Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2019

We are in a monster movie. Some scientists say impeachment will defeat it. Some say that will only make it stronger.

All great monster movies include heated debates among scientists about how best to deal with the devastating creature. Some desperately suggest fire, some say electricity, some say atomic bombs. Others warn that fire or electricity or atomic bombs will only make it stronger, maybe invulnerable.

That is exactly where we are on the impeachment debate. As the damage mounts spectacularly, there are some who say we have no choice but to try anything and everything to save the nation. Others warn that this will only make the creature bigger, angrier and more destructive.

Who is right? What do the monster movies tell us? Sadly, they are just movies, and in any case, there is no single certain resolution or happy ending. Sometimes the combative scientists are right and the monster is destroyed. Sometimes the skeptical scientists are right and the weapons only make the monster bigger and meaner. Sometimes the monster skulks off for the moment, but returns, or has children, and they return. Nothing to do then but wait for the sequel.

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Max Boot: Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?

 

“Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.”
Max Boot

In an era of unlimited writing heads and talking heads, Max Boot stands out as a public intellectual. Born in Moscow, educated at Berkeley and Yale, celebrated writer and analyst, former opinion editor of the Wall Street Journal, world-class expert on global affairs and national security. And once a conservative Republican, until he left the party, and wrote The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (2018), a book described as a “devastating dissection of conservatism’s degeneracy in America”.

Max Boot is a now a columnist for the Washington Post, and today published a column specifically about the anti-vaccination movement, but more generally about growing irrationality among a segment of the American electorate. He asks a question that may be on the mind of many observers, but for media seems insulting or extreme to ask: Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?:

The case for democracy is that voters in the aggregate will make better decisions than a lone monarch or dictator would. But does majority rule still work when so many people believe so many things that simply aren’t so?

Many people, of course, have always been irrational. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as many as 60,000 people were executed in Europe as suspected witches. But it would be nice to think that centuries of advances in science and education have made people less prey to phantasms and falsehoods. I suppose it’s progress that the “witch hunts” today are strictly metaphorical.

But the Internet hasn’t delivered on exaggerated expectations that it would spur universal enlightenment. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” the Internet evangelist John Perry Barlow vowed in a 1996 declaration. You don’t hear that kind of techno-utopianism anymore, and for good reason.

It’s true that the Internet has put a lot of information online. Anyone anywhere — as long as you live in a country that does not censor the Internet — can now read this newspaper. But like diners passing up a healthy salad for an artery-clogging cheeseburger, many information consumers are instead digesting junk news. One study of the 2016 election found that the 20 top false articles combined on Facebook were shared, reacted to or commented on more widely than the 20 top mainstream news articles combined….

Can it get any crazier? Actually, yes. Researchers at Texas Tech University found an increasing number of people have been convinced that the Earth is flat by YouTube videos with titles such as “200 proofs Earth is not a spinning ball.” So a belief that should have disappeared 500 years ago has been given fresh life on the Internet. This isn’t the Information Age. It’s the Misinformation Age. There is a seemingly endless supply of suckers online — and just as many grifters and cranks eager to dupe them.

Granted, Flat Earthers remain a tiny minority. They aren’t taking over the country. But do you know who has taken over? The 38 percent of respondents who in a Washington Post-ABC News survey said President Trump is “honest and trustworthy.” Yes, this is the same president whose 10,000th falsehood was recently recorded by the Post Fact Checker. Whether you support Trump or not, his dishonesty should not be a matter of dispute. But roughly 40 percent of voters seem to have suspended their critical faculties to get on the Trump train.

Irrationality may be more prevalent in the party of climate denial, but it isn’t limited to Republicans. One of the leading anti-vaxxers is Democratic scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and liberal actress Gwyneth Paltrow has made a fortune peddling “jade eggs for vaginas, $30 sex ‘dust,’ and body stickers that ‘promote healing’ ” despite scientific exposés showing that these New Age tchotchkes don’t work. Quack remedies retain their allure even in an age of gene therapy.

Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.

Absolute and infinite compassion

Compassion is hard. Absolute and infinite compassion is much harder.

Even in the close and dear circle of those you love, there are moments and circumstances in which they test you. The next circle out of acquaintances and colleagues also seem to occasionally act in ways that demand compassion be stingily parceled out; you are, after all, not a saint. By the time you reach the outer circle of current news, there will be those who might need compassion, but as thoroughly evil leaders and bad actors, do not deserve any of ours, and you will deny them. Who could blame you?

