Sailing is for Gods

When I was 15, I bought a sailboat. I had saved money all summer from working at a summer camp to be able afford it, and it seemed like the best use of the money.

Now, to clarify, this sailboat looks a lot more like a surfboard with a sail than the image that “sailboat” normally conjures. It’s small, suited for one, maybe two, people, and has clear signs of wear from the previous owner. But it’s mine, and I love it more than this post will do justice.

But alright, a 15-year-old with one summer’s earnings, why a sail boat?

Nothing is more incredible than tapping into natural energies to move. I know this sounds like a latent environmentalist message, but it’s not.

It’s just that when you harness the power of the wind, you totally feel like a Norse god.

When you go out in a kayak or canoe, you have to exert your own energy, when you go out in a motorboat, you have to exert some long-dead and fossilized animal or plant’s energy, but when you go out in a sailboat, you use nothing but the wind.

Sailing is also all about calculation–angles, weight distribution, and rotational velocity for tacks and jibes.

It’s absolutely exhilarating to sail in high winds and have the boat on it’s side, forming a 60 degree angle with the water, and knowing that you leaning all the way off is the only thing keeping you from flipping over.

It’s also a lot of fun to plot out your course from point A to point B if the wind is blowing directly from B towards A. You can’t just sail directly up wind, so (via tacking) you figure out the most efficient way to zigzag over.

One aspect of sailing I didn’t observe until I was becalmed for several hours is that you don’t have control over everything. Part of what makes it beautiful is that for your voyage, you submit to the natural tendencies to the world. If it’s windy, you go fast, if it’s not, you don’t.

I also totally resonate with the idea that people have been sailing for ages. Leif Erikson, too, was in a sailboat 1000 years ago. And he sailed across the entire Atlantic Ocean.

I’d understand if all the talk about calculation didn’t make sailing seem alluring. But if feeling like Leif Erikson doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure what will.

Possible to combat oppression without risking imperialism?

women_relativism

I can’t think of a better way to highlight moral relativism–the idea that right and wrong are individually or societally determined.

Within five seconds, the cartoon dismantled my ideas of the “oppressive Middle Eastern society” and replaced them with “the Middle Eastern society”.

It’s quite easy to view the world in terms of absolute rights and wrongs, independent of any individual or societal circumstances. Such a worldview is called moral objectivism.

For instance, I could say that, as an objective right, women should feel liberated to wear whatever they want, therefore any culture or religion that imposes dress restrictions on women is wrong (i.e. Muslim women and the hijab).

While well-intentioned, the obvious problem with this train of thought is that it leads to imperialist thought, or imposing our ideas upon other groups of people. The big, powerful, and “enlightened” western nations then go out to help the poor, “unenlightened” non-western nations.

Interestingly, one of largest contributors to moral objectivism is religion, where rights and wrongs are conveyed as absolute in the eyes of a higher power. It then follows that as religion wanes out of favor in western culture, so does moral objectivism.

But I do believe in one case of an absolute wrong, a moral objective. I believe that it is always wrong to withhold or censor information. No society perfectly upholds this moral imperative, and the U.S. has particularly been under heat about this (re: NSA scandal).

I actually wrote an article a couple of months ago that argued that the NSA’s impact on our daily lives is insignificant enough that I don’t really care about the infringement on our privacy.

However, irrespective of my opinions, I entirely support that we should have known about the NSA so that we could properly come to our own conclusions about it.

I firmly believe that the most important (and only) thing that should be spread cross-culturally is information. Notably, by “spread of information”, I do not mean forcing agreement, nor forcing adherence to any practices, nor condemnation of any differing ideologies. Just information.

Sharing our beliefs with other cultures and (more importantly) learning the beliefs of those those same cultures is the only way to combat oppression (yes, even within our own utopia) without risking imperialism.

Spreading anything more than information has traditionally caused more trouble than good (re: East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East).

But doing nothing is no better. It allows for gross, preventable atrocities (re: Rwandan Genocide). It also allows for oppressive regimes that exploit their people.

