Archives for category: culture

Today I came across a relatively new (month-old) feature in Facebook Messenger: you can hail an Uber from within the app. Both Facebook and Uber act as (and have aspirations to be) interesting “front door” or “gateway” apps. For instance, for more and more people Facebook is not a page on the World Wide Web: it is the Web. All browsing starts in Facebook. Similarly, Uber has aspirations to be the first thing people think of when they want to move themselves around in a place.

Both of these “front door” functions actually are about reducing hassle, or friction. It is a hassle to find links to visit. It is a hassle to get in a car, drive yourself to a place, and park. Facebook and Uber remove those hassles (or intend to).

This frictionless society has been building inexorably, and it is interesting to think about its timeline and to reflect at how different the world has become and is becoming.

In thinking about this timeline, it is possible to start as early as 1969 when Arpanet was created, or 1989 when AOL was launched, or 1991 when the first Web page was published (actually that link points to a replica).

But instead I am thinking about the efforts and effects of major companies. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a dystopic history or the description of a pathway to an easier lifestyle — or it could be both.

In any event, think about it:

  • Amazon (buying things) established 1994
  • craigslist (local want-ad stuff) established 1995
  • Wells Fargo Web banking established 1995
  • Peapod (groceries) established 1996
  • Google (searching) established 1998
  • PayPal (paying people) established 1998
  • Wikipedia (knowledge) established 2001
  • iTunes (digital music) invented 2001
  • Gmail (best email) launched 2004
  • Facebook (social community) established 2004
  • YouTube (video) established 2005
  • Google Maps (wayfinding) launched 2005
  • Twitter launched 2006
  • Apple TV launched 2006
  • Hulu (broadcast TV) established 2007
  • iPhone launched 2007
  • Spotify (even easier music) established 2008
  • Uber (transportation) established 2009

Just the above list does not do justice to the massive dislocation that a handful of these companies have created. Just think about how altogether possible it is to:

  • Buy everything you need through Amazon (groceries through local delivery service like Peapod)
  • Maintain connected to community, communicate, and learn about news through Facebook
  • Pay all bills through web banking
  • Listen to any music you want through Spotify
  • Watch any filmed entertainment (TV shows or movies) through Apple TV
  • Get around using Uber
  • Find people to do housework through craigslist and pay them through PayPal

Each of these services is attempting to create a total “front door” ecosystem, and they have to varying degrees created footholds among and between each other (Facebook + Uber for example).

What else is ripe to become more frictionless? Making objects (3d printing)? Learning (Lynda)? Remembering things (Evernote)?

This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:

What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.

To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.

(null)

Almost ten years ago, when the kids were still in elementary school and I was two years into what would be a long period of working independently in my home office, a situation that my wife had enjoyed already for eight years, I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about my situation.

And my situation? It was perfect. Everything — home, family, economic well being — all revolved around our thriving household:

As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.

Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home. . . .

Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.

Now, with daughter at college, son considering, and parents retired, I find I want to double down on this way of thinking. We live in uncertain times. They are made all the more uncertain by social norms that dictate young people should grow up and get out, that as seniors age they should seek out “retirement communities” where they can live with others like themselves.

I want to be a countervailing force.

IMG_0224.JPGI want my house to be, and remain, an intergenerational beacon. I want my wife’s mother to choose to live with us in retirement. I want my kids to boomerang back home, not in failure but by choice. Or, at least, I hope for those concerned to see this as a viable and desirable alternative.

So much research points to the benefits of intergenerational connections, and yet our social structures tell us that “moving back home” (both for old and young) is to be avoided. What if it were the norm? It is, after all, why humans choose to cohabit and live in company: to thrive and be secure. Why should a modern life obviate this evolutionary imperative?

In my ideal fantasy, multiple generations live in our 21st century farmhouse, supporting one another, providing the social network and glue that help us thrive. And — hope of hopes — this ethos gets passed on so that my kids feel the same way, welcoming both their parents as well as their adult children to continue to thrive together as we row our lifeboat through the currents.

I can dream, can’t I?

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[UPDATE: Today (8/14) we learned via a statement from his wife that Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and he was not ready yet to share the diagnosis with the rest of the world. She also reports that Williams’ sobriety was “intact.” The below essay could have been written in the aftermath of any celebrity death that related in some way to a struggle with sobriety, so I will let it stand. However, it does not apply to Williams in this case. I (like many) write before I had all the facts. This is a lesson to learn. — Brad Rourke]

What to say about the death of Robin Williams. It is tragic and like so many I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s funny how you feel like you come to know certain celebrities solely by the cues you pick up from their roles and interviews and what is written about them. As if they are friends.

