Travel Guilt

If you’ve got a big trip planned for this year, should you cancel it?  Should you refrain from traveling at all, because of the impact that your share of carbon emissions from the plane flight may be having on Arctic sea ice, or rising sea levels?

edited-travel-guilt-770x515That’s the question posed by a curious New York Times article earlier this week.  The author wrings his hands about the issue, caught between a desire to broaden his horizons by seeing the world and his professed guilt that his travel interests are selfish and evil because they may be affecting global climate change.  After quoting lots of statistics about the potential impact of one person’s activities, and envisioning being glared at by a hungry polar bear while pondering his contribution toward disappearing Arctic ice, the author notes that he’s still going to take a trip to Greece and Paris, but only after he’s purchased enough “carbon offsets” to “capture the annual methane emanations of a dozen cows.”

The Times article notes that, in 2016, two climatologists published a paper that concluded that there is a direct relation between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice, and “each additional metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent — your share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the summer sea ice cover by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet.”  Taking a cruise isn’t the answer, either; the article says that cruise ships produce three or four times the pollution produced by jets.  Even worse, the article states that just by being an average American we’re harming and even killing fellow human beings, and quotes a determination somehow made by a University of Tennessee professor, who concluded: The average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.”

So, should we just stay huddled in our houses with the lights turned off, so as to minimize our personal contribution to potential global catastrophe?  I won’t be doing that.  I like leisure travel, and unlike the Times writer, I’m not wracked with guilt about it.  I’m quite skeptical of any calculation that purports to show that, in view of all of the huge, overarching factors, such as sunspot cycles, solar flares, ocean currents, and wind systems, that can affect the Earth’s climate, the activity of an “average American” can be isolated and found to have a direct, measurable impact on climate.  Science has endured a lot of black eyes lately, with research and calculations shown to be inaccurate and, in some instances, politically motivated, and I’m just not willing to accept unquestioningly that going to visit my sister-in-law in California will melt 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  I also question how the activities of an “average American” are calculated, or how a walk-to-work person like me compares to the carbon footprint of the “average.”

So, I guess you can call me selfish, because I do want to see more of the world and experience the wonders of faraway places.  But don’t just ask me — ask the places that travelers visit if they’d rather not receive the infusions of cash, and the jobs created, that come from being a tourist destination.  If we’re going to be doing impossibly complex calculations of benefits and harm, how about throwing in the economic and cultural benefits that flow from travel into the equation?

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“Burn-out” As A Medical Condition

Every few years, the World Health Organization produces a new version of the International Classification of Diseases, a catalog of acknowledged medical conditions that is used as a diagnostic guide by health care providers.  With every new version of the ICD, there seems to be some controversy about whether or not a particular ailment or complaint should be recognized.

burnoutThis year, the “should it be included or not” controversy swirls around “burn-out.”  Apparently there has been a long, ongoing debate about whether “burn-out” should be recognized as a medical condition, and the WHO has now weighed in with a “yes”:  the ICD-11 lists “burn-out” and defines it as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”  According to the WHO, “burn-out” syndrome is characterized by “1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.”  Notably, the ICD-11 tries to draw a kind of line in the sand by stating that “burn-out” “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

My guess is that many — if not all — workers have, at some particular point or another in their careers, experienced “burn-out” as defined by the WHO.  Jobs typically involve stress, and it’s almost inevitable that there will be periods where multiple obligations pile on top of each other, leaving the worker feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and dissatisfied.  But . . . should “burn-out” be viewed as a medical condition?  What, exactly, is a doctor supposed to do for a patient who presents with classic “burn-out” symptoms — prescribe a three-month vacation, or a new job, or new job responsibilities, or a change in the patient’s workplace manager?  Will employers be required to allow leaves of absence, beyond their designated vacation periods, for employees whose doctors diagnose them with “burn-out,” and will health insurers be required to pay for vacations as a form of treatment?  By classifying “burn-out” as a diagnosable health condition, aren’t we really going far down the road of “medicalizing” common aspects of our daily lives?

And can “burn-out” really be limited to the “occupational context,” as the ICD-11 instructs, or will the same concepts underlying workplace “burn-out” ultimately be recognized in other areas, like family or marital or college “burn-out”?  Here’s a possible answer to that question:  the ICD-11 now recognizes video gaming, with cocaine, and alcohol, and gambling, as a potential source of addiction.

