The future and presence

In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world. – Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Of all the stories in this book, this sentence hit me hardest. How would you experience life if you believed every moment was the end of the world?

Obama on power

From the excellent “Obama Doctrine” profile in the New Yorker:

Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. – Barack Obama

and:

Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power.

Perhaps the early Nobel award had an impact on his policy after all?

More on how the Paris climate agreement happened

The Guardian has a wonderful in-depth description of just how the world’s leaders came to an agreement on climate change action in Paris last December (previously). Lots of innovative techniques, including…

  • A headquarters with visibility across the conference:

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

  • Lots of unique meeting types, for each different type of expression and decision:

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

  • Small countries banded together to amplify their shared concerns:

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

  • Finally, 1:1 talks between the final decisionmakers:

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Fear and loathing in U.S. politics

Fascinating in-depth look at the most interesting part of the Trump phenomenon–not the man, but the supporters.

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.

Essentially, fear of change (especially related to physical threats) leads to desire for authoritarian leadership.

Designing better futures for Syria

My own career goal is to “help people think about the future.”

I can’t imagine a better application of that than a group from the University of Washington which helps Syrian refugee children design a better future for themselves and their families.

We asked the participants to work in pairs to fuel creativity and help ease literacy barriers. They used LEGO Mini-Figures and Bricks, art supplies, color pens, and FUJI Instamax Cameras to create the devices…

Magical devices often depict means of transportation…Mobility is a challenge in Za’atari for different reasons–many people have physical disabilities, exasperated by war trauma, and there is no public transport to assist with lack of roads…

Teams also designed devices similar to existing technology, such as Google glass, but that address particular needs in the camps. One team, who called themselves “Future’s Butterflies,” designed glasses that help discover and cure diseases.

Thoughts on a year of Headspace

As I mentioned in my 2015 wrapup, this past year I practiced mindfulness meditation with Headspace. I wrapped up another “pack” this morning and thought it would be useful to collect some thoughts on the various approaches I’ve learned and the experience overall.

  • My main insight was that training the mind really is like training the body. It benefits from consistent practice, varied techniques, planned routines, and even interval training (alternating periods of focus and relaxation). Similarly, the mind can become detrained without regular training, and I noticed a real difference in my mental state after just a few days without practicing.
  • That said, I wasn’t very consistent with my practice, averaging a little less than one session every two days, and sometimes going up to two weeks between sessions (often caused by travel or illness disrupting my routine). Contrast that with some people who mention online that they’ve had a streak of 90 or even 365 days straight, and I wonder how their experience differs. I managed to maintain an overall sense of peace that persists even after a few days off, but some of the more advanced techniques and benefits didn’t stick around.
  • The only way I was able to fit this into my day is by waking up earlier. If I start my day with meditation (after a few wakeup stretches), I’m much better at staying focused. Once I’ve done much of anything else, my mind is too distracted to have a successful session.
  • Meditating on the breath always seemed to me an arbitrary choice–why not on a concept or a sound (like “om“). However, I gradually came to appreciate it, as your breath is always with you (and if it’s not, you have bigger problems than mindfulness), and doesn’t require conscious effort to maintain. When the goal is to clear away distracting conscious thoughts, the breath is a handy aid.
  • I was initially skeptical of the “pack” approach unique to Headspace, but it too proved itself over time. It’s nice to break down what could be a lifelong practice into manageable chunks, giving you a tangible goal every 10 or 30 days. And while I started each pack wondering how meditation was supposed to improve a skill like creativity or generosity, every time there was indeed a helpful insight or new practice. A few examples and reviews:
    • Focus was the first pack I tried. What stuck with me is the sense that sustainable focus isn’t something static and fixed, but rather the ability to steer your attention to different things at will–a dynamic experience. I wrote about how my son exhibits this trait naturally, but it was a new (or renewed?) practice for me. I continue to use the visualization of a glowing sphere moving through the parts of the body when I’m cycling, especially during hard efforts, to keep my overall attention on the body’s performance and prevent my mind from wandering.
    • Anxiety was next, and while this was a natural emotion for meditation to help, the approach was again surprising. The technique instructs you to first name, and then categorize, whatever stressful thoughts enter your mind. You might think of a difficult project at work, for example, which you could then give a title, mark as “negative”, and label as a “thinking” anxiety. The simple act of acknowledging the thought can be enough for your mind to let it go, a bit like how writing down an important todo item lets you relax mentally–it’s no longer your mind’s responsibility to keep track of it.
    • Appreciation was a nice shorter one and quite related to Generosity. In both cases you’re instructed to think about who and what makes you the happiest and most fulfilled, and the goal is to cultivate that feeling (rather than, say, translate into direct action). I found Generosity more valuable overall, as you extend that feeling toward others and into the world.
    • Creativity was a bit of a slog. 30 sessions, and again the goal was mostly to recognize the “feeling” of being creative. It introduced one nice technique though, the idea of rapidly alternating between focus on the breath and “letting go of the mind”, which trains you in the art of smoothly entering into a focused state at a moment’s notice. During this series I found myself better able to do “micro-meditations” throughout my regular day.
    • I’ve only tried 10 days of Headspace Pro, the packs with less guidance and no particular theme. I did find them more challenging, and less motivating, than the themed packs, and haven’t been back recently. Hopefully more consistent practice will make them accessible again.

