Are you in?

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The generations since World War II have been separated into marketing niches of Greatest and Boomer, then X,Y, and Z, but I suspect that no set of people since Homo erectus figured out fire, speech, and monogamy, have faced as much rapid technological and cultural change as have the people born since 1950. This unmooring of cultural institutions, socioeconomic niches, and family structures is remarkable and deeply unsettling to many.
Modernity has atomized the family, but we are still the Pleistocene mammal subject to possessiveness, territoriality, and stranger anxiety. We are just a handful of base pairs removed from our mutual ancestor with the chimpanzee who kill and eat intruders. And so we naturally flock with our kind in our hominid fashion, and wish to destroy the other if they get in the way. What stops us?

Strong ideas keep us from burning witches. Ideas of justice, equality of human worth, and an appreciation of value of freedom and liberty bind us together in a common identity. These ideas are shared across borders instantaneously, usually in English, on the internet via smart phones and social media. These are rather old American ideals and should not be new to those wary of change. Instead, it is the broadening of the definition of *American* that jars people. It is an America that people are still looking towards as they overturn dictatorships and established tyrannies. We see it in the Arab Spring, in the continue march of the huddled masses to the gates, and in gay Americans fighting to achieve equal status. We witness it as a force that China is trying to subvert with overt fascism, with likely failure in the long term.

This neo-Americanism is the lingua franca of business and diplomacy. It is the common operating system that everyone demands. At home, to succeed in this new America, you have to learn how to pass for a new kind of American. It is a fact that if you make yourself smile, your brain will register positive in its happiness centers, and you will transition to happiness (try it!). If you carry a smart phone, participate in social media, and read at above elementary school level, the centers of the brain that are stimulated will drive change. Corporate HR policies, public school codes of conduct, and public social mores are aligning around and driving this change, even for older Americans who one would assume would be all for not changing. It used to be said that you are basically set in your ways by the time you are forty, but I think even that generalization is done because I increasingly see retired people with smartphones and tablets watching the latest Youtube videos and family photos on Facebook. This at least informs them about the tectonic shifts in society, and at best changes deep seated notions.

Public perceptions of gun ownership, healthcare, education, equal rights, and our relationship to the world are being debated because the minds of the people are changing. And contrary to what even the history books say, it was not the federal government and federal troops that desegregated the schools, it was We the People. The shibboleth of these times, our times, are the smart phone, social media accounts, and the networks connected by these. Are you in?

Etiquette–Doing is Being

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When my son turned 8, we enrolled him in an etiquette course at our country club. He was one of only two boys in that class, which had four times as many girls. Etiquette is as popular among boys, it seems, as ballet or gymnastics. So how is it that we teach our children, especially our boys, manners? In my experience in the Midwestern suburbs, for the presumptive future alpha males, it is through football that parents teach their boys how to behave in society.

The cult of football, which recently took a hit in the Penn State scandal, is very much the secular religion in the US, and its principles of individual sacrifice, self improvement, and group effort are laudable. The American ideals are poured into the public ethos of football. Much of America’s recent history can be viewed in a football context, explained in football metaphor, and historical events remembered like games and seasons. If you are a space alien needing education in American culture, you need only to review the past five Super Bowls’ worth of half-time shows and commercials. Football is America’s vernacular.

In watching an etiquette class, I realized that the forms and routines –how a table is laid out, how you approach the chair, which side the drinks are, which side is the meal served, what the utensils are for, etc., create the physical input to dial in behavior and ultimately etiquette. Dressing and behaving like a gentleman makes you a gentle man. Let me explain. The mind can be changed based on what you do physically. It has been shown that simply smiling increases the dopamine levels and changes your brain patterns to one that matches happiness. Yes. Smiling can make you happy.

The mind can be changed based on what you do physically… Smiling can make you happy.

Martial arts like Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu focus a lot on forms –series of rote maneuvers that are memorized which to me as a student seemed tedious but retrospect have the effect of shaping the mind. Focusing on the forms of courtesy eventually makes you courteous. So where does football and football parenting leave us?

