Connecting the Dots

It is both energizing and draining to straddle worlds.  I am a devoted family man who also invests a significant amount of time in his career.  I am learning how to parent African-American child
ren.  There are many people in this city who care about immigrants, triple-bottom line businesses, community design, and historic preservation, but I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who sits on all four of the boards of the organizations that advocate on each of these issues.

My interest in and ability to connect relatively disparate camps affords me opportunities for even more exploration of overlaps and connections.  For example, I can be of use to people who are looking for someone who can navigate city politics who happens to be an evangelical Christian, or someone who can speak to the importance of STEM education who happens to live in West Philadelphia, or someone who can contribute to regional economic development strategies who happens to be Asian-American. 

I dig these perspectives, but it is also tiring, not in the least because in any one of those worlds, I often know far less than those who I serve with, for whom that world is their main expertise and passion.  While I do not doubt my ability to be a positive contributor and to carry my share of the load, it is humbling to be middle of the pack or lower in just about every group I am a part of in terms of knowledge and time commitment. 

On my worser days I feel insecure and exposed, although all this is really exposing is an idolatry towards competence that has nothing to do with my true value as a person.  On my better days I see it as an opportunity to learn from others who are far more knowledgeable and committed that I could ever be, and a reminder that sometimes being there is the most important thing. 

Some days I wish to simplify my life, and not worry so much about connecting all the dots.  But then I realize how important it is to me, intellectually and spiritually and socially, to see all sides of a story and to not exclude outside perspectives from my perspective.  There's nothing inherently better about a more focused or a more diffuse existence.  Perhaps I need to be more focused, or it is possible I need to be even more diffuse.  I do not know.  What I do know is that I enjoy how my life is now, for there is reward in connecting the dots, even if I don't know any of the dots as well as I would like.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LXVIII

Here's an excerpt from a book I am reading,
"Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," by David Eagleman:

Consider memory. Nature seems to have invented mechanisms for storing memory more than once. For instance, under normal circumstances, your memories of daily events are consolidated (that is, “cemented in”) by an area of the brain called the hippocampus. But during frightening situations—such as a car accident or a robbery—another area, the amygdala, also lays down memories along an independent, secondary memory track. Amygdala memories have a different quality to them: they are difficult to erase and they can pop back up in “flashbulb” fashion—as commonly described by rape victims and war veterans. In other words, there is more than one way to lay down memory. We’re not talking about a memory of different events, but multiple memories of the same event—as though two journalists with different personalities were jotting down notes about a single unfolding story. 

So we see that different factions in the brain can get involved in the same task. In the end, it is likely that there are even more than two factions involved, all writing down information and later competing to tell the story. The conviction that memory is one thing is an illusion. 

Here’s another example of overlapping domains. Scientists have long debated how the brain detects motion. There are many theoretical ways to build motion detectors out of neurons, and the scientific literature has proposed wildly different models that involve connections between neurons, or the extended processes of neurons (called dendrites), or large populations of neurons. The details aren’t important here; what’s important is that these different theories have kindled decades of debates among academics. Because the proposed models are too small to measure directly, researchers design clever experiments to support or contradict various theories. The interesting outcome has been that most of the experiments are inconclusive, supporting one model over another in some laboratory conditions but not in others. This has led to a growing recognition (reluctantly, for some) that there are many ways the visual system detects motion. Different strategies are implemented in different places in the brain. As with memory, the lesson here is that the brain has evolved multiple, redundant ways of solving problems. The neural factions often agree about what is out there in the world, but not always. And this provides the perfect substrate for a neural democracy. 

The point I want to emphasize is that biology rarely rests with a single solution. Instead, it tends to ceaselessly reinvent solutions. But why endlessly innovate—why not find a good solution and move on? Unlike the artificial intelligence laboratory, the laboratory of nature has no master programmer who checks off a subroutine once it is invented. Once the stack block program is coded and polished, human programmers move on to the next important step. I propose that this moving on is a major reason artificial intelligence has become stuck. Biology, in contrast to artificial intelligence, takes a different approach: when a biological circuit for detect motion has been stumbled upon, there is no master programmer to report this to, and so random mutation continues to ceaselessly invent new variations in circuitry, solving detect motion in unexpected and creative new ways. 

This viewpoint suggests a new approach to thinking about the brain. Most of the neuroscience literature seeks the solution to whatever brain function is being studied. But that approach may be misguided. If a space alien landed on Earth and discovered an animal that could climb a tree (say, a monkey), it would be rash for the alien to conclude that the monkey is the only animal with these skills. If the alien keeps looking, it will quickly discover that ants, squirrels, and jaguars also climb trees. And this is how it goes with clever mechanisms in biology: when we keep looking, we find more. Biology never checks off a problem and calls it quits. It reinvents solutions continually. The end product of that approach is a highly overlapping system of solutions—the necessary condition for a team-of-rivals architecture.


