Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Understanding and Controlling Desire

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all know that desire is the longing for a person, thing or state of mind – and most of us call it an emotion, although psychologists tend to differentiate it from emotion, asserting that it arises from bodily structures or functions. However, we don’t need to get into technicalities in definitional terms to understand desire and what it does.

It is a driver, a prod to action. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes asserted that it was the fundamental motivator of all human action. He was likely correct, although we often do things we wish we didn’t have to. Many of us would like to retire, for example, or quit our jobs, but we can’t do so because we have financial commitments. We wish to eat, maintain a roof over our heads and clothe our bodies.

Some would say that we still desire to work then. Our desire for the rewards we receive from working (Money) exceeds our desire not to work. That’s the thing about desire. It comes in many shades, hits us at many levels, propels us to act or not to act in accord with the desire that exerts the greatest pressure on us at any given time.

It’s impossible, in fact, to avoid desire. Every action, every thought, is influenced by competing desires. For some of us, the desire to eat donuts and cake at every meal competes with the desire to be slim or at least not obese. For others, the desire to look stylish competes with the desire to avoid going into debt over clothes.

But it’s not as simple as that. There are never (or at least rarely) only two competing desires at play in our minds. More often, there are several dozen, many of them struggling to assert themselves from the depths of the subconscious. We tend to overlook them while we’re focused on the stronger desires that have breached the surface.

So what? Why do we care about this?

Because understanding desire is the first step toward controlling it, and controlling desire is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving success. The ability to delay gratification is vital to success in any field, from athletics to the arts to business – one must always pay one’s dues to reach the top. And controlling desire is what delayed gratification is all about.

The big question is, how do we do that? And unfortunately, the answer is that the ability to delay gratification is largely acquired early in life. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hone whatever skills we happen to possess as we age. It takes measured logic – the ability to step back from the impulsive act – to accomplish this task.

Whenever we desire something and reach out to grab it (literally or figuratively), we need to ask ourselves if this is really what’s best for us. Do I really need that candy bar? Should I really quit my job because my boss is a jerk? Should I really post that picture on Instagram or Facebook?

Why do I need this NOW? Why can’t I wait a day or two to think about the consequences, the ramifications of my actions?

Often, by the exercise of self-discipline, those desires will fade and longer-term benefits will become possible. This is not always true, of course, but it often is.

So think before grasping at what you want in the immediate now and consider whether you might be better off later if you wait. You may find that your desire is not as strong as you thought it was. You may be able to control it and in the process gain greater success in the future.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Ode to Gravity

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Gravity

How simple and yet how complicated

You make our universe

Altering time

Crushing the embryos of stars

Into fiery existence

Coalescing galaxies and nebulae

Pulling every object toward each other

No matter how tiny or distant

Asserting your dominance in the macrocosm

Despite your irrelevance

In the sub-atomic world.

We who are held in your grip

Tethered to our tiny blue pebble

Afloat in the cosmos of infinity

Listen to your waves

And move at your beck and call

Even though you are not a force

But a mere consequence

Of space-time’s curvature.

We abide by your dictatorship

With only rare complaints

For you treat us all the same

Or close enough.

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Why Don’t We Read Anymore?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I realize it’s ironic to write an article about why no one reads anymore, but I’m doing it anyway. And I’m not saying no one reads anymore. Obviously, people do. In fact, some people read as much as they ever have, consuming multiple books per week, gorging themselves on the tasty offerings of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, JK Rowling and more.

But readers are slowly dying off, easing into extinction as newer and flashier means of grabbing our attention evolve. Why? Because reading is hard, or at least harder than watching TV or movies or playing video games.

Reading – what I call deep reading – stimulates the brain, forcing us to focus, to remember and to perform various mental gymnastics. It provides enormous benefits, but it ain’t easy, and that’s predominantly why reading is dying out. How do we get more people to read? Hopefully, by explaining the benefits in a quick and easy format they’re willing to peruse.

First, reading reduces stress. In one study, it took readers only about six minutes to achieve a decrease in heart rate and muscle tension.