As far as I can tell, it teaches impressionable young boys how to dominate the weak. It confuses narcissism as self-esteem. By its nature, football cannot teach empathy, courtesy, or thoughtfulness. There is nothing wrong with this if your goals for a society are to create a core group of warrior that will fight wars, conquer nations, and pull down an eight figure salary in free agency. The unintended side effect is that you readily miss the opportunity to prevent the development of psychopathic bullies and date rapists. You only have to watch parents at football practice to understand why this is so. It is why figures like Tim Tebow are such an anomaly not only because he seems to outwardly practice courtesy, respect, and reverence. It is why Penn State was allowed to happen, because football is more important that a few little boys.

If you want to teach your child how to compete while being civilized, you can try etiquette lessons, but more practically, you can do no better than golf. The first section of the USGA Rules of Golf is focused on etiquette, but in fact, you teach your child important lessons by having them accompany you for a round on the cart. You learn to wait your turn staying respectfully silent. You learn to be timely and considerate of others in your group and in the groups ahead and behind you. You learn to be honest and to be your own referee. You learn to impose penalties on yourself for transgressions and be transparent about it. You learn to post your scores (like submitting tax returns when running for president). You learn to behave in a way that would make you proud and not ashamed.

As a nation, we need more mediocre golfers than we do washed out football players. We will be far better off for it.

Plague, Inc. A Review

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This is an addictive game that takes macroeconomics, epidemiology, and microbiology, and creates an ultimately bittersweet game out of human extinction. I called my first plague Paltrow, and it defeated humanity by taking advantage of human behavior -why let a “cold” epidemic derail the London games which can spread disease to the four corners? If you make the disease a tropical one, the “developed world” ignores it. Make it go to the first world by conferring cold resistance and interest spikes in a cure. Remember not to make it too deadly at first or it won’t leave the country.

I remember in the 80’s playing blue and red team games for the government interested in seeing how some Ivy Leaguers would play out a Kobayashi Maru type WWWIII scenario. This is a red team scenario and it proves one thing -an extinction level event needs a steady hand to guide it.

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Hilton Head, o beautiful muddy island.

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Hilton Head is in the news this time of year because of the golf tournament on the Harbour Town course with the iconic light house on the 18th green. It made the news yesterday because an alligator interfered with play -the golfer unfortunately didn’t take the free drop being ignorant of Hilton Head and alligator rules.

The gators on Hilton Head are hogs -fat, mean, and not shy. All the courses have gator rules as well as poisonous snake rules, and the smart golfer takes the free drop. Hilton Head is not the place where you let your toddlers roam free or they might end up free lunch. It’s only a few steps from being a malarial swamp, but it’s blessed with a strange lack of flying vermin. Few mosquitos is very nice, but the island has hedge fund managers infesting the palmettos like velociraptors clad in Tommy Hilfiger. New Yorkers it has in spades like bed bugs on a transient’s hairy knee. It’s Aspen on the tidewater, the Hamptons unburdened by its Long Island umbilical to Manhattan, a New Yorker’s semitropical Hong Kong on the South Carolina/Georgia sea coast. Hilton Head, like Boca Raton, Austin, and Charlotte, is in the South but not of it.

Hilton Head’s isolation proffers it automatic business class status compared to the economy class experience of jitney creeping to the Hamptons on a Friday evening, but really it takes about the same amount of time to get to either place from midtown. Once you arrive, you will notice that Hilton Head is culturally indistinguishable from 78th and Lexington. Sunday mornings, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Harbor Town and Southhampton as you hunt and gather for coffee, bagels, and the New York Times.

