Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Many Charms of Valparaiso, Chile

On August 21, 2017, I viewed my first total solar eclipse from Culver, OR. My best friend, Peter, and I were so awestruck by the experience that we decided to travel all the way to La Serena, Chile to witness the eclipse on July 2, 2019. As we expected, it was an awesome experience that we shared with the 300,000+ tourists and locals from the beach in La Serena. The major reason we decided to visit Chile this summer was to see the eclipse, but what I truly cherish about my Chilean experience was our tour of the colorful seaside city of Valparaiso.  

We spent three days exploring the city which is approximately one hour away by bus from the capital of Chile, Santiago. Much to our surprise, we found several vegan restaurants and my new favorite Spanish expression is "veganos?" Apart from the delicious cuisine, most of our time was spent wandering up and down the streets of Valparaiso and stopping to take hundreds of photos of the insanely amazing street art. I wish I could hire some of these talented Chilean artists to paint a mural on the outside of my house, but my neighbors might not approve. My traveling companion was not as obsessed with the street art as I was, but both of us agreed that Valparaiso is home to some unique and incredible pieces of art work that you won't find anywhere else in the world. Almost every block we visited featured extraordinary street art. The art was so mind-blowing that we didn't mind climbing up and down one hill after another in search of the next great piece of art. 

The vibrant street art is only a small fraction of the colors that make up Valparaiso. Almost every building was painted a different color which made for some fantastic photo opportunities, especially when viewing the city from one of the many hills. Our favorite way of traveling up a hill was the funicular (a special type of railway that travels up and down steep slopes). The locals call them "ascensors" (elevators). There used to be 31 operational elevators in Valparaiso that operated as a transport network. Now only 15 survive and these old, rusty machines make a great tourist attraction. 

Despite our rather limited Spanish-speaking skills, the Chilean people were some of the friendliest people I have met in all of my international travels. The most common question I asked was "banos?" (bathroom) and every local person I approached pointed us in the right direction. At each of our hotels, we received nice thank you gifts such as a visitor's guide to the city, an eclipse keychain, local crystals, and even an eclipse blanket! Disclosure: The hotel in La Serena gave us the eclipse blanket as their way of apologizing for the lack of hot water in our bathroom. 

The only problems we experienced in Chile had to do with heat. Due to its geographic location, the coolest months in Chile are from June to September, with temperatures ranging from 47 to 61 degrees F. With the exception of Santiago, all of our hotels did not have central heating. We were given small space heaters, but they either stopped working after only a few minutes or gave off such little heat that we had to wrap layers of blankets around ourselves burrito-style in order to keep warm. 

The ugliest part of our trip was the 11 hour flight from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile. Even though I had a window seat, I was unable to sleep during the overnight flight from Los Angeles to Santiago. When I arrived the next day at 5:20 AM, all I wanted to do was sleep for a few hours. Fortunately, my friend, Peter, arrived in Santiago one day before I did so I didn't have to wait until 3 PM to check into our hotel room. Despite the torturous long flight, we have decided to revisit Chile next year in December for the 2020 solar eclipse, which will take place on December 14 in Villarrica, a small city in southern Chile located on the western shore of Villarrica Lake, 464 miles south of Santiago and close to the Villarrica Volcano.

In order to prepare for this trip, I have decided to enroll in a beginning conversational Spanish class at Diablo Valley College. If I like the class, I'll take more conversational Spanish classes next year. Looking back, I wish I had taken Spanish in high school and college instead of French, but back then, I never imagined I would end up living in California. 

The next U.S. eclipse will take place in April 2024 in Muncie, Indiana, which is very close to the town where I grew up. For the second time in seven years, the US will be visited by a total eclipse that covers a large swathe of the nation. This one will also include Mexico -- where the weather is likely to be finest -- and Canada, where there is a much higher likelihood of cloud cover. Key cities in the path of totality include Dallas, TX and Montreal, Canada, with Niagara Falls also within the stripe of darkness. With Easter early (March 31, 2024), the eclipse will provide a great opportunity for families with school-aged children to see an eclipse.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Sun

According to Chip and Dan Heath, "we all have defining moments in our lives - meaningful experiences that stand out in our memory." Viewing my first total solar eclipse from Cove Palisades State Park in Culver, Oregon was definitely one of those unforgettable experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. Normally, I try to avoid using the word, "awesome," in my everyday parlance because I think this word is overused, but on Monday, August 21, 2017, the word, "amazing" wasn't quite majestic enough to describe the celestial beauty of what I witnessed with my naked eye. Here is a brief summary of one person's experience of her first total solar eclipse. Have you ever seen a total solar eclipse? 

When you decide to see a total solar eclipse, the first decision you have to make is where is the best place to see it? Back in January 2016, I thought a good place to view the eclipse would be Salem, Oregon, which is on the path of totality, and is only an hour's drive south of Portland, Oregon. But my best friend, Peter, advised me that the eastern part of Oregon would probably be a better location due to less cloudy weather conditions.

