Let the mystery be

hubble-new-monkey-head-nebula-1600My wife and I have really gotten into HBO’s The Leftovers, now its second season. The Leftovers is about how people from one particular town deal with the sudden, seemingly random disappearance of millions of people from around the globe into thin air. It’s one giant allegory, tied together with fantastic acting and compelling characters.

This season the producers have picked an interesting choice of music to accompany the opening credits. It’s a song called “Let the mystery be” by Iris Dement, whom I’d never heard of until recently. (Give it a listen here.) The song is about accepting mystery in life, especially when it comes to life after death. As the opening goes:

Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The song’s tone is light and folksy, but this clearly means something important to the artist. As it turns out, Iris Dement was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal family in Arkansas, but lost her faith in the church as a teenager. Continue reading

Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading

Whoever said “fight fire with fire” didn’t properly understand the concept of fire

When I was a kid, a handful of English language expressions baffled me. I distinctly remember, for instance, a second grade classmate using the phrase “That’ll be the day” in school. The entire class seemed to burst out laughing while I looked around confused. Maybe it was because my parents were immigrants, and we didn’t tend to use a lot of English slang and idioms in our house. But who knows.

One expression which I still don’t get is “Fight fire with fire”. I understand how and why people use it, of course. It’s to suggest that sometimes it’s best to resist a particular force with the same kind of force. But why fire? I always knew, for instance, that water put out fire, not more fire. One of my favorite books as a little boy was Mr Strong, in which the hero douses a panicked farmer’s burning crops with a barn full of river water, earning him a bounty of fresh eggs (it’s kind of a weird book). In any case, you can imagine that as a kid, when even little things lead to puzzlement and provoke curiosity, this was a major dilemma.  I was reminded of this recently when I once again came across Abdu’l-Baha’s oft-quoted passage about resisting the temptation to meet anger and aggression with more of the same. In a talk in Paris in October 1912, he said (my emphasis added):

I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content…

If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.

In other words, Abdu’l-Baha’s injunction was the very antithesis of “fight fire with fire”. It was very much “fight fire with water”. Negativity, aggression, hostility, suspicion, conflict — these things can never be extinguished with equal and opposite force. The conflagration only seems to flail from side to side, only to violently spread in new directions.

I bring this up only because I sense this approach — simply put, to overwhelm hatred with love — is increasingly coming to be seen as quaint and passe. It wasn’t always like that; think of the best-known songs of the 1960s, for instance, for a sense of how that generation approached the great conflicts of the day. The Youngbloods’ iconic Get together, still popping up on the radio today, is just one example. It starts:

Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

Is there anywhere in pop culture where this sentiment is currently being echoed? Are there any prominent political or social leaders championing that approach? Today, our public problems are seen through the lens of one party’s triumph over another, doubling-down on futile, tail-chasing political conflict. Our national debate on race is laced with anger, as if centuries-old prejudice can be wiped away with the right amount of outrage. Issues of international security are boiled down to how best to destroy violent fanaticism with violent explosions.

Fighting fire with fire has never made sense. And it never will.

The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis

I’m not sure exactly how to feel about Europe’s migrant crisis, whereby 1.4 million individuals fleeing war or economic calamity are expected to seek refuge within the continent by the end of next year. It’s been startling, to put it mildly, to read about the risks some of these people took to escape their home countries, and the catastrophes that some of them have experienced. But beyond that, I hope and pray that the crisis forces a dialogue about the massive movement of human beings around the globe that will need to occur over the next several decades.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at the chart below. It shows UN population projections in developing (i.e. “poor”) countries next to those in developed (“rich”) countries over the next century. I lump in China with the rich countries for two reasons: one is that China, though still poor by most measures, is rapidly converging towards being developed; and the other is that it’s facing the same potential slow-motion population disaster as places like Europe and Japan, thanks in large part to its one-child policy.

As you can see, the rich world is basically facing an epic storm of receding population levels, an issue that is destined to become more and more noticeable in our lifetime. As population growth turns negative in these countries and as their populations age, it will put huge pressure on fiscal budgets — think of all the money the government must come up with to pay pensions to an aging population, in the face of a shrinking pool of income tax payers. It also exacerbates the problem of sluggish aggregate demand and deflation, already a major issue in places like Japan and Europe.

