Cleanup Time

In the sadness and disappointment I felt after the recent US election, I was reminded of similar feelings I’d had many years before, in January 1998. That earlier loss hadn’t involved politics or friends or family. It had been related to an aspect of the Mad River Glen ski area that I had grown to love.

I’ve been an avid skier for a long time, and for many years I’ve had a great fondness for skiing in the woods. Unlike open trails, tree skiing offers a sense of both adventure and intimacy with nature. Since 1996 I’ve worked on crews clearing the “secret tree runs” in Mad River’s woods. In the winter I go back and ski the runs I’ve cleared, as well as others I’ve been shown by friends or discovered on my own.

On New Year’s Day, 1998, a friend showed me a whole new area of tree runs I hadn’t known existed. After that day I couldn’t wait to get back and explore that area some more. But then, only a few days after I’d skied it, Mad River was hit hard by the great ice storm of 1998. When I returned in mid-January, I found all of my favorite tree runs ruined, filled with impenetrable tangles of downed trees and branches. Like everyone else there when the mountain reopened to skiers, I was devastated. It appeared it would be many years before the woods would be skiable again.mrg-icestorm_jan98_12

However, the previous owner of Mad River Glen was philosophical. She observed that ice storms were simply one of Nature’s ways of renewing the forest, knocking down the weak and diseased trees and opening things up for new trees to sprout. It seemed like a faint hope at the time, but it was still a hope.

That spring Mad River sprang into action to repair the extensive damage. While volunteer crews usually only work in the woods during the fall, in 1998 there were workdays once a month throughout the late spring and summer, along with a few more in the fall. And while work crews usually only use hand tools like loppers, saws and scythes, that year professionals with chain saws worked with us.

It was hard work, but by the time the next winter arrived we once again had numerous tree runs open for skiing. Other parts of the woods were marked off for several years, to allow vibrant young trees to establish themselves. And in subsequent years we’ve continued working in the fall to reclaim tree runs. Today, the only sign of that ice storm is a more vibrant forest, through which we can find many runs through the trees.


April, 2015

Back in 2010 I wrote about about failing institutions, in which I noted that many organizations have not adapted to today’s world. The leaders of these organizations are products of a system in which all major decisions have traditionally emanated down from the top.

This top-down approach stifles creativity and effectiveness. It slows the ability to respond to changing circumstances. It also leaves the organization vulnerable to  damaging news about problems in its operation. When such news has come out, these leaders inevitably compound the negative effects by attempting to “control the message” and to cover things up, rather than to acknowledge and correct the problem. As many have come to learn the hard way, the cover-up has often been even more damaging than the original bad news. For just one of many examples, consider the Catholic Church and its mishandling of its pedophile priests.

The fact is that many of our institutions – in all sectors – are sick with old ideas and traditions that are not suitable for thriving in today’s world. Their leaders are trying to address the problems they face with “tried and true” solutions that no longer work. In government, neither political party is immune. While their goals differed greatly, all of the candidates in last year’s presidential election started from a traditional top-down approach to solutions that in many cases will not work.

I have little doubt that we are in for a very difficult time over the next few years. Those in charge will do a lot of damage and many people will be hurt in one way or another. Our one faint hope is that, just as that forest at Mad River Glen was eventually renewed, in time we will move beyond all of the current negativity and destruction. With a lot of hard work, we can change or replace our failing institutions with more vibrant ones that better serve the people in general rather than just those at the top.

Last Saturday’s Women’s Marches revealed the energy of a great many people ready to tackle the challenges we face. Now it’s time to get down to work and clean this mess up.

ABC News photo of Women's March

ABC News photo of Women’s March

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Swept Away

January 9th is a milestone date in my life. My experiences from January 9, 1964 have etched into my mind a life lesson that I carry to this day. Eight years ago, on January 9, 2008, I shared it from one perspective. Today I want to share it from another. As the lesson starts from the same place, my story about it starts the same way. The perspectives, however, are very different.

Sometimes images from a life-altering event can remain fresh even after 53 years. For me every January 9th brings back images from 1964, when I was a 6th grader living in Panama. That was when I saw the effects of my first political experience explode into the world news and leave 25 dead and many more injured.


I was purely a bit player – a crowd extra – in what led up to that day. The fact that I was only 11 years old at the time provided an element of farce to what transpired. One thing I learned from then was how quickly mindless fun and frivolity can turn to tragedy and fear.

Detailed historical accounts of the events of January 9th, 1964 – Martyrs’ Day, as it’s known in Panama – are readily available here, here and here.

In 1963 President Kennedy ordered that all American flags in the Canal Zone be accompanied by Panamanian flags, to acknowledge Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. This order wasn’t popular with many Americans living in the Zone, who mistakenly felt it was really kind of an American colony. After President Kennedy’s death, the Governor of the Canal Zone decreed that as of January 1st, 1964, American flags would not be flown over schools, post offices, cemeteries, etc., to avoid the aggravation of flying Panamanian flags there as well. It would turn out the Zonians weren’t happy with that order either.