Absolute and infinite compassion does not mean ignoring, forgetting or forgiving what darker things we know about others or, for that matter, what they may know about us. There those things are. In the face of that, though, we hold compassion as a valuable currency, from some perspectives our most valuable. We can spend it freely on anyone, without condition or limit, no matter the circumstances. For those who favor economic metaphors, instead of compassion being devalued because of such free spending, flooding the market, the value goes up, way up.

Is this some idealistic, head in the clouds, good-hearted theory? You may think so. Is it hard? Very, sometimes seemingly impossible. Is it good for us? It is good for you and everybody.

When you see that guy in the news (and it could be any number of guys these days, take your pick), you may think “I am not spending any compassion on that,” it is not surprising. It is an understandable struggle. But as odious as it is, give it a try anyway. You are in possession of a superpower, and as every superhero knows, the real challenge is using your power on the worst villains.

Happy Buddhaday to

The celebration of Vesak, also called Buddha Day, varies in detail from place to place around the world, from Buddhism to Buddhism, from Buddhist to Buddhist. This year it is May 18 or May 19 or another date. It is the Buddha’s birthday or the date of his enlightenment or the date of his death or all of them.

As a birthday, this is a Buddhaday poem. Sing the song and eat some cake.


Happy Buddhaday to

how many candles
on the Buddhaday cake
not one
not two

©

James Carroll: To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood

James Carroll is the author of 20 books, including his memoir, An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, and Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism. While he left the priesthood 45 years ago, he remains a faithful Catholic.

This extraordinary essay by James Carroll is a must read—not just for Catholics or Christians or other religionists or skeptics, but for anyone interested in the place of religion in our 21st-century world.

I am not a Catholic, I am not a Christian, but I am a person who believes that religion is important and that religions of all kinds best serve and are best served when they function as human and humane enterprises, just as their founding spirits intended. When they don’t, but instead excuse or pretend or ignore their own spiritual failures, religions of all kinds not only disserve but do hypocritical harm. And turn more and more people off and away.

There is a future for the Catholic Church, as there is a future for other religious traditions, including my own. But that future, if it is to include a wide range of 21st-century citizens, must begin with institutional courage, honesty, self-reflection, and necessary change and evolution—even if that change and evolution amounts to reformation.

A very brief excerpt of the essay follows.


Abolish the Priesthood
James Carroll

To save the Church, Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy—and take the faith back into their own hands.

…What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

Clericalism’s origins lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman Empire. Christianity was very different at the beginning. The first reference to the Jesus movement in a nonbiblical source comes from the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing around the same time that the Gospels were taking form. Josephus described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.” There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped and broke bread in one another’s homes. But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction—and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

The celibacy of priests, which grew out of the practice of ascetic monks and hermits, may have been put forward, early on, as a mode of intimacy with God, appropriate for a few. But over time the cult of celibacy and virginity developed an inhuman aspect—a broader devaluation and suspicion of bodily experience. It also had a pragmatic rationale. In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishop ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the homage of a vassal to his lord. In my case, the bishop was Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York. Following this rubric of the sacrament, I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church. Should we be surprised that men invited to think of themselves on such a scale of power—even as an alter Christus, “another Christ”—might get lost in a wilderness of self-centeredness? Or that they might find it hard to break from the feudal order that provides community and preferment, not to mention an elevated status the unordained will never enjoy? Or that Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest? Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself….

The very priesthood is toxic, and I see now that my own service was, too. The habit of looking away was general enough to have taken hold in me back then. When I was the chaplain at Boston University, my campus-ministry colleague, the chaplain at Boston State College, was a priest named Paul Shanley, whom most of us saw as a hero for his work as a rescuer of runaways. In fact, he was a rapacious abuser of runaways and others who, after being exposed by The Boston Globe, served 12 years in prison. It haunts me that I was blind to his predation, and therefore complicit in a culture of willed ignorance and denial.

Insidiously, willed ignorance encompasses not just clerics but a vast population of the faithful. I’ve already noted the broad Catholic disregard of the Church’s teachings about divorce and remarriage, but on the issue of artificial contraception, Catholic dissent is even more dramatic: For the past two generations, as Catholic birth rates make clear, a large majority of Church members have ignored the hierarchy’s solemn moral proscription—not in a spirit of active antagonism but as if the proscription simply did not exist. Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way….

The model of potential transformation for this or any pope remains the radical post-Holocaust revision of Catholic teachings about Jews—the high point of Vatican II. The formal renunciation of the “Christ killer” slander by a solemn Church council, together with the affirmation of the integrity of Judaism, reaches far more deeply into Catholic doctrine and tradition than anything having to do with the overthrow of clericalism, whether that involves women’s ordination, married priests, or other questions of sexuality. The recasting of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, as I see it, was the single largest revision of Christian theology ever accomplished. The habit of Catholic (or Christian) anti-Judaism is not fully broken, but its theological justification has been expunged. Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now….

