I’m going to assume only humans are reading this. Though, I could be very wrong about that, and in that case, maybe those non-humans have the same questions? Seems like these subjects apply broadly within the confines of our understanding of life.
When it comes down to it, from a 500,000-lightyear vantage point, we’re a bunch of microbes infesting a fleck of cosmic dust, whose lives begin and end as quickly as a shimmering spark of light that fizzles to black.
That’s a sufficient and – perhaps for some – depressing answer. But there are other layers we could explore the more closely we zoom in.
Zoom in far enough and we encounter what we’re made of: cells, which interact with each other in a series of chemical reactions governed by the laws of the universe. But cells themselves aren’t even alive, and millios of your have died from the time you started reading this sentence to now.
Therefore, what we are, our identities, as both a species and individuals, is not necessarily rooted in the specific physical matter that comprises our bodies.
So what are we aside from a collection of dead things (cells) that form a “living” thing (human thingamijigs)?
What seperates one lump of matter from another is how it’s configured, or its pattern. Any child with a LEGO set understands this concept. The only thing that really differentiates the LEGO spaceship from the LEGO castle is the set of instructions that can be followed to transform a pile of plastic into one or another. That’s as good a metaphor as any for our DNA, which governs our personal patterns for cell interaction.
Except for the fact that the LEGO spaceship isn’t a real spaceship and the LEGO castle couldn’t withstand twelve seconds under siege. It’s a bunch of dead matter, not too different from the dead matter we’re made of.
Ultimately, what makes our pattern of cells different from other patterns is consciousness. We are fluid conscious patterns, whose every iteration only exists between the moments it changes.
So where does consciousness even come from? Nobody has a solid answer for that either.
Most say that what we perceive as consciouness arises from processes between bits of matter (e.g. the firing of neurons in our brains). But exactly how this happens hasn’t quite been pinned down yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not correct though.3
Many people seek a “better” answer that makes humans seem more divine than they are, including the concept of some ethereal, immortal soul.
Then there’s the argument too that consciousness, life and death are all artificial delinations. Afterall, the living version of a person and the dead version of a person share 100% of the same cells and DNA. It’s just that the latter can’t shop at Whole Foods anymore and isn’t capable of caring.
From left field, another concept piqued my interest recently: panpsychism4, which propopses that consciousness in the universe is common and widespread, and perhaps bound together by some kind of “proto-consciousness field.”
Quantum mechanics can be scary stuff.
So what exactly are we? Aside from tubes with limbs?
I have no idea. I just like thinking about it. A lot. More than is healthy, I suppose.
There has never been a technological gulf between two generations that’s larger than the one between Boomers and Millennials.
Human technological progress has historically been slow – but it’s also been exponential, with each new discovery allowing for ten more discoveries, and with processor speeds doubling constantly1. Those trends came to a head with the explosion of the Information Age and Millennials were there to benefit.
Boomers have had to adapt to a world of smartphones and the Internet, which has been completely foreign compared to how they were raised. Millennials however, even the oldest ones, barely remember a time without mobile phones and some form of Internet, making them more adaptable to technological change, even as those technologies have improved drastically since their youngest days.
But then there’s Generation Z, Boomlets or the Homeland Generation2 or whatever you want to call them until they get a better name. These are the kids who are actually teenagers right now (rather than old Boomer’s just referring to everyone younger than them as Millennials), and they were born either just before or just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and are often the children of Generation X. They grew up in a post-9/11 world and don’t remember a time when Internet and mobile phones weren’t awesome. These are the Snapchat users who see social networks like Facebook as something dating back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Then there are those even younger: the children of the oldest Millennials, who are perhaps a completely different generation entirely and are growing up using smartphones as early as three-years-old. There’s no telling how radically different their relationship to technology is going to be.
Even beyond that will be the children of the youngest Millennials – those exiting college soon – and that’s where things are going to get weird.
This Generation (let’s call them Generation A1), will have casual access to 3D printing and will be able to design and create their own toys at home from a very young age. They’ll have basic coding literacy before they’re tweens since schools will integrate it into their lessons starting in Kindergarten. They’ll have an online presence pretty much from birth, and not just the ones created and managed by their parents. They’ll understand how to use the Internet to its maximum potential before they even hit Middle School. Their entire lives will be hooked up to the Internet of Things and they’ll never understand how “dumb devices” were ever a thing.
And that’s just the technology they’ll be hooked up to that already exists. There’s no telling what new advancements in the next 10 or 15 years is going to make their lives even more radically different than that of their parents.
This isn’t even a very bold prediction. It’s basically inevitable and we see precursors to it among the youngest extant generations already. It’s only a matter of time.