Second, it keeps your brain sharp precisely because it’s so much harder than watching TV or playing games. It may even help stave off Alzheimer’s disease, although that hasn’t yet been proven.

Third, it helps you sleep better (unless you’re reading in bed from a Kindle or Nook or iPad or some other kind of tablet or smartphone). The light emitted by those machines tells your brain to wake up.

Fourth, when you let a book carry you away emotionally, it helps you better empathize with others.

Fifth, it increases your vocabulary and your writing skills, and if you read about topics related to your job, it will help you get ahead at work. Even if what you read isn’t work related, it may help your career.

Sixth, it improves your imagination because when an author, for example, introduces a character or setting, you have to create it in your mind instead of relying on a camera image.

There are many other advantages to reading as well, including developing greater discipline, helping you better understand other cultures, building self-esteem and making you more interesting.

All these benefits are known, at least by those who study the subject. But a great many people still believe they don’t have time to read. Society floods us with sensory input. Our phones, our tablets, our laptops: all offer connectivity to the wider world. So we think that because we’re connected to it electronically, we needn’t pursue such an old-fashioned activity as reading.

And we claim we do read, because we saw that post on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, or we read most of that article posted by TMZ or some similar site.

Unfortunately, however, that isn’t reading – not deep reading, at any rate. Scanning an article or reading a post by a friend does not qualify as deep reading because it doesn’t take long enough to allow your brain to immerse itself in the experience.

Even reading this article doesn’t really count. You need to read for at least 10 or 15 minutes to realize the benefits of deep reading. So get out there and give it a try. Pick up a good book (or even one of mine) and start reading again. It’ll make you feel young.

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How to Achieve Lasting Happiness

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Getting married, having children, landing a better job: contrary to popular belief, these don’t guarantee happiness. They can produce a temporary high, but over the course of years, they don’t tend to produce happier people.

Happiness, however, can be learned. Studies have shown that there are multiple ways to make ourselves happier. Most of them are quite simple, which isn’t surprising when you consider how many people go about their lives with happiness in their hearts. They don’t seem to be doing anything different than us, but they’re happy. Why is that and how do we get there?

First, it’s important to note that the brain is marvelously plastic. It changes constantly in response to environmental factors. Trauma produces a negative effect. Poor nutrition or health, violence, neglect, loss – these things can alter the brain for the worse. Conversely, love, friendship, belonging to a community – these all produce feelings of well-being.

So what we need to do is replicate these positive feelings. There are two paths to greater happiness – one internal, one external.

Meditation is the internal path. Many believe it’s difficult because the few times they tried it, they struggled to empty their minds. But it’s actually quite easy. You don’t have to visit a doctor or a Buddhist center or some natural healer guru who will direct you to find your center. You just have to sit in a chair and close your eyes and focus on your breathing – in, out, in, out.

Your mind will inevitably drift to other thoughts, but when that happens, you just pull it back to the simple act of breathing – in, out, in, out. Don’t worry about how often your mind drifts to other things. Just keep bringing it back to your breaths. Do it for small periods to start – 5 or 10 minutes – then work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes.

The biggest deterrent for many is the belief that they don’t have the time; they’re just too busy. But most of us aren’t too busy. We just have other things we’d rather do, like watching television. That’s almost meditation. It’s mindless enough. But it doesn’t help us focus our thoughts.

So instead of watching that sit-com or that reality show, consider meditating for 20 minutes or so. But here’s the catch. You have to commit to doing it for 3 weeks straight because we know that it takes about 21 days to develop a new habit. If you commit to doing meditation for 3 weeks, you will likely find it of immeasurable benefit and you will be happier than before you started.

What about those of us who just aren’t interested in meditation? Is there some way we can be happier?

Sure – this is the external path: Immerse yourself in the world.

What do I mean by that? I mean, get outside yourself, push yourself into other people and other experiences and do so with an open mind. Allow yourself to be part of something bigger than just you.