Madras, Oregon is near the center of the path of the eclipse, which was an ideal location, but when I called every motel in Madras and neighboring communities last year in January, I was told that their accommodations have been sold out for the past three years. The motels were also charging three times their normal rate. But then we discovered that Cove Palisades State Park in nearby Culver has three "luxury" cabins and 368 campsites available for reservations nine months before the eclipse. I put the word "luxury" in parentheses because the cabins are fairly spartan. They only include a refrigerator, microwave oven and a rubber mattress pad that is only half an inch thick. But it would have been a lot more comfortable than camping inside a tent. 

Last year in late November, Peter and I logged onto the park's Website at precisely 12:01 am and tried to reserve one of the luxury cabins. Unfortunately, three other lucky parties beat us to it, but we were able to secure one of the 368 campsites. A Chinese group from Milpitas, California whom the other campers called "the scientists" also thought Cove Palisades State Park in Culver, Oregon was an ideal location because they set up several high-powered telescopes right across from our tent. They were called "the scientists" because of all their fancy telescopes and we found out that the leader of their group happens to have a Ph.D. in astronomy. 

The second decision you have to make is when to arrive. Since the eclipse took place on a Monday morning, we decided to arrive at the park on Thursday, August 17 in order to avoid heavy traffic on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday right before Monday's eclipse. We also wanted to have enough time to explore the park and find the best spot to watch the eclipse. 

On Monday, August 21, we woke up earlier than usual, quickly ate our breakfast, washed up and hiked across the road from our campsite to a lovely secluded spot right by Lake Billy Chinook. We met a family from Milpitas, California who had arrived a few minutes before we did, but we found another picnic bench right by the lake. There were trees obscuring the view of the sun, so we moved the bench further away from the trees and closer to the shore of the lake in order to catch the full view of the eclipse in all its glory. 

As the minutes ticked by, the temperature around us steadily dropped by a few degrees every ten minutes. When we first arrived, I felt perfectly comfortable in my solar eclipse T-shirt and shorts, but by 10 am, I wished I had worn long pants and a hooded jacket. It was fascinating to watch the moon gradually move over the sun like the sliding weight of a metronome until all we could see was a thin fingernail of golden light slowly blinking at us as the sky gradually darkened. 

Nineteen minutes and thirty seconds later, cheers erupted from all over the lake as the moon slid completely over the sun and twilight rapidly descended on the lake like a soft cotton blanket. I gasped at the view of a pulsating grayish orb hovering in the sky with lacy ribbons of white light curled around its face like miniature rings on the planet Saturn. Two minutes later a bright spark of diamond white light burst forth from the right-hand side of the moon and I quickly slipped on my eclipse glasses to protect my eyes from the sun. I will never forget those magical two minutes when the sun was completely obscured by the moon except for its glowing corona. 

After reflecting on such an awesome experience, was there anything "bad" about our trip? It depends on one's comfort level with hot summer temperatures. From approximately 11 am until 5 pm, the temperatures in the park hovered in the high 80s to low 90s. Of course, there was no air conditioning at our campsite so most people cooled down by going for a swim in the lake. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my swimsuit so I tried to cool myself down by running through the sprinklers set up at various places around our campsite. I felt rather foolish doing this because I'm a middle-aged adult, but it was the fastest way to cool myself down without taking a shower. I wish the total eclipse had taken place during a cooler time of the year, but you can't control the timing of Mother Nature. 

The ugliest part of our trip was the unexpected four-hour traffic jam from Bend, Oregon to Klamath Falls, Oregon. We thought that by leaving on Tuesday morning, we could avoid the heavy traffic on Monday when most of the eclipse watchers vacated the campsite to head home, but we were wrong. Apparently, many other eclipse watchers had the same idea as we did and Tuesday's traffic nightmare was by far the worst traffic jam we had ever experienced in our lives. We did not arrive back in the San Francisco Bay Area until 2:22 AM on Wednesday. 

Why do I think I will always remember my first total solar eclipse? Research has found that in recalling an experience, we ignore most of what happened and focus instead on a few particular moments. According to Chip and Dan Heath, "when people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length -- a phenomenon called "duration neglect." Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the "peak;" and (2) the ending. Psychologists call it the "peak-end" rule. 

The best moment of our trip was viewing the total solar eclipse, but the worst moment was the heavy traffic on Tuesday, which also happened to coincide with the ending of our vacation. Nevertheless because I loved my first total solar eclipse, I'm glad we made the trip from California to Oregon. I’m looking forward to my next total solar eclipse! The next one will take place on July 2, 2019 in Chile, Argentina, the South Pacific and Antarctica.

