Life is a journey. Let us meet at the intersection and share a story.
Author: Swarn Gill
I am a professor of the atmospheric sciences. I am biracial. I am Canadian. I feel grateful to be one of the lucky ones who had a good life thanks to hardworking parents and growing up in a part of the world that offered plenty of opportunities for livelihood and happiness. I want my writing to spread information, hope, smiles, and provoke thought.
I was listening to a podcast interview with Nick Bostrom who was talking about his paper The Vulnerable World Hypothesis which looks at how we might avoid certain existential risks that might collapse civilization as we discover new technologies. It’s an interesting read, but not directly related to what I want to discuss in this post. He talks about one of the solutions to dealing with such risks is increases surveillance of people. I am sure that we are all uncomfortable with that, but I think he makes a pretty good argument about why it might be necessary given the possibility of inventing some technology that is easy to use by individuals and could easily lead to widespread destruction.
It was this uncomfortability that I was thinking about and I started to think about the reaction to the scandal that was exposed a number of years ago when it was found out that the NSA was collecting all this information on U.S. Citizens. I personally didn’t get concerned myself. I thought about the volume of data they are collecting and it seemed pretty clear to me that the man hours it would take to actually listen or read everyone’s private communications, while solving unemployment, would be an enormous task. It seems people actually feared that an NSA agent might show up at the door and tell their wife that the husband was having an affair or something. I don’t know. We definitely don’t like the idea of the government having our private information, and maybe that’s for good reason.
But enter social media. We have these platforms that we enter all sorts of personal information into. We talk about what we like and don’t like. We post pictures of where we are and where we’ve been. These companies collect all this information. We know that they have algorithms that influence what we read, who comes up on our feeds, and try to feed into our political views as opposed to presenting us with opposing arguments. We know that these platforms have been used by hackers and others entities to directly manipulate people. 100s of millions of people all over the world hand over all this information willingly.
My question is, is our government anti-trust disproportional to our trust of corporations? Is it even fair to compare the two, or is their an asymmetry here that I am missing? I mean arguably NSA surveillance could be uncovering terrorist plots that prevent loss of lives, does social media have benefits that outweigh its costs? Are we being hypocritical about the importance of privacy? Is it a difference of consent of information vs. non-consent of information? I mean I might argue that I am consenting by getting a Facebook account and posting things about myself, but they are certainly using my information in many ways I don’t expect or aren’t aware of.
I was reading Mak’s recent post this morning questioning how Adam and Eve could fear a punishment of death without having known death and it reminded of this interesting passage from Roger Zelazny’s Hugo Award winning book Lord of Light (I strongly recommend it). Also just as a bit of trivia, this book was the source for the fake movie they said they were making to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1979. Anyway these are some words to contemplate.
“Names are not important,” he said. “To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, ‘What is it like, this thing you have seen?’ So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, ‘It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.’ Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it ‘fire.’
“If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, ‘fire’ does not matter, ‘earth’ and ‘air’ and ‘water’ do not matter. ‘I’ do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality, the Nameless.”
At the age of 26 (2000) I was fortunate enough to go to New Zealand. It was a pit stop on my way to Antarctica where I was helping out with a research project run out of my department at the University of Wyoming to study the stratosphere through balloon launches. The US Antarctic program launches out of Christchurch, NZ and so I got to spend a day there on the way in, and a spent a week in NZ on the way out.
People say Canadians are friendly, but I have to say this Canadian was humbled by the kindness of the Kiwis. The closest base to the American base of McMurdo is a Kiwi base. Every Thursday night the Kiwi base opened theirs to the Americans and it was a few mile trip to go down there to hangout with them in their adorable English style pub on the base, in which the snooker table took up most of the space. After a couple of visits I got to know some of the Kiwis on the base. It was a small base and it was the winter season so they were just at a bare bones crew of 17. When they heard I knew how to make Indian food their eyes lit up as they missed good food badly and said they had all the spices and some onions that were about to turn if they didn’t get used right away and would I mind terribly if I cooked them all some curry. It was an easy sell for me because they were wonderful people and so me and my colleagues came down on another night, and I cooked dinner and we had a wonderful time.