Robin Williams in 2011

Robin Williams in 2011

But I also know how ordinary this death was — like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another life claimed by addiction. Happens every day. I personally knew a number of people who also died, and a number of people for whom it is a surprise they are alive (and a proof of grace).

Some, like Williams and Hoffman, had long-term sobriety. Yes mental illness appears to be involved but the greater factor appears to be the drama of alcohol and drugs. Each had a long spell of sobriety that was recently lost, and they were struggling to regain an even keel.

Such deaths are wasted unless we can take something from them. The lesson I take is that just being sober for some number of years does not cure a person. The disease of addiction is powerful and must be respected. It is the disease that says “I do not exist. You’re fine.” Truly, the essence of the devil.

But here is the good news, to the survivors, to we who face addiction. Sobriety is within reach, even after relapse. Others who face this disease want to help — indeed, need to help, as it keeps us sober. “No matter how far down the scale we have fallen, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” This is not an extravagant promise.

That is the message we carry: there is a solution. It is available to all, and there is help in literally every city, town, and village. It is there for those who want it and we need only seek it. We will be welcomed and understood in those places.

Photo: Eva Rinaldi

Our national, annual tradition has begun. The leaves have turned, in some parts of the country snow is falling, autumn and cooler temperatures have settled in and taken hold. Something we call the “holiday season” has arrived – a series of festivals with interesting harvest-based and pagan roots but which we have collectively imbued with other spiritual meaning. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – the end-of-year hat trick.

And the tradition? It’s the handwringing and backlash against those who seek to “distort” the “true meaning” of these holidays. Many will decry the massive partying of New Year’s, the removal of Christ from Christmas, and the removal of thanks from Thanksgiving.

The current example, since it’s November, is the handwringing over the encroachment of commercialism into Thanksgiving. Every year the “Black Friday” sales begin earlier and earlier. More recently, Black Friday sales have given over to Thanksgiving Day sales in stores – retailers used to take a break on turkey day but earnings pressures and consumer desires have conspired with the result that some now shop on Thanksgiving Day.

"Thanksgiving At The Trolls" by martha_chapa95 (flickr)

“Thanksgiving At The Trolls” by martha_chapa95 (flickr)

This has created an anticonsumerist backlash, with people promoting (ironically, mainly through social media which is supported through ad revenues) “buy nothing” days.

I sympathize with the sense that our consumer culture has gone off the rails, and cutting back is a good idea. But to claim that Thanksgiving is somehow a sacrosanct holiday is incorrect and actually disregards the history of the celebration.

Thanks For Bounty

Since the founding of the colonies, various (in fact, many) “thanksgiving feasts” have been held. Our archetypal such feast occurred at Plymouth Plantation and the story goes that after some lean times the colonists, with the help of the friendly natives, finally caught a break and had enough to eat. So they “gave thanks.” (At least that’s how they taught it to me at Will Rogers Elementary School.)

In fact, this “original Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast that was meant to celebrate a bumper crop. It was a party specifically built around consumption. And throughout the early days of our nation, various officials declared “thanksgivings” with frequency – almost always in celebration of something awesome happening. George Washington, for instance, declared a “day of thanksgiving” in 1789 to commemorate the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, declared the final Thursday of November that year to be a national day of Thanksgiving in recognition of all that had gone well even in the midst of a catastrophic civil war which had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.”

The message was not “thank the Lord for what you have,” but it was “thank Providence for this awesome bounty.” A subtle but meaningful difference.

Enter Commerce

The “holiday” finally began to be codified in 1939. For some time it had traditionally been held on the last Thursday in November. (Prior to that it had been ad hoc.) Still in the midst of the Great Depression, president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving in 1939 would be held on the fourth Thursday of November. His intention was to extend the Christmas retail season so merchants would have one more week to achieve profitability. In fact, this idea was suggested to him by the owner of the firm that would become Macy’s.

There was, of course, controversy over this move, as a tradition had grown that Thanksgiving ought to be the last Thursday of November. This backlash was driven not so much by anticonsumerist sentiment but by sports: By this time, there were many traditional sports rivalries that played out on that last Thursday, and it was inconvenient for teams to change their schedules around. There was also a partisan angle: Republicans opposed Roosevelt’s move and called the holiday “Franksgiving.” But Roosevelt stuck to his guns, and declared the next-to-last Thursday Thanksgiving.

