Tsunamis and Stoicism (Redux)

MEXICO-QUAKE

Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katia. Lee. Maria. Nate.

Now, with Tropical Storm Ophelia developing into a hurricane, 2017 has become the first year since 1893 to have 10 Atlantic storms reach hurricane strength. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the most prolific on record — and the season doesn’t even finish until the end of November.

In September two earthquakes rocked Mexico City and surrounding areas in Central Mexico, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Dozens of buildings have collapsed, with countless more left uninhabitable due to structural damage and slated for demolition.

With these natural disasters come ecological destruction (or “ecological succession”, if you’re in a more positive frame of mind). It also hastens grief at the individual and societal scale. Life for many people in southeastern U.S., Caribbean islands, Central America and Mexico — including members of my own immediate family who live in Mexico City — has been upended, thrown into uncertainty and chaos for the foreseeable future.

The uncertainty and chaos that has enveloped what seems to be much of the world is not limited to just natural disasters. An anxiety, one that has an acutely contemporary quality to it, has also infected the political and societal landscape: Trump. Brexit. North Korea. Artificial intelligence. Islamic fundamentalism. Climate change. Identity politics. Neo-nazis. (You get the idea.)

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Good Writing Matters, Mr. President

28-state-illo-superJumbo

Re “It’s the Twitter Age. Let Trump Have His Way With Words,” by Farhad Manjoo (State of the Art column, Aug. 28):

It’s not as if Donald Trump is an articulate, thoughtful or composed person who just happens to make spelling errors on Twitter. That would be forgivable.

The problem is that his tweets are like a mirror held up to the inner workings of his mind: nonsensical, unintelligent, erratic and dangerous.

The end result is a barrage of tens of thousands of tweets going back almost a decade that are full of not just spelling errors, but also a cascade of other public embarrassments: one-word sentences that operate more like dog barks, poor word choices, odd (or missing) punctuation, factual mistakes and outright lies.

This is unforgivable for a president. End of story.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

The Architecture of Truth

IMG_2703 (Mark Bessoudo)

[Note: This was initially published in THE CUBE Magazine Issue B: Truth]

Misinformation can now be spread effortlessly through the echo chambers of social media at an unprecedented scale and velocity. However postmodern these assaults on public facts may seem, they are, in fact, nothing new. The “post-truth” narratives and the construction of alternative realities are merely a reflection of a much deeper and more systemic problem, one that did not originate in the twenty-first century.

The problem is one of human cognition. We have a tendency to exhibit numerous biases, fallacies, and illusions — the very lifeblood of post-truth narratives. These behavioral and cognitive errors aren’t flaws in the system; rather, they arise as a result of being built into the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. So while problematic post-truth narratives may appear to be imposed on us from outside or above, they are actually more of a collective manifestation of our default cognitive setpoint.  Continue reading

Equivalent progress for technology and human institutions

“The humanities are far more powerful than most people believe,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to Donald Trump’s plans to cease all funding for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I couldn’t agree more with Kristof’s sentiment — and I’m an engineer.

Civilizations may indeed be built up from the resources and materials that constitute the technologies, industries, and cities within it, but I would argue that this infrastructure is really just an outward manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, and values that are embedded within the minds of its people.

Not only do we need the arts and humanities now more than ever, but we will need more of it in the future. The advent of powerful new technologies like artificial superintelligence, for example, will demand that its creators first be able to think clearly about (or even solve) some very old problems in moral philosophy.

As someone who understood this quite well once remarked, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” These words of wisdom were, in fact, voiced by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t the current one. These were the words of Barack Obama.

The future is urban

The future is urban

Around the turn of the 20th century, public imagination turned to what life would be like in the year 2000. In newspapers and magazines, writers and artists illustrated visions of a society replete with personal flying machines, pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, entire cities enclosed beneath glass domes. From today’s vantage point, these predictions are all too cliché. But take a step back from these specific predictions and you’ll discover a unifying assumption that these futurists got right: the future would be urban.

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Terror lives here

Re: Manchester suspect latest second-generation citizen to attack European city

It is absurd, naïve, and wholly insufficient to place blame for the Manchester terrorist attack on a “feeling of cultural dislocation”, particularly when the suspect in question was a British citizen who was born, raised and educated in Manchester. Cultural dislocation is a genuine phenomenon, no doubt. But to connect it to the coordinated and preemptive slaughter of innocent people is the height of intellectually dishonesty.

Like many jihadis before him, the Manchester bomber was a middle-class, university-educated, soccer-loving European citizen. These facts alone prove the point that Islamist terrorism isn’t a matter of poverty, education, or lack of economic opportunity. Rather, it is the direct result of a person’s specific beliefs about specific doctrines, particularly those related to jihad, martyrdom, and Paradise. Furthermore, the jihadis are themselves telling us this, ad nauseam.

Until this fact is fully absorbed, any attempts to counter Islamist terrorism will be futile.

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Note: An edited version of this appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail

In Nepal, a chance encounter showed me the value of trusting strangers

Patan Durbar Square (Photo Mark Bessoudo).jpg

[Note: This essay appeared in The Globe & Mail Travel section.]

Hello, my friend!”

“Ugh,” I groaned under my breath.

“Friend!” the voice came again.

“Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact,” I repeated to myself after realizing that the cheery enthusiasm was indeed directed specifically at me.

This may not be the type of response you’d expect to such a kind invitation. I fully acknowledge that. But it was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment.

I was on my own, happily exploring the central plaza in Patan, the third-largest city in Nepal. This is a region where many people rely on tourism to make a living. It’s not uncommon to be hounded to buy a trinket, ride a tuktuk, take a tour. I was generally stoic about the whole song and dance. I accept that it’s all part of travelling abroad, a kind of social contract. But having to continually (and politely) decline such solicitations – as I had been for the previous few weeks throughout northern India and Nepal – can be fatiguing.

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