In case you were curious, the next American eclipse will take place on April 8, 2024 and it will cross the following states: Texas (including parts of San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth and all of Arlington, Dallas, Killeen, Temple, Texarkana, Tyler and Waco), Oklahoma, Arkansas (including Hot Springs, Jonesboro, and Little Rock), Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana (including Bloomington, Evansville, Indianapolis, Muncie, Terre Haute, and Vincennes), a very small area of Michigan, Ohio (including Akron, Dayton, Lima, Toledo, Cleveland, Warren, Newton Falls and Austintown), Pennsylvania (including Erie), Upstate New York (including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, the Adirondacks, Potsdam, and Plattsburgh), and northern Vermont (including Burlington), New Hampshire, and Maine.

Since I'm from Indiana, I plan to view the next American total solar eclipse from Muncie, Indiana. My sister wants to join me and my girlfriend, Tammy, offered to let us stay at her farm house in Muncie. Here is a bit of trivia information about Muncie. It was featured in the film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." It will be fun to see the eclipse with some of my Hoosier friends! 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


On January 20, 2017, Americans will experience the arrival of our new President, Donald Trump. On Saturday night, I experienced the movie, "Arrival," with one of my girlfriends. Even though this film is science fiction, its message rings true today. With the arrival of language, a host of new possibilities for our world emerged. Language is powerful and potent. It can be used as a weapon as we witnessed with all the name calling and mudslinging that took place during the 2016 Presidential election. But it can also be used as a tool to forge new connections. Its power belongs to the individual who wields it and it should be used wisely and with discretion.

Proper interpretation is essential. The same word can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the recipient's frame of reference. For example, the word, "weapon," holds a negative connotation for most of us, but were you aware that there is a second definition of weapon? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, weapon can also mean "something (such as a skill, idea, or tool) that is used to win a contest or achieve something." 

The environment in which language unfolds plays an important role in how words are interpreted. Fear is a dangerous element when it enters our lexicon. And the rabble rousers know how to use words that invoke fear among the general populace in order to achieve their political agenda. During periods of uncertainty, fearful people often have a knee-jerk reaction to unsettling events and seek quick fix solutions. If they view another person or an entire race as dangerous or undesirable, they look for ways to shut these people down or prevent them from entering our country. The Great Wall of China was built in order to protect China against incursions by nomads from Inner Asia, but the wall was not impenetrable and today, walls cannot protect a nation from being invaded.

[Spoiler alerts] Even the shape of a language can influence one's interpretation. In "Arrival," the language of the aliens was circular, a series of endless loops unbound by the linearity of time. By contrast, the English language is linear. Circles represent connection and continuity. There is no beginning and no end because the continuous line of a circle represents a never ending cycle of generation and regeneration. I love how Louise chose to give her daughter a palindromic name, "Hannah." I have always loved the name, "Hannah" because of its symmetry. The movie, "Arrival" displays many patterns of symmetry and plays with the concept of time moving forward and backward. 

Language affects the way the brain experiences the world. The aliens come from a world where everything is connected and their message was one of connection. But in "Arrival," China chose to view the aliens as invaders instead of connectors. China is an insular society where people who are not Chinese are viewed as outsiders so it was not surprising that initially, China feared the aliens. The alien pods landed in twelve different spots on Earth because it was the only way to teach humans the importance of connection and collaboration. 

When the leader of China finally decided to withdraw from its military action against the aliens, the other countries followed suit and shared what they learned with the other sites. But Louise was the only person who was able to dissuade the Chinese leader from attacking the aliens. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I will not disclose how she was able to do that, but I will give you a hint. She used language. 

Why did the aliens choose Louise as their conduit? Unlike the other members of the scientific mission, she allowed herself to become vulnerable and transparent. Inside the alien pod, she was the first person to remove her oxygen mask so the aliens could see her face more clearly. Even her house is transparent with its stunning floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake. Her home is my new dream house! 

If you want to form a connection with another individual, transparency is key. In my opinion, lack of transparency was one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the election. People who reveal information are seen as more trustworthy than people who decline to disclose information. With Hillary, there were many examples where she wasn't forthcoming, so she came across as a hider, which I think explains in part why she was viewed as untrustworthy by many Americans. For example, when Hillary had pneumonia, she chose not to address the issue and denied being unwell until a video emerged of her fainting. 

Donald Trump was also extremely private about some things, such as his tax returns. But he had a few key acts of proactive disclosure that perhaps made people forget about the situations where he declined to disclose information. What's more, the fact that people felt that he "told it like it is" -- he was forthcoming about beliefs that might garner him social stigma -- enhanced his reputation for trustworthiness. Saying risqué things can give you great bang for your buck when it comes to trust -- though of course, it also has its risks. 

Back to Louise. In addition to being transparent, Louise was also vulnerable, which turned out to be a strength. Being vulnerable with someone establishes intimacy and trust, creating a shared emotional experience to forge a bond. People typically feel open and warm toward someone who indicates she or he is vulnerable. Vulnerability can also humanize you, facilitate learning, and enable optimal problem solving. Louise's vulnerability helped her decode the language of the aliens and save our world. 