The sea air is a hint saltier off Montauk and Southampton. The terroir of Hilton Head is a twee riper with more ferment of low tide than is available in Long Island. The aborigines on both islands have been pushed out -on Hilton Head, the once Gullah speaking inhabitants and their white confreres commute from the mainland, unable to afford their island and its taxes. In the Hamptons, the aborigines are long gone, and the more recent inhabitants, the establishment WASP -an endangered species, survives by intermarrying with the new money like the English did with the Normans, only the invading hordes today sport last names like Cohen, Freeman, Chen, and O’Hanlon (the ethnic stereotypes, not the law firm).

When you see Harbour Town on the TV, you think about some kind of tradition, a deep south Cape Cod, but it’s all a pleasant sham. Look hard as you want for the humble shacks out of Conrack -they’re buried beneath the rusticated mini mall around Publix. You might even think the Harbour Town course is super exclusive like Augusta, but au contraire, you just need enough bank. The irony of the Masters getting annually harangued for their peculiar institutions is in the fact that Shinnecock out on Long Island, while no less exclusive and hidebound, gets off the hook because the USGA moves the target around like a 3 card Monte dealer. While it is unlikely that I will get to play on either Augusta or Shinnecock in this life, I can swing Harbour Town once every few years. That is great.

And I’ll finish with this. The Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko creed of “Greed is good” does work in America because we lack the education and sophistication to dedicate ourselves to political ideals more sophisticated than “less taxes, less government, more God,” but once you get there, once you have arrived, after all the striving and self improving which can take generations from broken English immigrant green grocers to graduate school educated doctors and lawyers, to pretensions to establishment, you are equally bound by the other great American rule voiced by Marx (Groucho, not Karl), “I would never join a club that would have me as its member.” We’re happy to be on Hilton Head, but we know there is something better. Specifically, it’s a helicopter ride to Fisher’s Island.

Living Fossils

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This rock on a Pacific coast beach was weathered over thousands of years, and revealed within its sandstone this harder rock which is likely the fossilized remnant of an ancient coral or related creature. It reminded me that we have these fossils within our own DNA.

It was recently revealed that up to 2-3 percent of the genome of non-Africans have Neanderthal genes and a third human species, the Denisovans were found to be lurking. But this is just the recent past, being merely 20-50,000 year distant.

I was reviewing the lymphatic system in our bodies –it is the often overlooked third blood vessel system after arteries and veins, and its roots are older than either being present in our distant relations, the tunicates. Where arteries and veins are connected in a closed loop, the lymphatics are open to the extracellular space, and once in the past, to the ocean. This link to primitive chordates goes back nearly half a billion years.

They are now saying that there may be millions if not billions of earth like planets around middle aged stars, even in just this galaxy alone. Over cosmic time, and given those numbers of planets, it is a statistical certainty that life is common and not rare.

This feeling that life is a rare circumstance in an otherwise sterile universe has its roots in the narcissism of an idiot. The assumption that our clever ideas, petty jealousies, and unending appetites are unique is from the cosmic hayseed’s provincialism that gives certainty to the notion that a hundred years is a long time and that the universe disappears when you shut your eyes.

Starting from a single cell, our complexity is layered on like a gobstopper. Our DNA is not just a blueprint, but also a blog of life over three billion years. We are living fossils.

Addendum:

The fossil pictured above is Tiktaalik, a lobed finned fish from the Devonian. What it has that is unique is that it has a humerus, radius, and ulna along with shoulder, elbow and wrist that is the rubrik for all land vertebrates. The pattern of one bone with two distal bones are what we experience every time we eat chicken wings, and we owe  it to this class of fish which may be a direct ancestor or closely related to it.