[T]o simply leave the Church is to leave its worst impulses unchallenged and its best ones unsupported. When the disillusioned depart, Catholic reactionaries are overjoyed. They look forward to a smaller, more rigidly orthodox institution. This shrinkage is the so-called Benedict option—named for the sixth-century founder of monasticism, not for Benedict XVI, although the pope emeritus probably approves. His April intervention described an imagined modern dystopia—pedophilia legitimated, pornography displayed on airplanes—against which the infallible Church must stand in opposition. Benedict’s Catholicism would become a self-aggrandizing counterculture, but such a puritanical, world-hating remnant would be globally irrelevant.

The renewal offered by Vatican II may have been thwarted, but a reformed, enlightened, and hopeful Catholic Church is essential in our world. On urgent problems ranging from climate change, to religious and ethnic conflict, to economic inequality, to catastrophic war, no nongovernmental organization has more power to promote change for the better, worldwide, than the Catholic Church. So let me directly address Catholics, and make the case for another way to respond to the present crisis of faith than by walking away.

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority….

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”

In what way, one might ask, can such institutional detachment square with actual Catholic identity? Through devotions and prayers and rituals that perpetuate the Catholic tradition in diverse forms, undertaken by a wide range of commonsensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Their ranks would include ad hoc organizers of priestless parishes; parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters; social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus; and even social-media wizards launching, say, #ChurchResist. As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. Now is the time to make this ascendance intentional, and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—gatherings around the book and the bread; traditional prayers and songs; retreats centered on the wisdom of the saints; an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken….

What remains of the connection to Jesus once the organizational apparatus disappears? That is what I asked myself in the summer before I resigned from the priesthood all those years ago—a summer spent at a Benedictine monastery on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I came to realize that the question answers itself. The Church, whatever else it may be, is not the organizational apparatus. It is a community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ. The Church is an in-the-flesh connection to him—or it is nothing. The Church is the fellowship of those who follow him, of those who seek to imitate him—a fellowship, to repeat the earliest words ever used about us, of “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.”

It’s a Beautiful Day

Beautiful Day
U2

The heart is a bloom, shoots up through stony ground
But there’s no room, no space to rent in this town
You’re out of luck and the reason that you had to care,
The traffic is stuck and you’re not moving anywhere.
You thought you’d found a friend to take you out of this place
Someone you could lend a hand in return for grace

It’s a beautiful day, the sky falls
And you feel like it’s a beautiful day
It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away

You’re on the road but you’ve got no destination
You’re in the mud, in the maze of her imagination
You love this town even if it doesn’t ring true
You’ve been all over and it’s been all over you

It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away

Touch me, take me to that other place
Teach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out
It was a beautiful day
A beautiful day
Don’t let it get away

Touch me, take me to that other place
Reach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case

What you don’t have you don’t need it now
What you don’t know you can feel it somehow
What you don’t have you don’t need it now
You don’t need it now, you don’t need it now

AI Writes: Talk to Transformer

Artificial Intelligence (AI) won’t replace writers. No machine can ride the emotional roller coaster that writing can be, and what computer could consume the inappropriate volume of coffee (or alcohol) it takes sometimes to string words together? I mean, where would you pour it?

But then…

The Verge:

Even the most advanced chatbots can’t hold a decent conversation, but AI systems are definitely getting better at generating the written word. A new web app provides ample proof, letting anyone enter a text prompt to which AI software will automatically respond.

Enter the start of a made-up news article, and it’ll finish it for you. Ask it a question (by formatting your input like this: “Q: What should I do today?”), and it’ll happily respond.

The site is called TalkToTransformer.com, and it’s the creation of Canadian engineer Adam King. King made the site, but the underlying technology comes from research lab OpenAI. Earlier this year, OpenAI unveiled its new AI language system, GPT-2, and TalkToTransformer is a slimmed-down, accessible version of that same technology, which has been made accessible only to select scientists and journalists in the past. (The name “transformer” refers to the type of neural network used by GPT-2 and other systems.)

If you want to learn about AI language generation, there’s no better way to understand its huge potential and serious limitations than by playing around with TalkToTransformer.

On the plus side, the model is incredibly flexible. It’s able to recognize a huge variety of inputs, from news articles and stories to song lyrics, poems, recipes, code, and HTML. It can even identify familiar characters from franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

At the same time, you’ll soon see that, at a fundamental level, the system doesn’t understand language or the world at large. The text it generates has surface-level coherence but no long-term structure. When it writes stories, for example, characters appear and disappear at random, with no consistency in their needs or actions. When it generates dialogue, conversations drift aimlessly from topic to topic. If it gets more than a few responses, it seems like good luck, not skill.