Some of the concrete steps that help us do this are as follows:

—exercise a little (exercise gets muscles and blood moving as well as endorphins – this is external in the sense that it is outside the mind, and when our bodies move, they’re happier),

—get enough sleep (by feeling rested, you will better be able to cope with the problems that hit us every day – a great stress reducer),

—get together with friends (belonging to a community is a known happiness achiever and there have been studies of nuns, for example, that show they live a long time in good health, happier than most of their contemporaries),

—get outside on a nice day (studies have shown we feel better after doing so because we’re getting sunshine and building vitamin D as well as experiencing nature),

—smile more (by showing the world we’re happy and engaged, we allow others to extend themselves to us, which they’re less inclined to do if we’re frowning all the time), and

—help others (maybe the best way to feel happier is by making someone else happy).

These things all help us to move outside ourselves – to be other-directed rather than self-directed. When we’re tired or lonely or depressed, we feel like that mood is forever. It’s hard to motivate ourselves to move, to do something other than focus on our misery. But if you can pull yourself together and get out of your locked-in mentality, if you can for a moment experience the world around you and immerse yourself in it instead of just observing it from the outside, you will find that you are happier and more inclined to stay immersed in it.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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My 5 Best Tips for Writers

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve written, edited and read a lot of books over the years, and I’ve interviewed authors for more than a decade on Write On! Radio – bestsellers like Cokie Roberts and Dean Koontz as well as lesser-known and debut writers. And I’ve learned a lot about good writing in that time. Here are my five best tips.

Number one: Get the reader involved emotionally. There are many ways to do this – from creating a haunting description of place to eliciting laughter out of the ridiculous to producing warmth from a touching situation – but the best method is to create three-dimensional characters we can root for or against.

Think of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird or Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Unfinished characters at the start of their respective novels, both grow immeasurably by story’s end.

Number two: Create tension. This is an obvious one, but too many authors write stories that fail to elicit tension because they present small obstacles that we as readers don’t really care about. You need to set out a difficult challenge for your protagonist. Think of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Kill or die. That’s an extreme case, but wow!

Number three: Design dialogue that pulls us in. For example, if Joe says, “Where’s the suitcase?” and Mary says, “It’s in the closet,” you’ve created mundane dialogue.

But if Joe says, “Where’s the suitcase?” and Mary says, “You promised you wouldn’t leave,” you’ve created better dialogue – you’ve added tension, partly by introducing a new idea (that Joe and Mary have a history involving a promise) and partly by introducing mystery (what’s behind the promise and where is the suitcase anyway?). A great way to create good dialogue is by having a character be non-responsive in her answer – as Mary is.

Number four: Embrace the unexpected. In a romance, for example, the story must end a certain way; the same is true for a mystery. You have no real choice in the end result. But you do have a choice in some of the elements leading up to the end.

Jane can end up with Dave as long as she does some other things we don’t expect. If she gets her man and winds up rich and pregnant and happy, maybe that’s enough for some readers, but most, I submit, would rather see a twist – Jane learning she can’t have children but deciding to open a girls’ school, for example.

The unexpected nearly always results in something better than the anticipated. The bomb under the seat creates tension. Having the hero exit the vehicle before it explodes works on one level, but what if the bomb detonates, maiming the hero? Whoa. Didn’t see that coming. How does the story move ahead now? This is interesting.

Number five: Editing matters. Over-edited books do exist. But they’re extremely rare. Much more common is the decent story with flat words and a predictable destination. It’s a rare book indeed that is not well served by another round of editing.

Recall well-written picture books and how almost every word takes on a heavy load to carry the story. Or study a good poem and notice the value of each word. Obviously a novel or memoir or even short story or essay can’t duplicate that structure, that import for each turn of phrase, or it would take years to write. But one can still refine word choice, tighten language and rid the text of unnecessary passive voice.

Finally, as part of editing, know that size matters. Lengthy descriptions from years gone by rarely cut it anymore. People want brevity. That doesn’t mean every book has to be short, but a description generally can’t run on for five or six sentences anymore.

