TED Talk Tuesday: Fear, mistaken expectations, and the war on terror


Have you ever done comparison shopping and thought you were being a smart shopper? I have. This item is 50% off but that item is 75% off. The logical thing to do is buy the one with bigger savings, right?

Not always.

Dan Gilbert is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He tells us why we might be making mistakes because of our tendency to compare things in the wrong context. He begins with questions like, would you pay $25 for a Big Mac? Or, would you drive across town to save a $100? But Dan moves on to more serious questions. He has consulted with the Department of Homeland Security, so he talks of the reaction of terror caused by 9-11:

“We already know, in the United States, that more people have died as a result of not taking airplanes -because they were scared – and driving on highways, than were killed on 9-11”

Is our reaction disproportional to the threat? Was it worth going to war? Was it worth Obama signing a bill yesterday that took our right to trial in an effort to protect us from terrorists? Terrorists who caused more deaths by making us avoid airplanes than their actual act of terrorism? Regardless of your answers to these questions, realize this: The people who are the most aggressive about protecting America are the ones who are the most fearful, and fear can cloud our judgment.

In the end, Dan tells us how vital our mindfulness is to our future:

“We are the only species on this planet that has held its own fate in its hands…The only thing that can destroy us and doom us, is our own decisions.”


Follow me and I will take you away from the everyday.

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The ant and the grasshopper

The ants worked and the grasshoppers played. The grasshoppers had a giant nest that was always stocked with food, so they spent their summers relaxing. They largely ignored the ants, but noticed that the ants would sometimes bring back shiny pebbles with their food. The grasshoppers offered the ants some of their food in exchange for the pebbles. The ants agreed. The grasshoppers grew to love the shiny pebbles, so the ants decided to collect more pebbles for the grasshoppers in exchange for their food. After a time, the grasshoppers’ nests were both finely decorated and stocked with food.

Years went by like this, but soon the grasshoppers’ food stock got dangerously low and they didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, a boy came, and curious about nature, decided to feed and observe the grasshoppers. The grasshoppers were happy again, and the ants continued with their work, gathering food and providing pebbles.
Years and years went by. The grasshoppers grew old, and so did the boy, and he started visiting less and less frequently. The grasshoppers didn’t mind at first, but soon their food was almost gone. They tried going out and finding food, but discovered they had forgotten how to hunt and scavenge. They went to the ants and asked for food, but the ants told them they didn’t need the grasshoppers anymore.

The grasshoppers were confused.

“What do you mean?”

The ants moved their feelers sympathetically. “We have found ways to live without you or the boy anymore.” The grasshoppers were still confused. The ants explained, “Whenever the boy visited you, he cleared a path through the grasses, making it easier for us go out and find food. And before, you would give us food for the pebbles. But now, we’ve found a way to grow our food. Right here.” They showed the grasshopper their nest full of food, which looked just as the grasshoppers’ nest had looked many, many years ago. Then the grasshoppers saw the ants had started their own garden, filled with whole fruits!

The grasshoppers didn’t have a choice. They asked the ants, “Please, can we do anything for you in exchange for some food?”

The ants thought about it and decided they could still use the grasshoppers.

And soon the grasshoppers found themselves an integral part in the growing careers of food service, landscaping, and housekeeping.

A return to 1942

Japanese-American child being detained by US government in 1942, Smithsonian Institution, Copyright 2003

In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the US government collected over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them American citizens, and detained them in internment camps for over three years because they were seen as threats to American security.

Today, a bill approved by Congress gives the President the power to remove American citizens’ right to trial and allows the military to detain them as an enemy soldier. (From the Act: “Detention without trial until the end of the hostilities” of anyone who “substantially supports such groups and/or associated forces.”)

Before this act, the President only had the power to detain those who “helped perpetrate the 9/11 attack or (b) harbored the perpetrators.”

We give great power to our government and we trust them to use it wisely. What do you think? Should the government have this power to jail you without trial if they find that you “substantially supported” terrorism without defining “substantially” or “supported” and not not allowing a lawyer to argue it for you? And if so, should the President claim these powers “until the end of hostilities” in a war against terrorism which has no clear end?

The government has the power to dispense justice under a system of law with clear codes of right and wrong.
If Obama signs this bill today, the government will be able to decide, without argument, when punishment is necessary and how to dole it out.

These are serious questions that I hope all of you would consider to ensure we can live a happy life.

References:

http://www.lawfareblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/NDAA-Conference-Report-Detainee-Section.pdf

TED Talk Tuesday: Surrounded by people, but alone on your island



Daniel Goleman talks about the importance of noticing others.  He takes us on a journey, starting with how seminary students help a man in need, to the mind of a serial killer, to the feasibility of compassionate consumerism.

“There’s a saying in Information Science: Ultimately, everyone will know everything. The question is, will it make a difference?”

Take the time to swim off of your island. Our connection with others and the mindfulness of where our purchases come from determines whether we are a collection of privileged consumers with the information of the world in our hands, or a grateful nation of responsible human beings, with the information we need in our heads.

TED Talk Tuesday: Hiding behind the God-complex

In a complicated society, we give up to the God-complex, listening to the authorities who have all the answers, instead of facing the task of fixing the problem. Tim Harford tells us that when a problem persists, the method to fix it is simple: Trial and error.
Experimenting helped me find my perfect running gait.  Maybe we can use this method to improve bigger systems, on the scale of societies. Communities can be different and each type needs the leadership and experience of its citizens. If only we can use our humility to admit that we don’t have the answers and our strength to face our problems, fail, and try again. And the confidence to challenge the authorities who tell us they have the answers. By acclimating, we can continue to exist. By reasoning and experimentation, we will thrive.

Rituals are funny…and dangerous



Rituals. We follow them without thinking. Some rituals are habits that we consciously try to form, like healthy exercise and diet. Other rituals are generally environmentally influenced… like going to church, going out to eat, or putting up a Christmas tree.

This past weekend, I went out to run, not having exercised the week before. My ritual is to run about six miles over a certain route that takes me through a subdivision and down a main street. I considered shortening the run, given my week-long inactivity, but I didn’t. I also thought about slowing from my usual pace. I didn’t follow that advice either. At the end of my run, I noticed a stabbing pain in my left Achilles tendon. I had injured myself, and it was all because I was accustomed to my ritual, and I didn’t want to change it.

We can form seemingly good habits, like regular exercise or a healthy diet. Some dietary habits are so ingrained in our minds that going against them seems like going against nature, like the practice of eating meat. As we have become more technologically advanced, we don’t need to slaughter our own animals or go to a farm, so we don’t see meat as coming from a living and breathing animal that can suffer and who raises its young, unless we take them away for veal or lamb chops. We don’t see that we have put these living things in factories where they aren’t animals anymore, but units of production on an assembly line. Input: corn, antibiotics, and hormones. Output: meat patty on our plate.

As human beings, we have the capacity to think through our actions and make a plan. Our mindfulness is our most important quality, otherwise, we are at the mercy of our environment and the whims of a culture that allows slavery to exist, restricts people from voting, and allows banks to defraud their customers, almost causing world-wide economic collapse. If we can recognize when a ritual is good or bad, we can make an exception and not blindly follow it.

So stop every once in a while and assess your habits and judge whether they are making you happy. You will probably find something you can change that will drastically improve your life and the state of the world you live in.