Discussion: Do you know yourself?

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Whether you are a Sam Harris fan or not, I truly recommend listening to the interview Sam Harris did live with Yuval Noah Harari (the interview itself is about an hour with an hour of Q&A afterwards.  The first hour is most valuable).  Harari is a brilliant man, and somebody who I think we should be listening to.  I transcribed this passage from the interview.

“…however complicated the humanity entity is, we are now reaching a point when somebody out there can really hack it. It can never be done perfectly.  We are so complicated, I am under no illusion that any corporation or government or organization can completely understand me.  This is impossible.  But the yardstick or the critical threshold is not perfect understanding, the threshold is just better than me.  Then the key inflection point in the history of humanity is the moment when an external system can reliably, on a large scale, understand people better than they understand themselves.  This is not an impossible mission, because so many people don’t really understand themselves very well. With the whole idea of shifting authority from humans to algorithms, so I trust the algorithm to recommend TV shows for me, and I trust the algorithm to tell me how to drive from mountain view to this place this evening, and then I trust the algorithm to tell me what to study and where to work, whom to date and whom to marry, and who to vote for. People say, no, no, no, no, no…that won’t happen, because they will say there will be all these mistakes and glitches and bugs, and the algorithm won’t know everything, and it can’t do it.  And if the yardstick is to trust the algorithm (or) to give authority to the algorithm it must make perfect decisions than yes it will never happen.  But that’s not the yardstick…the algorithm just needs to make better decisions than me.”

There are many ways I think one can know one’s self better, and I don’t think we spend enough time doing that.  Moreover he argues that this is even more critical today because the technologies out there are far more capable of hacking us than ever before.  Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes often talk about the importance of understanding cognitive science and neuroscience, and how the brain works…this needs to be a regular part of our education systems, because awareness is key.  But knowing one’s self should also come from meditation, introspection, and taking time to just unplug and think about who you are and what you want to be.  Find yourself.

Thoughts?

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Discussion: Innocence and Knowledge

Unexpectedly, I am finding one of the hardest parts as a parent is to decide when should I tell the truth about the realities of the world.  I see the innocence and joy in life my son has, and it breaks my heart to tell him anything that speaks to the suffering that takes in this world.  There is a part of me that wants to preserve that innocence for as long as possible, and yet there is also part of me that wants to prepare him so he has the courage to face it.  I think overall I lean towards the former, because who am I to destroy such unadulterated joy in life?  Pain will find us all, and when it happens I’ll be there.  There is no rush.

But last night I started thinking, why can’t we all be more childlike and experience that joy?  What really causes us to “lose our innocence”.  I don’t think it’s death in of itself.  I don’t think sadness in of itself is what prevents us from experiencing a lot more bliss.

In trying to answer this question about loss of innocence, I started to think what a strange story the Garden of Eden is in Genesis.  The fact that eating from the tree of knowledge is what is referred to as the “fall of man”, the end of paradise (and innocence).  I don’t think knowledge as a whole is a problem.  For the most part knowledge makes me less fearful, less confused, and more likely to course correct in my life.  Life of course can’t be 100% bliss, but I imagined a world in which the only sadness we would experience would be when someone  we love died of natural causes, or natural disasters.  We might experience pain through breakups or moving away from home.  It is a dynamic world and there is an impermanence to all things.  I think such a world would be a more blissful experience, much more child-like.  What really causes us to lose our innocence is finding out the horrible things we do to each other.  That is a weight to bear that changes you forever; for which there is no going back.  If any biblical story in Genesis is going to represent the fall of man it should be when Cain kills his brother in anger (albeit anger due to God’s dissatisfaction with a vegan meal).  Anyway, I don’t really intend to get into a discussion about the Bible, only that as a parent the story struck as very odd even if I believed it was true.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the larger world that we live in, the only things that really break my spirit are is the harm that humans cause each other.  I’ve never sobbed and felt the world was a horrible place because someone died in a flood or of a heart attack.  I am curious as to what other people think about innocence and the loss thereof.  Could we be living in greater bliss than we are?  What does it mean to you “Loss of innocence”?  If you are a parent have you cried tears of happiness at the purity of your child’s joy, and have you also wept when you’ve watched them realized the horrors people commit against each other?  Any thoughts you might have on this topic are welcome.