I was living in Panama because my father’s American company had a warehouse there due to the canal. Because my parents didn’t work for either the U.S. military or the Panama Canal Company, they paid a monthly tuition to send me and my sister to the American schools in the Zone. (It was believed easier to get into an American college from the American schools than from those in Panama, due to the American curriculum. This was why numerous Panamanian families who could afford it also sent their children to the Canal Zone schools.)

Shortly after we returned to school from Christmas break that year, I became aware of a growing restiveness among the Zonians: they were unhappy about the absence of the American flags from the usual places.

The first demonstrations took place at Balboa High School, clearly visible a few hundred yards across a green from my elementary school. Along with the one on the flag pole, there were soon numerous American flags attached to parts of the school, waving in the tropical breezes.

The sentiment quickly spread and demonstrations broke out around the Canal Zone. One such demonstration took place at Ancon elementary school, the other elementary school on the Pacific side of the Zone. Bizarrely, it was reported the students there occupied the administration office (remember, these were elementary school kids), took a flag and ran it up the school flag pole.

At Balboa elementary school, we weren’t quite that brazen. Or maybe the adults in charge were a little more…adult. But we did have lunchtime demonstrations, running up and down the playground waving flags that had magically arrived for us. (Actually, one of the suppliers was a Panamanian classmate named Ramon, who was a natural leader/instigator.) It was all very exciting and fun. So much fun, in fact, that after school we waved our American flags out of the windows of our school bus as we rode through the streets of Panama City to our homes.

Looking back, that was a clearly dumb and provocative thing to do. But what did we know? We were just kids caught up in the moment.

On the evening of January 9th, things came to a head. Panamanian students marched to Balboa High School, where they wanted to symbolically raise their flag and then take it back down and leave. Americans surrounding the flag pole resisted, a scuffle broke out, and the rest – as they say – is history.

For me, the specific chronology of what happened over the next few days has faded from memory. What remain fresh are fragments of memory. My parents had gone that night with friends to the Ft. Amador officer’s club in the Zone. (As a WWII vet, my father qualified for membership and we went there often.) As news bulletins started breaking on the Canal Zone TV station and we gradually realized something was up, we began to wonder how and where they were. (Not really knowing what was happening, they wound up having to make a very circuitous route to find a safe way back across the Canal Zone border to Panama City – encountering a loaded convoy of armored personnel carriers in their journey. )

As I recall, the next morning my dad drove over to the border near Ancon to check out the destruction from the night before. One of the things he saw, which he later photographed, was at the burned out Pan-American building – apparently destroyed because it had “American” in its name. (The building was owned by a Panamanian.) On the side of the building someone had written in red paint “Johnson-you-kill-Kennedy Yankees Killers Go home Soberania O’ Muerte!” (“Sovereignty or Death!”) It was an interesting statement – Haiku-like – revealing an anger at Americans combined with a hinted sense of loss for the recently killed Kennedy. (Only 7 weeks before, Panamanians had widely mourned Kennedy’s death.) It also reflected a certain Panamanian sense of how leadership succession might take place.

The rioting persisted for about 3 more days. During that time, we were confined to our apartment. NBC Monitor, a weekend radio show, reported Panamanians were going from house to house in Panama, dragging Americans out into the street and lynching them. (This turned out to be false, although we did occasionally see cars cruise down our street decked out with Panamanian flags and filled with angry young men.)

There was little else to do, as there weren’t computers, iPods, video games, etc. back then, and the news was frightening. So my family spent countless hours playing Rummy Royal, a board game my mom had gotten us for Christmas. Looking back, it was a peculiar time of crushing boredom and very real fear. It was awful. After the riots ended, we never wanted to look at that Rummy Royal game again.

History will show that the events of that weekend eventually led to the renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty and the returning of the canal to Panama. The Zonian belief that they could preserve their illusory American colony from “foreign” interlopers blew up in their faces, eliminating their “homeland” instead.

The events of that time shaped me in a number of ways. How I – all of us, really – had gotten mindlessly swept away in the feelings of the crowd made me very leery of large group activities. Years later, when I attended the occasional anti-Vietnam war demonstration, I was always on my guard to avoid getting swept away into any kind of mob action. In retrospect, the events of January 1964 gave me my first awareness of the way individual and group behaviors can be intertwined.

When Barack Obama became President in 2009, it was a time of great hope for many. As the first African American President of the United States, his achievement appeared to signal a new era. It seemed to indicate that we as a country had risen above the racism and division that had stained our nation’s history from its earliest days. It also offered the hope that we might also get beyond other divisions and prejudices that had plagued us for so long.

But from the start in 2009 it became apparent that not everyone shared that hope and enthusiasm for such change. Over the last eight years our country’s divisions appear to have gotten deeper and wider; the passion of those opposed to this change became greater and greater.

There have been a variety of causes attributed to this division and passion. Some feel it’s rooted in the economic upheaval the country (along with the rest of the world) has experienced. Others argue that it’s a reflection of the biases of those opposed to change: their inherent racism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia, etc.