Take, for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, women were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight (before which only consisted of reading the Quran).

However, the key difference between Taliban oppression of women and the classic mistake that the cartoon illustrates is that the Taliban acted against the wills of its people (one particularly moving case is the story of Aesha Mohammadzai, who had her nose and ears cut off for alleged adultery).

The old “your freedom to swing your fist stops at the next person’s face” holds. No person or group should be able to determine the freedoms of any other educated and mature person or group.

It’s one thing for a mother to restrict her son’s freedom to dance in the middle of traffic. It’s another for a government to systematically deny access to education for half of its population.

Anyone with a full-range of information and full intellectual maturity (i.e. an educated adult) should be able to make any decision he so chooses–even if it’s one we disagree with.

But in the case of information being withheld or misreported, in the case of cultist and systematic brainwashing, in the case of dogmatism, we have a duty to intervene by offering any alternative knowledge, while keeping in mind that the actual decisions are not ours to make.

From a lifelong vegetarian

I’ve never eaten meat in my life. But you’d be surprised at how many people have responded to that by asking if I eat chicken. I don’t eat fish either, but it’s more understandable that people ask that since so many vegetarians do eat fish.

The next most frequent thing I get asked is if I’m sure that I haven’t eaten meat. “Have you ever eaten pasta that was cooked in a pot that cooked meat several weeks before? Do you inspect all the food you eat to make sure it doesn’t have any signs of meat at all? Have you kissed a girl after she’s eaten meat?”

I’m sure that I’ve indirectly eaten meat at some point in my life. In fact, it probably doesn’t have to be as removed as some of the suggested scenarios. I’ve certainly eaten veggie burgers that have been cooked alongside actual burgers. It wouldn’t be unheard of for some particle of meat to have ended up in my veggie burger. Accidents happen. Whatever.

The point has never been about some sort of physical purity. In fact, that’s what people ask next. Why do I do it? Well, I’ll tell you the reasons that do not make me do it.

It’s not for diet. It’s not for politics. It’s not for religion. It’s not for pretentious ethics.

In fact, I’d like to take a second to address pretentious ethics. Nothing turns me away from the idea of vegetarianism more than pretentious vegetarians. One will always ask how long you’ve been a vegetarian and why you do it. But before you’re done answering, she’s already cut you off to tell you why she’s better than you.

I’ve been told on many occasions that it’s easier for me to be a vegetarian since birth than it is for some college student on their 3-month “exploration” of vegetarianism because I never had to be tempted by meat at all. I respect that opinion because it’s probably true. I don’t feel any desire to try meat.

But then I consider that everyone who has told me that has only done so to leverage how much better than me, and everyone else, they think they are. For such a person, his agenda is extrinsically driven. He wants recognition, probably moral or political, and he wants it now.

Doing something moral for recognition is already logically fallible, so not much to say there. Doing something political for recognition makes sense, I guess. But I’ll still dislike you for it.

As to why I do it, it’s honestly because I was raised that way and it’s what I’m used to. I don’t think it’s a better way to live than anything else, though I don’t think it’s lesser either. I just think it is a way to live.

 

 

Humble Bundle, Panera Cares, and T-Mobile show promise for corporate ethics

“Pay what you can for 10 games from Electronic Arts (EA), a $240 value”. My jaw literally dropped when I read the e-mail a year ago. Yes, partly because I was excited about the video games, but more because of the implications of such a charitable offer. A business (one of those big, non-personal, corporate things) was doing something that actually directly benefited me.

Humble Bundle has been offering deals like this since 2010, but it hadn’t caught my attention until August 2013 when they released the Humble Origins Bundle with EA, their first major publisher.

The EA bundle retailed at $240, but consumer could pay as little as $1 to unlock 6 of the 10 games–to unlock the remaining 4, consumers simply had to pay higher than the average ($5.16 when I bought it). The proceeds are then split between game developers and charities of the consumer’s choice (popular choices have included the American Red CrossChild’s Play, and Action Against Hunger).