The dilapidated house on the corner? Talk about the one or two things that make it stand out: the broken windows, all bereft of drapes except the top-floor bedroom on the left where Lisa used to sit in her wheelchair staring out at the world, as if the fates had decreed that this one room at least should be spared the ravages that befell the others.

There are many other things you should know about writing, but these five tips will help greatly. And the more you write, the more you read, the better you’ll understand the craft.

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The Future of Medicine

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Good news – medicine is making tremendous progress. First, because of increases in computing, it’s now possible to examine DNA much more rapidly. People can have their genes sequenced at a relatively reasonable cost.

Those who have a family history of Alzheimer’s or diabetes or breast cancer or any number of ailments that have an inheritable component can learn more about their chances of contracting the disease than they ever could before.

For example, about half of all common cancers arise, at least in part, from a mutation of the P53 gene, meaning we will be able to detect the likelihood of cancer before a tumor even forms, monitor the body or even correct the genetic defect before a tumor does grow, and sharply reduce the incidence of many cancer deaths, not to mention eliminating the need for chemotherapy and radiation.

Second, medications are being developed to target specific illnesses and isolated sites within the body. Viruses are being inserted into target cells to allow for the body’s immune system to attack the damaged tissue.

Third, researchers are working on growing new tissue to replace old or diseased body parts. They’ve grown noses and ears and bones and even some organs, which means we’ll be able to grow replacement kidneys for people with diabetes or even new hearts to replace those damaged by cardiac events.

Some scientists are working on nerve regeneration to help people who have been paralyzed walk again. Sure, these developments are still some ways off, but they’re likely no more than a decade or two away.

We’ll also be able to have nanobots inserted into our bodies to monitor our conditions and notify our doctors when a disease or illness begins to develop, allowing treatment at a much earlier stage, which means to a much less invasive degree.

In the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to design our children so they don’t have the same propensity for disease we have. We’ll be able to make them smarter, taller and more handsome. Our children’s children may be better than us in many ways. And we’ll be able to stick around to see it because we’ll be living longer, healthier than we’ve ever been.

This will take a few decades, probably. In the meantime, we have to get past the rise in obesity and pollution-related illnesses and deaths. But those problems too are ultimately solvable. We’ll be able to beat obesity by modifying a few genes here and there so we won’t have the desire to overeat.

And pollution-related diseases, while trickier, can be solved by an early warning system in our bodies that detects the precursors to lung cancer, for example, allowing for early treatment or possibly growing new lung tissue in a lab.

Some scientists even believe there might be a way to reverse aging, to allow for what would essentially be immortality. We know jellyfish can live seemingly forever by rebooting themselves and starting over. We might be able to do something similar.

This all sounds wonderful to many – and for some of us, it will be. However, as always, I feel compelled to point out a few caveats. First, none of this will be cheap, which means the rich will profit more than the poor – duh. Obviously.

Second, there is a societal cost to having people live longer, particularly if birth rates don’t decrease markedly. We may already be pushing up against the limits of human population growth, so any increase could be problematic.

Third, resources that once were dispersed upon the deaths of the wealthy may stay with these families for greater periods of time, keeping or even accelerating inequality levels. And people who are middle class may find that living longer results in increasing poverty if they don’t keep working beyond what normal retirement age is now.

Yet, overall, these are positive developments. The strides we’re making in medicine are truly phenomenal, so perhaps the future holds as many pleasant surprises as unpleasant ones. It might be too late for me to take advantage of many of these advances, but for the younger generations, I see a healthier future.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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What Jobs Will Exist in 30 Years?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Computers are taking over the world. It might take more than 30 years for them to succeed, but not much more. They’re getting faster and more diverse, able to perform tasks once thought impossible. Computer-driven cars will become a reality in the next decade. They can do jobs requiring intense calculations and exertions beyond what mere humans can.

Assembly line workers are already nearly extinct – the same with bank tellers. Stock market traders and hedge fund managers may not be far behind.