I think each of these issues may be a factor in getting us to where we are now. But I believe on a deeper level the fact of cultural change itself has inspired a passionate resistance to it. It’s a simple fact that America today is very different from the way it was in the 1950s, and many are unhappy with this change. As David E. Stannard noted in his book The Puritan Way of Death – A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change:

Whereas certain individuals and certain cultures find adapting to change relatively easy, many others, for various reasons, do not.  Their resistance, which may seem revolutionary because it tends so often to focus on overthrowing the new social orthodoxy, is in fact no more than an effort to forestall or at least postpone dealing with the changes taking place around them.

In many ways, the passions I’ve seen expressed by many Trump supporters remind me greatly of the passions expressed by Zonians in 1964. Back then many Americans living there recoiled from the idea that they didn’t “own” the Canal Zone – that the Zone might actually belong to Panama and the Panamanians. Today many recoil from the idea that this country isn’t “owned” by white Christians. Hence the cries to “take our country back.” 

One trait that many Zonians in the 60s and many Trump supporters today share is a willful disregard of the facts. Many Zonians apparently believed the Canal Zone really was American property, even though a reading of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty would make clear the land was leased from Panama. And many Trump operatives and supporters share a lack of interest and concern about objective facts.

Beyond the question of basic facts – or possibly in connection with it – there is also the matter of “mob mentality.” At times a group can get so worked up that people lose themselves in activities that grow increasingly unreasonable – and potentially violent.

I saw this in 1964, when we started demonstrating over the flag. At first it just seemed exciting and fun. But as time went on the energy and excitement of the group built to a crescendo that vitiated reason and self-control. We lost sight of anything besides the fact that we were all united in waving flags. In short order things started happening that in retrospect seem crazy – like a group of elementary-school kids taking over an administration office.

A sad fact of mob mentality is that often it takes an event of shocking violence to bring people to their senses. The riots and death that broke out on January 9, 1964 finally broke the spell. After the riots were over the fever of excitement was gone. Aside from expressions of surprise and shock about events, nobody wanted to dwell on what had happened. It was like waking up after a night of wild drinking: we wanted to just forget about the whole thing. Shortly afterwards, American flags returned to Canal Zone buildings – accompanied (without objection) by Panamanian flags.

Unfortunately for groups unhinged from reality – and for those affected by their actions – reality has a way of eventually making itself known. For the Zonians, reality came in the shape of a renegotiated treaty that abolished the Canal Zone. It is not yet clear how reality will assert itself during a Trump administration. But those who reside in the “reality-based community” understand that sooner or later it will.

The troubling question is: how will we as a country and society return to reality? Will Trump supporters become disillusioned when they realize we won’t return to the 50s; that the rich will continue to get richer while the middle class and the poor drop further behind? Will they be shaken by increasingly weird weather events to realize climate change is real? Will they eventually realize that Trump is simply not fit for the role of President of the United States? Or will something else bring them to their senses?

Or will it take an event of shocking violence – as some of us experienced in Panama in January 1964? Will another war of choice bring disillusionment, as the Iraq war eventually turned people away from George W. Bush? Could it be a shocking collapse of the economy, as we experienced in 2008? Or could it be something even worse?

Or…perhaps we can begin to turn things around by asking what, exactly, makes America great. Many may feel America’s greatness is tied to it’s wealth and economy. But other countries have been wealthy. Many may feel our greatness is tied to our military might. But other countries have had powerful militaries which ruled the world.

In either case, that wealth or power didn’t last. Sooner or later the wealth was lost and the power faded.

In this emphasis on wealth and power we are also faced with the fact that America only became truly wealthy and powerful – compared to the rest of the world – after the Second World War. Does that mean America was not great for most of its history?

If we believe America is indeed great, we need to recognize that it’s not because of our wealth and power. Such things inevitably ebb and flow. And America is not great because we can wave our flag in the face of other nations. Such actions only bring resentment and hatred.

America is great because of our ideals – as represented by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. America is great because even when our leadership differs tremendously on what course our country should take, the succession between leaders takes place through ballots instead of bullets. America is great because, thanks to the flexibility and rebirth enabled by our democratic institutions, we have been able to continually face troubling times and adapt to them, coming out stronger in the end. America is great because at our best, like President Kennedy, we sometimes inspire others with genuine hope and idealism. When we are at our best, many others around the world see us as truly a sweet land of liberty.

Sometimes, a seed of admiration for our idealism shows up in the most unlikely of places – like an angry message painted on the wall of a burned out building.

It’s the peculiar fate of America that even with our military might and wealth, we are not geared to lead the world through coercion. We’re not good at it and, deep down, the idea of empire makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps due to our rebellious origin, it’s not in our national DNA.