Drinking The Beer The Monks Drank

Important news from Belgium for beer lovers — the monks of Grimbergen Abbey have managed to piece together long-lost information about the ingredients and methods used to brew their different beers going back in the Middle Ages, and have started to brew beer again.  The rediscovery of the recipe is a kind of historical detective story where language plays a key role.

rtx6vw88The story starts with the monks of the abbey, who like other monks of the Middle Ages, brewed, and enjoyed, beer.  (In fact, some monks fasted during Lent and drank only specially brewed beer that was a kind of liquid bread during that period — which probably made for an interesting Lenten season.)  The Grimbergen Abbey brews were known far and wide, and their ingredients and the methods used by the monks were set down in books first written in the 12th century.  The monks continued to brew their beer, changing their recipes periodically, until 1798, when French Revolutionaries, who were no friends to religion, burned the monastery to the ground.  The 1798 incident is one of three times that the monastery has burned down.

But the monks of Grimbergen Abbey are resolute.  Fortunately, some of the monks rescued the 12th-century books and stored them, but the recipes and methods were thought to be lost because no one could read the writing, which was in a mixture of old Latin and old Dutch.  Four years ago, the monks at the monastery decided to tackle the problem and invited volunteers from the community to help them in trying to decipher the writings.  Together they were able to identify ingredient lists, the types of hops and bottles and barrels that were used, and even the names of the different beers the monks brewed over the centuries.

Now the monks, in partnership with Carlsberg which offers a number of the Abbey’s previously known beers for sale, have built a new microbrewery on the site of the original brewery and have started to brew a beer based on some of the old recipes and methods.  It’s a heady brew — 10.8% alcohol, by volume — and will be sold by the glass in Belgium and France.

A toast to the indomitable beer-loving monks of Grimbergen Abbey, and the volunteers who helped them to recover a bit of liquid history!

Grading The “Experts”

In our modern world, we’re bombarded with the opinions of “experts.”  Virtually every news story about a development or an incident features a quote from an “expert” who interprets the matter for us and, typically, makes a prediction about what will happen.  “Experts” freely offer their forecasts on specific things — like the contents and results of the Mueller Report, for example — and on big-picture things, like the direction of the economy or geopolitical trends.

d36a6136-6dfd-425a-b7f7-2b2a1b446b1eThere are so many “experts” giving so many predictions about so many things that it’s reasonable to wonder whether anyone is paying attention to whether the “experts” ultimately turn out to be very good at making their predictions.

The Atlantic has a fascinating article about this topic that concludes that so-called “experts” are, in fact, dismally bad at predicting the future.  That’s not a surprising conclusion for those of us who’ve been alive, paying attention, and recalling some of the confident forecasts of days gone by.  Whether it’s the “population bomb” forecasts noted in The Atlantic article, or the predictions in the ’80s that Japan would soon own the world, or the prognostications about how elections will end up or whether one party or another has that elusive “permanent majority,” recent history is littered with failed expert predictions.

Why are would-be “experts” so bad at their predictions?  The article notes that academics and others who focus on one field tend to be especially wrong in their foretelling because they typically ignore other forces at work.  They also are often so invested in their specialty, and their belief in their own evaluations, that they react to failure by doubling down on their predictions — like doomsday cult leaders who tweak their calculations after a deadline has passed to come up with a new day the world will end.  People who are less invested in the belief in their own infallibility, and who are less focused on one discipline or area of study, tend to be much better at making predictions about the future than the “experts.”

Does the consistent thread of “expert” predictive failure mean that we shouldn’t try to see ahead at what the future may bring?  Of course not.  But it does mean that we should take the dire forecasts of “experts” with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Keep that in mind the next time a talking head says we need to make some dramatic change in order to avoid certain doom.

Nick Bosa, Leon Trotsky, And Editing Your Own History

Nick Bosa is a very talented former Ohio State defensive lineman who will be participating in the upcoming NFL draft.  He’s also someone who’s been a regular user of social media and Twitter, where he’s expressed some opinions that other people disagree with — such as saying Black Panther is the worst Marvel movie, calling former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the movement of players kneeling during the National Anthem, a “clown,” and expressing support for President Trump.

But, as the NFL Draft Day nears, and Bosa is being considered by teams for one of the very first choices in the draft, he’s begun scrubbing his social media presence and Twitter feed and deleting the tweets and comments that might be deemed controversial and, conceivably, might affect his ultimate draft position.  The New York Times recently published an article about Bosa’s effort, and whether his more contentious views would make any difference in where he is drafted, anyway.

leon-trotsky-mediumIt’s an interesting aspect of today’s social media universe that allows users to do what the Soviet Union did after Leon Trotsky became anathema to Stalin and the other Communist leaders:  edit history, and carefully remove the blackballed (and eventually assassinated) Trotsky from official records and photos, the better to present the correct, sanitized “official history” of the Russian Revolution and the early days of the U.S.S.R.  Through the miracle of modern computer technology, users who regret their past ill-advised tweets or Facebook posts can go back and change them or delete them entirely, and hope that nobody notices, or cares, or kept some kind of record of the prior statement.  Nick Bosa’s scrubbing effort is newsworthy, but how many other people — people who are getting ready to run for office, people looking for special jobs, or people who just aren’t comfortable with something they said before — are going back and reshaping their own on-line histories, to delete anything that might be a problem in the future?