So the rich world already has a need for young, able-bodied workers, and will likely need more and more of them in the years ahead. Guess what? There are huge numbers of such people in the developing world, ready to pack up and come work in the rich countries, often for wages you and I find substandard but which represent a giant leap forward from the developing country status quo. And it’s likely that as developing country populations explode, and especially as issues like climate change destroy living conditions in many of these — more Syrias, in other words — there will be even more workers from poor countries looking for new places to live.

Meanwhile, economists have long highlighted the enormous gains to poor country residents from just small increases in international labor mobility. An oft-cited study on the economic implications for poor country residents immigrating to the United States, for instance, estimated a four-fold increase in real wages for the typical worker. But freer labor mobility should not be seen as an issue of charity. In reality, developed economies will soon become as desperate for young people to come in as today’s refugees currently are to get out.

So rich countries need workers, while poor countries have too many. The question is, Will this transaction actually take place? The economic case is unmistakably clear; without expanding their labor forces through immigration, rich countries are headed for a slow-motion economic train wreck. The stumbling block is not scientific evidence but pure, good-old-fashioned prejudice. We all see the need for more workers in places like Germany, Japan, and America. Let’s be real: We just don’t feel comfortable with them being Turkish, Indonesian, or Mexican.

This is why seemingly squishy, airy-fairy ideas such as “loving thy neighbor” and “universal brotherhood” are so important and potentially powerful. The tar of prejudice is so thick that whole societies would rather commit the equivalent of economic suicide than let brown-shaded, funny-accented people to join their nations. World unity is not some utopian ideal; it’s a matter of economic survival.

As Shoghi Effendi put it nearly 80 years ago:

The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.

The problem is daunting, but the solution is simple. Only stubborn prejudice and fear stand in the way.

When “get rich quick” goes mainstream

A friend of mine from college tries to get me to join his fantasy football league every year. For the past decade or so I’ve declined. I used to do it when I was younger, and enjoyed it when I did, but it was such a time suck that when I went to grad school (and later, got married and had kids) I wisely elected to sit on the sidelines.

This year, for whatever reason, I succumbed to the pressure and joined the league. (I named my team “McNally’s Revenge”, after the alleged ball deflation equipment guy from my beloved New England Patriots). But pretty soon, I realized that fantasy sports has changed a lot over the past decade since I’ve been out of the game. For one, I’m trying to do the whole thing on my iPhone, which I find dizzyingly confusing, which in turn makes me feel dumb and old. But more significantly, the element of money — always lurking in the shadows of fantasy sports, of course — seems to have been shoved to the forefront. Fantasy sports, apparently, is no longer about talking trash to your friends and ripping eachother off with shady player trades — you know, good wholesome fun. Apparently, It’s now about becoming a millionaire overnight.

How else can I make sense of the fact that Boston’s South Station is completely plastered with Draft Kings advertising? These days one-day fantasy sports ads are inescapable, not only in places — both real and virtual — where young, male sports fans congregate, but places as universal and banal as the city train station. The sudden ubiquity of these ads — seriously, I had never heard of this concept a few months ago — should tell you something about the outrageous profitability of the one-day fantasy sports business, and the rapid ascendancy of Fan Duel and Draft Kings in particular, companies that have rocketed to prominence in the past couple of years. Continue reading

Am I just another dumb consumer?

Sale mannequins

My wife recently passed along a clever Atlantic article entitled “The 11 ways that consumers are horrible at math”, focusing on some of the mental mistakes that we tend to make in our economic decisions and how vulnerable we are to the influence of marketing. In true Atlantic fashion, it introduces no real new insight, but does a good job summarizing and explaining some of the existing research. Here’s a snippet:

(5) We do what we’re told. Behavioral economists love experimenting in schools, where they’ve found that shining a light on fruit and placing a salad bar in the way of the candy makes kids eat more fruit and salad. But adults are equally susceptible to these simple games. Savvy restaurants, for example, design their menus to draw our eyes to the most profitable items by things as simple as pictures and boxes. Good rule of thumb: If you see a course on the menu that’s highlighted, boxed, illustrated, or paired with a really expensive item, it’s probably a high-margin product that the restaurant hopes you’ll see and consider.