One percent of the 1%

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From Evernote:

One percent of the 1%

The recent focus on Kim Jong Il’s lifestyle brought gasps of astonishment -he sent his sushi chef on a private jet to Japan to shop for rice cakes while his country was starving. Fact is, among the wealthy, there are the über wealthy, and among the über wealthy are the super duper wealthy whose daily budget would feed maybe a thousand families. While we do not begrudge anyone success -as this is the cornerstone of America, even the most callous person has to admit there is some injustice in North Korean society. It does not come from a lack of guns -the noncoms always outnumber the officers, and the fact that people can bribe border guards to escape means that some independent thinking occurs. The fact is that a religion, a cult of personality, sustains the vast inequality of North Korean society. Religions demand faith over logic. Directing the resources of a nation to the sustenance of a few humans at the top defies logic. It is a religious-type faith and fear of retribution, fear of apostasy and heresy, and fear of change that causes this gangrene to linger. What are the idols that drive injustice here at home? It is the belief that success comes from being favored by God and that lack of success comes from sin. It is the belief in absolutes that define religion. This idea afflicts our politics as much as the cult of personality afflicts North Korea.

The subordination of logic to dogma and its use in organizing societies is a old tradition. It gets people across desserts, oceans, and helps individuals process grief and the unfathomable concept of infinity. It is a human trait as ingrained as circling three times before bedding in a dog. Yet this kind of thinking is also used to demonize the poor, write off the sick, and rationalize the unemployed. It is extended into contempt for anything for the public good that comes from taxes -clean water, safe roads, national rail, public health, education and safety. It sanctifies success defined as wealth and therefore denigrates anything that might take away from that wealth.

In our still free society, one’s success is the result of not only hard work, but favorable circumstances, good health, and the support of people who were midwives to the success -the family and community that nurtured the individual and the society that provided the fertile ground for success. It’s the good plumbing that provided fresh water for excellent development. It’s the public safety provided community police and fire departments. It is the critical mass of excellent citizens that allow for success and justice. I think that is the message of the OWS protesters, that the people who get tasty morsels flown in for them not get protections at the cost of the people making it possible.

I wish for the new year the restoration of reason and clear thinking guided not by desire for retribution or a return to a past that never really was. I want an America where everyone has available all the opportunities while being good citizens and supporting the community, state, and country that allowed that to happen.

Social Animal Network

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We’re inherently social. It is imprinted in our nature to bond, communicated, and organize as packs. This trait, the instinct to gather, seek out each other’s company, to seek approval, to argue, I would argue, is as much a distinguishing species characteristic as spots on a Dalmatian, and is one of the reasons for the explosive growth of Facebook. We, each of us, need to be part of a tribe, and when the tribes were destroyed by the onset of modernity, they awaited a mechanism to be reunited. Think about it –up to the 2000’s, people had to rely on the usual methods of connecting with their old tribe –telephone, email, actual contact which relied on deliberately remembering to keep in touch which none of us were really good at. The casual intimacy of living in a village with a commons, of having a favorite popular coffee shop, a dorm common room, when you move on the people you said hello to moved on as well. Now they follow you forever in Facebook.

It may or may not be a good thing, because if you have a village, even a virtual one, there will be a village idiot or two (I may be the village idiot). I have become reintroduced to my best friend from kindergarten and there are eerily similar things that we are passionate for –coffee, scatological extraversion, and Apple worship, that brings daily a smile. The shy quiet girl who sat in the back corner of high school English class turns out to be a world class smarty pants –a nicely maturing red wine with a kick in the middle and a lingering finish. I’ve even made new dear friends among friends of friends. They occupy my particular village, some I speak to every day, some every once in a while. It’s the tribe I’ve accumulated over the decades.

It also has implications beyond the sharing of holiday pictures and links to funny cat videos. It returns us to a kind of social organization that was only possible when people physically lived in villages and neighborhoods. The outside world is invited in by the denizens of these villages, but the human tendency is to be insular within the family, the tribe, the village. It may not seem like a big deal to us living in a constitutional republic, but when Facebook is available to those living in places less free, their time amongst their friends must be as important as air and water. Facebook has created a virtual planet for us to inhabit, a brave new world.

The Turkey

The grocery store turkey’s evolution from the wild turkey is an echo of our journey from our wilder, free-range origins.  The wild turkey, whose intelligence caused Benjamin Franklin to recommend it for our national bird, is a far cousin of the overbred, overmedicated artifice that is the plastic wrapped bird that you plunk into your grocery cart. In the passage from our free-range origins to our over-cultivated existence, are we just overbred, overstuffed turkeys? Three things confirm this: the outsourcing of our basic food functions, the reduction of work into processes, and no reduction of stress from our surrender.