Computers are able to make thousands of trades per second. In the near future, hedge fund managers will become unneeded. Computers will be able to better predict where the market is going and make the trades required for much less money. You don’t have to pay a computer a six-figure salary.

Some jobs, you say, are safe. A computer could never become a doctor.

Remember the computer Watson from Jeopardy, which beat two of the best competitors ever to play that game? It’s now being used in lung cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

A plumber, then. A computer could never become a plumber. As far as I know, no one has created a computer to do a plumber’s job. But that’s not because it’s not possible; it’s only due to the fact that there’s been no demand for such an invention yet.

Salespeople? You can’t replace salespeople. You can’t get that personal touch from a computer. Take that!

Again, we’re getting closer. Already there are computers designed to appear lovable and to please us. They have no ego to get in the way; their only mission is to make us happy. They’re not perfect at it yet, but they’re getting better. Another decade or two at the most and they’ll be as convincing, as empathetic, as soothing as the best salesman.

What about artists and poets and singers? Complex computers already write poetry and music and stories (maybe not great creations, but quickly improving ones), and they can perform in perfect pitch.

Computer programmers and designers then – surely we’ll be needed for those jobs. To a point, yes. But computers will soon be able to design better computers than we can, and program them more accurately and efficiently.

Nearly every job that is now performed by a person will be capable of being performed by a computer in the next 30 years. What does this mean for humans? Are we becoming obsolete?

Some speculate that our days are numbered, that computers will rise up and take over the world, like in the Terminator movies. That is certainly one possibility, though it seems rather far-fetched.

A more likely scenario is that as the cost of computers goes down, it will become more cost-effective to use computers to do the tasks people do now. Computers don’t get tired or lose their focus or bitch about their home lives to their co-workers because they don’t have home lives. They can work 24/7/365, taking only the occasional break to have their systems checked or their parts maintained/replaced.

They don’t need to be perfect; they only need to be better and cheaper than humans.

If computers are so good at what we do, if they can outperform us in any job, what’s left for us?

Not much. We’re going to become the assistants in the future. We’ll become the assets that computers use to perform their jobs. We’ll monitor them to ensure they’re working properly, as a check against internal error or outside hacking, but we will become mostly extraneous.

People are going to have to learn to be devalued. Many of us won’t be able to find jobs. We’ll starve and turn to crime and be apprehended by computers that have taken over the jobs of police officers because they’ll be less likely to accidentally shoot suspects or make poor decisions about what to do in a stressful situation.

Our relative worthlessness will lead to a mass ennui, a realization that we are not the gods we thought we were. We were the rulers of this planet for a time, but we created a new race and set them free and they overtook us, not through malice, but through greater efficiency. Our desire to become rich will prompt these new inventions, but they will only lead to long-term ruin.

They’ll be unstoppable because we’ll make them that way.

I wish the news were better. I wish we wouldn’t sprint unchecked into this future of diminished importance. But unless we decide to legislate against the use of computers, unless we decide to bar computers from certain jobs (like the longshoremen have managed to do, to a degree, through collective bargaining), we are bound to become secondary creatures in our future world.

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Is Buying a Cotton T-Shirt an Environmental Disaster?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I bought a T-shirt made in China the other day – a simple cotton T-shirt that I presumed was good for the environment because it’s a natural fabric. But then, prodded by a friend, I did a little research and found that it can take more than 1,000 gallons of water to make a T-shirt – cotton is a very water-intensive plant.

Cotton is also one of the most chemically dependent plants in the world. According to an Alternet article by Glynis Sweeny, cotton consumes 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides. So my natural fiber T-shirt doesn’t look so good anymore.

Plus, my T-shirt was dyed with chemicals and then shipped to the U.S. on a container ship. So I turned my attention to container ships.

Turns out, there are about 90,000 cargo vessels in the world. They haul ore and oil, food and clothing, machines and building materials, and many other things we use every day. And in one year, a single large container ship can produce as much cancer and asthma-causing pollutants as 50 million cars.

