Saturday, August 16, 2014

RIP Ray Chapman

January 15, 1891 – August 17, 1920

Cleveland Indians shortstop died at age 29 after being struck in the head by a pitched ball on August 16, 1920. This was the first of several notable, relatable events that occurred on the date August 16th throughout history.  Here is a short summary of those events.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On 50 Trips Around the Sun...

This is a list of 50 reflections from my particular 50-years of life, which may or may not overlap much with anyone else's particular experiences. For imaginary readers in a hurry, it more or less sums up into this 5-word philosophy that seems to work for me: Work Hard. Be Kind. Repeat.

On Social Structure

1. Every kid grows up in a world significantly changed from the one in which their parents grew up. This is the source of an inevitable, cultural, age gap.

2. People tend to live at the very peak of their economic means, with every penny committed and no room for disruption. This creates great stress, but few are able to resist the habit.

3. Now I see people living at the top of their logistical means, with every spare moment committed and no room for disruption. I think this is equally, if not more stressful.

4. I think I understand the evolutionary benefits of “tribe-loyalty” that led to modern fan loyalty to sports teams. However, given how the players move from team to team, I don’t understand why it persists.

5. Travelling the world is a great way to develop perspective. So is staying in your hometown and cultivating life-long relationships. These two paths may result in different sensibilities, but one is not superior to the other.

6. The selfless soccer mom seems, on the surface, to sacrifice everything for her family. In my view, many of them selfishly undermine their own communities in their efforts to gain personal advantages. More thoughts on soccer moms here.

7. As the saying goes, “Capitalism is the worst economic system in the world, except for all the others that have been tried”. That quote is a veiled endorsement for the American way, but capitalism has some serious flaws and promotes inequality.

8. Disparity in wealth is the world's most pressing issue, and is the number one source of unhappiness and conflict.

9. If I had been born on the other side of the border, I would cross it illegally to get better education and healthcare for my children. As I've written about Mexico, it boggles my mind that not all parents agree, but then again, point 25 might explain this.

10. Division of labor gave society a great leap forward. But it came with a price. Now, self-sufficiency is not possible.

11. Work is the constant in the structure of our social lives. Even if you have enough resources to eschew full time employment, the best course might be to stay employed. Winning the lottery has wrecked many otherwise fulfilling lives.

On Attitude and Perspective

12. Life is not fair. If you want it be fair, then start by treating others fairly. It will still be unfair, but at least you did your part to help, and did not contribute to the inherent unfairness at large.

13. I suspect that some people go long stretches in their lives without thinking much about how well their actions reflect their values. I think it is probably worthwhile to reflect often, maybe even continuously.

14. You cannot save time, you can only spend it. If you don’t think very carefully about what is important to you, you may not spend your time wisely.

15. A majority of great accomplishments come from those who are singularly focused. Such unbalanced people have been important in history. But I think I’d rather be balanced.

16. If you don’t like someone, you may not know him or her well enough. It is relatively easy to accept someone’s offending behavior once you understand the personal experience that has shaped it.

17. You should take some calculated risks in your life, but don’t be reckless with other people's hearts.

18. Every body thinks they are good at reading people. In fact, one of the traits that makes us human is an astounding ability to perform mental accounting, consider another person’s actions, and draw conclusions about their motives. We’re all good at it.

19. Almost nobody is as good at reading people as they think they are. And few are really any better then everyone else. Adults commonly under-estimate the complexity and nuance of the people they know.

20. There are no dumb people. Not everyone is smart in the same ways but everyone has their strengths. Not all strengths are equally valued in every society, but they’re still intellectual strengths.

21. Carrying a grudge is a burden you choose. Letting it go is probably a better choice.

On Human Nature

22. I hate the way people seek confirming evidence, and ignore contradictory evidence, with regards to the things they want to believe. Not sure why humans cling to favored ideas at the expense of understanding the truth.

23. When traveling abroad, it is easy to notice the cultural differences from country to country. I have always been more struck by the glaring similarities among people the world over.

24. I think people are too uptight about privacy. We should all protect our identities and credit cards, but worry less about a supermarket tracking our purchases and a web-browser tracking our online movements.  More on privacy here.

25. We all have things in common, but everybody is different. You just need to accept it. YOUR logic, even if impeccable, is not likely to change THEIR nature.

26. Truism: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You really do need to struggle and be challenged if you want to learn and grow. Confidence never comes to the over-protected, nor does conviction.

On the Cycle of Life

27. Heroic end of life care doesn't make sense to me, especially if the quality of the remaining life will be poor. Why extend poor quality of life?

28. I think we should honor and cherish old people much more than we do. If we did, old age would be a more inviting destination.

29. The constant battle against aging is a futile effort and might not be waged so vigorously if we could all see the tremendous value of perspective that only aging can bring.