It is now January, 2017. We are confronted by a time fraught with danger, led by people who only view America as great through the lens of wealth and power. It will take an enormous effort by many people working to preserve those things that make America truly great. But in this work we can draw strength from the fact that time and reality are on our side. As Stannard said regarding those resisting social change:

…such movements rarely enjoy long-range success.  They result from an opposition of the needs of the emerging social structure with those of the existing group culture…and when such incongruity is not resolved by effective integration of the two competing elements, it has historically been the almost inevitable fate of the traditional culture to give way to the needs of the ongoing social structure.

=== Fair use for January 24, 1964 Life Magazine cover ===

The image of the Life magazine cover was taken from Wikipedia. Though this image is subject to copyright, its use is covered by the U.S. fair use laws, and the stricter requirements of Wikipedia’s non-free content policies, because:

# It is a historically significant photo of an historical event
# It is of much lower resolution than the original. Copies made from it will be of very inferior quality.
# The photo is only being used for informational purposes.
# Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because the photo and its historical significance are the object of discussion in the article.

===Photograph of Pan-Am building by Donald M. Higgins===

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Back to the…1950s?!?

A recent poll revealed that “half of all Americans want to take the country back to the 1950s.”  Hmmmm…do many Americans really want to return to the way things were in the 50s?

Imagine we were somehow transported back to the 1950s – much like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Like Stewart, we’d find things very different from today.

There’d be no Internet – no email, no Facebook, no Yelp, no websites for anything from news to political groups to amusing cat videos, no blogs, no eBay, no online shopping, no Twitter or Tinder, etc.

We’d be much more disconnected from friends and the world, without smart phones or cell phones, iPads, laptops and other such devices at our fingertips. We’d get most of the news of the world – a day late, in many cases – from newspapers, radio or television. And the news on TV would only come from three media companies that dictated what we heard and saw: ABC, CBS and NBC. There would be no Fox News, MSNBC or CNN. News would travel more slowly and less graphically, with no satellite TV broadcasts from where news was breaking at that moment.

Some people might find such a slower, less connected time appealing. But they should keep in mind what also went with that period. If you had health problems – like heart disease, hypertension, depression, asthma, etc. – there were many fewer treatment options available and they were less likely to be effective. If you were diagnosed with cancer in the 1950s, your chance of surviving it was poor. And the risk of getting cancer was high back then due to the largely unchecked pollution and chemical use of the times, as well as the blissfully ignorant prevalence of cigarette smoking.

Plus, hanging over the entire world in the 1950s was the possibility of nuclear holocaust, of which people were continually reminded by things like public fallout shelters and “duck and cover” drills at school.

I wonder how many people would really want to give up everything we have today to go back to the 1950s. I doubt many would. Instead, what we have here is an idealized view of a “simpler time” – one in which, let’s face it, certain groups (like English-speaking white males) had much more power in society than they do today.

This year’s US Presidential race has stirred up many fears, angst and apocalyptic visions. One thing many don’t seem to recognize is that we went through something similar four years ago.  As I noted then in my post “Keep the Change,” when you look at the big picture you can see a certain logic in what’s happening.

As I pointed out then, we have seen a great amount of change since the 1950s:

This change has altered societies around the world in myriad ways. But such change has not been welcomed by many – especially those whose identity and values were firmly rooted in the previously established cultures. This reflects a basic but rarely considered fact:  change happens differently for a culture than it does for the society of which that culture is a part.

Ideally, cultures by their nature offer enduring, lasting values. In this way they satisfy the human need for meaning and stability. In the chaos and confusion of life, we need to have a dependable framework that gives meaning to what is happening around us. 

By the same token, healthy societies are continually changing. This is a reflection of changes in demographics, as well as the growth of knowledge and awareness that are a part of a dynamic society. In this way, societies satisfy the human need for freedom and creativity.

However, there is a basic conflict inherent in this dichotomy: cultural values cannot long endure unchanged within an evolving and changing society. Just as pressures build over time along fault lines until there’s an earthquake, over time pressures build up between culture and society until conflict erupts.

This is where we are now. The conflict we are seeing today is in large part a conflict between those who want to return to that “simpler time” of the 1950s, and those who were marginalized or oppressed by the culture and society of that time.

In a larger sense however, the conflict is not really between these two groups. That is because the social change we have been witnessing did not arise from that conflict. In reality, it arose from the technology that increasingly and pervasively has linked us together. As I wrote four years ago:

This change isn’t the result of an invasion by infidels or a conspiracy by shadowy elites. Instead it’s a product of  modern technology, with its concomitant interlinking of humanity. As Walter Truett Anderson observed in his book “Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be”:

The collapse of belief we have been witnessing throughout the twentieth century comes with globalism. The postmodern condition is not an artistic movement or a cultural fad or an intellectual theory — although it produces all of those and is in some ways defined by them. It is what inevitably happens as people everywhere begin to see that there are many beliefs, many kinds of belief, many ways of believing. Postmodernism is globalism; it is the half-discovered shape of the one unity that transcends all our differences.

When you get down to it, the conflict the “back to the 50s” group has is really with society today – and the technology that has brought this society about. If they truly want to return to that simpler time, they will need to follow the lead of groups like the Amish and give up everything that did not already exist in the 1950s. As the Amish have demonstrated, that is certainly possible.