Spirits uplifted, I also remembered hearing about how Panera Cares had just opened a store in Boston in January 2013. The logic behind it is the same as the Humble Bundle–pay what you can for high-quality products (food, in Panera Cares’ case). Their website describes the crux of their mission as “We will offer a dignified dining experience in an uplifting environment – without judgment – whether or not a person can pay”.

While Panera Cares only brings in about 70-75% of its expenses as revenues, it’s aiming to ultimately be self-sustaining. Though some customers are not able to pay the full “suggested price”, the management anticipates (and has since observed) that many customers will pay more than the “suggested price”, creating some sort of balance.

Okay, so charitable video game companies and restaurants. What’s next?

Last spring, T-Mobile decided to abolish phone contracts altogether and call bullshit on the phone industry. As it stood, customers were paying more per month to pay off “free phones” they received with their contracts. Everyone knew this was happening, fine. But, what we didn’t know was that the bill payments were never going down, not even after the phones had been more than paid off.

T-Mobile publicly called out other phone companies for being dishonest, apologized for being dishonest itself, and promised to discontinue any excessive billing. It also abolished all fees for going over allocated minutes, text messages, or data. Just a few weeks ago on June 18, T-Mobile announced that customers could now stream unlimited amounts of music without depleting any allocated data.

T-Mobile, Panera, and Humble Bundle have each embodied some form of conscious capitalism. But, as pleasantly surprised as I was by the charitable approaches these companies have taken, I couldn’t help but remember the clichéd but accurate “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, and that all of these organizations are primarily motivated by making money.

I certainly hesitate about promoting the idea that we should make decisions primarily off of what makes the most money, but after looking at what these companies have done, is that even wrong? It actually sounds pretty awesome if the best way for these companies to make money is by being charitable.

Atrocities motivated by money are still far too relevant and frequent for us to ignore (re: FIFA, Texaco/Chevron, Haliburton, etc.), and we should still remain apprehensive about any apparent corporate “benevolence”. But, with Humble Bundle, Panera, and T-Mobile taking lead, others will certainly follow–they’ll have to if they want to stay in business.

And a world where all, or even most, corporations follow in conscious capitalism sounds like a pretty good world to me.

Nobody has 7 midterms

If you’re in college, and probably high school, you’ve heard the word “midterm” thrown around quite a bit. In fact, you’ve probably heard people claim they’re studying for 7 midterms, making your meager 3 midterms seem unworthy, and forcing you to shy away from any and all conversation about them.

But it turns out that your friend does not have 7 midterm exams. They have 7 something-or-others (sometimes actual exams, sometimes projects, and sometimes just homework assignments) that someone (often a professor) decided to call midterms. But you need not even pick up a dictionary to know that “midterm” means “in the middle of the term”, which would make the idea of having a “midterm” at any other point in the term seem suspect.

So when a classmate mentioned to me that he had 10 take-home “midterms”, equally distributed throughout the semester, I couldn’t help but feel like he was being disingenuous. Why was he calling homework assignments “midterms”?

It seemed both peculiar and disadvantageous. “Midterm” is certainly more ambiguous, seeing as it could mean literally any assignment you’ve ever received (other than a “final”, which is a whole different can of worms). Plus, it just sounds kind of gross and formal.

But it then struck me that this was its very advantage. Calling something a “midterm” makes it sound more formal; calling something a “midterm” legitimizes it. Suddenly, a “midterm” becomes an easy way to garner sympathy or to excuse yourself from something you don’t want to do.

When you feel like you need some validation for your hard work, mention you have a “midterm”, and we all reflexively dip our heads, scrunch our brows, and offer our condolences. When someone who you don’t really want to hang out with asks to get dinner, mention you have a “midterm”, and feel good about having a “valid” excuse to pass on the opportunity.