30. If we could more consciously appreciate the brevity of a single lifetime, accept the aging process, and embrace our own inevitable mortality, life perspective would improve. We would have less angst as we age, and less sorrow/regret when we lose our elders.

31. Species appear on earth, thrive or struggle, and then disappear. This terminal track record for all life forms has been clear and unblemished. Humans will also become extinct one day. Our time on earth is brief in the scope of ecological time.

On Religion

32. To the extent that organized religion fosters community and promotes kindness, I am all for it. Not sure why it always gets tangled up in the concepts of creation and the afterlife.

33. Faith can be a great positive force and I am happy for all that have it. But I’m not sure we should brainwash our children to believe; probably best if they come to believe on their own.

34. If there is a god, and if he’s all-powerful, then he’s not benevolent. All-powerful means you can teach lessons without tragedy and suffering.

35. “God works in mysterious ways” translates into, “I want to believe so badly that I am willing to ignore all the suffering”.

Random Reflections

36. Reading fiction is very educational. The stories may be specifically untrue, but good writing can efficiently fill your brain with new perspectives.

37. Multi-tasking is about the most over-rated “skill” I can imagine. In fact, there is no such thing as multi-tasking, there is only a continuum of distraction that one might tolerate while performing a single task.

38. For many of us, the sound of birds has been a common source of background noise for all of our lives, and tuning it out is natural. But it is free music for the soul if you pause to listen.

39. I really hate waste born of laziness. It is a despicable, and all too common, human trait. More thoughts on waste here.

40. Achieving a world-changing accomplishment in one lifetime is difficult and unlikely. If you want to impact the world, your best bet is to raise confident, conscientious children who are well grounded and who care about others. Your kids are your final report card.

41. The pen is absolutely mightier than the sword. Violent defeat by the sword will not change the attitudes that initially led, and will lead again, to conflict. Shaping underlying attitudes with the pen, through dialogue, is the path toward lasting change. More on why speeches matter here.

42. If you can only be known for one thing, be known for being kind. Show your kindness to those least able to repay you.

43. Don’t underestimate the power of punctuality. When you show up late, you basically signal that you don’t respect other people’s time. That’s usually a bad thing to signal.

44. You should know what you stand for, and you should stand for it consistently. Even if it is in a small, subtle manner that no one else notices. You will know.

45. Driving courteously is a great stress reliever. This works for you and for the recipients of your courtesy. But, as written here, over-courteousness can be a problem.

46. Don’t be afraid to do something for nothing. This is one of my father’s sayings that took me many years to appreciate. If you don’t appreciate it yet, keep trying.

47. Rereading a book you enjoyed the first time is almost always a surprising delight. You only have one chance to read a good book for the second time.

48. Having alternative personal choices is better than having no personal choices. But in terms of ultimate happiness, having only a few choices is best. Decisions become burdensome when too many alternatives are at hand. Earlier I wrote about the angst of high-schoolers with too many choices.

49. Even though we all know how boring it is to hear someone brag about his or her kids, you should brag about yours anyway.

50. Despite all the reasons why it makes sense, I don’t like the philosophy of living in the present. Your present is most appreciated in the context of the past, and hopefully, it is a product of the plans you made when it was your future. I prefer to spend some time in all three time zones.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Best? Or Most Valuable?

Somewhere along the line, I think the acronym MVP began to take on a less nuanced definition akin to "best".

This creeping definition has lead to many debates among sports fans, and fueled arguments about who deserves an MVP award. Some support the player they see as best, while others focus on the definition of "valuable" and favor a player they feel contributes most to team success.

This year in the NBA, there was general consensus that LeBron James was the best player, and strong, simultaneous speculation that Kevin Durant would win the MVP. I found myself mystified by this, as I sit among those who would give the award to the "best" player. Frankly, I couldn't understand why Durant was so highly considered by so many knowledgeable fans of the game.

That all changed when he accepted the award with this 26 minute speech:

You imaginary readers know that I think that speeches matter, and Durant's acceptance speech made me cry. It was the kind of speech that can galvanize a team. It was the kind of speech that can motivate an entire organization. It was the kind of speech that can touch a community and pull millions of casual observers into the emotional vortex of a championship run. No ability to shoot, pass, or defend is more valuable than a speech like that.

Kevin Durant is the MVP.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Will Donald Sterling Spark a Movement?

Social injustice has an amazing capacity to persist until, under the right conditions, a spark ignites the movement that brings a long overdue change. But change is hard, and a great many sparks can burn to no avail.  As of this writing, Donald Sterling is a spark that has not yet ignited a movement.

Within the next week, we should know if his flaming bigotry will catalyze another step toward race equality in professional sports, or if it will burn brightly in the national media for a short period and be snuffed out without leaving a mark.