But truly returning to the 1950s would require them to give up two things I doubt most of this group are willing to sacrifice: all their modern technology, and an active role in contemporary society.

In the end, the “back to the 50s” group faces a stark choice: continue fighting against society as it is today – diverse, interconnected and interdependent – in a battle that will grow ever more futile as society leaves them further and further behind; or adapt and make their peace with this modern world.

In making that choice, they should consider something once said by Charles Darwin:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

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Race War Talk

It appears some people have a hankering for a race war. Trump himself appeared to throw gasoline on the fire recently by making a false claim that some people were calling for moments of silence in honor of the shooter in Dallas.

Let’s stop a minute and take a breath. Let’s consider something from a man who knew more than a thing or two about persecution.

After psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived time in four Nazi death camps, he wrote about his experiences in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Something he wrote seems particularly relevant to recent events:

“…there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.”

Rather than getting worked into a lather over “who is with us” and “who is against us,” our time would be better spent asking who is a decent person…and who isn’t.

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Religion’s Darkness

Last night on The Late Show, Vice-president Joe Biden spoke movingly with Stephen Colbert about how his faith had helped him get through the dark times in his life, like the recent death of his son. It is true that faith can be a great force for good. But it is also true – and should be remembered on today, of all days – that as the 3 speakers in this clip note, religion can be a powerful force for horror and destruction as well.

“Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” PBS | 2004 duPont-Columbia Award Winner from Alfred I. duPont Awards on Vimeo.

Modern science tells us that everyone and everything is interconnected, part of a larger, dynamic whole. It also makes us aware of our dual, particle/wave nature. Humans reflect that dual nature in the way they need to both feel part of a larger whole and to feel that they offer a unique contribution to that whole. (Ernest Becker discusses this in The Denial of Death.) Religion offers a fundamental way of fulfilling these needs. However, there is always the danger that, blinded by what Monsignor Albacete calls “religious passion,” believers can become blinded to our interconnectedness and wreak horror and destruction on so-called non-believers.

Only when we recognize this fact can we resist the pull of religion’s potential for darkness.

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The Relativity Machine

Want to experience relativity? Try riding a bicycle!

Albert Einstein reportedly said that he thought of relativity while riding his bicycle. According to some, he thought of the concept while riding at night with his bike headlight on. He considered the implications of the fact that the speed of light emanating from that headlight was the same whether he was moving or stationary. This brief video offers an idea of those implications.

But relativity isn’t just restricted to bike headlights or trains. It’s something we all experience at one time or another. As Einstein once said:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

However, if you don’t have a pretty girl to sit with for an hour, and you have no desire to put your hand on a hot stove for even a second, it may be difficult to intentionally create an experience of relativity. But not if you have a bicycle!

I was thinking about this last weekend, while I was riding in a big bicycling fundraiser called the Pan-Mass Challenge. The PMC has many cyclists (5,700 this year) riding long distances to raise a lot of money ($40 million this year) to fight cancer through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Because so many people have been touched one way or the other by cancer, there are many spectators along the route who cheer the riders on.

PMC spectators cheering the riders on

PMC rider and spectators making a connection

While riding this year I was struck by how different the experience of this ride is for the riders and for the spectators.

For the spectators, their location is constant and they see a steady stream of cyclists coming and going. This is the reality of the event for them. But for the cyclists, who are riding in groups with other riders, the group of riders is constant and they see a steady stream of spectators and scenery coming and going.

The end result is that while spectators and riders are interacting with each other for brief moments, the realities they are experiencing are very different – even though both realities are equally true.

The reason for this is that each group is experiencing only a part of a larger whole. The cyclists experience the fullness of the route they are riding, from the beginning to the end. But they are only experiencing a small fraction of the riders in the event: those that fit into the road immediately around them and going the same speed. Meanwhile, the spectators get a much greater sense of how many riders there are in the event: those that continually stream by over many minutes and even hours. But they have no sense of the route as a whole – only the small part of it in their location.

Usually these realities remain distinct from each other. However, sometimes a rider will stop to fix a tire, visit with friends along the route, or for some other reason. When I have done that in the past I’ve been struck by how different the ride feels when I am still and see the many cyclists passing.

While the PMC offers a dramatic example of this phenomena, you can experience it any time you go for a bike ride – especially with a group of friends. So if you want to experience relativity firsthand, get on your bike – the “relativity machine” – and go!


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Getting Beyond Individualism Vs Collectivism

Are we individuals who live and achieve things on our own, or are we members and products of a larger collective? This question – this either/or distinction between individualism and collectivism – is at the heart of the schism in today’s politics.

According to some, we are all individuals. We are responsible for our actions, pursuing our own interests, sinking or swimming on the basis of our individual merit. If we are successful and wealthy, these people say “we built that” on our own. If we are unsuccessful and poor, they say it’s because we’re lazy and foolishly “spend all our money on booze or women or movies.”

