Another Earth?

Many people are MADLY curious about the possible existence of a planet similar enough to Earth to support intelligent life.

While satisfying curiosity is a fine goal, the discovery of such a planet might also tell us something about solving our problems here on Earth.

Humans have always been—among other things—feisty, nasty, and ambitious. They jealously hoard what they have, and ride armed and roughshod over their neighbor’s greener pastures. The worse qualities of our species have been a problem for millennia, but now that our planet has been made so small by technology, it has become more and more difficult to restrain our most animal impulses and unleash instead the better angels of our nature.

We cannot see the future, but in the past century something has become very clear: there may not be much of a future for Homo sapiens. Between a quickly warming planet, the continued threat of nuclear weapons, and the danger of overpopulation, the notion of a world of global peace and prosperity seems increasingly improbable.

But perhaps we can look beyond our sky, to another world similar to ours. Elsewhere in the Milky Way could be a world full of intelligent  beings much like us—requiring food, water, and sleep to fuel their larger than average brains. Most likely they also would be very different from us as well, with tentacles, feathers, or claws. They may not procreate like we do, but they surely would have some powerful reproductive drive, or else they would not have come to dominate their planet.

Presumably, they once fed themselves by instinct, by hunting and gathering, until some form of agriculture emerged and they began to develop skills, language, and social structure. Governance and transportation would inevitably have followed as they populated more of their home planet. Soon, faster communications would have become a necessity. Throughout all this development they would likely have retained their drive to compete, dominate, and destroy. Eventually, they must have found themselves much in the same pickle we are now in: depleting their planet, locked in conflict, edging ever closer to extinction.

Perhaps they proved to be a more intelligent life form than we have so far and brought their best brains together to pull them back from the brink.

And very likely they too looked to the stars. “Our strength as a species,” their best thinker might have said, “has always been our will to dominate. Today we find ourselves locked in ever-more destructive attempts to dominate one another. Let us turn from those conflicts to face a new challenge, something we have never truly overcome: the void. Let us transform our aggressions into the fuel that will propel our rockets across the vast emptiness and spread across new worlds. Let us put aside our petty local quarrels and begin in earnest the only fight that has ever truly mattered: against nature herself and the fate she assigns to all species.”

The first step was to grow ever more efficient. They had to create a system to ration and allocate resources to the world and the space program to which it had become devoted. Maybe it was not completely fair, but most members of their species were excited by the new idea and were willing to sacrifice for such a goal.

They changed their educational system and manipulated their reproduction to create generations of not just engineers and astronauts, but of the poets and artists that fueled the planet’s fervor for exploration. They repurposed their factories of war into research centers and beat their swords into pumps and nozzles and fins until their spacecraft were ready to expand across the galaxy.

One day their rockets will find our sun and we will really learn great and terrible lessons about humanity.

We will likely learn that we are like them, capable of reorienting ourselves to such a noble, peaceful struggle. But the possibility remains that we will learn that we cannot overcome our fear of the unknown and hatred of the stranger.

Either way, we will come together as a species, for better or for worse.

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How Humans Deal with Other Humans

Two dog walkers meet in the park. They stop, say hello, and exchange pleasantries about their dogs, the weather, mutual friends. Maybe they exchange phone numbers or make plans to talk again. Either way, they end up going their separate ways. And, while these two members of Homo sapiens are talking, what have the dogs been doing?

Sniffing each other’s rear ends. What gives?

It turns out that dogs are actually sniffing at a pair of glands that provide an enormous amount of information about the dog, including genetics, diet, and health.

While many people think of this sniffing as ‘just something dogs do’, rarely do we think of human interaction in the same terms, just as we rarely acknowledge the similarity between the city and the anthill.

When one human being meets another, various initial assessments are made, almost always based on superficial visual evidence. We see a woman with an elegant silk scarf and assume that she has taste and means. We see a man with worn shoes and a moth-eaten jacket and assume he is poor. But, in the back of our minds, we may know that we cannot entirely trust our first impression. There, as Hamlet put it, is the rub. Unlike the glands at the tail end of a dog, people can try to tell the story they want told.

Today’s political scene has brought into sharper focus the different degrees of trust that humans have in one another.