Discussion: Progress and Coddling

I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed.  He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America.  It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well.  Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming.  He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ.  He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around.  Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision.  Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator.  There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is.  I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised.  So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?

He talks about the progress paradox.  The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks.  Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox.  Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people.  This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have.  Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them.  We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play.  All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions.  (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma.  In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)

It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to.  So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society?  What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change?  Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?

Cloister the Men!

I was pondering the other day about biological differences between men and women.  While I am certain there are average differences in many categories, as I explained previously, a difference in mean does not imply that we can make any a priori assumptions about the individual nature of any woman or man we might meet.

But it is often been a common argument from men who aren’t interested in gender equality to say that a patriarchy is simply because of the difference in the nature of men and women.  The world is as it should be at the women must accept their place and not interfere with the nature of things.  In thinking about history and the state of the world today, I thought, if this were in fact true, the conclusion one must arrive at if we are to at least acknowledge the humanity of women is that men are a serious threat to safety and well-being.

From a purely statistical view point, the damage done by men in this world is astounding.  Let’s look at political leadership. In 2017 only 8 women held the highest political office in their country.  This is a drop from the highest number which was 17.  That’s less than 10%, at our best, of all the countries in the world.  Only 22.8% of elected offices are held by women.  This is up from 11.3% in 1995.  The picture gets bleaker the further back you go.  Through war and bloodshed, throughout human history there is one commonality among these stories.  Men.  Male leaders, male generals, male soldiers.  Now I am not saying you won’t find some women scattered in there, but the percentage is overwhelmingly low.

The picture doesn’t get much better when you look at religions.  Most deities are men, most males play prominent roles in religious stories, and women are usually the troublemakers, tempting men to their end and punishing us all in kind.  Clergy are largely men from Brahmans to Pastors. And yes things have got a bit better, but research shows that currently in the U.S. only 10% of congregations are led by a female.  And again it gets worse if you go back into the past.  So if you’re looking at a history of religious persecution and oppression, the cloistering of education and literacy which typically only happened at religious institutions where women weren’t allowed, the common denominator is once again men.

Let’s now go down in scale, away from the level of nations and large institutions.  About 90% of murders are committed by men.  Like all those stories about mass shooters?  You know what they have in common?  It isn’t jihad or domestic terrorism…it’s…you guessed it.  Men.  About 75 percent of all legal felonies are committed by men and 96% of domestic violence convictions are of men.  Before you say that there are men being physically abused too by spouses and aren’t being believed, let’s just call it a wash with other women who are being physically abused in similar situations and can’t report because they are too afraid, are not being believed, or lived in a culture that supports men’s right to beat their wives.  When it comes to rape, 1 and 6 women report being a victim of rape.  Compare that to about 1 in 33 of men report being a victim of rape.  And at least half of those rape victims are being raped by other men.

And it doesn’t get any better for child molestation.   Ninety-six percent of the child molestation incidences reported to police were perpetrated by males.

Now if any MRA members are reading all this, I’m sure you are getting ready to weaponize yourself with facts on the under-reporting of the bad women out there.  Again, I don’t doubt that there are, but any claim that the proportions are anywhere close to equal, you are simply going to lose that battle.  Once again, the proportion of under-reporting for violence committed against females is still very high.  From a percentage standpoint, you aren’t going to gain much ground.