According to others, we are all members of and shaped by groups. We are products of our upbringing, blessed or limited by our environment, helped or hindered by society and its laws, succeeding or failing based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we are unsuccessful and poor, these people say it’s because life presented obstacles (bad parents/poor schools/bad neighborhoods/poverty/discrimination/etc.) that we were unable to overcome. If we are successful and wealthy, they say it’s because of the help of others (family/friends/teachers/mentors/employees/etc.) as well as tax laws and government policies (like the 2008 Wall Street bailout and the 2017 Republican tax cut bill) that favor the wealthy.

Both perspectives seem reasonable. Does anyone think individual responsibility is not important? And does anyone not recognize that someone who has grown up in a stable home and neighborhood and who has attended good schools with capable and caring teachers has an advantage over someone who hasn’t?

But if both perspectives are reasonable, how do we get beyond the either/or divide at the heart of this divide? Perhaps we can find a clue in the stadium phenomena called “the wave.”

A wave is created when successive groups of people in an arena jump up and raise their hands, then quickly sit back down, creating the appearance of a wave of humanity rippling around the stands.

In late August of 2008, at the “Sharpie 500″ Sprint Cup at Bristol Motor Speedway, the pre-race festivities included an official attempt at the world’s largest human wave, with an estimated 168,000 people taking part.

Imagine you were there that evening, standing in front of the pits next to a man holding a green flag. The race is about to begin, and the tiny half-mile track is filled with the din of the sold-out crowd. You can barely hear the announcer over the PA system as he tells everyone about the planned wave. Then the starter points the green flag at the throng in front of him and sets it off.

As the multitude roars, you watch the wave start off towards the first turn. You watch as masses of people jump up and sit quickly back down, section after section around the turn. You might wonder at some point whether they will keep it up, but as you watch you see the wave come sweeping out of turn four and head to the finish line.

Now imagine that, as the wave sweeps down the home stretch and continues on for a second lap, your focus shifts to a single person in the stands in front of you. Maybe it’s a friend, or a celebrity you recognize; maybe it’s a particularly attractive stranger. In any case, focused on this particular person, you watch as they suddenly jump up and throw their arms in the air with a cheer and then quickly sit back down.

What happens next? Do you continue looking at this person – if it’s a friend do you smile and wave to them? Do you turn your focus back to watching the human wave swing around turns one and two?

More importantly, do you think about the perceptual shift you just experienced?

To understand what just happened, let’s consider an analogy from modern physics.  According to quantum physics, all matter and radiation have both particle- and wave-like characteristics. Any distinction between these two properties is simply due to how they are observed.

As demonstrated by the famous double-slit experiment, an electron will reveal either its particle or wave nature based on how it is measured (observed) when it goes through either one or two slits. Simply stated, if only one slit is open an electron will act like a particle; if two slits are open it will behave like a wave.

A similar effect can be recognized in our scenario from the racetrack. As we saw, you can either watch a crowd doing the wave OR you can watch an individual participating in that wave – you can’t see both at the same time. What you see is the result of a shift in how you focus on what’s in front of you.

Realizing this offers us a way beyond the either/or conflict about individualism and collectivism.  It becomes clear that this conflict is a result of fragmentary perception, in which we only see the wave going around the track or we only see individuals jumping up and down. Each of these perceptions is incomplete by itself; the event only fully makes sense when we consider both facets equally.

A wave depends on individuals deciding to take part by standing and throwing their hands up in the air and then quickly sitting back down. But these individual actions are tied to the actions of the rest of the crowd. Individuals are only likely to take part if the people in the section before theirs participate. And their decision to join in increases the likelihood that the people in the section after theirs will also take part.

Just as matter and radiation have both particle- and wave-like characteristics at the same time, any accomplishment by a group of people has both individual and collective qualities simultaneously. Any achievement an individual gains from a group endeavor is inextricably tied to the achievements of the other members of the group.

Americans have historically had a strong sense of individualism, but in the past such individualism was leavened with an awareness of a collective American spirit. Our national motto – “e pluribus unum” – proclaims “out of many, one.” Our Declaration of Independence concludes with the phrase “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  And at the signing of that document Benjamin Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Today we have many who subscribe to an extreme form of individualism that appears to have no appreciation of this collective spirit. In its place has been erected a paean to “liberty” and “the free market” in which individuals are free to do whatever they please without regard to the effects of their actions on others and society.

And so we have individuals in business whose primary goal is maximizing their personal wealth without regard to how their actions affect those who work for them, the shareholders and customers of their companies, or the communities of which they are ostensibly a part. We have politicians who are consumed with a desire for position and influence without regard to their actual responsibilities to the voters they are supposed to represent and serve or to the public employees who carry out their policy mandates.  And we have debates about issues like gun violence in which proclaimed individual rights eclipse any serious concern for the safety and well being of others in the community.

After decades of such extreme individualism we are dealing with its fruits, which include a growing economic disparity between the wealthy and everyone else, a steady decline in essential infrastructure and government services, and an inability to address critical issues like the endless stream of gun-related tragedies.