Too large a fraction of the American population blithely assumes that most immigrants are rapists, thieves, or child molesters; too many people believe that immigrants are here to simultaneously steal your job and lazily live off your tax dollars. But why is that inevitable?

The evidence certainly suggests otherwise. Today’s America is primarily populated by the descendants of immigrants. These people came to America because they wanted a better life. Whether fleeing oppression or poverty, they saw the United States as a place where they could get a fresh start. And while these immigrants were not always welcomed with open arms, it soon became clear that they were no worse than any other group.

In fact, without immigration, it is indisputable that we would have a far less intelligent, cultured and ambitious population; our ability to innovate would have been hampered; and our economy would not be the strongest on the planet.

Even so, lack of trust remains startlingly clear.

Almost one hundred years ago, half of Americans lived in sparsely populated, rural areas. As a result, most people actually knew a significantly higher percentage of the folks in their communities. But today, about 97 percent of Americans live in a city or suburb. As a result, most people are surrounded by an ever-changing whirlwind of strangers.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the world has shrunk dramatically in recent years. With digital technology, we can now instantaneously interact with people all over the world. What this means is that people increasingly split their attention between many more people, and actually really get to know far fewer.

We know that humans’ earliest and most important experiences are the ones they only share with their families. That was true thousands of years ago and remains true today. However, over those thousands of years, the basic unit of human society ceased to be just the family and became the tribe, then the city-state, then the nation, and perhaps soon the species.

Despite all these changes, people still pull on their pants one leg at a time, eat no more than a few times a day, and sleep six to eight hours a night. We still laugh at the same antics. The same experiences still make us cry. And while mating for life is growing increasingly uncommon, must of us still live with and love one person at a time.

We need to be careful about how technology impacts our behavior, as unintended consequences distort our social fabric and fundamentally change the way we process relationships.

It is easy and comfortable to assume that all change is progress. Perhaps, given enough time to evolve and adapt, that may turn out to be correct. In the meantime, however, we are likely to see greater confusion and distortion of the kind we are seeing in this election year.

The old rules of the road no longer seem to do us much good.

Perhaps we should be putting a little more trust in our noses and ears.

If it smells and sounds like a Trumpet, it must be!

GPS Leads to Directional Illiteracy

If you use Uber with any regularity –which I do—you learn a few interesting things about how and why the world around us does NOT work.

Even with the wonders of the Uber app, the start-up’s 40,000 or so NYC drivers need to know many specific eccentricities of driving in NYC and must speak enough English to understand their passengers.

We New Yorkers know the city is (mostly) laid out on a neat grid and routinely ask a driver to stop on, say, the northeast corner of 78th and Lex. Try that in an Uber and you may end up in Trenton!

I have been using Uber for a while now and am confident that about 80% of Uber drivers simply have no sense of direction. When we New Yorkers give instructions using the cardinal directions, Uber drivers quickly become flummoxed and disoriented.

But the eccentricities of driving in New York go beyond how instructions are phrased (and knowing not to turn right on red).

For example, in New York, most even-numbered streets exclusively run east, while most odd-numbered streets run west and the main thoroughfares run both ways. I recently called a car with a driver who insisted he was on 72nd street when he was on 73rd. When he finally he showed up, he showed me his GPS, and the machine had it wrong! I asked if he knew that 72nd street was two ways, but he had not thought of that. UGH! Better knowledge of the city sure is helpful.

Often, when I have an Uber car coming, I call and ask where they are to gauge when they will arrive. Well over 2/3 of the drivers do not understand my question because they barely speak English.  And, even if they do understand, they rarely know where they are at that moment because they do not have a strong sense of the city’s geography and the GPS is looking ahead. Amazing!

It is now clear to me that the GPS is effectively PREVENTING these people from learning. Evidently, Uber tells them not to worry, that the GPS will take care of everything. As a result, they never even start to learn the city. Boy, is that a far cry from London, where taxi drivers bicycle around London for a minimum of two years to take The Knowledge of London, the taxi driver certification exam that The New York Times called potentially “the hardest test, of any kind, in the world” and that takes an average of four years to fully administer.