Here are my main takeaways from the movie:
  • Words can serve as a weapon or as a tool. Focus on your intent and ramifications of your actions. Are you more interested in attacking or understanding?
  • Before you automatically jump to conclusions, interpret someone else's words carefully. Consider the context of the other person's speech, the environment, his or her history, etc.
  • Examine your own emotions before you take action. Are you in a fearful state of mind? If so, then there's a greater chance that you will misinterpret someone else's words.
  • Be transparent. If you want to develop stronger relationships with others, being secretive about yourself will not score you any points.
  • Have the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a weakness. Vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen and heard even when you can't control the outcome.

​If you enjoy language, communication and linguistics, this is the movie for you. It is not your typical science fiction movie. While there are some special effects, the most powerful effect this movie will have on you is your mind. If you are willing to immerse yourself into the experience of this movie, you will view language and communication in a different light (hopefully in a more inclusive rather than derisive manner). 

Friday, May 20, 2016

How to Give a Speech According to the Head of TED

Most of you have heard of the famous TED Talks. For the uninitiated, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences run by the private nonprofit organization Sapling Foundation, under the slogan "Ideas Worth Spreading". TED's early emphasis was technology and design, consistent with its Silicon Valley origins, but it has since broadened its focus to include talks on many scientific, cultural, and academic topics. TED events are held throughout North America and in Europe and Asia, offering live streaming of the talks. They address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. The speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. Past speakers include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Billy Graham, Richard Dawkins, Richard Stallman, Bill Gates, Bono, Mike Rowe, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel Prize winners. TED's current curator is the British former computer journalist and magazine publisher Chris AndersonSince June 2006, the talks have been offered for free viewing online. As of March 2016, over 2,400 talks are freely available on the website. In June 2011, the talks' combined viewing figure stood at more than 500 million, and by November 2012, TED talks had been watched over one billion times worldwide.


On May 16, I attended a talk given by Chris Anderson, the head of TED entitled TED Talks. As a member of Toastmasters International since 2003, I wanted to learn more about how to create an unforgettable talk. The typical Toastmasters speech is only five to seven minutes long, compared to an 18 minute TED talk, but surprisingly, I discovered that it's much harder to craft a seven minute talk compared to an 18 minute talk. I view a Toastmasters speech as a light snack -- something that can be easily consumed in just a few minutes whereas a TED talk is more like a robust salad or a hearty bowl of soup. 

When I attended the talk, the $28 ticket included a copy of Chris Anderson's latest book, TED Talks: The Official Guide TED Guide to Public Speaking. Anderson was only scheduled to speak for 45 minutes, but here are the key takeaways from his talk:

When Anderson first took over leadership of TED in 2001, he struggled to persuade the TED community to back his vision for TED. He was not a naturally great speaker, but when he spoke from his heart, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, rose to his feet and started clapping at the end of his talk. And the whole room stood with him and started clapping too. The lesson I learned: Speak from your heart.

Start strong. Don't say you're grateful to be giving this talk. It's boring. Give people a reason to come along for the journey.

Be human and show vulnerability. One of the best ways to disarm an audience is to first reveal your own vulnerability. Share an anecdote. Talk conversationally to your audience. 

Give your audience a gift of an idea that could potentially change who they are. What is an idea? It is a super power because with ideas, we can create new worlds. Find a way of speaking up if you have an important idea to share. Your number-one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and to rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners. An idea is anything that can change how people see the world. The only thing that truly matters in public speaking is not confidence, stage presence, or smooth talking. It's having something worth saying. And what matters is that you do it your way. 

Words matter. It's the words that tell a story, build an idea, explain the complex, make a reasoned case, or provide a compelling call to action. You can't just use your language. Use the audience's language. Use metaphors to explain something that is complex. To say something interesting you have to take the time to do at least two things:
  1. Show why it matters. . . What's the question you're trying to answer, the problem you're trying to solve, the experience you're trying to share?
  2. Flesh out each point you're trying to make with real examples, stories, facts. 

Every talk should have a throughline, the connecting theme that ties together each narrative element. Try to encapsulate your throughline in no more than 15 words. And those 15 words need to provide robust content. Your throughline should have some kind of intriguing angle. What is the precise idea you want to build inside your listeners? What is their takeaway? What is it that you want your audience to have an unambiguous understanding of after you're done? The key is to present just one idea -- as thoroughly and completely as you can in the limited time period. You should then build a structure so that every element in your talk is somehow linked to this idea. 

Make eye contact, right from the start. Eye contact, backed by a warm smile, is an amazing technology that can transform how a talk is received. Don't give a talk with your head buried in your notes. Look at your audience. Be warm. Be real. Be you.

Make them laugh, but not squirm. Humor hacks away the main resistance to listening to a talk. Audiences who laugh with you quickly come to like you. But be careful. Ineffective humor is worse than no humor at all. Telling a joke that you downloaded from the Internet will probably backfire. What you're looking for instead are hilarious-but-true stories that are directly relevant to your topic or an endearing humorous use or language. 