Everyone has problems, challenges they face, obstacles standing between them and their dreams of a better life.
Some problems are small. They can be fixed overnight, have ready solutions and ultimately aren’t even really problems at all.
Then there are real problems. Financial, social and health difficulties are particularly common and crippling, true challenges to overcome in one’s personal or professional life that require hard work, long hours and lifestyle changes to achieve.
So far, putting in that kind of blood, sweat and tears has paid for me as I’ve transformed drastically over the past decade. Comparing where I was in 2007 versus where I stand in 2017, I am not the same person in any way, shape or form.
But my path was less than ideal, wrought with trial and error and an enormous amount of luck and benevolence from others.
Going forward, I still have big changes to make, huge goals to achieve, dreams to live, and they tend to be of the “super difficult to attain” variety. And at this point, I’m too exhausted to pursue those dreams in the same chaotic, haphazard way as I’ve operated so far.
So I’ve been kicking around ways to get around some of the largest challenges facing me.
Once you cursorily “achieve” most things, it still needs to be maintained. Whether you want six pack abs, to learn a language or make new friends, change is rarely a one-and-done prospect. Ultimately, it comes down to transforming one’s lifestyle.
And what is lifestyle other than one’s habits? And what are habits other than how we’ve been programmed by our environments, biology and experiences?
So to make big life changes, it requires a reprogramming of oneself, and that usually can only be done iteratively. Like quitting a bad habit, developing a new habit takes work, repetition and time. It can seem daunting, but results are real and obtainable in many situations, depending upon what obstacles may stand in one’s way.
Most of the time, there won’t be a silver bullet solution to a problem. In absence of that, developing system of solutions to integrate into your daily life can help overcome any number of challenges and achieve goals once thought too distant to grasp.
Here are some examples of goals I’ve had for a while, and pursued to a degree before now, but have only started to develop into coherent systems of solutions this year:
Fitness: 300+ calorie burn training session and walk 10,000+ steps each day
Blogging: Five posts per month
Artwork: Three pieces per month
Reporting: 1 or more bylines per week
Travel: Go somewhere local, domestic or overseas each month
Finances: Save money into multiple different funds and investments each week
There are lots more too, but these are a good cross-section of my priorities in 2017.
Basically, I’ve set threshholds for each of these projects, requiring me to make progress on them on a certain degree either daily, weekly or monthly, depending on how big an iteration I can manage.
These might seem like small endeavours to some people, and that’s the point. Setting small, achievable goals builds up fast and spurs meaningful change over time. Seven months into this plan and I feel like as different a person between January and July as I did between 2007 and 2017.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the true meanings of never and always. These are difficult concepts for humans to ponder and grasp.
That’s why I’ve been pondering death and the universe. Rather than a morbid fixation, my thoughts about death are general practical since they encapsulate the core of many challenges humans face.
As I’ve mentioned before, death has essentially already happened. Not just to me, but to everyone and everything to ever live, to every proton in the whole universe. It barely even matters when someone dies since everyone is dead for the same amount of time – forever. Even any immortals surviving to the heat death of the universe have the same blank infinity of knowing and doing and feeling nothing to look forward to.
Death is the great equalizer in this regard. It’s also the great neutralizer. We humans scramble wildly to accrue memories before we die…why? It’s not like we can take them with us. It’s not like others can remember them for us. Any archive of work we leave behind, any lasting impacts our lives have on others and the world around, will be similarly forgotten without a trace. The sun will explode, our solar system destroyed and ever byte of data, every spark of life, every memory ever made will be lost and never recovered.
When? It doesn’t matter. Eventually. Inevitably.
That’s the weird thing about time. We experience it as a linear sequence of events. But that’s just how we perceive it, only ever existing in a singular now until they day we transition to existing in an expansive always. The only difference between now and always are the limits of our perceptions. Our brains simply cannot fathom infinity.
If you really ponder it deeply, since numbers are fractionally infinite, a single second could be sliced up in such a way to last forever. But while this is rationally and mathematically true, we could never possibly perceive or experience that (even when waiting for test scores or at the DMV).
So if our minds cannot perceive of fundamental realities we can prove in ways outside of our immediate experience, what other truths of the universe are we missing? What else is beyond our grasp, our unknown unknowns?
Coming to a solid answer might literally take us forever.
People have a hard time distiguishing between news, fake news and satire. Luckily there’s a nice guide for that. The fake news plague isn’t new, but it’s certainly worse than ever.
But The Onion has been blurring those lines for years and years for maximum satirical effect. Rather than trying to deceive readers, the satire is obvious, absurd and biting, often unearthing several grains of truth.
Its sister site, Clickhole, hasn’t been around as long but has quickly become even more relevant as it skewers the influx of 21st Centure clickbait sites in the same way its predecessors mocked print media.
