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Pecking Order

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Permanent Stopgaps

“Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of a leak in the dyke! The boy understood the danger at a glance […] Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. […] His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped ! […] This was all very well at first, but […] Our little hero began to tremble with cold and dread. […] If he drew away that tiny finger, the angry waters, grown angrier still, would rush forth, and never stop until they had swept over the town. […] He was not certain now that he could draw his finger away, even if he wished to.”

—Mary Mapes Dodge, “Lesson 62. — The Hero of Haarlem,”

Hans Brinker, Or, The Silver Skates (1866)

Paris was buzzing with excitement. People from all over the world began to flock to the French capital for what would become the fourth of eight grand events in the city. It was 1889, and as the crowds looked up from the World’s Fair entrance on the Champs de Mars, they saw a peculiar structure. The iron-lattice tower was unlike anything people had seen before. Fortunately for many of the city’s disgruntled residence, the eyesore was planned to be temporary.

Exactly one hundred years later in 1989, long after the Eiffel Tower had become a permanent Parisian icon and one of the world’s most visited monuments, an American composer was finishing a piece of throwaway music. It was whimsical score, not to be taken seriously, written for a television show that probably wouldn’t last more than three episodes. Yet over thirty years later, Danny Elfman’s song lives on as one of the most recognizable tunes in popular culture. The theme song of The Simpsons, alongside the longest running sitcom in history, has outlasted all expectations. 


Anything can be a stopgap measure—rules, music, purchases, construction, verbal ticks, furniture placement, adaptations—anything. It’s a matter of intention (to be temporary, to fill a need until a long-term solution is found). And to the dismay of designers everywhere, our world is mostly made of stopgaps; it is not designed (nor is it feasible to be).* There are several reasons for this. 

One obvious but important point is that real-time decisions can rarely be made with design principles in mind. It takes a concerted effort to analyze a problem, consider the alternatives, and implement a creative solution. There are simply too many decisions (often unconscious) to regularly employ the design process. 

Also, “good enough for now” is often good enough for later. Stopgaps that work last. The economy works, although not always smoothly. Organizational and biological adaptations work. But they aren’t always elegant. The sheer volume of temporary measures creates a high probability for at least some of them to work as well as (if not better than) designed solutions. 

Another reason stopgaps persist is that it often takes less effort to maintain the status quo than to revise or reverse it. Once a decision is made, momentum takes over. It’s a case of path dependence meeting path of least resistance. This is especially true in Law, a field that prides itself on rigorous methodology and intention, which is still riddled with legal anachronisms (outdated laws that persist despite being irrelevant or in desperate need of revision). 

When faced with an imperfect and often inept world, I’m comforted with this thought: Our world is a patchwork of stopgaps, and, considering, it works surprisingly well. The elegance of our world is that it works at all, despite being filled with inelegant solutions. But that’s not to say everyone gets a free pass. Be careful what you nonchalantly do; it might just work.


* That is to say, most solutions are intended to be temporary with those that work outlasting those that don’t. Philosophically, however, when one considers a long enough time horizon, everything is a stopgap measure, as “nothing lasts forever” (although, one could argue that intention may disqualify that conclusion depending on the definition’s semantics).

† Admittedly, it’s a stretch to claim that legal anachronisms are an example of stopgaps, since laws are typically passed with specific intention. Instead, the point here is to highlight the power of momentum, which often carries measures well beyond their intended purpose.

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The Real Ideal

“The best world we can create in this way, the best world possible, is not the best world.”

—John Lachs, “Stoic Pragmatism” (2005)

Idealism is a heuristic—a mental shortcut that helps simplify the world.* It is favored by the young and naive, not as intellectual laziness, but as a sort of training wheels or stepping stone to the complexities of real life. Idealism is useful when learning, as medical students must learn physiology before studying pathophysiology or one must learn to walk before she runs. Some may never learn. And that’s okay, because idealism is also a great driver of improving the world, to strive toward a better society, an ideal one. Realists and idealists need one another.


* The use of “idealism” here is in the narrow sense of the word, referring to the social ideals found on all sides of our current political divide.

John Lachs. “Stoic Pragmatism.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19, No. 2: 95-106 (2005). (Source)

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If We Were Like Clouds

Do clouds have bad days? Do you think a cloud ever wakes up, bursting at the seams, downpour-ready, when a sudden weather front prevents it? Are clear blue skies a cloud tragedy or a much needed respite? Do they have things they need to get done? Do they have deadlines?

