the time with casual conversation. Even at the bus stop, people stand together in solitude, huddled alone for warmth.

But in the spring – even at the first hint of spring – people come out in droves, sucking up the sunlight and frolicking in the streets.

I’m always amazed at how many people I don’t know. This may seem foolish in a world of 7 billion people. But in my engaged city of 77,000 I nearly always run into somebody I know…so it’s after the long solitude of winter its somehow always surprising at just how many people I don’t know.

I like to wonder about their lives. I wonder where they’re going, where their coming from. What they’re concerned about. What they’re happy about.

There are so many complex things happening in all the complex people around us. So many mysteries and insights that I will never have the opportunity to discover. So many ideas, regrets, and hopes.

So much life.

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The things we can’t say in polite company

There are some things that are just totally inappropriate to say out loud.

I’m not just referring to seven (or so) dirty words deemed too harsh for my sensitive ears. I’m talking about the things that are inappropriate to say out loud because they’re deemed inappropriate to even think.

And in some ways this is good.

I am glad to live in a society that shuns every lunatic who decides its a great idea to yell racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted remarks. Yes, I support their first amendment right to spew hate speech, but I also support my right to ignore them or ridicule them as I see fit. If I were a person of some power, I could even fire someone for such an offense.

And frankly, that all seems fine. Having a right doesn’t mean living consequence free.

But is there no space where we can whisper these secret thoughts?

Perhaps hate speech is too stark an example. I certainly know many people who would argue that it’s just fine – and perhaps ideal – for people to feel like they shouldn’t even think such things.

But let’s think more generally for a moment.

Being a communist is socially unacceptable. Should people who support communism just shut up and go away? Should we shun people who raise such thoughts and shut them out of public life entirely? What about atheists? What people who hold any number of other unpopular beliefs?

This is a dangerous path to go down. And it’s one we have gone down before.

I am particularly interested in semi-public, or perhaps semi-private, spaces.

If you proclaim something unpopular on national TV, of course the public’s going to react. Some people even make a living off it.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be smaller spaces, more intimate spaces, where people from diverse backgrounds come together and talk openly and honestly about what they think and why they think it.

Where people take risks – say the things they’re not supposed to say. And others listen. And push back.

And I’m particularly interested in people who think unpopular thoughts – and who struggle with whether they should think that or not.  If there’s no venue for for them to grapple with these ideas, there’s no venue for them them to really understand others’ ways of thinking.

They need to be able to share these views. Explain these views. Argue about these views.

In this world where private life is public life and conversations are shouting matches, its too easy to shut people down entirely. It’s too easy for a thought to seem forbidden, unspeakable, unthinkable in any forum resembling polite company.

Nobody cares what you think any way, better to keep that thought to yourself.

That’s a dangerous, complicated road, and one we should be very weary of going down.

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Broken systems and the danger of elitism

If a system is broken, can we fix it?

Put aside for a moment any logistical concerns. Let’s not worry about galvanizing enough people to demand reform or finding the financial capital to make it happen. Imagine we have every resource at our disposal.

If a system is broken, can we fix it?

If our education system is deeply flawed – as many believe that it is – can we resolve those flaws? Are there ideal solutions to inequity, divergent needs, or bullying?

Okay, ideal solutions might be going a bit far, but surely there are better solutions. Surely we can improve upon the mess that we have now? And, perhaps, with a few iterations of tinkering and improvement, we’ll somehow stumble upon a system as perfect as the realities of a complex world will allow.

That would be nice.

And it certainly seems logical. If something is broken – particularly a social system designed by people in the first place – it’s only reasonable that people should work to fix it.

But we should pause to ask ourselves – why is that system broken in the first place?

Was it simply designed poorly? Or perhaps designed without the realities of modern life in mind? Was is designed by an elite few who thought they knew best, but who ultimately dove in way above their heads – not really understanding others’ needs and not appreciating the complex ways systems intertwine?

And there’s the rub.

It’s fine to look at systems and say that they’re broken. Education. Healthcare. Housing. Financial systems. Political systems. Maternity leave. The DMV. We all know they’re broken.

But how do we fix them?

How do we make them better?

Can we make them better?

Or will a butterfly flap its wings and will one well intentioned change – prohibition, for example – result in a shocking rise in crime and the normalization of mobster life?

