Imparting Cultural DNA

I just spent my day at a career fair in NYC. Why is it that I am 22 years old and still feel like a child? A quarter of my life is passed and I am still not a self-supporting adult?

I’ve heard someone somewhere say that adolescence ends at 25. How can that be when we are physically mature at 18? Because when our species transformed from monkeys into people, we began building a world that requires more than physical maturity to navigate.

All other forms of life communicate to their progeny how to behave through DNA. The double helix encodes all the molecular information necessary for how that organism should “be”. It tells a dandelion how to flower, an elephant to grow a trunk, and a birds to instinctively migrate.

Homo Sapiens are much more complex than any of these creatures, of course. We use tools. We build cities. We trade stocks, options, and bonds representing equity in invisible corporate entities. We speak. We fall in love. It takes more than the genetic, molecular encoded information in DNA to teach a young human how to understand these phenomena.

We use a mechanism of our good ol’ intelligence to pass this information to our children: culture. I define culture as the “stuff” our parents give us when they show us how to live. There are so many kinds of ways to live, and that’s how we see such a vast difference in cultural practices and values.

How could this possibly be relevant to my career fair? Because the prep-school, the college education, and your internships are all slowly bringing you into the culture of the working world. There are basic best practices in this world that are necessary to being a productive, pro-active member. I have another two years of intellectual, cultural, and “productivity” adolescence to look forward to because that fraction of the 7 billion people on Earth I have come in contact with hasn’t finished socializing me. We’ve all got nature, but nurture takes time.

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Corporations are NOT People

I’m a person. You’re a person. We vote. Corporation are not people. But the U.S. government thinks they are.

Last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission established corporate personhood for purposes of campaign finance. That decision effectively abolished limitations on the campaign contributions that a candidate can receive from a single source. A candidate’s millionaire friends can channel as much money as they want to the campaign through Super Political Action Committees, which, while they are not technically affiliated with the campaign on paper, are run by former campaign directors as a campaign program bloated with funding. These “Super PACs” are responsible for the prolific ads in states with early primaries. 

With Citizens United, the influence of money in politics and its corruption of democracy are complete because now corporations are “people” entitled to the “free speech” of supporting candidates with financial contributions. Corporations are not people; they are collective bodies guided by the sole mandate to increase its profits. Isn’t it obvious how a corporate body established for profit will abuse the opportunity for “free speech” in our political process?

I had the rare opportunity to ask Justice Scalia how he, a strict textualist, found basis for corporate personhood in the Constitution. His answer? The First Amendment protects free speech by people, and does not distinguish whether they must be individuals or  can be groups. Seems to me like strict-constructionism has devolved into an argument you might find on the History Chanel: 

“Well, there is no evidence that the founding fathers DID NOT want corporations to choose the president. There is also no evidence that the founding fathers weren’t Aliens, so they probably were.”

Candidate befriends a business. Candidate promises deregulation. Corporation gives millions of dollars to the Super PAC supporting that candidate. Candidate is in corporation’s pocket. Super PAC runs non-stop ads with inflammatory remarks and dramatic music. Average American’s opinion is influenced. Votes are bought. Candidate wins. Corporation runs government.

Now, as the Republican primary moves forward, the candidate with the largest war chest of these unlimited corporate funds (Mitt Romney) is the obvious frontrunner. This isn’t democracy. It’s concentration of power in the hands of those who already have it. I’m convinced that corporate power over elected representatives is responsible for terrible legislation like SOPA. It’s abhorrent, but it is also the future. As we the people continue to lose the political institutions established to protect our rights as human beings, our lives and the lives of our children will increasingly be run by some company’s bottom line as we are subjected to the ultimate passivity: consumerism. Buy what they sell us. Elect who they tell us.

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Domestication

In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steal, the brilliant ornithologist turned geographer/historian of UCLA identifies the ready availability of domestic-able animals on the Eurasian continent as one of the key factors determining the westward direction of conquest that begun in 1492. Horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, and swine were all domesticated not only to feed humans, but also to perform work. For millenia, horses and oxen provided the work that transported goods or powered grain mills.

Civilization is founded upon the ability of the innovative and the ingenious entrepreneurs among us to subject animals to their will. Today, the subject of these domesticating efforts are no longer beasts, but consumers, and the most powerful men and women have manipulated the behavior of their fellow humans to bring them money and power. Consumers are made to believe that they cannot perform a host of self-supporting tasks for themselves. If something in the home breaks, a repairman is called, and Billy Mays has a great new product on  television that you simply must buy!