Created through the (very official sounding) process of adiabatic cooling, clouds form from a speck of dust.1 As they grow they can become tiny wisps of cotton-candy or large torturous storms. They can bring peaceful shade or apocalyptic destruction. They are infinite in potential shape, size, and formation yet can be placed into a few broad categories.2 Whether insulating or reflecting, heating or cooling, shading or pouring, the life of a cloud is defined by the unique conditions of its birth and the interaction with its immediate surroundings. Sound familiar?

We humans share a lot with our ‘inanimate’ cousins (who are as alive and connected as any of us). Like clouds, we each play a role as one part of a greater whole. And like clouds, we play this role perfectly every minute of every day. The difference is our inward analysis and perception of how things are going. It’s the illusion of “progress” that makes us feel like we’re on the “wrong path,” “behind,” or “failing.” It is our judgement of the situation, not the situation itself, which causes dissatisfaction. Our arbitrary timelines, deadlines, and goals are part of our motivation machinery, but they do not define our purpose (which often goes hidden or unnoticed, like clouds unaware of the vital roles they play).

True, clouds have a distinct advantage in accepting their existence as is—accepting life with a stoicism afforded only by the most inanimate of nature’s living body. But we can still learn a lot from clouds, created and destroyed in harmonious balance with the rest of nature. Are we really any different?


Related essay: “If We Were Like Trees” (2017)

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  1. “The Importance of Understanding Clouds,” NASA Fact Sheets, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, http://www.nasa.gov, 2005. (Source)
  2. Jin-Yi Yu, “Chapter 6: Cloud Development and Forms,” Microsoft Power Point. Earth System Science 5: University of California, Irvine. (Source)
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Social Media Hydra

! This claim about election fraud is disputed

Twitter

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are taking action to reduce misinformation (or “information” depending on your preferred bias). But it’s become a game of whack-a-mole with new entrants flooding the market to capture “free speech” advocates. Sites such as Parler, MeWe, and Gab have gained popularity with the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, which seeks alternative echo chambers. And despite regulators’ best efforts, this trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon—cut one platform down, and two grow back in it’s place.

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Humanity’s Kitchen

Why does incapacitating mental illness exist? Why would nature consistently produce people born with debilitating health problems? Is nature so cruel and unfair that it curses some people while blessing others? Perhaps. But perhaps there’s an alternative interpretation.

We humans are made up of a collection of traits.* Contrary to early scientific thought, we now know that these traits are rarely useful or dysfunctional on their own. When things go wrong, it’s less about dysfunctional traits and more about dysfunctional combinations. A useful analogy is to think of human characteristics as ingredients in a kitchen. Some combinations taste foul and others sublime; some are subtle, and others can easily overpower. And we humans are the final dishes.

The trouble with this model is that at Bistro Homo Sapien the menu is enormous. Humanity’s kitchen must stock such an immense array of ingredients that inevitably there are going to be some unpleasant combinations.

Take for example people who have difficulty filtering out the mundane elements of their surroundings (latent inhibition). These people struggle to block out irrelevant details, and as you might imagine, this can be hugely problematic. In fact, this dysfunction is associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia—but not always.

For some people, a difficulty to filter combines with another trait—high IQ—to produce a high-functioning creativity. Rather than being overwhelmed by extraneous inputs, these creatives can channel their access to additional information in positive ways. Dysfunction, then, is a matter of compatibility. (Oversimplifying: Low Latent Inhibition × Low IQ = Incompatible Schizophrenia; Low Latent Inhibition × High IQ = Compatible Creativity)

So perhaps human biology is unfair. Although, it may be helpful to remember that, “Nature optimizes for the whole, not for the individual.”2 The mechanism that allows some trait combinations to flourish requires others to falter. In this light, even debilitating mental illness can be seen as a positive—an example of the rich, robust, and beautiful diversity of our species.


* “Traits” is used here as a general, catch-all for observable human characteristics. A person could be described as “naturally shy,” for example. In a more scientific description, we could use phenotype; however, this genetic term often fails to reflect the combination of life-experience, genetic predisposition, and environmental factors that combine to create what most of us colloquially refer to as human traits.

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  1. Carson, S.H., et al., 2003. “Decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals.” Journal of personality and social psychology85(3), 2003. (Source)
  2. Ray, Dalio, Principles: Life and Work. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017. (Book)
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Art (with a capital A)

fART

In some ways “art is dead” in the sense that Art (with a capital A) is about celebrity—a singular Artist who paints on a canvas and creates a masterpiece. Van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, Da Vinci—they had something valid to share with the world, but so do countless other individuals of the past, present, and future.