When I came back to New Zealand I spent a couple days in Christchurch and then went on a hike in their wonderful national park system on the north part of the South Island. I was not an experienced backpacker and on the first day of the hike, my sleeping bag fell off my backpack without me noticing and by the time I did it was too far to go back and get it. It was still only spring there and I made it through with just my quilted fleece during the night, but I certainly didn’t sleep well. So you don’t have to bring a tent, they have these huts along the way of these hikes you can sleep in. My sleeping bag was returned to the first hut. When I made it to the hut I was planning on staying in for the night, the lady who was operating the hut said she received word by radio that my sleeping bag had been found. I told her there was no real way for me to get it. I was hiking through to another town and then taking a bus back to Christchurch. I simply expected the sleeping bag as an item I wouldn’t get back. But the lady there arranged so that the bus I took back to Christchurch would meet a bus leaving from the town close to the first hut at a shared stop by the two buses. And sure enough it happened. I was shocked. The fact that they would make the effort like this to return a sleeping bag that I foolishly lost was amazing to me.
As I wandered around Christchurch one day looking for lunch I found this little restaurant. It wasn’t really during lunchtime and the place was empty. A little Maori woman ran the shop. We chatted for a bit. She thought for some reason I was a Mormon missionary. I told her why I had come from the U.S. and I decided to order a burger from her menu. She was so exciting to make an American an burger and she eagerly awaited my reaction when I ate it. Other that having meat between a bun it really wasn’t like any burger I had eaten. It was far better. Given that she really wanted to replicate an American burger, I don’t think my compliments of it being better than an American burger really assuaged her, but I could she beamed a broad smile knowing that she brought a smile to my face.
When I left New Zealand I had to take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland. As I walked towards my gate from the check-in counter, I was surprised to find myself suddenly at the gate without having passed through security. This made me very nervous, and I walked up to a counter and said, “I think I might have taken a wrong turn and walked into an area that I shouldn’t because I’m at the gate and I never went through security.” The woman just smiled in their easy, friendly manner and said “Oh, don’t worry, there’s no security for domestic flights. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Where am I? This country is amazing.’
New Zealand is gorgeous. Rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, lush forests, snow-capped mountains. I remember seeing snow capped mountains right next to the ocean as a breathtaking sight, one I hope you all get a chance to see if you haven’t. The people are incredibly warm and laid back. They are thrill seekers. They invented bungee jumping. They have a ridiculous amount of sheep. I really wanted to move there. I still do. It’s the only place I have visited where I just knew in an instant that I could be happy there.
Waking up this morning to the news of the atrocity there was as heartbreaking as anything I could read. It is the kind of pain you might feel when something that you held is beautiful has been defiled by a vandal. I sit here, not knowing if that beauty will be restored, or whether this incident will forever change that wonderful country I fell in love with. One could argue that I wasn’t there long enough to really know that country, but I would disagree. At least to the point, where I can say with certainty, that this incident does not define them.
Yet I find that I am not surprised. If there is one thing this modern age has taught us is that these dark seams run through all societies. We live in a world that has extremism. The reason such men do these things is the same for all such extremist. They are driven by the furthest limits of anger, fear, and despair. The ideology they say they are fighting for is the exact same as the ideology they say they hate. Just different costumes. If they succeed at all, it is only because most humans are not like them, and that is important to remember. I write this letter to you New Zealand to remind you to not let this incident shatter your national identity. Be who you are, just do it better. This is a time for introspection, but from the ashes of this horrible incident show the world how your kindness is the spirit that defines you. Certainly introspection is warranted here, but remember the power of love and unity to combat hate. For today and for the near future there are families who are grieving. Grieve with them. Regardless of skin color or religion, they grieve as humans. They have lost, children, spouses, parents, friends…there is more that makes you alike than makes you different. Let all hearts be as one New Zealand.
A recent exchange I had on someone’s blog post about morality and what standards we use to gauge them had me thinking about a question I never really asked before in regards to theism. In this thread the theist was arguing that God represents an objective standard to what is moral and what isn’t moral, and atheists have no objective standards for morality. I feel theists are equally subjective and I think atheists can objectively evaluate the morality of actions through non-divine standards. I honestly couldn’t get through to to this person to convince them, but no matter. The question that occurred to me that I had asked before is “by what standards to we decide that we should be worshiping Gods and living according to their desires?”