I can’t help but feel lost as a member of a public that has had the wool pulled over its eyes. We sit and watch mindless television. We are told what to buy by advertisements and who to vote for by CNN, FOX, or MSNBC. We work long and hard, only to have 1/3 of our income appropriated by the government and the rest of it appropriated by rich CEO’s pandering microwaves, iPods, or cell phone service. I thought the 13th Amendment ended slavery?

What makes me truly despair is that the comforts of a first-world lifestyle are not necessary, but that we have been made to believe they are by years of social conditioning. Even as I write this, I am not willing to smash my laptop in protest. I am a calf, locked up in the close-quartered cells of a dairy farm, unable to escape my fate as I, my peers, and the vast majority of first-world citizens have been domesticated to serve the purpose of more clever and more powerful human beings.

Who of these lives more like an animal, and who lives more like a man?

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Politics in the Digital Age

Check it out. The GOP hasn’t even nominated a candidate for president, and they have already written the manual on how to beat Obama.

Their ace in the hole? Use Barack’s words against him. Literally, Republicans have amassed scores of sound bites and video clips from as long ago as 2008 in which Obama makes promises to fix the economy. Their strategy is to use the man’s amazing oratory against him by throwing these clips from the past at voters as evidence of Obama’s failure.

Say Republicans win the Presidency in 2012. What is to keep Democrats from doing exactly the same thing in 2016? With the proliferation of campaign material on the Internet, it’s impossible to hide a politician’s record in the Digital Age.

Given Americans’ love for scandal and how much we love to hate incumbents, this could be a very bad trend. I see either of two outcomes in following this development to its logical end. Either politicians will never make promises on the campaign trail (and then what do we have to judge them on at the polls?), or George W. Bush will be the last two-term president in history.

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2012 C.E.

What can we expect in the new year? As a graduating undergraduate I think I may say with more resolute affirmation than most that we cannot know.

Will the stock market continue its volatility? Who will debate Obama on national television? Will the Keystone pipeline be built? Were the Mayans right?

I feel confident answering the last question in the negative. December 21st is a pretty convenient time for the Mayans to stop writing their future calendar, considering that it is the winter solstice, but it makes for a juicy story. Either way, I’ll be in Vegas on December 20th.

I do hope that 2012 brings some massive changes. Not doomsday, but something radical to change the status quo. I’m young, so I can’t say that it has always felt like this, but I feel growing discontent in the public with the way the world is run. I believe that the 99% occupied Wall St because the top 1% of Americans hold 35% of the nation’s wealth. When the top 20% of citizens control 85% of wealth in the United States, the American Dream has become just that, a dream! Some drastic change might do good.

I bet 2012 will be the year we discover the ability to travel faster than the speed of light! Or maybe, we will unlock the secrets of cold fusion! Commercial space flight? At least let me get cheap solar panels? I hope we don’t see anything as crazy as robots declaring war on humans, though that might be fun. Though, war with a nuclear power like Iran certainly would not be.

Maybe the radical change of 2012 will be something more tangible. Maybe Ron Paul will get the nomination? That might give us the opportunity to shake things up in the world. The commercial stigma surrounding 2012 might become something after all.

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The meaning of a "Liberal Arts" education

I’m about to graduate college wondering what the hell I’ve been doing in college for the past few years? What could I have possibly learned at this institution that is worth so much of my parents’ savings? I cannot point to a tangible body of facts, figures, or specific examples that I have acquired. Did the dean of admissions steal my parents’ money?

The answer depends on what you value. While I value the practical applications of a product (knowledge?), others enjoy the less tangible aspects of a good. Status. Revelry. Youth. My parents have given me all of those with higher education, and I have a feeling that these compose the benefits of an institution’ s higher price tag.

Despite my general suspicion of higher education: the glut of B.A.s in the workforce, the ever mounting student debt young professionals face, and the deceitful efforts of those who seek to tie the notion of higher salaries to higher education, I believe that higher education is worth the expense. My years of a liberal arts education have taught me to literally think liberally, examining every assumption and honing solid beliefs about the world and the way that it behaves. The Liberal Arts have also given me enough confidence in my critical thinking, problem solving, and time management to act toward improving the world that I have viewed with a critical eye from my perch atop the Ivory Tower.

Is that what we pay for? Or is it status, revelry, and youth?

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Christmas with Extended, Extended Family

I find that a recurring theme in Christmas specials is a message about the meaning of Christmas: it’s not about the commercialism, but about family, and it’s easy enough for us to get caught up in the tension between the cult of Jesus and the cult of Santa Claus. After an especially enjoyable Christmas spent with my loved ones, I’ve been reminded that the cheesy specials are right.