Satire long has held a valuable position in societal discourse, plus they can be pretty consistently hilarious. Here’s a running tally of some of my favorite pieces from these sites.
Some people – including many in news orgs – have been blitzed by a sophisticated phishing attack today1 in what I can only assume is a vicious attack on people who don’t know how to use email or Google Docs in 2017.
Luckily, I didn’t click the link.
But I did manage to bork my machine and force myself to install the OSX 10.12.4 Sierra install twice in 2.5 hours.
Also now Siri has entered my life for the first time ever, meaning the end has truly begun.
This was all to install SourceTree in my continued quest to adopt tools at least somewhat in step with the development norms of the era. I guess lapsing on OSX updates for a couple years is enough to leave me creaking by in the Dark Ages.
Siri is pretty annoying as I keep accidentally clicking her.
The whole aggrevating process did allow me to kick back and appreciate my own layers of cybersecurity as I slogged through logging back into every single service, app and website, many of which hide behind 2FA. This is why people never restart their machines.
Siri has started to saying things into my earbuds unbidden.
I’ve also just about finished building out StribLab, the Star Tribune’s Github repo where all of our data visualizations, tools and other projects are being stored and open sourced for future and public use. The light is nearly at the end of that tunnel after months of archiving and development work. So I should have known that a technocrash was imminent. Hell, it’s finals week too, so the technology in my life just still kinda knows, even three years after graduation. It’s some kind of cosmis PTSD.
Christ, Siri, is why I don’t use an iPhone.
Technical quagmires like these rob me of precious productivity during my work day, and just as I was starting to figure out the relationship between SASS, NPM and Gulp for building data visualizations.
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A perfect soundtrack for 2017 as we enter World War III conditions with a 30% chance of overcast apocalypse.
Here’s another one for the post-war world:
Hopefully all of our electronics will still work so we can listen to them.
A common struggle among those slogging out a living in the American workforce involves the concept of “work-life balance.”
Basically, it means setting aside time to turn off, shut the job out and live a separate life focused on yourself and personal obligations. The trick is finding enough of it to offset the stress and chaos of the standard 9-to-5 to job.
While my job isn’t the standard 9-to-5 by any stretch, it’s certainly chaotic and sometimes stressful. A lot of journalists I’ve known certainly share the feeling that our profession can be all-consuming, monopolizing time even in the quietest moments that should be reserved for personal projects and responsibilities.
Whatever. I’m not going to solve that. I’m resigned to never having the coveted work-life balance. Partially it’s because I made my decision to following a calling where I’m never really clocked out.
The other part though is rooted in the fact that there isn’t a single part of my life unrelated to some kind of work, regardless of whether a news organization is paying me for it or not.
Beyond my journalism work, I’ve tasked myself on a creative “publish-or-die” gauntlet where each week I churn out a new piece of art, music, writing, photography, blogging or whatever. My personal deadlines are more grueling than my professional ones.
Aside from that grind, there are matters of health and fitness. There’s planning trips and other adventures. There’s the constant logistical juggling of finances, housing, eating, sleeping. Besides work itself, there are issues of professional growth in terms of education, resume updates and other related projects, including social media, where those who fall silent basically cease existing.
Then there’s the social calendar of obligations to family and friends, which doesn’t even touch upon the complete insanity of the dating world.
Sure, one could define many of these side projects as “me time” – but the idea of work-life balance is to minimize stress and manage the push and pull of competing obligations without experiencing a nervous breakdown. My time is overwhelmed with activities I tackle daily at breakneck speeds. Eventually, there’s a baseline of lingering stress hanging over everything.
Long story made short: “work-life balance” is meaningless to me because life is work and work is life. My struggle for balance isn’t between work and “life,” some nebulous concept of other somehow divorced from what I spend 8+ hours engaged in per day. Rather, desired balance is between different projects competing for my time and attention.
To make sense of the two dozen different ongoing projects I’m involved in at any given time, I’ve found it necessary to move the needle on each a little bit at time, each and every week. It’s like a horrendous game of Whack-a-Mole where a low score means total life crash across the board.
On paper, marching through all of this is actually very organized and sane, the result of endless fussing over spreadsheets and experimenting with new methods of time management. But in practice, it’s madness since the best-laid plans fail in the field, with blocks of time bleeding into each other and one collapsing upon another like dominos.
It’s managing chaos, herding cats, directing oncoming traffic, whatever tortured metaphor you want to use. It’s also extremely repetitive. Even the most fun bits and time blocks I slice out to do nothing can seem so obligatory.
But the alternative is allowing things that matter – things I need to do, and those I greatly desire – to fall by the wayside.