Of course, this is part of a larger trend in our society away from using human memory to using a collective internet memory.  GPS may enable some drivers to navigate a city without The Knowledge of London (or New York or DC). Still, the GPS does not have the speed of recall that an intelligent human should have, nor the ability to respond to rapidly changing traffic conditions or to self-correct after an error.

Perhaps someday a genius may figure out how to beam us directly to our destinations, without any driver or even a driverless car.

And, when our beam is out of order, we will have a perfect excuse to stay home and watch TV.

Lightning Strikes a Bolt for the Blue Team

I knew Justice Scalia somewhat and, though I believe he was wrong on most of the big issues the Supreme Court faced during his tenure, he was a pleasant person and a significant legal voice. While he will be missed by many for reasons personal and political, the timing of his departure may turn out to be fortuitous for the Democrats and the whole country.

Presidential candidates have rarely, if ever, given great attention to the vital issue of Supreme Court appointments. I cannot think of a single modern presidential election in which the future makeup of the Court played the central role it has now taken in this one.

While Scalia’s death would likely have brought attention to the issue without further controversy, Mitch McConnell’s absurd declaration that President Obama should not TRY to appoint a new justice has drawn sharper scrutiny to the Court.

Only a moment’s reflection is required to see the misstep the Republicans have made.

The G.O.P. response smacks of hypocrisy: the party of Constitutional originalism ignores the inconvenient parts of that document and, meanwhile, Rubio and Cruz remind the country that the reality they inhabit has a very different history from the one the rest of us live in.  McConnell also seems to forget that Obama was democratically elected twice, which is more than many would say about Obama’s Republican predecessor.

The way things currently stand, it seems unlikely that the Senate will seriously consider an Obama nominee, and the Democrats are guaranteed to beat that drum all the way through the general election.

If the Senate made a show of CONSIDERING (at the very least) Obama’s nominee, the issue would likely remain secondary in the presidential campaign. By bringing it to prominence, however, the G.O.P. surely has helped the eventual Democratic nominee.

Whether or not it should, the Court holds key power over some of the most important social and political issues of the day: the Second Amendment, Citizen’s United, and abortion rights are just a few of the controversies that the Court will have to address in the very near future. Importantly, these are all issues that motivate many Democrats and which many moderates see from the more liberal perspective. Therefore, the Republican refusal to even consider a nominee likely contributes to the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House.

The next president will likely have a chance to make two or three more appointments to the Court. If the G.O.P.’s intransigent obstructionism costs them this year’s election, it will look like a terrible trade to have merely temporarily blocked Scalia’s successor: the Republican’s childish refusal to swallow a justice they find unsavory thus may give the Democrats the leverage they need to take an even larger majority of the Court during the next presidential term.

Scalia’s death and the Republicans’ knee-jerk political response appear to be a fortuitous development for Democrats in this most unusual Presidential election year.

Singing in the Rain

What does singing have to do with good governance?

Robert Putnam, the influential Harvard political scientist, asked himself that very same question when studying regional Italian governments in the 1970s. During his investigations, he discovered that the number of choral societies in a region correlated closely with the region’s quality of governance.

What is it about singers that could so dramatically improve the quality of life in their communities?

It turns out that all kinds of folks love to sing. The members of these choral societies had very little in common other than their one shared interest: they were men and women, executives and plumbers, teachers and police officers. They were parents and newlyweds, athletes and intellectuals, communists and libertarians.

Eventually, Putnam discovered that it was not just choral societies that seemed to improve life in their towns, but also soccer teams, literary clubs, and community service organizations.

Ultimately, Putnam realized that it was not the singing that made a difference. It was the fact that after these people came together to sing, or whatever they were up to, they would gather over wine to gossip about local issues AND form important, trusting relationships with people whom they probably never would have otherwise met. Thus, when problems arose in their communities, lines of communication were already in place to facilitate finding solutions.

Today in America, a core problem is that those kinds of relationships are too infrequently formed. A lot of people avoid opportunities to meet strangers in a social environment, instead depending on a loose network of “friends” and followers on social media. With the absence of real, old-fashioned face-to-face relationships, it should be no surprise that our fractured society has become so untrusting and non-functional.