In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day (this split the difference between the last-Thursday folks and the next-to-last Thursday folks, as the fourth Thursday is sometimes the last Thursday in November and sometimes the next-to-last). On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the bill and for the first time the date of Thanksgiving became a matter of national law.

I don’t plan on going to the mall on Thanksgiving Day. Nor do I plan to go out on Black Friday. But not because I hold these days as sacrosanct commerce-free zones – it’s because I don’t much like crowds, to be honest.

I will give thanks this week: Thanks for the health of my family, thanks for all that has been given me, thanks that we will be together. And I will think with compassion about how it all could have gone another way for me. That’s a sentiment we might do well to hold every day.

I don’t, however, plan on covering myself in sackcloth and ashes. Our Thanksgiving tradition is specifically rooted in consumption. I’m not going to overdo it, but at the same time I’m not going to pretend that Thanksgiving is meant to be a day of abstention. It’s a feast.

(Photo: martha_chapa95 / Flickr)

Not because it is election season, I have been thinking about Dante’s Inferno these days.

In case you have not read it, the book is a depiction of Hell. It goes into great detail about the various punishments awaiting those who have sinned while they were alive.

I would not say that I am a believer or deeply religious person, but I have always been fascinated by this work. I am especially fascinated by the fate that befalls those who never make a choice in the world of the living — those who do not commit. They are condemned to chase after banners for eternity, just outside the gates of Hell.

The reason that this has been on my mind is that I have been “rebooting” various practices in my life. Yoga, meditation, working out, prayer, and more. In all these activities, it is very tempting to say, for instance, “I meditate,” and yet, not really actually do any meditation. If I never really do the meditation, if I never commit to the practice, I am condemned always to be chasing after a banner — wanting the benefits, but not receiving them.

My Best Handstand

Over the summer, I decided that I wanted to learn how to do a handstand. I worked at it every day, little by little. Eventually, I was able to do a handstand and stick it for about five seconds. However, I stopped practicing. I can’t really say, anymore, that I can do a handstand. I can get there for a moment, but since I have not been practicing, I cannot stay standing on my hands for any appreciable length of time. It is tempting to say that I am “working on my handstand.” But that is not really the case, I have not been putting in the effort.

I am not steeped in any organized religion, though I do count myself as spiritual. Still, the image sticks with me and I feel in many ways as if I am that person chasing after a banner. In so many areas of my life, my practice has slipped, and I find myself saying that I do more than I really do. I say I meditate when, to be honest, of late I have mostly been intending to meditate. I intend to go practice more yoga than I do. I intend to work out more often. At some point, cognitive dissonance must overcome me, and I must either commit — or not.

Thankfully, there is a way to correct such things. All I have to do is to begin to actually do these practices. So that’s what I’ve done. A reboot, if you will.

[Note: Some friends know that I have become fascinated by dictation of late. The first draft of this post was written entirely using Siri on my iPhone 5 — dictated into the DayOne journaling app and then ported over to WordPress. I then edited in the standard way.]

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses

By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

I can’t seem to help myself. I get my dander up when confronted by improper use of idiomatic English (or even just plain, old correct English) expressions by people who ought to know better.

A few on my mind lately include:

  • One does not “home in on” something. One “hones in on” it. [UPDATE: I have learned this is not exactly right. Both are correct. See comments below.]
  • One does not “take a different tact.” One “takes a different tack.”
  • “Alumni” is a plural word, and its singular is not “alum.” Someone is neither “an alumni” nor “an alum” of an institution. One is an alumnus (male) or an alumna (female). When gender is in doubt, the masculine is used. No, that’s not sexist, it’s grammar.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest!

What are your pet grammar peeves? Add them in the comments.

Bronnie Ware is a singer and writer from Australia. For a number of years, she worked in palliative care (that is, attending to the dying). Out of that experience, she has written a book called The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying (affiliate link).

Photo by andronicusmax (Flickr)

As the year closes, and as we sweep away the past and look to the blank slate of the future, many of us are making “resolutions” or at the least setting their intentions. Bonnie’s list provides some insight as to what enduring goals might look like.

The top five regrets of the dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I’m thinking about these ideas as I formulate my own set of intentions for 2012.