Based on history and present day, it would seem the best thing to do, for the protection of all people is to cloister men.  Keep them at home, doing house chores to occupy their time.  Their obsession with power mixed with apparently too much free time seems to have terribly violent ends.  Perhaps spending more time with children will help them understand why all the excessive killing is harmful.  I have no doubt there are some good men out there and this seems really unfair to them but I think when you really look at the violence that has been perpetrated by men to women and even other men, leaving the house is something you should probably ask permission for from a female. And you should probably only be out with a female so they can keep an eye on you to make sure you don’t pull out any weapons, or try to rape somebody.  I’d say you’d need a female boss or foreman at work, but the jobs men should get are very limited owing that having too many men in public seems to be extremely dangerous.  When out, men should stay in well lit areas, and perhaps some sort of secure undergarment so you don’t whip it out casually in hopes that a random woman on the street will want to see it.  Curfews and modesty are the key I think.  If it’s true that we recognize women as humans this seems like sensible policy.  I suspect that the long history of dehumanizing women is the reason why this hasn’t happened.

Is it true that given equal education a woman could have just as easily come up with the First Law of Thermodynamics or the Universal Law of Gravitation?  This seems likely, but I’m not sure that our world of violence isn’t largely the cause of men.  You may say this isn’t true, and you may be right, but I for one am happy to give women the reins (and reigns) for awhile and give them a chance to see if they can do it as badly as men.  Only then can we have an honest conversation about the true nature of men and women and who is fit for power, rather than just who has power.

“Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

Some Thoughts On Free Speech

I’ve become pretty much a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, but this is not to say that I don’t question this belief and wonder if it should always universally apply, even when it’s not a direct incitement to violence.  Things get quite murky when it comes to hate speech because, I think there are going to be disagreements of what hate speech is.  For instance if I said:

“All Jews are scum and should be eradicated.”

I think we would all agree that this was hate speech and incites violence.  But what I just said:

“All Jews are scum.”

Image result for Free speechSome might say there is no incitement to violence.  But this is a hate speech no question.  And I would argue that it dehumanizes a group of people (which increases the odds that violence will perpetrated against them) and also simply has no merit in any intellectual fashion.  I think even most would agree that both should not fall under the purview of free speech, but what if the message, like the second one, is not so overt?  Hate groups tend to be a little cleverer about their message these days, yet there are still groups that get away from some pretty blatant hate speech.  Consider the Westboro Baptist church.  Their message about homosexuals is certainly dehumanizing them, they certainly talk about torture being done to them (at least on some other plane of existence) even if they aren’t the ones to do the torturing.  Religious posturing, particular using fear-based tactics to gain followers certainly makes out those who do not follow the religion to be less than human, possessed by evil, worthy only of eternal torture, they are the enemy, etc.  But I am not trying to bash religion, but only to point out that when freedom of religion mixes with free speech the murkiness increases and we tend to be even less punitive despite the harm that might result from those words spoken publicly.

Which brings us to the topic of punishment.  If we aren’t going to punish hate groups for advocating for things like white nationalism by the law, is it reasonably to have groups like Antifa do the punishment for us?

Image result for free speechIf we want to live in a society where the government isn’t going to interfere with what people say publicly, we are left with a sort of vigilante style justice system. When I was on social media there were quite a few people that felt Antifa’s actions were justified.  Some of those people were quite well educated also.  Their argument, which I tend to agree with, is that any group that advocates the superiority of their own group over others, purports a worldview that only their group has certain rights while others do not.  And this tends to include a lack of protection from violence for those groups that they feel are unworthy due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Such a worldview is not compatible with a free society and thus if we must have free speech, then punching a Nazi is completely acceptable as a consequence to somebody expressing their racist worldview.  Answering hate speech with violence is the part I struggle with.  I tend to think that anybody who advocates a worldview does not support equal rights for all humans is simply sowing seeds of hate which will lead to violence and this is therefore harmful speech that should be punished.  If we say the law should punish them, then this becomes a slippery slope. Once we start limiting free speech this also presents dangers to a free society.