Sterling, (a.k.a "the worst owner of a professional American sports franchise"), spouted a tirade of racially charged comments in a recent recorded conversation, and those comments were leaked to the press yesterday.  In the ensuing 24 hours, athletes, race-relations experts, and Heads of State have all weighed in to voice their distaste for Sterling and to share opinions about how the world should react.

A lot of commentary has focused on how the current players on Sterling's team, most of whom are African-American, should respond as they make their way through the play-off series at hand.  Many other comments have focused on how the fans, who contribute to Sterling's riches when they attend Clippers games, should respond. I don't think either of these groups are broad enough to affect any real change.

The financial structure of the NBA ensures that Sterling will profit as long as the league profits.  Whether or not the Clippers players perform well (or at all) is practically immaterial to Sterling's financial results.  After all, he bought the franchise for about $15 million and it's now estimated to be worth anywhere from $600 million to $1.2 billion.  One should note, the team has stunk ever since he bought it, but financially it's a gold mine.  Even if fans boycotted the Staple Center where the Clippers play, Sterling would enjoy his share of league-wide gate and sponsorship revenues.  

It's not up to the Clippers players or the Clippers fans to affect change here.  It's up to the players on all other 30 NBA teams to unite and deliver a message to all their fans.  And it's up to those fans who fill the seats in all 30 arenas, and who drive the TV ratings (and advertising revenue), to withhold economic support of the league. It's also up to the corporate sponsors of all 30 teams to deliver an economic message (some are already stepping back).

If league revenues can be constrained by fan reaction, then the other 29 owners will interpret and enforce the NBA by-laws in a manner that removes Sterling from his current ownership position.  The law can't do it; he doesn't appear to have broken any laws.  The NBA Commissioner can't do it, he merely takes orders from the owners.  But the other owners could do it, and probably will, if motivated financially.

Will they or won't they? That depends on how the fans react, which may be greatly influenced by a well-crafted and uniformly delivered message from the players.  

Maybe Sterling will be just another innocuous spark in the long history of racial inequity in America.  But I'll be watching to see if this isn't the start of another change for the better. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Contents of Lincoln's Pockets

One hundred and forty-nine years ago today, the nation awoke to the horrible news that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.

These were the contents of his pockets: a leather wallet, a handkerchief, a confederate 5-dollar bill, a pocket knife, a watch fob, and two pairs of gold-rimmed spectacles. He also had several newspaper clippings not shown here. I think this might be fascinating even if you are not obsessed with Lincoln.

Interesting that he had a confederate five dollar bill on him. It would have been an enormous sum of money before the war ended, and worthless upon defeat of the confederate army. Most historians speculate that he carried it as a souvenir of victory, or as a reminder of the noble struggle for unity and justice, but no one really knows. (And no, imaginary readers, this has nothing to do with why he was later depicted on the modern fiver -- that was an honor bestowed upon him to coincide with the opening of the Lincoln Memorial).

As Lincoln's image is claimed by history, a mere icon of another time, I think this small display of his personal artifacts serves to humanize him, and to keep his noble spirit with us in the present.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

Politicians Discussing Global Warming

The sculpture in Berlin has the true mark of great art - pleasing to view with a message that is not only clear but unforgettable!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Calling Imaginary Physicists...

I am hoping that, among the masses of imaginary readers who flock to this blog each day, there is at least one physicist who can explain this image of two black holes.

Notice that I did not call it a "photo", because that would imply an image rendered from photons, or light particles, and all imaginary readers know that the gravitational pull of a black hole is so strong that not even light can escape.

Apparently however, particles from the infra-red end of the spectrum did escape, because NASA created this image from such particles.  My question is "how can this be"?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Clean Air and Water

Sometimes, a message must be delivered in a certain package in order to have impact.

Despite ubiquitous reminders to protect the environment, it can seem at times like the earth has a limitless supply of clean air and water, and an inexhaustible capability for cleaning itself.  I think this image packages the "environmental message" in a way that may help debunk those notions of limitlessness and inexhaustibility.

If the earth's atmosphere was spread with equal density from sea level outward, it would be a mere 5 miles thick. This means that if the earth were the size of an apple, the atmosphere woud be about as thick as an apple's skin. As shown above, the amount of air on earth, relative to the earth, is quite small (and already somewhat polluted).

Even more shocking is the amont of water that is spread thinly over the planet's surface and scattered through the atmosphere.  That small amount of water is arguably more polluted and harder to clean than the air.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Light at the End of the Tunnel

I was swimming in the Pacific this morning at dawn when suddenly, this big wave broke over me just as the sun came up.  Luckily, I had my iPhone in the pocket of my bathing suit so I pulled it out and snapped this shot.  Hope you like it.