I continue to find new benefits from Headspace, even after a year and over 150 sessions. Here’s to another year of mindfulness!

Tricking yourself–for science!

Now that’s scientific rigor! A team studying gravitational waves is intentionally trying to fool itself:

Because gravitational waves are so tiny, and it’s easy to get false positives, the LIGO team includes three individuals capable of injecting false signals to test the group’s ability to weed them out.

On originality

“Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” – Paul Rand

2015 – Toward health and happiness

This was a good year for growth in body and soul. Feeling healthy, calm, and ready for adventure!

  • Enjoyed lots of adventures with the family, including 2 visits by my parents to California, our annual beach trip to Michigan, time in Tahoe, Santa Barbara for Easter and Christmas, and perhaps most importantly time away as a couple in Northern California and Colorado.
  • Got as fast on the bike as I’ve been in over 10 years, riding an 18:43 Old La Honda, 31:28 Montebello, 9:20 Redwood Gulch, 26:46 Kings Mountain, and 43:10 Gibraltar over 8,210 km and 127,051m of climbing. Lots of indoor training with Zwift, which makes cold 6am mornings in the garage bearable.
  • Inspired by a Body Spec scan, lost almost 20 pounds on a simple diet of mostly vegetarian proteins and fats: vegetables, salads, avocados, eggs, cheese, oils, nuts and nut butters. Followed a bunch of Tim Ferris’ slow carb diet tips. Tastes great, satisfying, and good for my energy levels, which used to vary wildly throughout the day and are now steady and strong. Kill the grain brain!
  • Read 38 books, lots of science fiction “just” for enjoyment, but a few that shifted my mindset a bit. Most impressive were Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (a new design hero), Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and Eaarth by Bill McKibben. Lots of learning about our changing world and future possibilities.
  • Got my brain under control through regular mindfulness meditation with Headspace. 147 sessions over 46 hours this year, and I can finally steer my attention toward things I want and away from stressful and painful things I don’t.
  • Simplified our lives of clutter and mess with 2 separate weeks of focused cleaning and expunging–each time the week around the new year. Definitely a positive annual tradition, though we always find a way to fill them up again…

And with that we’re off to 2016! Thanks to all family and friends for their support this year; excited to see what comes next.

Topple vs. restore

“In our world, we have enough power to topple our most important systems, but not the power to restore most of them…[but] there is still time to restore this well enough to aid fundamental changes in how our societies make decisions, and especially to start to better deal with the large potential systems disasters we face.” – Alan Kay