Outsourcing of Basic Food Functions

The wild turkey is known to be the most cunning of birds, requiring stealth and deceit to bring it close enough for a shot. I would assume the human in the original state of nature to be no different and no less intelligent. The urban legend is that the domesticated turkey is so stupid that they can’t be left out in the rain because they look up when hit on the head with raindrops, subsequently drowning. While this is untrue of domesticated turkeys, it may be true of domesticated humans, Homo sapiens sapiens familiaris.

We use to hunt for our food or gather it from the fields and forests. At a critical point, we domesticated the game and started farming the fruits and vegetables that sustained us, creating enough surplus calories to sustain larger populations that could then specialize in crafts, trades, and services, to where eventually the majority of the population could outsource food production to a minority of the people. If you’re lucky, you can buy a luscious apple out of season brought in by jet transport directly to your Costco from the Antipodes. This is not too much different from the turkey who willingly or unwillingly entered into the similar bargain with humans. In doing so, the turkey increased its population to an estimated 660 million turkeys currently in the world –technically a raging success on the chromosomal level. The outsourcing of the finding of food proved to be a Faustian bargain for the turkey whose life is rendered short and brutal. Depending on your outlook, the human bargain is no less Faustian because there are 6.8 billion humans, the majority of which now depend on this outsourced food production. If you are reading this on the internet, you are clearly benefiting from this arrangement. The recent economic downturn shows how easy it is to fall from the grace afforded by this system. If you can’t afford the fancy fruits, vegetables, and viands, you are stuck eating the processed corn and petroleum byproducts offered as stock feed for the masses.

 

Reduction of work into processes

Somewhere the idea of work, trade, and craft as virtuous activities became lost as the management professions became elevated. I remember having dinner right out of college with a bunch of young lawyers and consultants in Boston, none over the age of thirty. All were entrusted in some way with managing, valuing, judging, and giving advice on billions of dollars, thus affecting the lives of many people. None of these guys had really worked a day in their lives (including me except maybe stocking groceries throughout high school), but were clearly inside some kind of membrane that separated them from everyone else who did have to work for a wage and save a lifetime to afford a lifestyle that these young men were having straight out of college. One boasted that the yearly return on their fund outstripped the gross national product of whole countries, reaching for some kind of irony that I used to think was cool and now I think is depressing.

I have nothing against capitalism, and know second-hand through my parents and my wife’s parents the horrors of totalitarian communism, but there is a problem when theory trumps practice. Business management allows the reduction of any human activity into processes. The inputs and outputs of these processes can be tabulated, analyzed, and optimized. The logical end result is a human worker confinement pen like the factories in Shenzhen that make my gadgets –the workers live in dormitories adjacent to the factories allowing them to run 24/7. What we are witnessing is the ongoing triumph of totalitarian capitalism, and we’re going to either compete with China on their level or borrow furiously to maintain our relatively luxurious, free-range confinement pens. Neither is palatable to a country having just ended America’s Century in the dust cloud of falling towers.

 

No Reduction of Stress From Our Surrender

The majority of us don’t worry about food because it’s always there in the mega-mart, piled high and cheap. By surrendering our food production, we give up a load of stress but gain new ones. The ancestral stresses of hunger, climate, fear, and disease have been swapped for financial, social, and domestic stress. We outsourced our security functions to the local constabulary and our military, but rather than bask in security, we worry about terrorists at home and an endless war abroad. This stress is basically the same stress that the Thanksgiving turkey feels confined to a few square feet among thousands of other turkeys. That turkey fears not the fox, coyote, or bear, but it must feel something is terribly wrong with its world.