This is not working. It’s time for us to renounce this extreme individualism and to regain an appreciation for the leavening effect of the collective American spirit.  It’s also time we moved beyond the imaginary schism between the individual and the group.

Nothing is accomplished without individual action. But success is achieved on a collective level. The wave at that racetrack wouldn’t have happened unless individuals actively participated. But the final achievement – the wave – is a collective result.

If we want to find real success – as a person, as a business, or as a country – we need to get beyond the fantasy that our individual interests are somehow distinct from our collective well-being. As we learned from that racetrack, success only comes when we see our individual talents and accomplishments blended with others to create a larger wave of human achievement.

It’s time we learn to ride that wave into a successful future.

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Certain Dangers

Although it’s a basic element in modern physics, many people today have a problem with uncertainty.  Some say uncertainty is keeping businesses from moving forward; others claim there are certain Truths that stand as a bulwark against an alleged “moral relativism.”

In contrast to such paeans to certainty, The New York Times recently posted an interesting piece: “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.”   Drawing on lessons from an old BBC television series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by a Dr. Jacob Bronowski, Simon Critchley notes the distinction made in the episode “Knowledge and Certainty”:

He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

Critchley notes that a result of this inevitably imperfect information is that we assume a responsibility for our interpretation of that information. Knowledge isn’t based on some reality existing “out there” – it is based on our looking at the information and drawing our own – hopefully reasonable – conclusions. This personal dimension means that there is a moral aspect to knowledge:

For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

As Critchley notes, this uncertainty is integral to our remaining both moral and human. Evil occurs when we think we have a god-like certainty that we know The Truth and others don’t:

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

When you consider the many evil things individuals and groups have done to other individuals and groups – or the the Earth itself – at one time or another, you will inevitably find an element of inflexible certainty in their beliefs. From the Crusades to Auschwitz to 9/11 – they all have their roots in the delusional but unshakeable certainty of their perpetrators that they were acting on the side of Good.

Such certainty can be seductive in an uncertain, chaotic world like ours. But for the sake of our sanity and our souls, we should be very wary of the purveyors of such certainties.

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Fear and Political Beliefs

Daily Kos had an article earlier this month titled “Fear is the mindkiller: Focus group peers into the Republican brain.” In it they quote from research by Democracy Corps:

Understand that the base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country – and their starting reaction is “worried,” “discouraged,” “scared,” and “concerned” about the direction of the country – and a little powerless to change course. They think Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in DC let him get away with it.

This echoes something I discussed in depth almost two years ago. In my post “Keep the Change” I noted:

William O. Beeman, a professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of “Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival,” also notes this varying response to change and talks about the responses of those who resist change:

In essence, all such movements are a natural consequence of human processes of cultural change. In every society on earth change proceeds at an uneven pace. Some society members embrace change with relish. Others find it oppressive and troubling. When people feel that change is being imposed on them, some will find it necessary to resist–sometimes violently. The dynamics of revitalization thus are tied to inter-group dynamics. When a group in society perceives itself as having its power and authority usurped in the course of social change, the group comes to blame both internal and external causes for its fall from power.

As far as internal issues are concerned, Beeman notes that decline is often associated with individual failings. “They accuse members of society of becoming weak and irresolute to the point where they let others oppress them.”  Regarding external issues, Beeman says “…the group objectifies an Other, and identifies it as an oppressor. Usually the movement advocates resistance — sometimes violent — to that oppressor.”

As with the movements Beeman discusses, the Republican base is choosing some extreme responses to the change we’ve been experiencing – like our recent government shutdown and flirtation with government default. They’re also “objectifying an Other” in their extreme negativity towards President Obama. These behaviors, and the fact that some people actually consider them reasonable, can be disturbing to those not viewing the world through that lens of fear.

It might be helpful to gain an understanding of the big picture here. I think “Keep the Change” has something to offer in that regard.

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Some people view the world in either/or terms. To them everything is either one way or another way: true or false, individual or collective, young or old, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic, red or blue, sacred or secular, believer or nonbeliever, Christian or Moslem (or Jew), sinner or saint, evolved or intelligently designed, career-oriented or family-oriented, urban or rural, foreign or domestic, with us or against us, my team or your team, your tribe or my tribe, Mac or PC, Coke or Pepsi…the list goes on and on.

These people see the world as either Black or White.


Others take a more nuanced view of things. They argue that things are hardly ever as clearly demarcated as the Black & White Crowd claim. China and North Korea may both be communist countries, for example. But China seems much more hospitable and in tune with capitalism – to the extent that it can at times appear to have more in common with the capitalist United States than with communist North Korea.

Sometimes these folks will point to a larger whole containing both sides. As Barack Obama said in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech: “…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”

These people will say they recognize that, rather than being black and white, the world is made up of Shades of Gray.


Shades of gray certainly give us a better picture of how things are. It’s much easier to see details and recognize items in this picture. But the picture is still incomplete. It rests on a mental abstraction of the world, filtering things through the mind into this shade and that.