It’s easy to look back and criticize.

The founding fathers were all wealthy white men who lived 200 years ago. Brilliant and thoughtful and enlightened though they may be – they didn’t speak for me. How could they possibly create systems that would work today? Systems that would work for me?

Of course they designed it wrong, and of course I should work to fix it.

But there’s a danger in that thinking as well. What if I design it wrong? What if I design it worse?

What if you and I and all our neighbors come together, think long and hard and critically. What if we design the best system we can think of – and it still doesn’t work?

What if there are simply limits to the human capacity to create perfect systems?

To be clear, I wouldn’t advocate that we do nothing. I cannot abide stagnation and we should always push ourselves towards improvement.

But we should take that leap with caution. We should recognize our limits – personally and collectively. We should recognize that we can’t solve all the world’s problems, though we can work every day to address them.

Humanity has no enlightened saviors, coming down to relieve all our woes. Homo ex machina.

Working within your own community may make you more of an expert, but still, there are simply limits to human reason. None of us can possibly predict the next Wall St. crash nor the next car crash. The systems are too complex for us.

So please, work to make the world better. Work to make your communities better. Do everything you can and push for the best changes you can. But accept that none of those changes will be perfect. Some will even be bad.

At the end of the day, we’re all just imperfect people in an imperfect society – doing the best that we can to make a perfect world.

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News Clips

Conventional wisdom indicates that the general (American) population is woefully uninformed about current events.

In a September 2013 news poll by Pew, “majorities answered 5 of 13 questions correctly.”

That doesn’t sounds so good.

But, of course, that one data point doesn’t really tell us anything since in their January 2013 poll, majorities correctly answered 11 of the 13 items. So, people may or may not actually be uninformed.

One of my primary sources of information is the morning news. And granted, I think the morning news is more “chatty” than the evening news, but I can’t escape the feeling that reporters are saying more and more about less and less.

In theory, I think it’s great for people to be deeply informed about issues. But in practice, most news coverage seems to only scratch the surface of an issue.

So why don’t we do this: condense everything that doesn’t need in-depth coverage as much as possible, thus saving time for everything else.

Since I’m thinking about a broadcast medium, I’d go with, say, a short visual and 1-2 words per story. None of this telling us what’s happening then interviewing an “average person” to tell us in their own words. Let’s have a few in-depth stories with expert opinions, sure, but let’s leave it there.

And we can definitely cut the promotion of up coming stories. No more, “find out what may be killing you…coming up next.” Or, “Up next – what a new study says about a good night’s sleep.” Then five minutes later, they take two minutes of your life to tell you that sleep is important. How is that helpful?

To get us started, here are some concise examples of today’s news. These are great and important topics, but – let’s keep it moving here people.

Today’s weather:

72°

Local news:

Yay!


United

National and international news:

Bad plan


Horrific


Panic! (potentially)

See? And now look at how much time we have to really dig into other issues.

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Utopia

Coined by Thomas More, Utopia literally means “nowhere.” In his 1516 book of the same name, More described an imaginary island with perfect legal, social, and political systems.  The word is something of a play on words, as it’s homophone, eutopia, means “good place.”

Utopia has since been generalized to describe any perfect place. Colloquially, it’s often assumed to be a place where everybody is happy.

This image of Utopia quickly changes into an assumption of dystopia.

I mean, happiness is all well and good, I suppose, but the idea of a bunch of people who are always happy all of the time is downright creepy. It conjures images of drugged out masses, brainwashed or high on opioids, who claim happiness but who have only achieved a false shadow of that joy.

And then there’s the age old question – can happiness exist without unhappiness?

But if Utopia isn’t a place where everyone is happy, then what is it?

If you embrace pain, suffering, and sorrow not only as unfortunate realities, but as necessary ingredients to the good life – what does your Utopia look like then?

It may be good to minimize these so-called negative experiences, but would you really want to eliminate them entirely even if you could?

And once you’ve accepted these horrors into your world, then you’re really just left with a question of quantity and distribution.

Should you distribute the sorrow equally? Ensure that no one experiences more than a certain quota of pain? Quibbling over those details seems cruel and inhuman.

So where does that leave us?

Is Utopia a broken and cruel world, full of flaws and scars, scattered with joy and bursts of well-being? Is Utopia perfect in its imperfection? A world where nothing’s quite right, where the best we can do is fight like hell for a better tomorrow?