The result is the last several months being extremely productive, but also extremely repetitive. I’m stuck in a loop, a weeklong Groundhog’s Day scenario with fewer rodents and more mind-numbing exhaustion.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy life or my work. I certainly do. My job and every other endeavor I’m pursing is near and dear to me. It’s why I do what I do.
But even living the dream takes a toll.
The upside to my current loop is pushing a lot of longstanding plans closer to the finish line and a general sense of accomplishment and fulfillment at the end of each week. The downside is rushing through my weeks in an indistinguishable blur. If every week is awesome, none of them are, and they’re ultimately all fundamentally the same.
Our memories are comprised of information our brains need, in additional to remarkable experiences that break the mold. Everything else – the grind of daily routine – mostly gets filtered out and confined to muscle memory. It’s part of why time seems to speed up with age.
During my university years, life was a lot slower. The abject chaos refused to be tamed, and as a result, time moved at a grueling pace. I remembered every aching second of those days. Last year too, with the grind of election-related coverage and other more difficult projects, seemed to never end.
This routine-laden 2017 though has been tearing past me at a terrifying clip, and I know it’s strongly tied to being stuck in this loop.
So how do I remix my days to be varied, exciting and productive while leaving nothing behind? I’ll let you know if I figure it out.
It’s generally considered morbid or impolitic to talk about death, a subject best left to spiritual leaders, goths, emo bands and crime scene investigators.
Yet a recurring theme of conversation with my friends recently has revolved around the existential issues and the associated dread that comes with pondering life’s meaning and inevitable end.
I’m not sure what’s driven these ponderings to the surface, other than the emerging quarter-life crises hitting my peers in the tail-end of the Millennial generation. And along with uncertainty of finding our place in the world after our college years, death becomes an increasingly frequent visitor as the older generations start to pass away one by one.
Usually I’ll turn to the data, to science, for the answer. As a result, I accept that death is a void experience, a lack of anything, complete and total oblivion. It’s something the living cannot comprehend since life is such an all-encompassing experience. Not even contextualizing it through the frame of what it was like before birth seems to help grasp the concept of nothing.
But there are some places empiricism can’t follow, like what life’s purpose is, whether anything matters and who makes those decisions.
I can already hear the arching of eyebrows from those who argue life’s biological imperative is to survive and reproduce, along with the outraged screams of the religious insisting on their own stack of cosmic answers to the questions mankind has pondered longest.
Despite the ultimate meaninglessness of it all, freedom of thought and expression, along with basic human empathy, are keys to making the most of humanity’s run, and people are entitled to believing whatever they like so long as nobody else is being harmed.
But my sympathies lie with Carl Sagan’s argument that we’re among the cosmos’ ways of knowing itself, especially considering the universe itself has a finite lifespan.
Yes, even if humans somehow cure death (like some Silicon Valley moguls are attempting)1 and conquer the stars, or if we really do achieve singularity, every single prancing immortal at the end of the time is likely subject to the heat death of the universe2.
So when it comes to death, we’re all equal. Nobody will be spared, everyone’s abyss will be the same stretch of infinity. The eternal experience of the first human and the last human are ultimately the same.
It’s thought that all humanity has ever created – art, music, religion, myth, legend, etc – have been mechanisms to cope with the unrelenting subconscious awareness of death.3 What’s more, none of these creations will live past our bubble of existence. It’s not for the posterity of the universe or even other civilizations who might dig us up, since everything ever created is destined to forever be lost.
Rather, it could be argued all the beauty and wonder we’ve created is for us alone, to make our tiny pocket of spacetime bearable.
And existential dread could be my middle name, which is partially responsible for my quenchless need to create. I realize that fears of infinite nothing have a tendency to linger and surge forward unbidden regardless. I’ve found that once one’s awareness of their own mortality escapes into the forefront of the mind, it’s impossible to put it back in the box.
Most days I ping-pong between nihilistic thoughts – those rooted in everything being meaningless – and absurdist ones that insist it’s impossible to really know anything beyond our incredibly limited perceptions. Science can and has taken us far, and might someday produce a clearer, more universally-accepted answer about what happens after our flames flicker out, not to mention what consciousness even is. But science eventually hits a wall when discussing what’s literally beyond our existence.
Philosophically, I land along the median of nihilism and absurdism, where nothing officially means anything and that it’s insane to search for an overarching, common cosmic meaning to it all that we’ll never find. To me, this means worrying about it too much is a senseless waste of our limited lifespan.
We therefore have the power to define what success is for ourselves, individually and as a society, which could be defined as falling under the Venn umbrella of logical positivism.
Life has whatever meaning we assign to it, and that, to me, seems quite empowering.
There’s something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?