Christmas is definitely about time spent with loved ones, but what about religion? Faith in the face of science is a challenge. All that survives my objective scrutiny, regardless of one’s beliefs, is this: Christmas is a celebration influenced by the late Roman celebration of Sol Invictus, when the Sun falls to its lowest point in the sky,  and then is “resurrected” in its first perceptible northward motion on December 25th, and adapted to advance the often political agenda of the early church in the dying days of the Roman Empire around 380 C.E.

This event has been observed by pagan cultures for millennia with certain recurring themes. A savior rises after 3 days, being born on December 25th of a virgin,  announced by a star in the East, and attended by three magi. Without going into detail, these themes all have their roots in the cosmological position of Earth and the Sun as it appears on December 25th.

Now imagine living in prehistory. Chiefs and priests followed the movements of the sun with precision, and everyone had a spiritual dependence on the Sun as their annual savior, who chased away the cold and brought food in the harvest. That seems joyous to me and a better time than any to rejoice with your clan that you are all safe, well, alive, and together.

I like to recognize the pagan roots of Christmas in the winter solstice as a sort of hyperbolic celebration of the “Christmas is about your family” message that I so love. Regardless of how it is celebrated, the winter solstice seems to be important across cultures. This is a celebration that connects so many humans, across cultures, across continents, and, perhaps the most difficult, across time. I find relief from our generationally self-centered and narcissistic society in the ability of Christmas and its progenitors to bind us as one species to the cosmological breathing of Planet Earth, to those who have come before us and will come after us, and to our extended, extended family.

Merry Christmas

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Climate Change is NOW

“My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

Mitt Romney 10/28/2011
 “Establishment” Republican Nominee for the 2012 Presidential Race

Wait, Mitt, are you telling me you think that half of us believe that we can drive SUVs, burn coal for electricity, and spew black smog into the air without any consequences? Are we so myopic?

Actually, yes. It seems that most of us would rather ignore the problem. Since they peaked during the winter of 2006-07, queries in Google for “Global Warming” have been progressively lower each winter as people scratch their heads, wondering, “Wow, it never used to be so warm this time of year,” without ever asking “why?” It happens every winter, but memories are short and no one notices the pattern. The 20 warmest years ever have all occurred since 1981, and the 10 warmest have all happened in the last 12 years.

As 2011 draws to a close, we are wrapping up one of the warmest years ever, this January through November period is the seventh warmest on record.  In Western New York, we expect to have snow on the ground by this time of the year. I’m used to hearing my friends at the University of Rochester complain about how their flights home for the holidays might be grounded by blizzards, but this year, I saw a kid playing guitar on the quad as late as mid-December. MID-DECEMBER! We should be trudging through snow drifts!

Hey that doesn’t seem so bad… 55 (F) degree temperatures mean that I can ride my bike to campus to take my finals. Who wouldn’t welcome a little global warming?

Well, global warming is a misnomer. The proper monicker is climate change. The trapping of heat on planet Earth by greenhouse gases adds energy to climate patterns. While this will make the Earth warmer in general, we can’t predict what effect this influx of energy to climate patterns will have. Climate scientists are warning the world to prepare for extreme weather patterns as the planet adjusts to the energy we are trapping. Think, more energy in warmer oceans makes for more violent hurricanes.

Climate change is already happening, and we are ALREADY witnessing the weather anomalies that this added energy in the climate system will produce. 2011 has been a weird year for weather, hasn’t it? A heavy snowstorm in late October shut down many Northeastern coastal cities like New York and Philadelphia that hardly ever see snow before December. Droughts across Texas and New Mexico parched Southeastern Americans this summer, and 20 cities in the United States set all-time record heat highs! The problem isn’t localized to the United States, either. Does anybody remember the disastrous floods in Thailand? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these freak weather events are caused by the warming of our planet.

Climate change is staring us in the face every time we wear our spring coats in the winter. But nobody seems to notice. As Mitt Romney’s statements make clear, nobody really wants to own up to the fact that our civilization is causing this problem. Numerous scientific indicators, including tree rings and glacial ice cores, indicate a steadily accelerating rise in global average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, and the empirical data can only be explained by climate models that account for anthropogenic forces. In other words, there is no scientific explanation for the observed warming of the planet other than human activity.

But we all go about our daily lives driving cars and leaving the lights on, and the people who see this problem developing are shrugged off as loons. It’s okay, I’m guilty of it, too. Who wants to believe that doomsday is coming? 

We are just going to need to adjust to living in a new world in a decade or two. Maybe it will be one where warmer seas produce deadlier hurricanes. Maybe it will be one in which New York City’s subway system and driving tunnels have been flooded by rising sea levels. I don’t know what it will look like, but I believe that the weather will be worse and I refuse to kick the climate-change-can any further down the generational timeline. Our climate is changing now, and our only hope of saving the quality of the environment in the future is international regulation. We’re not going to get that, though, as long as it remains a requirement that the candidates for the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties in the most powerful nation in the world doubt the science of climate change. WAKE UP, AMERICA.