As the paragraph above mentions, the influence of “framing” on individuals’ decisions can be powerful. That’s just one of many ways that we fail to even come close to performing rationally in our routine economic decisions (if we were perfectly rational, the framing effect would be nil), a point I’ve made on this blog many times in the past. Yet the passage above also contains another important point: framing and other strategies can be used for things we commonly think of as bad (like pushing restaurant goers towards higher-priced items), or for things we find good (like getting school kids to eat healthier foods).

This is the whole idea behind the recently conceived concept of “libertarian paternalism“, championed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and popularized by their book, Nudge. Thaler and Sunstein are keen to argue that while it’s wrong to force people into a particular decision that would benefit everyone, we can still “nudge” them with certain mental tricks. Organ donation is the classic example; most everyone agrees that the decision on whether or not to donate one’s organs should the individual’s own and never the government’s, yet the evidence suggests a country’s default setting — ie starting everyone out as donors and giving them the freedom to opt out rather than the other way around — has a huge impact on how frequently people actually participate. You can “nudge” people to be organ donors, that is, without forcing them or even providing any real incentives.

I’m a big supporter of libertarian paternalism, even though I think the term is a misnomer (it’s much more paternalistic than libertarian, if you ask me). I think it’s important to acknowledge its limits, though. Proponents of policy-led “nudges” or other public interventions are coming from the angle that since we humans do not behave consistently rationally and that markets are inherently imperfect, public policy can identify and fill in the gaps wherever markets fail.

That second part about the power of public policy is a fantasy. First, it’s technically tricky (figuring out exactly how much to spend on government-led efforts to encourage kids to eat vegetables, for instance). But secondly, government simply doesn’t have the firepower to offset all the purposeful “bad” nudging that private industry pumps out.

Continue reading

When did we all get so sensitive?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recently wrote a stirring article in The Atlantic about the alleged culture of oversensitivity and emotional coddling at American universities. They write:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

The authors conclude that this environment could be contributing to higher rates of depression and other emotional disorders in young people. That seemed too big a leap for me to take at face value — really, I need someone with a psychiatry degree to weigh in on that one — but Lukianoff and Haidt’s other points are believable and powerful. The most frightening implication for me is that this cultural movement is at odds with what institutions of higher education are supposed to be: forums for free expression and the open search for truth in whatever form.

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Why I’m so pumped about Andy Grammer


I recently rode in my boss’s car for the first time, which was kind of a big deal. Somehow when you get in someone’s car, you’re invited into a uniquely personal space, and you’re able to get a glimpse into that person’s life that you probably wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. A car has its own smell, its own little dashboard ornaments, its own leftover Burger King cups. It’s the antithesis of the office, really, a place where we spend hours on end with our coworkers and yet never really seem to get to know them.

So we get in, and on our drive to a conference a couple miles from my office, it turns out my boss is really into pop music. I’m talking about stuff on the radio right now, artists whose names I barely recognize and I presume only teenagers are fans of. Stuff that makes me feel old. He cranks up the volume and is literally dancing behind the wheel.

One of the first songs in his playlist, it turns out, is Andy Grammer’s Honey I’m Good. And there is my boss — a British guy deep into his 40s, whom I’ve never seen without a necktie, singing along delightfully, without missing a single word. Nah nah honey, I’m good, I could have another but I probably should notAnd then a great epiphany hits me: Holy crap, Andy Grammer is blowing up.

I’m probably one of the last people to recognize this, I realize. In fairness, Andy Grammer has been steadily making his way to the top for a while now. I kinda got that impression when, about a year ago when my wife and I were slumped on the couch half-watching the Bachelorette one evening, he randomly appeared on the screen and started serenading a couple of the show contestants.

Why do I care about this? Well, the main thing is that Andy Grammer is a Baha’i, and his stardom now vaults him at least into the top two of famous Baha’is currently in showbiz, along with actor Rainn Wilson. We Baha’is are few in number, but have nonetheless had our fair share of noteworthy artists and celebrities. Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz virtuoso and a much more deeply spiritual and complicated man than most appreciate, is the most famous name, of course, but he was a bit before my time. I do, however, remember Alex Rocco (better known as “Moe Green” to fans of the Godfather movies) emphatically exclaiming “Thank you, Baha’u’llah!” on national TV as he accepted an Emmy in 1990. For a kid already feeling the double-awkwardness of both puberty and a weird ethnic and religious background, it was a powerful moment.