I mean let’s say there is a God, by what basis do we decide that this is somebody we should worship? If they have a bunch of rules for us to follow do we get to question whether those rules are something we should follow? If we do not it seems following those rules is not based on a decision about the rightness of the rules, but rather a default position to authority. Are we to follow all those who are more powerful? Is it a duty to a creator to follow rules blindly? Are we to follow those who promise consequences that make us fearful should we choose not to follow?
Despite the claim by many theists that God represents an objective standard of morality it does not seem that morality plays a role when it comes to following God. One can’t say, “Following God is the moral thing to do,” unless we are somehow able to evaluate the rules that God wants us to follow. In which case God is no longer the standard that we judge the morality of the rules. Can we even say something like “God is good” ? Aren’t we using a separate standard to evaluate God’s goodness. It seems God is only good because of his power, not his morality. Thus whatever happens to us or anybody else is because God allows it to be so, making everything simply good. The punishments, the rewards, the rules, everything. I guess it’s always bothered me to give anything that much authority. Even if I had conclusive evidence of God’s existence, I think I would still want to evaluate him.
I mean let’s say God and the Devil stand before you, incarnate in some human form. How is one able to tell the difference between the two? How do I measure God’s goodness? Is it that one sends me to punishment while the other does the punishment? Surely it’s by one having a greater power over the other. Because it cannot be by actions of goodness, because according to at least the definition of the Christian God, anything that God does is good. Because God is the supposed objective standard of morality and my differing is not permissible if I wish to be moral.
It seems to me that what religion then teaches us is that worship is to be given to beings who are more powerful. If that powerful being is deemed to be the standard good then whatever that being does is by definition good and we cannot question but follow blindly. The consequences of our actions have no bearing on the situation providing we are following the rules laid out by that being. What then is the value of our ability to reason? Isn’t existence then rather empty having to set aside reason to follow blindly that which is defined as the ultimate good?
It still seems to me that someone had to have a pre-defined notion of good to even decide that God met the ultimate definition. More importantly I think it seems worth asking the question whether the worshiping the divine is even a moral action or an action meant simply to ensure obedience to entities more powerful than ourselves.
Recently I had an experience on twitter where I saw somebody posting a link for an article that criticized presidential hopeful Kamala Harris and blamed Bernie Sanders for this criticism. The thread was full of people with nothing but vitriol for Bernie Sanders going so far to call him both a racist and a misogynist. My wife has noticed to that criticism of certain democratic candidates erupts into divisive attacks against Bernie Sanders supporters. When I asked for evidence of any connection to Bernie Sanders and a critique of Kamala Harris I was given none. This twitter account had 31K followers and had a lot of posts implying dark money and nefarious works of Bernie Sanders to attack the democratic establishment. The account belongs to Tom Watson and his credentials seem reputable, but for one who claims to be a journalist, he seemed to present no evidence of many of his claims.
But perhaps people like these are a dime a dozen on the internet, but it does make me extremely worried about this future election. What we need is at least some unity, preferably with people who voted for Trump, but if we can’t get that we have to at least be striving for some unity in the left. Identity politics seems to be winning the day, and the left has been described some as divided into all sorts of small groups. The tribalism that we characterize the right with in terms of racism and xenophobia seems to me just as rampant across many groups on the left. It may not be some of the more obvious ones like skin color, religion, or nationalism, but it’s still there and what’s most worrying is that it seems to be based on very minor differences in overall worldview. It seems to me the more that liberals are at each others throats this just increases the odds that when it comes to general election time more people will stay home if their horse didn’t win the primary, or might actually go across the aisle because they are so bitter after all the in fighting. There is no reason that Bernie Sanders fans should not support Kamala Harris at this point and vice-versa, but more importantly we have to get our heads on straight about why we are voting for a particular candidate. This isn’t sports and who ever puts on the jersey we like we have to root for. Government’s goal is to enact the best ideas about how to govern, and this should determine who we vote for.