Of course, Trotsky disappeared from the official version that Soviet children learned and Soviet leaders espoused, but it didn’t change the reality of Trotsky’s existence, and records kept outside of the Soviet Union just exposed the whitewashing effort.  People who are editing their own social media histories similarly have to hope that somebody, somewhere, didn’t keep a copy of the controversial tweet.  If you are a political candidate who’s done a scrub job, I expect you’d always be a little uneasy, wondering whether a screen shot of the disagreeable statement might turn up somehow — which might just make your editing effort look like a cover-up.

I guess the better course is to think twice before you post things in the first place.

See The Treasures While You Can

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The fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral is a devastating event for those of us who celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of our predecessors — but also teaches an important lesson.

Notre Dame is a central landmark in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a treasure of western civilization, with its Gothic architectural grandeur and exquisite rose window and flying buttresses and soaring ceilings that seem to reach up to heaven itself.  Generations of Parisians and travelers have marveled at the cathedral’s magnificence, enjoyed the quiet solitude of its immense interior spaces, and wondered at how it could possibly have been built so long ago.

Now, much of that has been destroyed by the blaze.  The French government has vowed to rebuild the cathedral, but it’s impossible not to wonder whether fully recreating the structure can be accomplished and how the interior decorations that were destroyed can possibly be replaced.  And even if it can be done, will the result still inspire the same awe-inspiring thrill that the original Notre Dame, in all its Gothic glory, inevitably provoked?

As I was thinking of the fire yesterday, I was immensely saddened by the magnitude of the loss, but also happy that I’ve had a chance to see Notre Dame, on multiple occasions, before the fire, including a visit that Kish, Richard, Russell and I took over the holidays several years ago when I took the picture shown above.  Notre Dame was decorated for Christmas on that occasion, with a huge Christmas tree positioned in front of the entrance.  It was a memorable trip, and I’ll always be grateful that Richard and Russell had a chance to see Notre Dame as it was.

It’s helpful to try to find something positive, even in the face of a tragedy like the fire at Notre Dame.  It’s very difficult to do in this case, but perhaps the useful lesson is this:  don’t assume that wonders like Notre Dame, in all their glory, will always be around, or accessible.  If you want to go see something, do it — because you never know when it might be changed into something different, if not gone forever.

The Boy Who Cried “Regulation”

Recently Facebook’s billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that called for “a more active role for governments and regulators” to establish “new rules” for the internet.  The op-ed has provoked lots of comment.

facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-testifies-before-us-congress-highlightsZuckerberg’s op-ed piece begins:  “Technology is a major part of our lives, and companies such as Facebook have immense responsibilities. Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone.”  He says he agrees with people who say Facebook has “too much power over speech” and argues that government regulation is needed in four area — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.  Zuckerberg adds:  “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Zuckerberg’s article, while couched as a call for regulation, reads like a PR piece for Facebook; it argues, among other things, that Facebook has developed “advanced systems for finding harmful content, stopping election interference and making ads more transparent” and has taken other steps in the four areas.

It’s safe to say that Zuckerberg’s clarion call has been viewed with significant skepticism in the United States and abroad.  An article in The Hill says that “[r]egulators, lawmakers and activists who have grown wary of Facebook saw Zuckerberg’s move less as a mea culpa and more as an effort to shape future regulations in his favor,” and quotes, for example, a UK regulator who says that if Zuckerberg really believes what he has written he can start by dropping an appeal of a $560,000 fine the UK imposed for Facebook’s activities in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  Others are leery of inviting the government to regulate on-line speech, and believe that Facebook — having thrived and made millions in a regulation-free environment — now wants to see regulations imposed in order to complicate and thwart efforts by new competitors to grab some of Facebook’s social media market share.

The reaction to Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece illustrates what happens when you have frittered away your credibility.  Facebook’s history doesn’t exactly fill people with confidence that the company has users’ privacy and best interests at heart; too often, the company appears to have placed generating revenue above user concerns and data protection.  I’m inherently dubious of any governmental action that touches free speech, and large-scale regulatory efforts often impose staggering costs without providing much benefit — but even if you think such efforts are a good idea, Zuckerberg is exactly the wrong person to float such proposals.  He’s like the boy who cried wolf.