So why is this a bad thing? Legitimizing school work seems positive, surely. But if every piece of schoolwork is as legitimized as a midterm, suddenly none are. Suddenly the weight that the word once held is lost. Language is our most powerful currency, albeit intellectual, and to deflate the value of any word is to deflate the values of all words we speak. For instance, I’m now less inclined to believe that Mr. Homework-Is-Midterms-Guy really has “the biggest problem of his life” when I read his tweets about it.

There is a reason that different labels and categories exist for different types of school work (homework, quizzes, tests, midterm exams, final exams, etc.). These do not exist to belittle the work we do–I’ve definitely had quite a few homework assignments that were more difficult/stressful than midterms. Midterm exams should certainly still be called midterm exams. But homework assignments should still be called homework assignments for clarity, lingual precision, and also just plain-old honesty. Doing so does not belittle our hard work.

The only person who belittles the value of his work is the person who uses “midterm” to describe it.

 

Growing up is weird, and a lot easier than I was told

Ever since I was little, I worried about my future school and work lives. I had been told that high school was going to be challenging, that college would be a true testament of my mental strength, and that the workforce thereafter required a level of maturity that I couldn’t even imagine.

Two summers before high school started, I worked as a “Counselor in Training” at a summer camp where I got paid $20 a week for 30 hours of work–I think I was on record as a volunteer and the $20 was “under-the-table” because I was only 13 years old, and you had to be 14 to actually work or get paid. I worried that if a 7th-grade summer-job was that hard, then high school, college, and any jobs 5 years down the line would be insurmountable.

A couple of years into high school and I began to confirm my fears. I remember nearly breaking down in tears because I couldn’t understand what Machiavelli or Kant said in translated plain English, or what Newton and Leibniz said in their hybrid Roman, Greek, alphanumeric dialect that they reflexively insisted upon calling Math. On average, I was in school physically for 6.5 hours per day, commuting to school 30 minutes each way, and grueling through homework for another 2 hours once I got home. That’s 9.5 hours a day, ignoring sports, clubs, or a social life. 47.5 hours a week were legally and, more importantly, culturally assigned to me without my say, and it sucked.

Approaching college felt almost nightmarish. Was I really going to have to pull all-nighters, drink coffee, and grow out a scruffy beard because I forgot how to take care of myself from being too absorbed in my work?

Upon arriving to college, I was surprised that the first few days were dedicated to name games and tours of the very colorful and summer-camp-looking campus. OK, I figured they had to lull us into complacency before dropping the mountains of work on our backs.

But much to my surprise, the “real work” never really started. In fact, as the year progressed along, I realized that on a given day, I was only spending about 3 hours in class and only about 2-3 hours on homework, if even that. In fact, I had so much more free time than highscool, that me and my friends were able to all actually sit down at a table for meals and enjoy multiple courses, eating slowly and discussing cool and interesting things, rather than stuffing our faces for our brief high school lunches, where being late to class afterwards too many times meant we failed, literally.

Now I was only spending 30 hours or so per week on blocked out activity, but it’s all stuff I actually enjoy and wanted to do anyways. Choosing my own course of study meant I never got bored, never wanted to skip class (well, mostly), never watched the clock–I just listened, learned, and enjoyed. Furthermore, I now had much more time to play music, to swim and run, to be social, to watch movies, to read, to discuss philosophy and politics, and to write articles like this one.

What’s more, halfway through the year, I learned that the 10-day winter break I’m used to from high school is actually over a month long at college, and because it separates the first and second semesters, there’s no assigned work to do.

Second semester came along and I actually had enough time that I picked up a job too. I only worked about 10 hours a week, but even with that going along, I still had plenty of time to do everything else I was doing before. The dreaded “finals period” that I’d heard so much about before ended up being mostly comprised of watching movies (first semester, me and a bunch of friends watched every Lord of the Rings movie, extended editions of course).

Of course I’ve only finished my first year of college, so I don’t mean to generalize, but speaking for what I’ve experienced so far, being in college has been a lot easier than being in middle school or high school. While, I do know plenty of college-students who’ll opt into 60 hours or more per week of school work, I know plenty (like myself) who don’t. The best part of this whole shindig is that we finally have the say in what we do.