We are accustomed to using our brains in every dealing we have in the world. In refining our thinking we can get beyond the limits of a black and white world and perceive its many different shades of gray. But that only takes us so far in perceiving and understanding our world.

Perhaps we need to step back once in a while, stop dissecting and analyzing everything, and just let the world speak to us while we listen. Maybe the world can then tell us something more about itself.

Sunrise Near Heldebergs

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Holistic Healing for Deserts – and Climate Change?

TED recently posted an excellent talk by Allan Savory, who works to promote the holistic management of grasslands around the world. In bringing land that was once desert back into productive and sustainable grasslands, his program may also offer a significant role in dealing with climate change.

His talk offers a great example of the powerful way an holistic approach might address a serious problem.

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Want to Teach Children? You Need a Little SOLE

Many people are familiar with DIY – “Do It Yourself.” There’s a whole industry focused on that, with TV shows like Ask This Old House and companies like Home Depot and Lowes.

Thanks to the Internet, it looks like we now have another kind of DIY phenomena: LIY – “Learn It Yourself.”

Actually, in this case the process is called SOLE, or Self Organizing Learning Environments. It describes a new approach to education in which children, working together on a computer connected to the Internet teach themselves…well, pretty much anything.

The New York Times has published an interview with Sugata Mitra, the man behind SOLE and the winner of the 2013 TED Prize. As the Times notes:

Dr. Mitra is best known for an experiment in which he carved a hole from his research center in Delhi into an adjacent slum, placing a freely accessible computer there for children to use.

Once they were given access to this computer, “the children quickly taught themselves basic computer skills.” According to Mitra:

We noticed that they learned how to surf within hours. It was a bit of a surprise. Long story short, they would teach themselves whatever they had to to use the computer, such was the attraction of the machine.

…But I got curious about the fact that the children were teaching themselves a smattering of English. So I started doing a whole range of experiments, and I found that if you left them alone, working in groups, they could learn almost anything once they’ve gotten used to the fact that you can research on the Internet. This was done between 2000 and 2006.

Drawing on this experience, Mitra has been working on a new approach to teaching, in which much of the work is done by the students themselves. The $1 million prize he received from TED will help him develop a learning lab to explore a new way of teaching students. This new way will require a different role for teachers:

We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned. She comes in at the two ends, a cap at the end and a starter at the beginning.

Teachers are not supposed to be repositories of information which they dish out. That is from an age when there were no other repositories of information, other than books or teachers, neither of which were portable. A lot of my big task is retraining these teachers. Now they have to watch as children learn.

This is another example of how the ready availability of information on the Internet is changing our world. In previous times teaching was a traditional Newtonian top-down, mechanical enterprise; teachers distributed information which was absorbed by the students. Mitra’s new system is basically creating an emergent form of learning, in which teachers establish the context and then let the students learn on their own.

It will be interesting to see how Dr. Mitra’s project turns out.

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No More Secrets

The 1992 movie Sneakers offered a recurring phrase: “no more secrets.” This was a key plot point in what the Internet Movie Database described as a “complex but lighthearted thriller about computers and cryptography, government and espionage, secrets and deception and betrayal.” One of the characters had acquired a decryption device capable of accessing any computer network; as a result, there would be no more secrets.

Fast forward twenty years. We now have a movie – Zero Dark Thirty – that portrays both the search for and the killing of Osama bin Laden. The mission at the time was top secret – almost everyone was kept in the dark about it until it was over.  Even now those involved with the movie are not at liberty to talk about aspects of it, including details about the CIA agent who was the inspiration for the Maya character in the movie.  As the Washington Post’s Emi Kolawole notes“There is still information that, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain hidden from view, always behind a whispering veil of secrecy.”

Nevertheless, this movie reveals a great deal about both the search and the ensuing mission to Abbottabad by SEAL Team 6. That’s pretty amazing – especially since the raid happened less than two years ago. Compare that to another CIA mission that was the subject of a recent movie, Argo. That mission, which involved smuggling US embassy staff out of Iran in 1980, was largely unknown by anyone until the movie came out thirty-some years later.

While there are doubtless a variety of reasons for the difference in the timeliness of these two stories, a key factor is how technology has changed our expectations. As Kolawole observes:

But in the age of the Internet, that whisper sounds a little different – a little louder, perhaps — than it might have sounded in the past. Today, we are used to having information available at our fingertips on just about everything…Even the former director of the CIA learned the hard way that it is all but impossible to keep anything online secret for very long.

I have written before about how the ready availability of information has changed our world. The existence of a movie like Zero Dark Thirty just reinforces that point.

But it also shows another way in which things have changed. Twenty years ago we had a movie concerning secrecy in a computerized world. But revealing secrets then was deemed to require an electronic device – a super decoder kind of black box that very few would know how to make or use.

With the Internet, many secrets today can be uncovered just by going to the movies or searching Google – or WikiLeaks. In a very real and accessible way, we now live in a world in which there often truly are no more secrets.

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