Several years ago, a man I used to work with told an off-color joke at a money manager seminar in front of our top clients. Perhaps the joke would have been funny if you were hanging out with him in a bar on a Friday or Saturday night, but the joke had absolutely nothing to do with the investment topic and it was inappropriate for an audience of mostly sixty to seventy-year-old couples. 

Park your ego. Would you want to trust your mind to someone who was completely full of himself? Ego emerges in lots of ways that may be truly invisible to a speaker who's used to being the center of attention:
  • Name-dropping
  • Stories that seem designed only to show off
  • Boasting about your or your company's achievements
  • Making the talk all about you rather than an idea others can use
Tell a story. We're born to love stories. They are instant generators of interest, empathy, emotion, and intrigue. The stories that can generate the best connection are stories about you personally or about people close to you. You can use stories to set up your ideas. But be careful. Some stories can come across as boastful or emotionally manipulative. The guideline here is just to be authentic. Is that the real you telling the story? A good test is to imagine whether you would tell this story to a group of old friends. And if so, how. Be real, and you won't go too far wrong. 

Persuade. Take something down that is out there and replace it with something else. Show the absurdity of the idea you're trying to replace. 

Unleash your voice. You have this whole other layer of communication by what your voice can do. You can really transform the meaning of what you're trying to say through your voice. Use your voice to pull people in.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Disconnected Young Men

On May 10, I attended a talk given by Dr. Philip Zimbardo,author of Man Interrupted: Why Young Men Are Struggling & What We Can Do About It. Dr. Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is famous for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, and has written various introductory psychology books, textbooks for college students, and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life and The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy. He is also the founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project, a a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that teaches people how to take effective action in challenging situations

According to Zimbardo, the new threat to young males (preteens to twenties) is their choice to live in virtual reality instead of social reality. Unfortunately, this is not a phase and they don't outgrow it. So many young men have chosen social isolation because they don't know how to resist the enchantment of computer and video games. 

Video games are a multi billion dollar industry. They are popular because they focus on male values -- aggression, competition, war, destruction. Seventy percent of all video games are played by men. In video and computer games, young men get to experience being the hero and the antihero without the conditions or permanence of real life, and without risking life or limb. Therefore, it's no wonder that many young men consider the thrill-paced worlds of online porn and video games far more exciting than anything they encounter on a daily basis in their real lives. Thanks to the Internet, pornography is available 24/7. Children as young as six years old are watching pornography. 

The young men who game to excess often avoid anything that undercuts their means of achieving validation because it is so woven into their identities. Therefore it is doubly threatening when their activities are being questioned because they themselves are being critiqued at the same time. Virtual actions and ego become interchangeable. Distraction and immersion into their preferred virtual space serves as a shield around them, pushing any ego-puncturing inconsistencies out of sight. 

Zimbardo explained that there's nothing wrong with video games if played in moderation (one to two hours a day). For example, video games can improve hand eye coordination. The problem is that kids are playing video games seven to ten hours a day and they are addictive because they're designed to be addictive. Video game producers are constantly making their games more unusual and exciting to combat habituation. The problem is virtual reality has become more rewarding than physical reality for many young men. Multiple problems are associated with excessive gaming including obesity, desensitization to violence, social anxiety, social phobia and shyness, greater impulsivity, depression, and decreased school performance.  Compared with teenagers who don't play video games, adolescent gamers spend about 30 percent less time reading and 34 percent less time doing homework. When we immerse ourselves in a stimulating visual environment where a lot of information is demanding our immediate attention, the cognitive load overburdens our working memory. Having a high cognitive load amplifies distracted mess, and makes it more difficult for the mind to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant data. Studies of gamers that play for long periods of time have shown a reduction of gray matter areas of their brains, including parts of the frontal lobe, striatum, and insult -- areas that carry out executive functions like planning, prioritizing, organizing, empathy, and impulse control.  Surprisingly, it takes only a week of playing violent video games to depress activity in portions of the brain responsible for emotional control. Zimbardo provided the following statistics:
  • 47% of men who are heavy media users get fair to poor grades
  • 33% of men who are moderate media users get fair to poor grades
  • 23% of men who are light media users get fair to poor grades

Not all aspects of real life are laid out in a discernible pattern as is found in computer and video games. As gamification becomes more integrated into everyday life, creatures of habit will look for similar patterns elsewhere, likely becoming lost or losing motivation when the path does not appear before them. According to Zimbardo, our current generation is conceivably the less prepared generation for real world navigation, decision making, and problem solving. 