Still, as The Verge explained in our original coverage of GPT-2, this system is hugely impressive. Remember: this is a single algorithm that has learned to generate text by studying a huge dataset scraped from the web and other sources. It learned by looking for patterns in this information, and the result is a surprisingly multitalented system.

It may not be hard to find gaps in GPT-2’s knowledge, but it’s impossible to know whether you’ve explored the limits of what it can do.

Putting Talk to Transformer to the test, I prompted it with some of the most famous opening lines from classic novels (shown in bold). Note that for the sake of space, I have not included the actual opening paragraphs for comparison, author v. machine. If you’re not familiar with the real thing, you can easily look it up.


Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. But no one would speak of him as a beggar. He has nothing that may entitle him to such a wife; and therefore it lies open to him, as to a man of ill estate, and who does not have any means, that he might marry his daughter, to whom his fortune might furnish a dowry—a woman who bore his child. So that, in other respects, the poor man is so fortunate in life as almost to be the chief benefactor of his country, without the necessity of making a comparison of his wealth with his want of property. But he has no reason to make such an comparison. For without it his property may grow to become much greater than the property of the richest in the family, whom it is not fit to receive any assistance from. So that no one will be willing, by any means, to enter into a marriage-contract with any one who is rich enough to support him. But if the property of any one whom he is bound to support can be reduced to…


Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It is possible that the old prophets who would write in our days, the last of them we are not able to remember, would go mad during the coming of the Age of Light, but only among us, for now all is still the same to them.

The world, or at least that part of the world, which is not dominated by the forces of light and sound, becomes a desert of blind blindness, which has its origin in the lack of knowledge in the human brain. The old prophets said that all of us who have knowledge of God must, sooner or later, fall into an abject state of ignorance about the reality of Things. However, those who are the more ignorant, have never the slightest fear of the Age of Light, as there is…


James Joyce, Ulysses:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.  He had a large brown dog with blue eyes in his mouth, about twelve feet long.

“We are in the presence of the gods,” he said with a tone like a dog barking. As I walked inside, I glanced through the mirror which had the words “THE GODS” stamped upon it .  I recognized the face that stood behind the mirror and the voice of the god.  The god, whose name was Ouroboros, the One who is above and beyond, asked him if it was his name.  The dwarf replied that his name was “Buck”.   The god asked Buck Mulligan how he liked to be called.  Buck answered, “Well, in order to be called what we are, we must be named. I like it when you call me that way.”   The god had been talking about the god with his eyes shining and he felt something in his chest.
“I need a shave,” said Buck,…


Albert Camus, The Stranger:

Mother died today.  I’m sure she has a daughter too.  I’ve been trying to get her to talk to me for years.  I tried to give her a name, to remind her what her life was worth, to show a smile to tell her I love her and that she is special.  But, I couldn’t talk to her much.  She just was.  I’m not sure even if I could talk to her on the phone that would be enough to help her out.  Not a real good idea because, the moment she does meet someone, she will feel abandoned and so will almost any adult.   The last time I talked to her was before she passed away.  She was sick.  I saw her one last time in one of her many hospitals in the hospital.  She didn’t talk very often.  She seemed okay, at least when I had her.  She told me she was sorry she didn’t talk to me sooner.  I asked her about her kids, she said she was not home for the kids…


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. If the hobbit was happy, it was also easy to look upon him. Why, that hobbit could do whatever he liked, and so he came often and went noisily and noisily of one to another to meet his needs, but the poor hobbit felt nothing and never had anything to feel for. How can a hobbit feel for someone else? It is hard for him to have the confidence that someone else would feel for him.

Then when the hobbit is very tired and doesn’t know what to do, how he feels for somebody is also not easy to come in contact with him if he is far from civilization; there is so little contact with a non-European. The one time the hobbit fell very sick he looked back in vain for all his friends and nobody would tell…


 

The Surprising Boost You Get From Strangers

I say, “Please don’t talk to strangers, baby”
But she always do
She say, “I’ll talk to strangers if I want to
‘Cause I’m a stranger, too”
Randy Newman, Have You Seen My Baby?

Elizabeth Bernstein writes in the Wall Street Journal:

The Surprising Boost You Get From Strangers
Sometimes a stranger—not a friend or a loved one—can significantly improve our day, providing comfort or helping to broaden our perspective

Sometimes a stranger—not a friend or a loved one—can significantly improve our day. A pleasant encounter with someone we don’t know, even a nonverbal one, can soothe us when no one else is around. It may get us out of our own head—a proven mood booster—and help broaden our perspective.