Is Utopia really just a constant, unending journey – an embracing of imperfection and a determined, tenacious fight towards unobtainable, futile, perfect?

Perhaps.

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The Fear of Radical Change

Roberto Unger, Harvard Law professor and radical of the radical, is concerned by the patterns of reform and retrenchment he sees repeated throughout history. People may rise up and demand reform, but once their revolution has succeeded, their changes are ultimately quite modest.

These movements may start as demands for radical reform, but end as quibbling over specifics, selecting options from a short menu of narrow, pre-existing options.

Historically, people seem unable, or unwilling, to think more radically. To imagine new options – and to dare to implement them.

“People treat a plan as realistic when it approximates what already exists and utopian when it departs from current arrangements,” Unger writes in False Necessity. “Only proposals that are hardly worth fighting for – reformist tinkering – seem practicable,”

Thus, he sees a long line of failed hopes – of compromises which have done nothing to generate optimal solutions, of humanity-wide self-doubt that prevents us from taking bold steps to confront our challenges.

Unger’s suggestions are quite radical. Mandatory unionization. Cessation of family inheritance. A branch of government that can step in and shake things up when systems become too entrenched.

It’s hard to read Unger without thinking he’s a little bit crazy. A little bit too radical.

But even as I scoff at his suggestions, moved by a gut feeling that you can’t do that. I can’t help but think that Unger has a point.

Perhaps we are too timid in seeking out change. Perhaps fighting over an $8 minimum wage or a $10 minimum wage is merely reformist tinkering – insufficient to tackle the real problems of social inequity we face.

Perhaps we should be thinking more radically, convinced that any and all changes are under our jurisdiction and refusing to be held back by fears that something is impossible or impractical.

Perhaps we should dare to dream. To think big, to think bold, and, of course, to smash the contexts that confine our thinking.

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Voice for the Voiceless

I had the opportunity to see the delightful Arianna Huffington speak today. She spoke passionately about the democratizing effect of the Internet – how in this world of social media and blogs every voice has the opportunity to rise to the top.

She shared inspirational stories. A homeless teen is now enrolled at Harvard, after his blog post about life on the street caught the Ivy League’s eye. A mother has a book deal after sharing her story of learning not to rush her daughter through life.

The Internet, she argued, is a voice for those who previously lacked opportunities for expression. A platform where anyone can share their story with the world. A venue allowing anyone with something worth saying to add their voice to the public sphere.

And I don’t disagree. The Internet certainly has a democratizing effect, a unique chorus of voices and perspectives that previously had no such mass audience.

And that is great. I’m glad people have new opportunities and venues for self-expression, and I’m glad for admittance into Harvard and book deals. That’s all just great.

But I worry when someone proclaims the Internet a safe haven – and stops the analysis right there.

First – shouldn’t we worry about all the other homeless teens, not just the one who wrote an inspirational and moving reflection? Do we have the collective patience to listen to all of their stories? To face our own shame and acknowledge our complicitness in failing them?

Second – the Internet is a remarkable venue for dialogue, but its mere existence doesn’t mean that everyone is empowered to share their voice.

Too many of us are told that we have nothing worth saying, that our ideas and experience are not fit for sharing. We are cogs in the machine, unique and special in our own right but not important enough to care.

The Internet can change that, but the Internet doesn’t intrinsically change that.

I’ve been blogging for almost a year now, but every time I post and see my big ol’ face up there I still feel like a total tool. I mean, really. Who thinks they’re that important? It seems awfully self-important.

And nearly every day someone tells me that they love my posts. That they’re glad I write and they appreciate my perspective.

“But I don’t comment,” they often tell me. “I mean…you know.”

I do know. I’m a lurker at heart, too – terrified to share my view with the world, not out of fear of public speaking, but out of an overwhelming sense that I’m not important enough to count.

And I say this because I know I’m not the only one. Too many of us are raised believing we’re not important, that we don’t really matter, that our voice doesn’t count. Freedom of speech and equality are just hollow words on a page, crushed under the seemingly intractable self-doubt society has thrust upon us, disguised as individual self-doubt.

The Internet can give voice to voiceless, but only if we give first allow them that voice. If we raise every child to believe that they matter, that they count, and that, yes, of course, they should share their opinions with the world.

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