Let's face it. Earning rewards and achieving status in a virtual world is much easier than achieving those things in real life so our young men are paying the price of social isolation in the real world because their artificial worlds are so much more enticing and rewarding. One reason why young men may feel entitled to things these days is because very few of them actually participate in the process of building or maintaining the things they take for granted. Just as it is necessary to humanize a person to have empathy, in order to fully appreciate any given thing there needs to be a sense of the efforts and resources that went into making it. Nowadays, many young men have no sense of awe. They have become disconnected from the physical reality around them. Young men no longer have the patience or desire to lean how to build the foundations of success, nor are they inclined to expose themselves to what they perceive as ridicule if they were to fail along the way.  

Why are video and computer games so enticing? Zimbardo explained that when you play these games, you receive a score and the more you practice, the better you get, which motivates you to play even more in order to earn a higher score. Video and computer games offer virtual rewards at regular intervals, often after a certain level has been reached or a specific skills has been mastered. This schedule of reinforcement fits in perfectly with the kind of operant conditioning used by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1940s to motivate pigeons to press a lever endlessly for extra food in his specially designed "Skinner Box." Behavior that is positively reinforced tends to be repeated, especially if it comes at variable rates, and in video games, after the required amount of effort and skill has been made, the reward is guaranteed. 

Some games are designed to give rewards sporadically along the way to the goal. Similar to the bait-and-switch technique, these games reward behavior only some of the time in order to keep a person engaged. Throwing in the occasional punishment -- like taking away hard-to-come-by weapons -- is another way to effectively control a player's behavior as well as motivate them to improve their skills so they don't make the same mistakes again.

The late Maressa Orzack, who was a clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, determined that the process of character development and reward systems within video games are a facet of operant conditioning, and are deliberately being incorporated into the games by their sophisticated designers. 

Why are so many young men playing video and computer games excessively? According to Zimbardo, socially isolated young men have fewer outlets for expression. Games are fun, visually dynamic and they provide young men with opportunities to form virtual communities. The goals of the game are clear and simple, and there are guaranteed rewards -- unlike real life.  

According to Zimbardo, shyness has become a self-imposed psychological prison. When I was a young child, I wanted nothing more than to shed the shackles of my self-imposed shyness. What is different today is that shyness among young men is less about a fear of rejection and more about fundamental social awkwardness -- not knowing what to do, when, where or how when faced with a social situation. They have never learned the basic rules of social communication. 

Many young men today are choosing social isolation. They don't care about what other people think of them and they are not afraid of rejection. They don't want to be part of the social community. Instead, they would rather be left alone so they can do their own thing.  The disadvantage of playing video games, especially a lot of exciting video games, is that it can make other people and real life seem boring and not worthwhile in comparison. Compared with gamers that play with others in the room, lone gamers are less likely to seek information about politics or current events, raise money for charity, or be committed to civic participation. A gamer's enemy today is social obligation: responsibilities, time management, dealing with real people, and taking real risks. 

When my son entered middle school, we noticed how he gradually drifted into the artificial world of video and computer games. He used to look forward to our Sunday family dinners at CPK (California Pizza Kitchen), but once he became hooked on computer and video games, gaming became far more important to him than family meals. Instead of eating in our dining room, he started eating all of his meals in front of a video or computer game. In vain, I tried to get rid of all of his computer and video games, but his father thought I was being too draconian and allowed him to continue playing his beloved games for as long as he wanted. 

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, predicts that the average young person will spend 10,000 hours gaming by the time he reaches age 21. To put this figure into context, it takes the average university student half that time -- 4,800 hours -- to earn a bachelor's degree. The average young man spends 13 hours per week playing computer and video games versus five hours per week for the average young woman. Young women primarily play games on smartphones and tablets; games that are short such as Words With Friends and nonviolent, whereas guys are playing immersive first-person shooter games on consoles or computers that require a keyboard and mouse and have a much longer time commitment.

Some journalists are trying to convince people that women are just as into gaming as guys, but it's misleading. The 10,000 hours figure is the average of young men and young women, and since guys play almost triple the amount, the hours spent gaming by age 21 is probably more like 14,400 hours for young men versus 5,600 hours for young women. Girls' interest in gaming generally tapers off by their teenage years whereas boys' interest increases.

Addiction to video and computer games has resulted in an unstable hierarchy of needs. If you recall from your introductory psychology class, in Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, there are five stages of growth in humans corresponding with different levels of needs. The bottom of the pyramid consists of our most fundamental needs which he called Physiological needs: food, water, sleep, shelter. The next level represents our Safety needs: employment or access to resources, health, freedom from fear. The third level contains Love/belonging needs: friendship, family, intimacy. The fourth level represents our Esteem needs: confidence, achievement, mutual respect with others. And the highest level is Self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, being able to accept negative facts about yourself, achieving one's full potential. 