After the last election I, and I know many of my friends did a lot of research and reflection of how we got to where we were. As incredulous as Trump’s win was, to suggest that it is the fault of anybody who tried to run for the job who had generally good ideas and who represented more compassion and benevolence than Trump. Nor should we be accusing each other because we supported who we thought was going to be the best liberally minded candidate. As a Bernie supporter I was certainly disappointed, but it was clear to me that Hillary was better than Trump and I supported. Bernie fans who voted for Trump, I think were misguided, but I don’t think this should start casting blame on inspirational politicians who challenge the establishment. If your vote for a candidate is solely based on gender, or racial identity, or the party they belong to, you are just as guilty of the same behavior as somebody who didn’t vote for someone based on their gender or racial identity. If you are liberal what you should be for is fighting for a future in which the content of the individual running for office is the reason to vote for them. And while I think there is enormous value to new generations to grow up in a time with female president and/or ethnic minority president, there is also enormous value in having them grow up with leaders who intelligent and empathetic, and who have good ideas that are going to help people have better lives.
It’s also worth remembering that the Russian interference in the election is very real, and one of the ways it worked is by exploiting division. I recently listened to this podcast interview on Sam Harris podcast with Renee DiRiesta who has done a lot of research into how Russians used social media to exploit divisions between people. Not only getting more support for Trump, but trying hard to suppress democratic voters from going to the polls. It did make a difference. They are still doing it. The same tactics have been used by terrorist organizations to recruit, and it can it it also being done within our country as well. We must resist the temptation to be divided, and while I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t take a stand on certain issues, if you are spending a lot of time arguing with people on social media you are simply wasting your time. Twitter and Facebook can take all the steps reasonably allowed to try and prevent fake accounts, but people intent on manipulation on a mass scale through social media will find away around us and it is up to use to be aware and responsible users in the end.
The anti-establishment writing is on the wall, and it was for the last election, but the DNC refused to recognize it. Trump was no anti-establishment answer but it what many people were looking for. Likely that sentiment is going to be there again and it is going to be a source of contention on the left. For those of you who followed Bernie his goal was never to actually win, but to shift the conversation. To stay focused on issues and to address the anger that many Americans were feeling towards an economic elite that were bleeding the country dry. Not all of his ideas were great, and whoever you end up supporting will probably not have all the best ideas either. I suggest:
If you want to discuss politics, discuss the issues. Avoid name calling and personal attacks.
Stay away from social media for your information and to keep your emotional health in check during this election season. It’s a ridiculously long cycle in the U.S. and it’s easy to let your boredom lead you down the path of social media, but it is not your friend, and there are entities on there aiming to continue to divide people. Don’t let it work. Not only do you share many similar concerns with your fellow democrat, but probably also your fellow Republican.
Consider supporting a few newspapers monetarily. These platform that are free and run on advertising are prone to attention getting not truth finding. Good information and journalism costs money. Do some research on what papers have good investigative research and get an on-line subscription
Promote empathy by sticking with politicians who demonstrate it, and also be giving it to your fellow human.
As I write this post, it should be clear that I am now the father of two as it is the evening of Dec. 26th and this is getting done at the last minute. Usually I’ve started writing these a couple weeks ahead of time as I always want to put some good thought into it and also because I’m just excited to talk about how amazing you are and how you make me feel.
Before your brother was born I was thinking to myself how I would be writing two of these, but wondering how they would be different? Should I do a combined letter? Is there really something that I want you to know about me that I didn’t want your brother to know? Now that your brother is here it seems so obvious the different ways both of you excite me. I also started thinking at what point would I no longer feel the need to write these letters? After all, if the goal is for you to know who I am at this point in your life, at what age have you figured me out? And at what point should I just be telling you everything I’m thinking to your face instead of writing it in a letter you might read years later? I imagine that time is not now, but I am at awe at how perceptive you are. You have a great ability to see things for what they are, but still enjoy it, love it, have a passion for it. I love that at about you. There are few things about me that are important enough to me that I would want you to have it, but that is one of them. The ability to find wonder in the world we live in. So who knows how many more letters there might be, but probably less than I think.