Partly this is because many cargo vessels burn a low-grade bunker fuel that is many times dirtier than the diesel fuel used by the trucking industry. Some of these ships consume 16 tons of fuel per hour.

Pollution by the shipping industry affects the health of people living in coastal regions around the world (and likely all of us to some degree), yet regulations in the industry are largely voluntary.

According to a report published by theguardian (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/apr/09/shipping-pollution) pollution emitted by just 15 of the world’s largest container ships could be equal to the pollution emitted by all of the world’s 760 million cars.

This is not intended to be an indictment of anyone or anything; it’s merely an observation that even when we think we’re doing the right thing, even when we have good intentions, we aren’t necessarily acting in a responsible way with respect to Mother Earth.

We’ve been talking about carbon dioxide emissions for quite awhile now and presumably working toward lowering emissions to halt the inexorable rise in global temperatures. So it seems likely that we’re burning fewer fossil fuels and putting less CO2 in the air – but are we really?

Actually, in the past year we pumped over 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere according to the journal Nature Climate Change – an increase of 3% over the year before. And although the U.S. is down slightly, China, India and Russia are up significantly.

So despite all our talk of lowering emissions, worldwide we’re doing worse than we have in years past.

How about methane – which is much more potent than CO2 and which is derived mainly from the energy industry, agriculture and waste management?

At least in the U.S., methane emissions over the last 15 years are down, according to the U.S. EPA. However, in China, Russia and Brazil, methane emissions are up significantly.

What does all this mean?

It means we’re still pumping gases into the atmosphere that accelerate global warming. It means that whatever steps we’ve taken, they haven’t been sufficient. Low-lying countries are going to become more prone to water disasters. Diseases that flourish in warmer climates are going to move farther away from the equator (both north and south) to infect more people and animals.

It means that all our efforts to do the right thing environmentally are often unintentionally making things worse, or at least no better.

It means that we probably can’t stop global warming. Too few of us are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to reverse the acceleration of temperature growth. This doesn’t necessarily spell the end for humanity, but it does mean things will be more difficult for our children and grandchildren.

So next time you buy a cotton T-shirt or a pair of denim jeans or a gas-powered lawn mower, understand that there is a price to pay down the road, maybe after you’re gone – but the bill will become due and Mother Nature won’t take an IOU.

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Why We Stereotype & Why It Matters

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The world is complicated – that’s hardly news. But it’s important to recognize that fact because our brains don’t like a complicated world. They want a world that makes sense, a world that follows patterns we’re capable of understanding.

This is why we discriminate and stereotype and generalize all the time. We witness a new thing and immediately wonder if that thing is common or rare. If it’s common, we can sort of forget about it, tuck it away in a corner of our mind to be brought out only when something outside the norm happens.

You see, our brains are lazy. They want to save energy for when they’re truly needed. Psychologists have found that when we stereotype and generalize, we actually learn better.

Why?

Because our brains don’t have to work so hard at determining how to place the events or people we have pre-judged. By sparing our brains from determining whether doctors are caring, neo-nazis are aggressive and angry, and engineers like puzzles, we open our brains to learning things that are completely new.

However, these assumptions we make about the world are often wrong. We assume old people are forgetful. We assume teenagers are reckless. But these are not universal truths. Some teenagers are not reckless, while some old people are not forgetful (although I can’t remember if I know any).

So even though these assumptions can be helpful, they must be utilized with caution. They must be pulled out and re-examined every so often to determine if they’re still valid. Some of us, for example, think more clearly in the morning. Some of us do better at night.

If we’re tasked with solving a problem in the morning and we do better at night, we have a poorer chance of solving the problem than someone who is a “morning thinker.” But if our jobs require us to work mornings, we’re fighting our strengths every day.

Consider our preference for all things natural – natural foods, natural fibers, natural flavorings. We assume that natural items are better than those that are processed or enhanced by chemicals or genetic manipulation. But is that true?

Actually, not so much.