The Internet and virtual reality has made everything in Maslow's hierarchy of needs irrelevant except the bottom two tiers. A person who is gaming all by himself may be able to achieve their esteem needs yet completely bypass a sense of belongingness and fail to address their need for love. Gamers may think they have "hacked Maslow," but it does not come without a major side effect: entitlement without the ability to relate to others. Games put you in a fictional mature situation, but without any of the consequences you would normally face in real life. You can feel powerful and 'experienced' without all of the failures leading up to real-life success in those areas. Furthermore, self-actualization cannot be reached without the fulfillment of other needs, so a lack of intimacy and appreciation for others creates a distorted sense of potential and actualization that is not based in any shared social reality. The lack of relatable skills, especially social skills, can distort the ability to evaluate social competence and success.

Zimbardo also spent a fair amount of time during his talk discussing pornographic sites on the Internet, but I have decided to focus this discussion on violent non-sexual computer and video games. 

He concluded his talk by proposing solutions that the government, schools, parents, men and women can adopt to combat rampant computer and video game addiction among our young men. 

  • Create male mentorship programs
  • Support the role of the father (reform welfare system, enforce paternity leave)
  • Get more men in grade school teaching positions
  • Get junk food out of schools
  • Limit endocrine interrupters
  • Teach life skills: personal finance, how to apply for a job, job interview skills and other adult responsibilities
  • Teach sex education: biology and psychology of sex (most schools primarily focus on the biology of sex and ignore the psychological aspects)
  • Incorporate new technology by making learning more visual and interactive
  • Make education more entertaining
  • The Department of Education should offer technology classes for teachers
  • Quash grade inflation
  • Teach responsibility and resiliency (growth mindset versus fixed mindset)
  • Keep a weekly activity journal of all family members and include household chores, homework, playing computer and video games
  • Take technology out of your son's bedroom
  • Have regular family dinners with no cell phones or tablets allowed
  • Encourage your son to join Boy Scouts
  • Turn off the computer and video games
  • Learn how to dance and make female friends
  • Set long-term goals in the real world
  • Become future-oriented instead of present-hedonistic
  • Vote!
  • Exercise regularly outdoors in nature
Women (mothers and sisters)
  • Offer compassion, constructive criticism
  • Show boys how to communicate their feelings and values in a healthy way
  • Date a man as if you're investing in the stock market (look at his long-term potential)
Now that my son is in college, I'm hoping he doesn't have enough time to spend hours each day playing computer and video games. Since he no longer lives with me, I have no idea how he spends his free time. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope for the best now that I have an empty nest! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Becoming Wise

Last Tuesday night, I attended a talk given by Krista Tippett, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, National Humanities Medalist, and author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living in San Francisco. Wisdom is not a cheap, throw-away word. It has heft and substance, but what exactly is wisdom? I believe it’s not quite the same thing as intelligence although I would argue that intelligence is a prerequisite of wisdom. It’s also not quite the same thing as being knowledgeable. I’m sure everyone knows someone who is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, but simply possessing a tremendous storehouse of knowledge is not very helpful if you don’t know how to properly apply what you know. My friend, Peter, is an applied mathematician, which is a fancy way of saying that he formulates and figures out how to apply mathematical methods, models and theorems to solve practical problems in science, engineering, business, computer science and industry. Of course, you need a certain amount of knowledge to be wise, but you don’t need encyclopedic or dictionary knowledge.

If you look up the word, wisdom, in the dictionary, what will you find? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, wisdom is the “understanding of what is true, right or lasting.” It’s also “common sense, good judgment, learning and erudition.” That definition didn’t feel entirely complete to me so I was intrigued when Krista broke down her definition of wisdom into five ingredients. In today’s posting, I’ll explore the first three ingredients. In a future blog posting, I’ll discuss the other two. According to Krista, the breeding grounds of wisdom include words, body, love, faith and hope.

I majored in English at Indiana University so I’ve always had a lifelong love affair with words. When it comes to wisdom, Krista believes that words should open imaginations rather than shut them down. Think back on conversations you’ve had with loved ones and important people at work. If the person you’re speaking with is constantly shutting you down, how can wisdom be transmitted and shared? I love this quote from Krista: “The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.”

The world of wisdom would not be complete without the second ingredient, which is body. Krista defines body as the physicality of who we are and the world around us. “The body is where every virtue lives or dies. Our physical selves, as we are learning, are so much more than merely physical. They carry trauma and joy and memory and our capacity for opening or closing to life and one another.”

Closing to life can be just as important as opening to life. Back in 1988, I worked as a Financial Consultant for Merrill Lynch in San Francisco. I sat in a cubicle so more often than not, I met clients and prospects in their homes and offices. On a late Friday afternoon in December, one of my client appointments in Oakland took much longer than I anticipated and by the time I started driving home the sun was setting. I wasn’t that familiar with Oakland and in 1988, there was no such thing as GPS. I ended up getting lost so I pulled into a gas station so I could ask for directions on how to get to the Bay Bridge. The gas station was deserted except for a group of scruffy-looking young men hanging out near the entrance. As I pulled into the station, they started walking rapidly towards my car and they did not look friendly to me. I felt my skin become cold and clammy, which was my body’s way of telling me that I needed to get the hell out of there now. Fortunately, I found a safer street where I could pull over and I figured out how to get home by looking at my map. We tend to take our bodies for granted, but ignoring the deep wisdom your body imparts can be a matter of life and death.