Image result for free speechI am sure there many people who have thought more deeply about this societal right than I have, but I tried to think about what the purpose is for free speech.  I think I would boil it down to two important aspects 1) The ability to have an unbridled free market of ideas that allow people to challenge ideas and choose the ones that have the most merit and 2) The freedom to voice dissent about existing paradigms, culture, governments, etc.  Both these things are good for a society and not being punished by those in power for this speech is important.  History is full of bad ideas that have taken hold of societies and without dissent, things would simply not have gotten better.

Image result for colin kaepernickOf course the problem is that people are punished for dissenting ideas all the time.  Certainly those who disagreed with slavery, segregation, and other oppressive policies and cultural attitudes towards African-Americans has paid prices in this country (and still are).  The fact that those in power can advocate for policies that cause real harm to particular groups of people, makes the importance of being able to express dissent freely even more obvious, even if this hasn’t happened in practice.  We know how hard it is to have progress in affording all people basic human rights when free speech is chilled.  And even though I can bring many more examples of consequences that people face when exercising their first amendment rights (even if that punishment isn’t be federal law) we know that speech is rarely 100% free.  And if this is the case, do want mob style justice for that speech or do we want thoughtfully put together laws, and judges and juries making decisions about whether possible violators are innocent or guilty?

Of course freedom of expression shouldn’t imply freedom from consequences.  And it is those consequences that we have to be mindful of.  When does vigilante violence become the solution to dealing with groups pushing the limits of what is considered hate or harmful or speech?  Is violence ever a good idea, even against groups whose worldview would advocate violence against others?  I don’t think that it is morally wrong to do so, but since the action of punching a Nazi doesn’t exist in isolation, one also has to wonder about the bigger picture.  When people see violence enacted against somebody and others cheering it on how does this play into the psychology of individuals?  Even if that person, could arguably deserve it because they advocate a worldview that would inflict violence on others does such an action actually change people’s point of view? If we avoid violence we might turn to shaming. Social media is pretty good at shaming.  Is shaming effective?  It can be, but this is a court that makes mistakes too.  Shaming can also have deep psychology impacts which don’t necessarily lead to positive change.

Image result for free speechIt’s not obvious to me that violence is the right action, nor is it obvious to me that such speech shouldn’t be met with sharp reprisal given the level of danger that such ideas represent.  Maybe the question really boils down to “Is it okay to dehumanize people who dehumanize others?” There might be obvious actors that we would answer yes to this question. But certainly we know that people also reform, and that many people who are part of hate groups realize the errors of their ways and turn their lives around.  I know there are times when violence is the only answer left to confront people who mean to do serious harm.  It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve reached that point and worry that organizations like Antifa do more harm than good, when other options might still be on the table.

Perhaps it’s my own frustration that leaves me wondering, “Why do we still have to still talk about whether one race is superior to others or not?”  Hell if you had asked me if that flat Earth theorists would be making a comeback, I’d have laughed my ass off.  I don’t know why we have to convince people that vaccines are in their and society’s best interest.  Yet here we are.  My commitment to free speech waivers it seems when confronted with revisiting conversations we’ve already have and should be over.  There are real problems to solve, and while speech should be free, wasting time on speech that is factually incorrect and in many cases can cause real harm, affects me on an emotional level and there is a part of me that says “Yeah, shut that idiot up, even if you have to punch him, his shit is ridiculous.”  Ultimately though the best argument for free speech is to look what happens in societies without it.  A society committed to freedom of speech, I don’t think is likely to spin into totalitarianism.  I guess the best thing to do is just be vigilant and to make sure that bad ideas are always exposed as such, and fortunately we have the freedom to do so.

Discussion: Reparations

I heard an interesting argument the other day and wanted to see what my followers and others thought and hopefully initiate a good discussion.

Though we might site historic incidents as responsible for the current state of some particular group of people, to what degree are those past incidences important in going forward.