Who Runs the World

There are a couple of articles making the rounds in my feeds that connect to my role as part-owner of a small business that just completed its annual staff evaluation process.  The first is a review of a play that imagines the Trump-Clinton debates if the gender roles were reversed, and the second is a commentary on what happened when two co-workers swapped their email signatures.

In the former case, we learn that the female Trump comes off as more likable AND more assertive, while the male Clinton irks folks.  In the latter case, we discover that just by being seen as a man, a female co-worker is taken more seriously while her male co-worker masquerading as a woman is belittled, dismissed, and hit on.

We have come a long way in this country on women's rights - less than 100 years ago women couldn't even vote, whereas last year we just barely missed having a woman run our country - but obviously we still have a long way to go.  This is true in politics, in gender roles in the home, and in the workplace. 

So, about that workplace.  As noted, I am part-owner of a small business that just completed its annual staff evaluation process.  I'll avoid commenting on the substance of our firm to be discreet, but I will point out that the four principals of the firm are male but 13 out of the 22 employees are female: four out of seven directors, four out of nine analysts, two out of three business development staff, and all three administrative people. 

Which means that my desire to be more "woke" is not just a matter of "it's the right thing to do" but also feeds into other things that matter to me, like running a successful business, making a workplace that works for all people, and providing growth opportunities for our employees.  As is often the case, doing right is often the same as doing well, if you think about it.


Lazy Linking, 182nd in an Occasional Series

Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:

182.1 "how to draw an oblate spheroid Earth on a flat plane" bit.ly/2fb96GS @indy100

182.2 "hospitals…lobby for longer [resident] hours even at the expense of patient safety" bit.ly/2mAaNDO @margrev
182.3 “drone shots which are then stitched together digitally to form sweeping landscapes" bit.ly/2mPcrlJ @thisiscolossal

182.4 "light tends to follow our species…I wanted, in a way, to go back in time" 53eig.ht/2k29hFM @fivethirtyeight

182.5 “75% of the finalists had parents…on H-1B visas [who] later became green card holders and US citizens” bit.ly/2ntTC4p @forbes


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LXVII

Here's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain," by Bill Bryson:

The one charge against the green belt that has some foundation is that it keeps a lot of land off the market. Yes, it does. That is actually the idea of it. But that land isn’t sitting there doing nothing. It shelters wildlife, transpires oxygen, sequesters carbon and pollutants, grows food, provides quiet lanes for cycling and footpaths for walking, adds grace and tranquillity to the landscape. It is already under enormous pressure. Fifty thousand houses have been built on green-belt land in the last ten years. Sussex alone lost thirteen ancient woodlands to development in the same period, according to the Woodland Trust. We ought to be appalled to see this happening, not clamoring for more of it.

Southeast England is already as densely populated as the Netherlands, yet thanks to the softening influence of the green belt large expanses of it remain verdant and attractive and seemingly timeless—the England that most of us appreciate and love. There is absolutely no need to throw that away.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LXVI

Here are two excerpts from a book I just read, "The Road to Character," by David Brooks:


You may have the feeling that you are on trial in this life, that you have to work and achieve and make your mark to earn a good verdict. Some days you provide evidence for the defense that you are a worthwhile person. Some days you provide evidence for the prosecution that you are not. But as Tim Keller put it, in Christian thought, the trial is already over. The verdict came in before you even began your presentation. That’s because Jesus stood trial for you. He took the condemnation that you deserve. Imagine the person you love most in the world getting nailed to wood as penalty for the sins you yourself committed. 

Imagine the emotions that would go through your mind as you watched that. This is, in the Christian mind, just a miniature version of the sacrifice Jesus made for you. As Keller puts it, “God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own, and adopts us into His family.”

The problem with the willful mindset is, as Jennifer Herdt put it in her book Putting On Virtue, “God wants to give us a gift, and we want to buy it.” We continually want to earn salvation and meaning through work and achievement. But salvation and meaning are actually won, in this way of living, when you raise the white flag of surrender and allow grace to flood your soul.


The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility. People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin. People with character also have scope. They are not infinitely flexible, free-floating, and solitary. They are anchored by permanent attachments to important things. In the realm of the intellect, they have a set of permanent convictions about fundamental truths. In the realm of emotion, they are enmeshed in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, they have a permanent commitment to tasks that cannot be completed in a single lifetime. 


Lazy Linking, 181st in an Occasional Series

What I liked lately on the Internets:

 181.1 Philly’s best-kept secret green spaces (incl. Bird Sanctuary!) bit.ly/2m5FjDC @planphilly

181.2 Articles of Confederation get a bum rap but truly a remarkable gateway doc to Constitution bloom.bg/2mYjAfT @bv

181.3 Examining the statistical merit of the “‘Replace male docs w/female ones, save 32K lives” claim bit.ly/2lHBpPh @plosblogs

181.4 Is West Philly getting Copenhagen-style protected bike lanes? bit.ly/2mDhF4o @planphilly

181.5 Competing devt proposals for 8th/Race scored in part on social impact (public mtg tonite!) bit.ly/2m74y9Y @phillynews