Our bodily wisdom can also help us in areas other than life and death decisions. In early April, I visited Breckenridge and Denver, Colorado. I really wanted to love Breckenridge because I enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In April, there was still plenty of snow in Breckenridge and I spent several days cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in a pristine, winter wonderland. Denver appealed to me because my dear friend, Diane, lives there. I met Diane the same way I met Bonnie, another dear friend, through my Awakening Joy class. Unfortunately, I developed a permanent side effect of my LASIK eye surgery surgery – dry eye syndrome. Breckenridge is 9,600 feet above sea level and Denver is 5,130 to 5,690 feet above sea level. As you get higher in altitude, the atmosphere becomes thinner (less pressure).  This means that the total amount of water vapor the atmosphere can potentially hold is decreased. Arid climates, smog, pollution and dry or windy conditions increase dry eye risks. Even though the cost of living is lower in Denver compared to San Francisco, I need to live in an unpolluted city on the West Coast in order to maintain the health and comfort of my eyes.

Our bodies are what keep us alive, but I don’t think life has as much meaning without the third ingredient of wisdom, which is love. According to Krista, “love is the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of human community and challenge in the twenty-first century. Love is a virtue and way of being that we have scarcely begun to mine. People who have turned the world on its axis across history have called humanity to love.” I think she was referring to luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa. I believe that choosing to love another person is one of the most daring acts you can commit because it forces you to become vulnerable and receptive. Let’s face it. In order to receive wisdom, you must be in a receptive state and love helps us become more receptive and open.

If you’re open to becoming wise, I highly encourage you to read Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise. In her book, you can explore the following dimensions of wisdom – words, body, love, faith and hope through the amazing interviews she conducted with the leading thinkers of our day from theoretical physicist Brian Greene and mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn to New York Times bestselling author Brene Brown and Brain PickingsMaria Popova.

I began this posting with my favorite ingredient of wisdom, which is words and I’ll end my discussion with words, but not just any words. Krista Tippett’s favorite words are: nourishing, edifying, redemptive, courageous, generous, winsome, adventurous, curious and tender. My favorite words are wholesome, intelligence, spirituality, and engagement. These four words encompass my own personal definition of what it means to become wise – leading a Wholesome life with Intelligence, Spirituality and Engagement.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

My Own Personal "Religion"

“The unexamined life is not a life worth living for a human being.”

~ Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

I believe we are pattern-seeking creatures (we see patterns even when they don’t exist) and from these patterns we construct meaning because we are driven to make sense of the world and our place in it. But what if life exists outside of our patterns, outside of meaning. Inspired by learning more about Dr. George Vaillant’s adaptations I created my own personal “religion” which is a blend of humor, altruism, Buddhism, intelligence, and trust (haBit).

There is a difference between joy and happiness. I believe that having the capacity to experience joy becomes a valuable talent particularly in old age. When you are dying and racked with pain, it is hard to be happy all the time, but joy, wonder, curiosity, and humor remain. Old age can become a creative, joyful way to play when you learn not to take everything so seriously. Rather than strive for continual happiness, I think we should learn to appreciate and savor fleeting, serendipitous moments of joy. 

The steadfast belief that my life has meaning and purpose staves off depression. Of course, the black dog of despair howls outside my window occasionally, but like happiness, I realize that unexpected setbacks are only temporary. Through the unconscious and conscious workings of my flexible mind I can frame everything that happens to me within a lesson that is rich in meaning. Learning brings me joy even when the lesson is painful. I realize there is another way of looking at things. I have a brilliant friend named George, who is a renowned biophysicist at the University of California in Berkeley. Meeting George for dinner is always a treat because he is such a delightful and intellectually stimulating companion. His world view is shaped by the skillful interweaving of his wise humor and vast intellect. That is why humor and intelligence are part of my new “religion.”

I feel the happiest when I am with people who know how to make me laugh. During the first half of my life, my seriousness bordered on moroseness, but as I’ve gotten older, I have learned how to lighten up and not take life so seriously. Yes, the world needs to be saved and that is why altruism and Buddhism will always play an important role in my life, but there are also other important facets of life I wish to explore such as passion, romance and love. 

I believe the intellect must be actively engaged in the quest for knowledge. I tend to downplay the value of faith because what we accept as the truth must be objective and evidence-based. Even though I am not a scientist, I admire the scientific approach to life. By performing scientifically valid experiments on individuals (human and non-human agents) as well as natural phenomena, scientists can construct knowledge to formulate an objective view of the truth.

Trust is as important as the truth. People who trust life tend to be happier (having trust that in the end everything will work out for the best). I hope my new haBit will bring more joy into my life!