A thought experiment is presented where let’s say someone very wealthy has hit you with their car.  This particular injury you receive however isn’t the kind that surgery can fix you right away, but rather will require years of physical therapy to become what you once were.  Now the person who hit you might be able to provide you with the financial support, but nevertheless you are the one that must work and make changes in order to fully recover.  In such a situation you could choose to take the tack that it’s not fair, why should you have to do all the work, and there is no doubt that it sucks and what happened in the past is the explanation for where you are today, but this gives you little to no basis for what you need to do, to recover from what happened to you in the past.

This thought experiment is cited as applicable to the sort of victim narrative that is prevalent today among oppressed groups.  I think from a psychological perspective it is important to acknowledge wrongs of the past, and I think this is something that is not often down by classes and races that hold power, but that being said we often don’t ask the question of what we really need to go forward.  It is possible that at least part of the solution lies in how we make changes as an individual and a group to overcome the obstacles that the past has set before us and not on those who did us wrong?

I would enjoy hearing what you all have to say on this topic.  Where does our personal responsibility lie, in the face of deeply troubling past?  When it comes to racism, are their policies that might make things better that are independent of past wrongs?  If we want a future where we are judged as individuals and not by the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual orientation, etc, is there a better conversation to be had?

Since leaving Facebook

It’s been awhile since I did a blog post, but I would say it’s safe to say I’m officially back, and before I launch into other more interesting topics I thought I would start with a little update on where I’m at in life, and how I’ve been feeling since leaving Facebook.

I am not sure how many of you know but I teach at a university where we are literally under a 9 month contract and so I do have the summer’s off.  Now that I am department chair it is not quite true, but summer is still a time where I tend to shut down from communication in general.  This summer it is a confluence of factors that have led me to disappear for awhile.  The respite, I feel, has overall been a benefit.

I guess I’ll start with my leaving Facebook.  I said a lot of things about how I thought it would benefit me.  An important piece of wisdom that I’ve gained later in life is that it is important to change things up, to get out of habits as best as possible.  Habitual behavior tends to be what makes time go by more quickly and also I think has diminishing returns for things that even initially made you feel good.  So I’ll start by saying that I certainly don’t regret leaving Facebook one bit if not simply for the sake of just seeing how life would change.  And there is no question in my mind that it was in fact a habit, and that there were some signs of addiction.

When I left Facebook I deleted the app from my phone, and I was shocked to find out how many times I would pick up my phone to get on Facebook, only to stare blankly at my phone at an app that wasn’t there, and it took me a couple of seconds to remember that I wasn’t on Facebook anymore.  Despite consciously knowing that I left, my unconscious movements to reach for my phone and look really gave me some insight as to how much time I spent checking Facebook.  This made me happier that I left, but there was still this feeling of frustration that I assume to be akin to withdrawal symptoms.  Fortunately, after a month or so this diminished.  I’m in a place now where I spend very little time on my phone.  Sometimes now I forget to look at it for entire half days.  I also find that I spend much more time looking for my phone (which is annoying) but I think this is because I am not always looking at it.  It’s hard to lose something you are checking frequently and always have near you.  I don’t like wasting time looking for my phone, but overall I’d say it’s not a bad thing that I am away from it enough to misplace it.

One thing I expected, that didn’t happen, was having extra time.  I think this can largely explained by having another child.  We’ve had a lot of family visiting as well, so things have been a little hectic at times over the summer.  I guess I do feel like I have had more time, but that time has been filled and so I woudn’t say that I have had more time to relax.  I will say that overall, I feel a better sense of fulfillment with what I spend my time doing, even if it isn’t always fun.  There is a solidity to life now that I have a hard time explaining clearly, but overall I like it.

