Friday, November 6, 2015

Trigger

March 2, 1955.
A young black woman is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama.
Civil rights leaders and the ACLU rush to her side and she will be a symbol of the struggle against segregation.
Her name is Claudette Colvin and she's 15 years old.
She's also unmarried and pregnant.
Civil rights leaders and the ACLU decide that Colvin is not the best foot forward and stand down.
Eight months later, Rosa Parks happens, but during that eight months, a brilliant and charismatic young minister gets the attention of the community and is chosen to lead the bus boycotts.
If Claudette Colvin doesn't get pregnant, if they'd gone in the spring instead of eight months later, Martin Luther King is a preacher you've never heard of in Montgomery.

Who is Giuseppe Zangara?
He's a guy with a gun who fired five shots in February 15, 1933, killing the Mayor of Chicago.
Why? Because Zangara was standing on a wobbly chair.
And the Mayor of Chicago wasn't his target.
It was the guy the mayor was shaking hands with, the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt.
If Zangara's chair isn't wobbly, Roosevelt never takes office and we swear in his running mate, John Nance Garner, a man whose political ideology was the basis for his opposition to a package of legislation that would be called The New Deal and we don't survive the Great Depression.

Your kitchen faucet has washers.
They keep water from leaking through the joints in the fixtures.
And that's what O-rings do.
They're giant washers that keep pressurized hydrogen from leaking out of the SRB, the solid rocket booster, that shoots the space shuttle out of the Earth's atmosphere.
These O-rings have been tested and tested under every possible circumstance but one-- cold.
They didn't test to see if the O-rings worked when it was cold.
Why would they even think to test for that? The thing's launching from south Florida.
When's it gonna be cold? On January 28, 1986, a cold snap dragged the overnight temperature down to 18 degrees and it turns out the O-rings stopped working below 40.
So 73 seconds after the Challenger lifts off, it converts itself into a bomb and detonates.

Sometimes it's just the one thing.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why we run the world.

70,000 years ago humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers or bumblebees.
Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?
We often look for the difference between us and other animals on the individual level. We want to believe that there is something special about the human body or human brain that makes each individual human vastly superior to a dog, or a pig, or a chimpanzee. But the fact is that one-on-one, humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. If you place me and a chimpanzee together on a lone island, to see who survives better, I would definitely place my bets on the chimp.
The real difference between us and other animals is on the collective level. Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a beehive is facing a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight in order to cope better. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of intimately known individuals. Among wolves and chimps, cooperation is based on personal acquaintance. If I am a chimp and I want to cooperate with you, I must know you personally: What kind of chimp are you? Are you a nice chimp? Are you an evil chimp? How can I cooperate with you if I don’t know you?
Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us. But pit 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.
Cooperation is not always nice, of course. All the terrible things humans have been doing throughout history are also the product of mass cooperation. Prisons, slaughterhouses and concentration camps are also systems of mass cooperation. Chimpanzees don’t have prisons, slaughterhouses or concentration camps.
Yet how come humans alone of all the animals are capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers, be it in order to play, to trade or to slaughter? The answer is our imagination. We can cooperate with numerous strangers because we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of strangers to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
This is something only humans can do. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising that after he dies, he will go to Chimpanzee Heaven and there receive countless bananas for his good deeds. No chimp will ever believe such a story. Only humans believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, whereas chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
It is relatively easy to accept that religious networks of cooperation are based on fictional stories. People build a cathedral together or go on crusade together because they believe the same stories about God and Heaven. But the same is true of all other types of large-scale human cooperation. Take for example our legal systems. Today, most legal systems are based on a belief in human rights. But human rights are a fiction, just like God and Heaven. In reality, humans have no rights, just as chimps or wolves have no rights. Cut open a human, and you won’t find there any rights. The only place where human rights exist is in the stories we invent and tell one another. Human rights may be a very attractive story, but it is only a story.
The same mechanism is at work in politics. Like gods and human rights, nations are fictions. A mountain is something real. You can see it, touch it, smell it. But the United States or Israel are not a physical reality. You cannot see them, touch them or smell them. They are just stories that humans invented and then became extremely attached to.
It is the same with economic networks of cooperation. Take a dollar bill, for example. It has no value in itself. You cannot eat it, drink it or wear it. But now come along some master storytellers like the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the President of the United States, and convince us to believe that this green piece of paper is worth five bananas. As long as millions of people believe this story, that green piece of paper really is worth five bananas. I can now go to the supermarket, hand a worthless piece of paper to a complete stranger whom I have never met before, and get real bananas in return. Try doing that with a chimpanzee.
Indeed, money is probably the most successful fiction ever invented by humans. Not all people believe in God, or in human rights, or in the United States of America. But everybody believes in money, and everybody believes in the dollar bill. Even Osama bin Laden. He hated American religion, American politics and American culture — but he was quite fond of American dollars. He had no objection to that story.
To conclude, whereas all other animals live in an objective world of rivers, trees and lions, we humans live in dual world. Yes, there are rivers, trees and lions in our world. But on top of that objective reality, we have constructed a second layer of make-believe reality, comprising fictional entities such as the European Union, God, the dollar and human rights.
And as time passes, these fictional entities have become ever more powerful, so that today they are the most powerful forces in the world. The very survival of trees, rivers and animals now depends on the wishes and decisions of fictional entities such as the United States and the World Bank...
...entities that exist only in our own imagination.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Humble