 

Taking It Back

The populist anti-elitism that elevated the dancing Palin against far more qualified, limber, and graceful competitors bears poorly for America’s continued excellence. The problem is not with the elites, but with the complicity of the turkeys in their continued confinement. Rather than cheap corn and petroleum based feed, they should demand the variety of diet that was available only two generations ago right out of small family farms and home vegetable gardens. Rather than dismiss food reform as the socialist dalliance of elitists, people should confront the source of their predicament.

The second half of this is the realization that the solution to outsourcing is In-Sourcing -which means work. It means that the service industry jobs that move quants and utils over the intertubes must be abandoned for work, trade, and craft. It means taking it down a notch as a society and lowering expectations while elevating living. It means a lot more people working in food production and repopulating small towns. It means reconnecting with community and family rather than moving every three years from Charlotte to Atlanta to Houston to Tampa to Denver. It means sweeping, hoeing, weeding, hunting, fishing, gathering.

Worse catastrophes have happened to people –go ask the Carthaginians when you’re in line in purgatory. People want a return to the past, to the golden age of the 50’s and early 60’s. What we’ll get is the 1920’s and 30’s. If you aren’t Howard Hughes, it’ll be a lot of work after work, with canning in the fall.

 

The Flood

Genesis 9:17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

As the waters rise, as the scientists warn, as Greenland is growing its own lettuce for the first time, the response from many Americans is basically some variation of the above verse from Genesis, where God reassures Noah that, no, I will not fill the world with water and make every living creature live on a Neolithic barge. Again.

The Reverend Timothy Keller, PhD, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NY, NY, wrote a wonderful essay on threading the needle between modern science and orthodox Christianity (link to essay http://www.biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf) where in a style which I learned to appreciate, he spells out the basic problems in a tripartite apologia –his preferred format for preaching to the yuppies. He writes:

Question #1: If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?

Answer: The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.

Question#2: If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?

Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world- view.

Question #3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

The response from the bench is predictable as this dispute between literalists and the interpreters predates Christianity. This dichotomy is likely a manifestation of human speech and all the neurologic wiring that entails. I can imagine this conversation between Erg and !Kerg, two chatty Australopithecines.

Erg: When the great Mother cried her tears and made the seas in ten days and she laid down to become the great Mother mountain yonder, that would mean that she would have had to cry about 1/10th of the volume of the world’s waters in a day… That’s a lot of water. Could this mean that a day in Her time was much longer than a day is now? Could this mean that she was much bigger once and made bigger tears and shrank to become the Mother mountain? Could…

!Kerg clubs Erg.

The commentary from the literalists on Dr. Keller’s essay ranges from, “…Professor Keller is trying to square the circle…[scripture quotes]…and therefore the day in Genesis is clearly 24 hours” to “club!” While I concede that many New Yorkers would welcome the opportunity to live in the belly of a whale, most thinking people scratch their heads and think that Hansel and Gretel’s cannibal witch is far more grounded in reality than a cetacean studio.

The fact and reality of science and modernity puts a great deal of pressure on an unchanging orthodoxy. Those most willing and capable of thoughtful change are never in the majority. The Malthusian concept could just as easily apply to this: the educated breed arithmetically while the orthodox breed geometrically.

Time and again, when learning and education flower, the bright lights of the world are drowned out by a flood of fear and ignorance. The execution of the Chinese scholars, the torching of the Alexandrine library, the sacking of Irish monastaries, Galileo, Darwin, and Rushdie –these are the normal patterns. When the creators of South Park have to stop their series mid-season to be censored by the orthodox of several religions in a country that places free speech before all other rights except the right not to have Congress establish a state religion, it confirms that before the great flood, there is an even greater flood of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and incivility.

May God keep you and bless you, if you so tend to believe.

Wakonda Club Number 9

The hole is 178 yards long from the blues, slightly downhill and depending on the prevailing winds needs anything from a 7 iron to 3 hybrid. It’s an easy 3 if you just let the clubs do their work, but try to muscle this hole, a 5 or worse awaits.