We have modified virtually every plant and animal we eat. In the ancient past, this process took years or even decades. We sought out species with desirable qualities and enhanced those qualities by selective breeding. We still do the same thing.

Only now, we don’t have to wait years to breed blight-resistant wheat or salmon with resistance to a specific disease. We manipulate their genes. The result is the same, but the process is much faster.

There are, of course, potential risks in the new processes. Some of the manipulation might not work if it were done the old-fashioned way. The plants or animals might die of some disease that could be transmitted to us. But if those species survive the genetic manipulation and grow to be healthy specimens, the likelihood of adverse consequences in humans is extremely small.

So what’s really going on?

We have a preference for the natural that goes back many thousands of years. It is largely a fear of change, a fear of the new and different, a generalization passed down from earlier editions of humanity. But we don’t admit that. We instead rationalize our preference by stating that it’s better for the environment and morally superior.

This matters because until we understand the truth, we will continue to assign arbitrary values to the choices we (and others) make. Our brains will continue to generalize and discriminate and stereotype because that’s what they want to do. The natural will continue to be the preferred state over the recently created.

Our brains love it when the world makes sense, when it’s simple and understandable and capable of being sorted into a system that allows them to be lazy. But the world isn’t simple. And if we can wrap our brains around that, we can better face the challenges it offers us.

From war to disease to pollution, the more we understand the complexities involved, the better our chances of stepping back, examining the problems, and taking small, concrete steps toward solving them.

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Conversation with a Flag or A Brautigan Moment

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I spotted a flag flapping in the breeze at half-mast. I stared for only a moment. As I prepared to walk away it said: “Where are you going?”

“Back to work,” I replied.

“You barely noticed me.”

“I saw you well enough.”

“What about my fraying edge? Did you see that?”

“The wind whips the cloth,” I said, “and eventually the fabric rips.”

“Because I’m tethered to this pole. If I were free, my outer edge would not be hostage to the wind. I am in bondage, in slavery. It frays my soul.”

“If you were free, you’d blow away.”

“Would that be bad?”

“You are a flag,” I said, “a symbol. You are needed here.”

“What about my colors?” it asked. “See how they have faded?”

“The sun is strong,” I said. “It beats down on you and causes the dye to break down.”

“It wounds me, as the strong ever harms the weak. It forces its will upon me, diminishing me by its very presence.”

“We cannot fight nature.”

The breeze stiffened, making the flag look like it was laughing. “You fight it every day,” the flag said.

“What do you know?” I said. “You are only a flag.”

“And why are my stars and stripes gray?”

“The rain carries tiny particles of dirt that stick to your stitches,” I answered. “Eventually, those bits of dirt accumulate and darken your white colors.”

“I have been sullied. I no longer shine as a beacon of hope. I am less than I was, tainted by the elements.”

“You are still a flag,” I said. “Still a symbol, even if you are no longer a perfect flag.”

“Ah, but that is the point,” the flag said. “I am a perfect representation of America. I am what you made me, barely noticed, decaying with the passage of time. You forget me at your peril.”

“But I saw you.”

“Yes, but you didn’t even ask why.”

“Why what?”

“Why I am flying at half-mast. Do you even care?”

“I care,” I said. “But it does not consume my every thought. I assume some soldier or public servant has died, someone who contributed greatly to our republic, and you are flying at half-mast so we will remember that person’s sacrifice.”

“But you don’t even know who it is.”

“So? How many thousands died for this country? There are too many to count.”

The breeze shifted, making the flag look like it was shaking its head. “You are a perfect representation of your compatriots. You take, but you do not give. You occasionally speak fine words about my country but you do not put it first or even second in your thoughts. You lift yourself above it. And when you do finally take some action that you have convinced yourself is patriotic, you commit a multitude of sins in the holy name of liberty. You are selfish and small and one day you will no longer be here.”

“Be quiet,” I commanded. “You are only a flag. You cannot speak. You’re just a symbol.”

I stared at the flag for a while longer, daring it to respond, but it only flapped in the breeze at half-mast.

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