That being said, the truth is I really don’t understand why you are the way that you are. I always thought that parenting would be like this constant verbal reinforcement of good values, and how to practice empathy, and that it would be a struggle that you would see come to fruition only years down the road. And maybe it’s that too, but right now it just feels like you are just suddenly amazing and I don’t know why. I can’t link it to something I’ve done or told you. This year you’ve already taken the first step towards understanding charity and I couldn’t be more proud. Understanding that there’s a way to help people and animals who are in peril is important. But more than that you are beginning to see your own good fortune and that’s the first step in having gratitude for advantages in your own life. But I don’t need to tell you these things it seems, somehow you will just figure it out. I do worry about making sure you have good values, but you keep surprising me by seeming to have them without much effort. My greatest wish for you and your brother is that you’ll be kind people. Yeah, you may face challenges greater than I had to face, and people might argue that toughness is more important. But I don’t feel toughness has to be sacrificed for kindness. Both are possible, and in general I think people have the wrong idea about what toughness really is. Kind or unkind there are tough people in this world, but also a lot of people pretending to be a lot tougher than they are. I feel the reason they pretend is because there is just not enough kindness. So I feel I’m justified in making that my most important goal for you. And you already are kid. You even make me reflect and look inward and how I can be a better person in this world. I hope I can be a good guide, but I have no doubt that this will be a journey where we will both grow as humans…together. I’m so excited for the journey you are going to take me on.
This year you became a brother. I really didn’t have any doubts you would be a good one. You are so sweet and loving to your brother. The only thing I worried about is you getting impatient for your brother to be a playmate. But you’ve been so patient and understanding both towards him, and towards us as we often have to take care of the baby over playing with you. When Allie was new, when he’d cry you’d always cover your ears. You hated to hear him in distress. You still do of course and you even get very flustered at times when you can’t make your brother feel better. It’s hard for adults too honestly, we just have more psychological tools to fall back on. But it actually makes me feel more at ease that Allie already has a brother who is so worried about him and loves him so much. I know, within your ability, you will also do your best for Allie and that means a lot to both your mother and I. Your brother already responds to you so much. He’s going to look up to his brother, and I have no doubts you will take that responsibility seriously.
This is the part of the letter where I talk about the year, by the numbers. Literally. You have shown a great interest in numbers this year. As a person who loves math, I couldn’t be more excited. And while your actual math has improved, I’ve more enjoyed your questions which aren’t really aimed at necessarily solving math, but just about numbers in general. Like how big they are, how they are sequenced, or how they are written. You sometimes just sit there and ask me to add numbers together. You’ll be like “what’s 100 plus 17?” and I’ll say “117”, and then you’ll say, “But then what is 1 million plus 17?”, “Then I’ll say one million and 17”. You won’t even respond, it’s like you are just processing it all, looking for patterns. The time I was the most impressed was after telling you very little about multiplication, you suddenly announced that 6 time 2 was 12. I was stunned. And for some reason you had decided to count two nobs sticking out of a light fixture 6 times, and just realized how multiplication works. I have no idea how smart you are compared to other children, but I do feel confident in saying you are a smart boy. The kind of smart that will serve you well whatever situation you find yourself in life.
It seems I have talked mostly about how amazing you are. Honestly you are more amazing than I can let on. I suppose that’s always going to be the case, since I don’t want to give you too big of a head, especially since I might just be heavily biased. 🙂 But I guess I should say a few words about where I’m at right now, since that was the point of these letters. The truth is, if talking about you so much is any indication, I’d say that I am probably certifiably a dad right now, because talking and thinking about someone constantly is just what you do when you’re in love. And I’m in love with my boys. 🙂 There are worries in life right now. The politics in this country are still a shambles. My job situation isn’t great right now, and I’m a bit worried about that. Life might have some big changes in it at some point nearer in the future than I thought, but it’s still not that near. Nevertheless there is sort of a different mindset you get in when things are less secure. You and your brother are a big part of what keeps my strength up. I also don’t want to lose precious moments with you, even when there are legitimate things to be stressed about. Maybe even more so because there are legitimate things to stress about. Love should always be a light in the darkness.
Before I go, I just wanted to say that it was awesome that we had our first road trip together. It wasn’t planned that way, but Allie got sick and mommy had to stay home. It was a great time and I’m going to enjoy having trips with my sons in the future. 🙂
Also, so you know, you are still a clown and can make me laugh like no other. I will not be shocked in the least if you become a comedian.
All parents say how quickly the time flies with your children, and it would be easy to say that 5 years have flown by. But truthfully I’m try not to bemoan the loss of the littler version of yourself because I’m just always so excited to see who you are becoming. I accept the fact that you must grow and no force in the universe can change that. Why waste time on wondering where the time went, when the present is to be enjoyed? I plan on just enjoying the journey of being your dad. 🙂