Caffeine: The Drug of the Productive

So America, let me repeat, is more than ever a meritocracy defined by productivity.  Now, that’s not all we are.  And it’s far from bad news that we’ve gotten over so many prejudices that we’re about seeing merit according to an objective, measurable standard.  It does mean, however, that in some ways we’re under more pressure than ever.

So it’s not surprising that, increasingly, our drug of choice is caffeine.  It is, after, a “productivity tool,” a big help in our efforts to make more money.

“For most caffeine consumers,” we’re told,  "its chief benefit is that, by stimulating alertness, it helps you get more done.”  In my own experience, it also makes you smarter—better at calculating and “making connections”—in the short term.  It also can fill you with a sense of urgency that can even morph into enthusiasm about trivial pursuits.  It can be the source of  a good mood (which, admittedly, can readily slide into high anxiety)—the indispensable mood for a consumer-oriented field such as higher education.

It’s no wonder, of course, that caffeine is sneaking into “a growing number of products.”  Those who produce products know that we need and want it, even when, for the moment, we don’t think we do.

For many of us (well, for me), “the working day would be…frankly horrifying” without “the planet’s most popular ‘psychoactive drug.’”

Our schoolmarmish, Bloombergian nudge theorists want to be able to say that this drug is bad for your health.  Well, most of the evidence is in the other direction, at least if it’s used in moderation.  Coffee doesn’t have any calories. Drinking a significant amount of it fends off diabetes and at least a couple common kinds of cancer.  It also floods you with antioxidants.  Up to six cups a day, experts say, exposes you to no additional risk factors.

Coffee can produce insomnia.  But for the productive and creative, insomnia is a blessing if you can live well with it. We’re told Aristotle did everything he could to avoid sleep.  Coffee functions as that gadfly we philosophers need to keep our lives from not being as examined as possible.

Lots of history’s creative minds were “epic” caffeine users. Balzac, who drank “as many as 50 cups of coffee a day,”   insisted that "Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”  We assume that much caffeine wasn’t good for Balzac’s health. But what is life—however brief—for but doing one’s life’s work?

Is there our downside to our addiction? Well, it probably also enhances our weakness—our inability to relax and enjoy and be in love in the moment.  Alexis de Tocqueville observed that we Americans are restless in the midst of abundance, meaning that we’re unable to appreciate how good we have it already. We’re always whining and wanting more, until death interrupts our various pursuits of happiness. Caffeine has surely helped  us be more restless than ever. So it may well make us less happy.

Caffeine addiction, probably already in California and maybe other states, can be treated through the medicinal use of cannabis. And there’s always alcohol to take the edge off the miseries of our mortality. Remember the words of the country song:  “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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