Therefore it stands to reason that perhaps we should be trying harder today in America to encourage and enable many more such face to face relationships.

The HOW is daunting: clearly there is not any one thing that will reverse decades of adverse social change overnight, but getting more people aware of the issue would be a good start.

Then these individuals might begin to reach out to strangers and discover new ways to get to know and trust more people.

We do have bowling leagues, little leagues, and many more such opportunities BUT because of the dratted internet, too many people rush away from their real life groups to twitter away their valuable time and selves. They need to slow down and hang out with actual folks and get to know them better.

Perhaps some people, when they “get it” might even try to get other folks to also get it.

Ironically, some folks might be inspired to spread the word about face-to-face interaction via Facebook or Twitter. Though those connections lack many elements of offline interaction, social medial enables ideas to go viral, dramatically increasing their exposure.

It is true that love and trust cannot be commanded, but perhaps we can do more to create the conditions out of which they can arise.

Singing in the shower and rain is cool. Helping make things happen is even cooler!

The Delicate Fabric of Society

Like any textile, our social fabric is made up of uncountable strands of material, but unlike most cloth, it is not crafted from any uniform type of thread. The interwoven strands of society have different strengths, weaknesses, color, resistance, elasticity. Those threads are as diverse and changeable as human beings are and yet, against a lot of odds, our society has remained whole since the Civil War.

Still, it is far from perfect. Our society is capable of holes and tears. Some threads snap. Some sections wear thin. But overall the social fabric has held us together.

It is tempting to say that social fabric is like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. But that is not the case. What holds society together, what makes it more than a mess of human strands is its basic pattern, the strength of its warp and weave, the basic human adaptability that makes it stronger than any individual thread or link could be.

One hundred years ago, our society was rigidly organized, its pattern only shifting through the slow change of generations. And even when it did change, it settled relatively quickly into a new, stable pattern. Though there were still problems, conflicts, and needs to be filled, they were relatively familiar and predictable.

This obviously was not good for everyone. Just ask minorities of all stripes. Our society’s patterns have often included oppression, segregation, and exploitation. But, even though such rigid strictures often limited the freedom and happiness of many, the overall weave of past societies has been strong and predictable. It held reasonably firm even when shaken by winds of change.

But today, that predictable and comfortable structure appears to be breaking down. The patterns on which we have depended for so long are coming undone.

Before the World Wars, life was slower, communities more isolated. People got their news from few sources: there was no regular radio, little communication by telephone, and certainly no television. There was less social mobility. Over half of Americans lived outside urban centers, and cross-country travel was slow. As a result, people placed more emphasis on community, on neighborly relations, on family. It was also the age of the political party as the monolithic machine.

But today, the pace of life has dramatically increased, and the world has become more interconnected. Newspapers are closing down constantly. Radio and TV are scrambling to stay relevant in the Internet Age, and phone conversation has become something reserved for work and special occasions, a source of anxiety for the young.

Globalization and technology are upending the social order, and the physical organization of the world is changing. Humans across our world are congregating in large cities. Today, fewer than four percent of Americans live outside an urban area. AMAZING! In addition, many people are even able to split their time between more than one home, whether they travel between cities, counties, or continents.

Social media has become a new natural mode of “friendship.” For some it merely serves as an extension of their normal social interactions, but for many more, it serves as a substitute. For these people, the “friends” they have online replace the friends they could have in real life.

Finally, though political parties still exist, they are fractured, headless, and chaotic, no longer the organizing powers they once were.

Let us not forget, however, that this massive reorganization of society has greatly benefitted many. While things still have a long way to go, there have been changes for the better: women, while still subject to unique limitations and pressures, can vote and seek fulfillment outside the home; people of color, while still marginalized and threatened, do not suffer the same level of overt violence and oppression; and the LGBTQ community is starting to feel comfortable coming out of the shadows and living how they want to live.

Even so, the ever shifting patterns and social upheaval of today’s world have tangled our social fabric, left us without a predictable weave on which to depend. Our society is more fragile than ever, battered by changes occurring without and within. Today, our social fabric is more irregular and more uncomfortable, particularly for people over 40.

