The Tao of Selma (or, the Problem with Productivity)
The trouble with productivity as a value is that it treats a morally ambiguous act as a moral good. What, specifically, do we want to be producing more of?
Jason Gots is a New York-based writer, editor, and podcast producer. For Big Think, he writes (and sometimes illustrates) the blog "Overthinking Everything with Jason Gots" and is the creator and host of the "Think Again" podcast. In previous lives, Jason worked at Random House Children's Books, taught reading and writing to middle schoolers and community college students, co-founded a theatre company (Rorschach, in Washington, D.C.), and wrote roughly two dozen picture books for kids learning English in Seoul, South Korea. He is also the proud father of an incredibly talkative and crafty little kid.
Before she died well into her 90s, I was pretty close with my paternal grandmother, Selma. She was a Polish Jew by birth, from Bialystock, and she and her mother had left on a ship when she was five years old to come to America. Like many in her generation of Jewish immigrants, she was unsentimental about the old country and generally forward-looking, with little time for self-pity or wallowing in regret. For Selma, the wife of a microbiologist and medical school professor, and herself a retired public school guidance counselor, the purpose of life was to enjoy it — through uncomplicated pleasures like inexpensive travel, hiking, reading great books, and spending time with friends. Any fussing and existential silliness beyond that and you’d get her “meh” gesture — a shrug of the shoulders, pursed lips, raised eyebrows.
I was a little overweight back then and I remember her once telling me that it was good that I had some substance. A little meat on my bones. This was a slight dig, I think, at my parents who were always exercising and counting calories. She frowned on self-improvement in general because it asserted that life ought to be something better than what it was.
I wonder what she would have made of all the apps and devices and TED talks these days designed to make us more productive. All the pseudoneuroscientifically based programs designed to boost our this and maximize our that. Aside from the fact that she had no interest in anything technologically more complicated than a microwave, I think she would have found it all a silly waste of energy. And for the most part, I think she would have been right.
The trouble with productivity as a value is that it treats a morally ambiguous act as a moral good. What, specifically, do we want to be producing more of? From the perspective of the owners of and investors in commercial enterprises, so long as business is going well, more productivity is always better. But productivity (like "hard work") can produce many things, some of them great (like a cure for cancer), others horrible (like atomic bombs). From a moral perspective, it is not always necessarily good to be more productive.
Intelligent people will differ on what sorts of things are good to produce, of course. I'm not a big fan of Donald Trump's life or work. Others might argue that his massive, ugly construction projects provide jobs and increase New York City's attraction as a tourist destination, thereby bringing still more jobs and income flowing into the city. They might actually try to argue that Trump Tower is beautiful. Some might even insist that Trump's "straight talk" is refreshingly honest. I think that one Shakespeare soliloquy is worth an infinitude of Donald Trumps. Others find Hamlet's droning on a complete waste of time and even (if they should be forced to endure it) a threat to their personal happiness.
But let's say you're producing something we can all agree is great, like the aforementioned cure for cancer. That kind of creative problem-solving, experts agree, requires a lot of plodding away in the laboratory and then (sometimes after a nice, long nap) a keen flash of insight or two.
In this case, increasing your productivity could mean one of at least two things: plodding less (and thinking more) or plodding for longer hours each day. Either way, you'd presumably be approaching your goal (of curing cancer) faster than if you'd just kept on at your natural, unimproved pace. And who could argue against a quicker cure for cancer?
Right about now, Selma would be making that face. For her (though she wouldn't have put it this way) too much engineering was a threat to serendipity. Not that she saw some intelligent design in the way things happen naturally. Selma was no mystic, and she'd have been skeptical of the comforting thought so dear to my other grandma, Bea, that "everything happens for a reason." If anything, and though I don't think she'd ever read much Eastern philosophy, she was a Taoist, a believer in the subtle balance between taking action and leaving things to run their own course. This was most manifest perhaps in her serious hobby of gardening. She grew vegetables, mostly, spending time each day clearing away weeds and bugs to create the conditions that would allow her cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini to grow fat and free amid a chaotic tangle of leaves and vines. Her kids, too, my father and my aunt, got the essential lessons that school was paramount and that automobiles could kill you, and were otherwise more or less free-range. I can't say the same for my own son, growing up in 21st century New York City under the loving but unflagging supervision of a phalanx of educators, coaches, and two very involved parents.
More productivity might be good if it meant producing good things better and more efficiently, thereby leaving yourself more time to range free, to explore, to learn new things. Among today's productivity gurus, Tim Ferriss is remarkable at least for the fact that he seems to be focused on rescuing people from the treadmill of wasted time and effort. Whether or not it is possible, as he claims it is, to make tons of money in a "four-hour work week" while spending half the year mastering the tango, Brazilian Jujitsu, and Sanskrit is another matter.
But in the end I fear that most efficiency and productivity programs, from Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century to Tim in the present day, tend ultimately toward turning all of life into a relentless lab experiment in which no space is free from scrutiny and nothing is ever allowed to happen by chance. An obsession with productivity also generally seems to lead not to tango lessons in your newly spare time, but to more work. I suspect a slave mentality at work here, the transformation of the wage slavery most of us live under into a matter of principle. After all, if we choose to work like dogs and treat it as a form of self-improvement, isn't that a sort of freedom?
According to the Tao of Selma, too little and too much human intervention lead to a world out of balance, one with no room for "play" in the sense of wiggle room. No possibility of surprise. One so circumscribed as to squeeze most of the joy out of living. Aside from the occasional shrug of disapproval, she didn't go on and on about it the way I've been doing here. She just lived the way she wanted to — what I'd call the good life, one not easily packaged into a sexy system of actionable advice for personal and professional success, but more likely than most of them, I'd be willing to bet, to lead as close as any of us can get to lasting happiness.
talk to @jgots on Twitter
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.