Continue reading

This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

A couple weekends ago I sat down with my laptop in a Panera where we live. I had a little bit of work to take care of, and Panera is my default choice to get stuff done. The wi-fi is free, the food is decent by casual dining/fast food standards, and you can get your tea or coffee in an actual mug rather than a paper cup (a rare treat). And the one I go to tends to have plenty of seats and never be overcrowded.

In any case, this particular visit got me thinking about something extremely important: fountain sodas. Usually when I visit places like this, I go for tap water instead of something sweet. I love soda and all, but for lunch I don’t really like paying the extra $2-3 for something I probably consume too much of anyway. At Panera, the way this works is that they give you an annoyingly small clear plastic cup that is completely different looking from the cup you get when you buy a fountain drink, and then allow you to fill this cup with water on your own at the fountain soda area.

I find that a lot of these casual chain do this now; that is, they give you a water-specific cup rather than one usually intended for a fountain drink. I suppose part of the reason is to encourage people to buy drinks rather than asking for free water with their meals, given that you can only fit what seems like 0.8 ounces of liquid inside one of those tiny cups.

But another reason, I guess, is the idea that having different-looking cups would make it harder for the soda free loader types, the ones who ask for a free cup only to fill it up with something they were supposed to have paid for, simply because it would be more obvious when someone’s dumping Cherry Coke into a cup that’s clearly intended for water. That seems to be the thought process at Chipotle, which gives the same size cup for water as it does for soda, but slaps an mistakable label on their water cups to make it perfectly clear what’s what.


The Chipotle water cup: yup, pretty clearly for water

The whole point of this is that there’s a clear element of trust involved here. Even with those simple deterrences in place to prevent people from stealing soda from fast food joints, it’s not like doing so is hard. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here. In fact, at that particular Panera that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the fountain drink area is way in the back, where no one at the front counter can see. Really, the only way to get busted is for some employee to pass by your table and spot you, and then of course to decide that, despite being exhausted and probably making just above minimum wage, it’s worth publicly shaming a customer into what cost the Panera shareholders about ten cents. In other words: not gonna happen.

But think to yourself: When was the last time you pulled off this sneaky trick, despite how easy it would be? Continue reading

Who are the Muslims in your neighborhood?

muslim_celebsA while back I wrote a post about what seems to be a growing global epidemic of anti-Muslim prejudice, in the context of how Baha’is view Islam. But a recent experience got me thinking about this issue in a new light.

My wife and I recently visited Boston on vacation, and stayed in a hotel in the area. The first morning we went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and were waited on by a middle-aged blonde lady with an Eastern European-sounding accent. She had pale blue eyes and fair skin, with a wide smile that revealed a mouth full of straight, slightly yellowed teeth. She gushed over our kids and told us about her own son, now a teenager, who’d come to the US with her as a toddler about a decade ago. As we chatted, my wife spotted the tag on her lapel, “Enisa”, which sounded curiously close to the Arabic name of my wife’s late grandmother, who was from Iraq. It turned out the two names were, in fact, the same. Our blonde, blue-eyed waitress, as it turned out, was a Muslim woman who’d escaped Bosnia during the war in that country in the 1990s.

This encounter got me thinking about how many Muslim people we interact with in our everyday lives without so much as a thought about their religious background and upbringing. I wonder how many people who harbor ill-will and suspicion towards Muslims truly understand that, in all likelihood, they’re probably already friends with some Muslim person they regularly encounter at their office, their neighborhood cafe, their dry cleaner’s, or wherever.

The ultimate, slap-you-in-the-face example of this here in America is the popular medical advice guru and daytime TV heartthrob, Dr. Oz. I have no idea whatsoever as to Dr. Oz’s personal life or religious beliefs. But how many middle-aged soccer moms watching TV at home know that Dr. Oz’s first name, Mehmet, is the Turkish form of “Muhammad”? And if they did know, what exactly would it change?

Prejudice is easy when we assume the people we dislike are somewhere else. But more often than not, they live, work, and play right next to us. In fact, they may already be our friends.