It is undeniable that we are living in a moment of great transition. But a transition to what?

Lincoln famously warned against the threat of the mob and the corrupting force of powerful institutions. In his Lyceum address he counseled:

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

If our democratic virtues are to fall, if our social fabric is to unravel and leave us naked to the ravages of the world, it will be no one’s fault but our own.

A large part of todays’ problems come from so much technological and social change so fast that the ability of average humans to adapt to (evolve with) that change in such a short time has fallen short.

If history teaches us anything, it is that humans adapt quite well over time. Therefore, we should be confidant that IF we can hang together for long enough, we should be able to adapt and our democratic system should be able to survive.

But to accomplish that we, as individuals and as a species, need to grow and evolve with the new, fast moving world with its mountains of (mis)information and strange new patterns of peoples being woven around us.

Eventually, I believe, our society can settle into a stronger new pattern and that our social fabric can be even more resilient and dependable than it was before.

The Basic ‘Basic’ Problem

In a recent blog post, I tried to make the point that the Presidential campaign should address the basic issues that underlie the more political problems used as talking points. This morning, I received the following reply from an astute friend:

“I fear that the chances of that happening are slim to none.  Democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate.  One of the most basic underlying problems facing America right now is the dwindling percentage of our electorate that can qualify as informed and engaged.  Politicians are merely responding accordingly.”

He is absolutely right. For many reasons, our electorate is not engaged in the political process or informed on the relevant facts, and this lack of engagement seems to be the basic-basic problem that lurks beneath all the problems I wrote about last week.

Happily, there could be a way to create the kind of electorate a healthy democracy truly needs and requires. Doing so would not be quick or easy, but with sustained effort, we could ensure that the next generation is more politically active and aware than our present populace.

The apathy or ignorance of our citizenry has many causes, but I think most people would agree that our educational system has failed to recognize and address the problem.

I recall that about 40 years ago, when I worked in the Federal government, I would come home from work and my then 13 year old and last son would ask me what I was working on. “GOOD for him to ask,” I would think ,and start in on whatever I was working on. It was never long before he would declare the subject “boring, Dad, boring” and go off to find a more enjoyable way to spend his time. My pride was punctured! But, worse I missed the important point.

What I should have taken away from that experience is that the nuts and bolts of how government works, or fails to work, can be elusive even to even a bright, inquisitive kid. But, why is that?

The problem is largely how the subject is taught in school. Much of the work of government is abstract, turns on minor matters of procedure, and is influenced by obscure institutional logic. The fact is that these things are not boring only to thirteen year olds, but to almost everyone.  How can we solve that problem? How do we take policy out of wonk-world and bring it happily into the average American home?

The answer, strangely enough, might lie in People Magazine. There is a reason why People and its siblings are so popular. People care about PEOPLE!

I recall taking American history. In my class, we were expected to know the name of the Secretaries of State, and that being able to regurgitate those facts seemed more important than knowing what kind of person a given Secretary was, and what he (only men had held the position at that point) was trying to accomplish, and how he went about trying to achieve it.

That course converted real persons and their stories into discrete facts to memorize, and largely removed the fascinating connective tissue and contradictions that make real lives so interesting. (It also failed to answer a question I found most pressing at the time: Why did a high ranking government official have the same title as an office assistant?)

Such type a course was not a tasty recipe for engagement with history or civics and  therefore is unlikely to lay the groundwork for real engagement with that subject later in life.

Fortunately, I recognized that each Secretary of State had a whole story that was going untold in my classroom, which piqued my curiosity. I started to go way beyond the course requirements to quench my thirst, and that set me on the path I remain on today. Sadly, such a revelation does not happen for most children. That I ended up so interested in these things may have been an accident of nature or nurture, but such accidents cannot be depended on to raise the level of awareness and engagement in a population as a whole.

If more schools, administrators, and teachers understood that civic history is, above all, a story to be told through the lives of many diverse and interesting people who lived them, perhaps more people—young and old—would find the subject more interesting, relevant, and memorable.

By changing the way we teach about our government, we can likely and hopefully create a  more interested and qualified universe of voters, who will in turn could produce a more interesting and qualified group of Presidential candidates.