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Collective Thought on the Internet

I just opened an email from the Electronic Frontier Foundation claiming to update me about this week’s developments on SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, a piece of legislation with growing infamy among the internet savvy that is now in committee in the House. The news was good. While the legislation is still on the table, the outcry against the bill from the Internet’s industry as well as its patrons was loud enough to raise the eyebrows of our representatives’ campaign managers, and further consideration of the measure has been postponed till January (which in a Congress that can barely find time to keep the lights on in the office, is a promising sign that continued opposition can condemn SOPA to the waste bin of scheduling obscurity that has collected so many much better ideas).

Since I stumbled upon the controversy surrounding SOPA through the tried-and-true “COPY from Facebook and PASTE into Google”, I have done all I could as a citizen to stop this legislation from going through. I wrote to my Congresswoman and Senators about opposing the bill and emailed my friends about doing the same. To my horror, my New York State Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, wrote back defending her position as a cosponsor of equivalent legislation in the Senate, the Protect IP Act.

I still did what I could to participate in our democracy. As I much as I could, I tried to talk about this issue and, as Justice Scalia might say, “change the minds of my fellow citizens.” After talking to my friends and observing the vested interest of Hollywood, however, I gave up. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I am among the 91% of Americans who disapprove of Congress. Washington and Hollywood are both so drowned in the capital of those who have it that I couldn’t imagine my efforts making much of an impact compared to the Goliath of the entertainment industry.

I am so proud of the intelligence and ingenuity of my generation evidenced by the outpouring of online videos, blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, forum threads, memes, Reddit threads, and even shitty pop songs advocating a free Internet and the defeat of SOPA. Opposition to SOPA went viral! This is very interesting because the weapon that we have wielded against SOPA is that very beast it wishes to tame, and the implications are HUGE.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are witnessing today a historical revolution in the medium of information dissemination and in the mechanics of social thought that will have implications far greater than those had by some of the most important technologies ever developed. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 was the spark that lit the fire of the Enlightenment, renewed mankind’s curiosity for thought, and ended the Dark Ages. The Internet is the printing press for the 21st century, and it’s the stuff of revolution.

One cyborg anthropologist even offers that the Internet is not just a revolution, but evolution, too. One defining characteristic behavior of higher primates is the use of tools to expand operative capabilities beyond the limitations of the body, and now, human beings are using tools like the Internet to expand the operative capabilities of our minds. We are able to connect to anyone on the planet and access limitless information in seconds. My friend said to me yesterday, “How crazy is it that the Internet is always just there, man?” The world wide web of communication we have built has taken on its own life. The Internet is like an organism that we have built. Only humans haven’t built the Internet per se; human beings are the Internet.

This goes beyond piracy, beyond emails replacing snail mail, and beyond Facebook. I think we are building a mind. Imagine… the GOOGLEPLEX, a connection of the mind of every human being. All of society’s knowledge, instead of being placed by each specialist in each book in each library or on each page of Wikipedia, is instantly accessible to every mind directly. The limitations of space and memory are eliminated and innovation is instant. Is this “hive mind”? I don’t know. But I do know that as societal knowledge grows, so does quality of life. Politically, I think the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to return  to the strict egalitarian ideals the United States was founded on. What’s the use of an electoral college when everyone is wired to the web?

Okay, so I have a flare for science fiction. This goes way beyond SOPA, which should basically be opposed today because it threatens free speech as well as technological innovation in one of the few growing industries remaining in America. My point: threats to the flow of information, which today is the Internet, are dangerous to our growth as a species. I’m optimistic though, because recent political action has shown us that the Internet is already powerful enough to prevent its own demise.

Wow, I cannot wait to see the future. On second thought, I’m just going to go enjoy being young…

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Something New

It seems like everybody who has something to say is blogging about it these days. I don’t want to be so pretentious as to assert that I have something to say that is worthy of anyone reading, but I do occasionally have a thought or two and the best way to channel these is probably by writing about it on the internet for 7 billion people to read, right?

I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction and the future, and when my mind turns to musing, it’s often about how our world will look in 20, 50, or even 100 years. As a young man, I’m excited to see how the world turns out. My generation faces a lot of challenges, and I look forward to solving them.

I’m going to use this blog as a forum for my thoughts on politics, religion, technology, business, and society. I’ll probably stray into the zone of preaching too much, but that is only because I care about securing a future for my grandchildren that is better than the present. I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about where we are, where we are going, and how people my age should think and act to realize a better society down the road.

This blog is where I am going to deposit those thoughts.

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