We no longer live in a time of the lone genius tinkering away, hoping to create a masterpiece. The world has become too complex for meaningful work to be done in total isolation. Consider the computer animation company, Pixar, for example. Pixar is arguably one of the greatest mixed media “artists” of our time—a multiplier of many talented people working together to tell expressive stories. There is no amount of “creative genius” that can out-master that level of collaboration. And in this way, the Artist-as-sacrosanct mentality of the art world is perhaps irrelevant to modern life.

Individuals will always create. There is something very human about making and expressing what words cannot express. But the “Art World” as it stands today—the network of museums, auction houses, art schools, periodicals, and collectors—seems to be stodgy and outdated. It is yet another industry absorbed into the umbrella of “investing.”

As the internationally recognized street artist, Banksy, puts it:

Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions and buy records by the billions. ‘We the people’ affect the making and the quality of most of our culture, but not our art.

The art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit, and decide the success of art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.

Perhaps Art is the ultimate luxury—the final, superfluous status symbol of privilege. But then again, maybe I’m wrong; after all, it’s far easier to dismiss art completely than to recognize its nuance and complexity.

art (with a lowercase ‘a’)

When you step back and look at it, art is simply a way of communicating. We are all trying to communicate something—who we are, what we see, how we think. We each have much more going on in our heads than we are capable of expressing. So we write stories, play music, dance, paint, act, or any number of creative pursuits. We try to communicate ourselves, our understanding of the world, our experiences—all the things that seem impossible to share with someone in casual conversation.

Children make art. Adults too. Professionals, amateurs, even “uncreatives” can make art. Art is not a mystery. It’s people sharing with one another—communicating (or at least trying to). And that’s what makes it is so valuable. Unfortunately, art is not always “Art.”

Banksy. Wall and Piece. Mainaschaff: Publikat, 2005. (Amazon).

Catmull, Ed, and Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York: Random House, 2014. (Amazon)

Conover, Adam. “Adam Ruins Fine Art.” Adam Ruins Everything. 08 August 2017. (Link)

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Night People

let me sleep plzzzDear “Night Person,”

Your decision to start working on that nagging project late at night or your sudden interest down an obscure internet rabbit hole at 2 A.M. is not an innate proclivity. It’s not some natural predisposition that’s outside of your control. It’s your brain being selfish. It’s a mind unwilling to give up control to being unconscious—a tired toddler trying to stay engaged for as long as it can before falling asleep. It’s a form of mental FOMO (‘fear of missing out’). Recognize it. Acknowledge it. Go to bed.

Yours truly,

Sleepy

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A Lotto’ Hope

burn money burn

[T]he difference between wishing and deciding is important.

—Scott Adams, How to Fail At Almost Everything (2013)

There are different kinds of hope. There’s the empowered kind—the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. championed. Empowered hope is what allows people to face improbable odds and still carry on, knowing that what they are hopeful for is worth the fight. Empowered hope encourages us to do better and to be better. It’s what drives us forward. And then there’s disempowered hope—wishful thinking. This is the hope that buying a lottery ticket will make you a millionaire—all the rewards with none of the effort.

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Hiding

hiding.jpgI’m hiding. Lots of people are. I write in my journals, draw in my notebooks, make notes on my phone as I walk to work. It’s a prolific exercise amounting to… well… nothing. I rarely share my work or discuss my ideas. Even my wife, the person who is closest to me, is exposed to only the tip of the iceberg. And why is this—why do we hide from people?

People intuitively understand that there is a common fear to express oneself, to be oneself. It’s a fear of what others might think or how we’ll be perceived or maybe a product of our own self-criticism—I don’t know what it is exactly. But there is a barrier for many of us. We just don’t want to give too much away. It feels safer to put on the mask and keep the real stuff out of sight.

Yet when we get brave and open up—those rare instances—the results can be surprising. Sharing can trigger others to share, and they often confirm our own experience. We hear about other people facing the same challenges that we face. We learn that we’re not alone in thinking crazy thoughts, or perhaps we are, but there are valid alternatives that would never have occurred to us. No matter how “good” we think we are, when we share, we allow other people to do the same.

There will always be better—better writers, better businesspeople, better artists, better communicators, better whatever. But so what? If you’re already doing the activity, then you might as well share it. I might as well share it. It’s time to stop hiding.

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