I think it was pretty clear that when I left Facebook that I was experiencing some depression.  I didn’t think that Facebook was necessarily the cause of it, but I didn’t feel like it was helping me overcome it either, and if anything exacerbating it.  Having left Facebook I have to say there are still times that I feel depressed about where our society, particularly in America, is going and I’m not sure how to make that go away.  I mean I could simply choose to be more optimistic and focus on that, but I somehow worry that this will make me less vigilant.  I feel this is a time for vigilance.  You can of course be so depressed to the point of apathy, but I think you can also be to cheerful and optimistic to the point of ignorance.  Neither of those are where I want to be.  Trying to find a state of mind that makes me feel strong without depression but without some sort of drug-like optimism is challenging.  Overall though I would say that leaving Facebook has helped me compartmentalize better, has allowed me to say, “Alright right now I have to focus on this…” and I am able to do so. There are times that I spend worrying as well, but I don’t think I do it as much, and sometimes I feel like I am able to filter out the noise much better and really think about, even some of the bad things, in a meaningful and deeper way.  This is something that I hoped for leaving Facebook.  The biggest thing for me is how noisy life felt and that I really couldn’t think deeply about things very well.  So maybe I’m not free completely from the state of mind I was in before, but I feel like I am progressing, and that is something.  Facebook seemed like a fairly endless stream of bad news, and people fighting, and being free from that, as often as I was on it, has been restful…peaceful…and given me more moments of contentedness.

There were many people who felt like was bashing Facebook when I left (there are reasons to be concerned of course about Facebook’s ethics) but my leaving was more a reflection of my personal relationship to it.  It wasn’t healthy for me, and I still maintain that can be used beneficially.  I know many people who aren’t on Facebook who are still as confused about facts from the media they consume, and so I certainly don’t see it as a soul source of how we can be misled in our society.  There is a larger problem with all sorts of media which has been discussed by ethicists like Tristan Harris on the “attention economy“.  This is something we all have to be mindful of, and getting off Facebook is no solution there.  The important thing to recognize also is that we are all being unconsciously influenced by the media we consume, and it’s important to be aware of that and be aware of how that’s affecting your life.  Think seriously about it all, weigh the pros and cons, and ask yourself are you as happy, courageous, and effective as you can be being plugged in all the time.  In a podcast I listened to recently a doctor was saying how boring the message of moderation is, and yet it’s probably the one we should be hearing the most.

My world has certainly gotten smaller, but I think there is just as much value at making the 10 mile radius around you a better place as trying to make the world a better place.  Moving the world requires a much greater force, and as an individual I constantly feel like I am inadequate to the task, and Facebook was a constant reminder of that fact, just as it was also a constant reminder of all the things that we need to make better in this world.  It’s important to know all of that, but it’s also important to recognize your limits.

There is much that I miss too, I knew this would be the case.  I wonder how a lot of the good people I got to know on Facebook, and think of them often.  But I have gotten to interact with more friends and people in my community than before.  There are a lot of people in my city who probably have quite different political views from me, but I haven’t talked politics with them, but I am getting to know them, and I haven’t met a bad person yet.  Maybe they voted for Trump, or maybe they are very religious, or maybe they have no problem with guns…I don’t know, but I think it’s important that we really get to know people first before judge the entirety of their being based on who they voted for, or what they believe.  There’s much more humanity there that I think we miss on social media.  There’s value in understanding where people are really coming from and recognizing their common humanity.  There may come a day when the truth of our political views comes out, but maybe then it will be a better conversation, maybe then there own beliefs will be as challenged as mine our and maybe even if we can’t be friends we walk away being better people than we were.  I don’t think this is possible on Facebook as we just tend to get to know the people who agree with us, and fight with the ones we don’t.

Well this is already a bit long, but I just want to say that, at best I can say that I am spending more time with my children and more time just enjoying a breath of fresh air.  I think that I will one day be able to return to Facebook and use it in a better way, but I don’t think I’m there yet.  I am thankful for all the good people I know and have known in this world even if there isn’t enough time to stay in touch as frequently as I’d like.  I wish all the best.