R.I.P. Dolores O’Riordan

“You’ll always be special to me.”

Yesterday, it was reported that singer Dolores O’Riordan passed away unexpectedly at age 46. This one was a gut punch to me. I must have played The Cranberries‘ CD’s hundreds of times in college and graduate school, and I often had their songs on my playlist while traveling, including on a long, memorable bus ride through the mountains of Laos. Her voice and lyrics will be with me for a long time.

Somewhere between Phonsavan and Luang Prabang in northern Laos, 2009. I’ll long remember the breathtaking scenery, paired with the Cranberries’ music.

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8th Anniversary at a Crossroads

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” – Ruth Benedict

“Imagine what seven billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” – Anthony Douglas Williams

 

I just received notice from WordPress that it is the 8th anniversary for this site. To be honest, I have not been feeling too great about this site lately. Readership is down noticeably, and it has been harder to get the attention of my targeted audiences. I’ve even contemplated folding the tent.

Surely, part of that is me, as I’ve found it hard to maintain the volume of essays compared to prior years. Perhaps it’s merely the nature of today’s Internet. Eight years ago, there were fewer personal blogs and sites to compete for readers’ attention, and people seem to prefer shorter, more digestible, essays before moving on to the next item on their list. I understand. Time is finite, and we have things to do. 

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The Fog of Warnings

Earlier today there was a report that people in Hawaii received a warning that a missile was incoming. This turned out to be a false alarm, but for approximately twenty minutes many people believed a missile attack, possibly a nuclear one from North Korea, was imminent. 

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As with everything these days, the discussion online seemed to revolve around who was to blame. It appears that someone pushed the wrong button, causing anxiety and fear for many people. It could have been worse, had the wrong people panicked.

I immediately thought of Robert McNamara’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the documentary “The Fog of War,” and the lessons he learned from that episode. 

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Children in Conflict

“If a bomb is deliberately dropped on a house or a vehicle on the grounds that a “suspected terrorist” is inside (note the frequent use of the word suspected as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets), the resulting deaths of women and children may not be intentional. But neither are they accidental. The proper description is “inevitable.” 

-Howard Zinn, “War is not a solution for terrorism” The Boston Globe 2, 2006

Screen captures featuring headlines concerned with civilian victims of war.

 

 

UNICEF recently released a list of some of the most dangerous places for children to live. In various wars around the world, children have been killed, abducted, injured, raped, lost family members, and been forced into military service (“child soldiers”). In addition to the direct targeting of civilians, including children, war also creates indirect adversities including psychological stress, infections, and malnutrition. For example, in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, one million people have contracted the deadly diarrheal disease cholera, 600,000 of whom are children.

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Putnam, Past, and Present

If you live in southern New England as I do, it can be hard to avoid the name Putnam. Putnam Cottage, Putnam Memorial State Park, Putnam Monument (Brooklyn), Putnam Monument (Hartford), Putnam Street and Putnam Pike in Rhode Island, Putnam House, Putnam County (several), Putnam Farm, Put’s Hill, Putnam Pond.  My cousins grew up right near the town of Putnam Connecticut. There’s even a beer named after Putnam, brewed in Connecticut of course, and described as “full of flavor and unabashed amazingness.”

Traveling through the area, there are road signs for all of these memorials, dedicated the Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam, who was called “the provincial army’s most beloved officer” by historian Nathaniel Philbrick. Putnam was born in Massachusetts and lived most of his life in Connecticut, so it makes sense that any monuments of him would be found in this region. It’s interesting to note that many of these tributes were established years, decades, or even nearly two centuries after Putnam’s death in 1790. The town of Putnam, Connecticut was named in 1855. His monuments in Hartford and Brooklyn were dedicated in 1874 and 1888, respectively; the state Park was created in 1887, and his statue there was made in 1969.

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Israel Putnam Monument in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Source.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1976) once told a story of a sociologist who studied equestrian statues in New York, noting the relationship between the number of feet the horse had in the air and the status of the rider. One foot in the air connoted something different than two feet or none. One observer argued that the study was complicated by the fact that people didn’t ride horses anymore. Because horses were largely obsolete, societies were less restrained in how they could consider and present them. To which another observer replied, “It’s true that people don’t ride horses anymore, but they still build statues.” Continue reading

Year in Review: Top Posts of 2017

Looking through the 5 most frequently read essays of 2017, I see few themes. They are mostly attempts to find reasons to be hopeful (even though that has been hard at times). Humans are adaptable and flexible, and we aren’t fated to any single behavioral way of being. That means we can always make a better world. Light up the darkness.

 

1. The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle” (Sept 2)

This was by far the most read post on this site, which I wrote after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was upon seeing a photo of a man with a t-shirt that quoted Hitler in which he wrote that ours is “a world of eternal struggle.” I found it disturbing, but also just wrong. In evolution, adaptations are context specific, and they depend on the conditions of the game. This is also true for cooperation and conflict.

“How we view the world matters. If we see it as zero-sum, as an eternal struggle against other people where only one party can win, then we will act accordingly. Norton and Sommers (2011) found that many white people see racial relations as a zero-sum game: that if other groups are making progress toward equality, that this progress comes at their expense. But remember that non-zero-sum relationships are widespread. With cooperation so prolific in nature (genes, cells, organisms, groups, human societies), it just seems odd to declare that life is solely a contest of struggle. Nor does it make sense to say that cooperation is impossible between groups. Or we can see it as a chance for coalitions, that the success and well-being of others around us does not require us to lose. We make a niche for the others around us, as they do for us, and we all decide whether the costs that come with building up our armor are worth it. They may be, depending on how we perceive the conditions of the game.

I don’t know about you, but I think my life would be better if I was surrounded by healthy, fulfilled, cooperative people over those who feel distrustful, held back, and resentful. Of course, some people may feel differently. There are many strategies one can use. But don’t argue that nature gave us only one hand to play.”

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A Small Protest…

President Trump just gave the CDC a list of forbidden words that it cannot use in official documents.  So, in solidarity, here they are:

  • “vulnerable”
  • “entitlement”
  • “diversity”
  • “transgender”
  • “fetus”
  • “evidence-based”
  • “science-based”

Also, evolution is real. Climate change is real. The earth is older than 10,000 years. Transgender people exist, as do fetuses, and vulnerable people. Among 7.5 billion human beings, there is diversity, as is true of all species (though we are also more alike than unalike). Some things just are, and manipulating language in the quest to impose one’s will on reality won’t make them go away. 

(A) man in his arrogance…

From Carl Sagan:

“We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves. The trap door beneath our swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free-fall. We are lost in a great darkness and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?

We long to be here for a purpose, even though despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”