“People feel more connected when they talk to strangers, like they are part of something bigger,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, in Colchester, England, who studies interactions between strangers.

In research studies, Dr. Sandstrom has shown that people’s moods improve after they have a conversation with a Starbucks barista or a volunteer at the Tate Modern art museum in London. She’s also found that people are happier on days when they have more interactions with acquaintances they don’t know well and that students enjoy class more when they interact with their classmates.

And yet most people resist talking to strangers, she says. They fret about the mechanics of the conversation—how to start, maintain or stop it. They think they will blather on and disclose too much—or not talk enough. They worry they will bore the other person.

They’re typically wrong. Dr. Sandstrom’s research shows people underestimate how much another person will like them when they talk for the first time. And in a study in which she asked participants to talk to at least one stranger a day for five days, 99% said they found at least one of the conversations pleasantly surprising, 82% said they learned something from one of the strangers, 43% exchanged contact information, and 40% had communicated with one of the strangers again, an indication they might be making friends.

Scientists believe there may be an ancient reason why humans enjoy interacting with strangers. To survive as a species, we need to mate outside our own gene pool, so we may have evolved to have both the social skills and the motivation to interact with people who are not in our tribe.

You don’t even have to talk to complete strangers to reap the benefits. Multiple studies show that people who interact regularly with passing acquaintances, or who engage with others through community groups, religious gatherings or volunteer opportunities, have better emotional and physical health and live longer than people who do not. The researchers believe that engaging with someone we don’t know well is more cognitively challenging than interacting with loved ones: Rather than use the verbal shorthand that develops in close relationships, we have to speak in full sentences, engaging more of our brain.

Why do we enjoy talking to people we don’t know? An encounter with a stranger, when pleasant, fulfills four basic human needs, according to Rachel Kazez, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago, who advises her patients to talk to strangers when they are feeling low. It gives us a sense of control, because we can choose whether to talk or not, and how much information we disclose.

We feel connected—it can sometimes be easier to open up and have an intimate conversation with a stranger because we know we won’t see that person again. We get to feel capable, because they don’t know our insecurities or setbacks. And the encounter may give us a sense of meaning or purpose, especially because a stranger doesn’t have to be nice to us.

“If you are feeling lonely and have a nice interaction with a stranger on a bus, you can suddenly feel like: ‘Oh, I fit in. I’m part of this city,’ ” Ms. Kazez says.

Poem on fire

Poem on fire

this poem had more words
but like logs on fire
it consumed itself

©

The Trump Economy: One-Third of Middle Class Can’t Afford $400 Surprise Expense, Federal Reserve Board Finds

Trump wants credit for the current U.S. economy, which he claims to have single-handedly made great. Despite broad and imprecise indicators such as GDP, unemployment rate and the stock market, the truth is that the economy is fragile for many—and not helped by the craziest and most undisciplined economic leadership in modern American history.

Here is one more sign of just how fragile.

Wall Street Journal:

One-Third of Middle Class Can’t Afford $400 Surprise Expense, Fed Finds
Many U.S. adults remain in position of ‘financial fragility’ despite ‘marginally’ improved economic security, central banker says

By Lalita Clozel
May 10, 2019

WASHINGTON—One-third of middle-class American adults couldn’t afford a $400 surprise expense, and some 6% also couldn’t manage such a cost even by borrowing money or selling something, a soon-to-publish Federal Reserve survey of household economics is expected to conclude. The middle class was defined as households with between $40,000 and $85,000 in annual income in 2018.

Fed Gov. Lael Brainard said in a speech Friday that the Fed’s 2018 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, expected to be released later this month, would show that while economic security has been “marginally” improving, many U.S. citizens—both in- and outside the middle class—were still in a position of “financial fragility.”

Americans’ widespread inability to shoulder an emergency expense “is something that is very pronounced in recent years, and we should be taking a hard look at it,” Ms. Brainard said. “It’s still a pretty large percentage of our respondents who find it difficult…to meet what may seem like relatively manageable expenses.”

Financial security is “one important marker of middle-class living standards,” Ms. Brainard added, speaking at a Fed community development conference. “Wealth is a very important source of resilience, allowing households to handle unexpected expenses to manage the usual changes in income over a lifetime.”

Many people in the middle class rely on credit cards to cover unexpected costs, Ms. Brainard said. Nearly 3 in 10 middle-income adults carry a credit-card balance most or all of the time, the Fed governor said. Those households are five times as likely to borrow if faced with a $400 expense as those who never carry a balance, she added.