I think we all need something burning in the dark.

No matter how happy we are or how satisfied we become, there will always be that little pilot light in the corner of our hearts - flickering with memory and nostalgia - that just won't seem to ever extinguish.

Many people have come back into my life the last three years in an effort to rekindle that flame, see how warm the glow still feels after all of this time. Maybe it's a friendship, maybe it's an old romance, sometimes it's an old co-worker, trying to make amends over an expensive mistake. But in any case, the point remains the same: No matter how long it's been, no matter how much we've grown or changed, how far we've moved on, or how many of our own questions we've answered, that spark of human curiosity always wins out. It's a persistent little agent of our subconscious that is simply too innocently naive of rational thought to ever fade away.

Sometimes this is good. It allows bridges to be repaired, and old problems with aching joints that were weary from the weight of guilt and doubt to finally be free of the burden we inflicted upon our own selves. Many times it opens up new doors, new avenues and connections in our lives that we had gone without for so long; the light of life floods in, and the lessons we had been learning all these years finally come to fruition and reward our bravery with something new by having the courage to accept something old.

And sometimes that same curiosity is bad. It becomes an anchor to our hearts, only allowing it to move forward with painful tugs, dragging along mud and rock from the ocean floor of our psyche. With every push forward, there is a nearly equal pull back, reminding us that we failed before. That we still have something to learn, some wisdom we still have yet to extract. Worse, it can simply settle into the ground, leaving us immobile, and at the mercy of any waves or hurricanes life throws at us with no way to adapt or escape.

The inevitability of this flame is what keeps me humble. I don't reject it's existence when I feel it's fire, nor do I fully embrace it; I accept it. Walk over to it. And sit next to it. And then I watch it with a tilted head, and wonder why it moves the way it does - why it chooses to dance at certain times of the night. I refuse to be burned by it again. But I will let it close enough to keep me out of the dark.

Some people come back into my life only to feel warm again when they feel cold in their lives. And while I will always offer my companionship to anyone in need, I refuse to be used as a tool. I draw the line at being a safe haven when it's convenient only to be rejected as a human being the next moment for that same reason - convenience.

Others have come back into my life and I couldn't be more grateful at the luck, blind fate, God, or whoever or whatever had their hands on the puppet strings of time. I truly do not know where I would be today without a very select few individuals. Still others I admittedly wish (and hope) come back to visit me when they are ready to keep writing our story, to answer questions they long feared to ask... or answer.

Their time may come. Or it may never. I remain humble in that regard as well. Not every story has a happy ending. Hell, not every story even has an ending. Some stories cut off in the middle of the book and the best you can do is hope their last chapters went well without you. But until I die, I will always wait by my flickering fire, ready to talk with whomever decides to sit next to me again. 

I may sit alone sometimes, but never in the dark.

I'll always have my Curious Flame.