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The Voluntourist: A Q&A with Ken Budd
In the past year, there have been a few studies that suggest that volunteer work is as healthy for the aging body and brain as exercise and the right diet. In that spirit, I spoke with Ken Budd, executive editor of AARP, the Magazine, and author of the new book,The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem, about the benefits of volunteering abroad, the importance of small gestures and the gift of unexpected underwear.
Q: Some researchers say that volunteering is good for your brain. Do you find that your voluntourism experiences enriched your brain power in any way?
Ken Budd: Every time I volunteered, whether it was China or Kenya, I’d show up and think, “Oh my goodness—I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Because I always felt inadequate and out of place and ill-equipped to do the work. In Costa Rica my wife and I taught English and we thought we’d be helping a teacher—until we got to the school and discovered that we were the teachers. So I was usually in major “uh-oh” mode the first few days, and it was only when I got home that I’d realize… wow. That was really special. And I think anything that does that—anything that pulls you from your comfort zone—is good for you mentally, spiritually, emotionally. Our brains need challenges, and voluntourism forces your brain to work in a different way. These trips are good for improving relationships, too. When my wife volunteered with me, it was fun—and enlightening—to see ourselves outside of our usual roles.
Q: Do you think a foreign trip is more taxing in that way?
Ken Budd: Definitely. I worked for two weeks at a special needs school in China, and the special needs part alone would have been intense, because I have no experience with that. But I don’t speak Chinese, either, so I couldn’t understand the teachers, I couldn’t understand the students, I couldn’t read anything—that made it much more difficult. I brought a notepad and after about a half hour my first day I wrote, “culture shock overload.” That’s how it felt. It’d be like showing up for your first day of a new job and discovering that everyone speaks Klingon.
Q: What do you think people need to consider before taking part in a voluntourism trip? Any red flags they should watch out for?
Ken Budd: Look for an organization that has ties to the local community: You want an org that’s creating partnerships rather than dependencies. I went with pretty established groups like Earthwatch, Cross-Cultural Solutions, and Global Volunteers—they’ve been doing this a long time and they have strong local ties. And I always recommend contacting previous volunteers. Find out what the experience was like, what were the accommodations like, was the work they did helpful, and so on. Also ask the organization how your money will be spent. You'll typically pay a program fee that covers your room, your food, local transportation, etc., but that money also covers the organization’s operating expenses. You’ll usually be asked to fill out a form on your skills or write an essay about why you want to volunteer, and you may need to undergo a background check if you’re working with kids. If an organization doesn’t ask you to do those things, that’s another warning sign. I’ve got a lot of resources on my web site: http://www.thevoluntouristbook.com/get-help-give-help/
Q: What is the most important lesson you learned from your trips?
Ken Budd: I learned that there’s power in small gestures and small acts of kindness. I was skeptical about whether you could actually do any good with these two-week trips, but in Costa Rica, I was told that parents in many Third World countries will send their kids to school—rather than to work—simply because foreigners are there. So sometimes you make a difference simply by showing up. In China, I worked at a special needs school with a friend, and I always thought our greatest contribution was just being there. The teachers work difficult jobs and we were English-speaking novelties; a break in their routines. After we left, I learned that one of the teachers said, “We seem to laugh more when volunteers are here.” And I certainly wondered about my usefulness in New Orleans, because you see the scale of the devastation, and you’re holding your little paintbrush, and you think… How can this possibly help? But I had an epiphany one day. I was scraping a backyard shed and I told myself this: if you don’t scrape the shed, you can’t paint. And if you can’t paint, you can’t finish the house. And if you can’t finish the home, the owner can’t move back in and the organization—Rebuilding Together—can’t move to a new project. So small gestures can become large gestures, especially when you add them up: Over 18,000 volunteers have worked for Rebuilding Together in New Orleans since 2005.
Q: You say you volunteered originally because you wanted to live a life of meaning. Do you now feel like your life has that “meaning” you originally sought out?
Ken Budd: Yes, but not in the way I expected. The first line of the book is a declaration: “I want to live a life that matters.” But in Kenya I rethought this. There was a little boy at the children’s home named Elijah: He was only two, but he’d already led a difficult life. He was the product of incest, which brought shame to the family, so we spent the first year of his life in isolation—no nurturing, no cuddling, no love. And whenever I held Elijah—he’d frequently run up in a bowlegged way with his arms up—I’d realize so clearly that every life matters. And every life has meaning. And we live a good life in the simplest of ways: by being a good friend, a good spouse, a good Earthling. By not, you know, being an a**hole. “Success comes from helping others succeed,” my father once told me, and I think that’s a pretty good approach to life.
Q: In the book, you talk about receiving an unexpected gift -- someone else's underwear -- in your laundry in China. Do you still have the Chinese underpants?
Ken Budd: I shouldn’t admit this, but not only do I still have the mystery Chinese underpants, but I still wear them. In fact, I wore them at some of my bookstore events, though I didn’t announce this to the audience. I thought it might creep people out if I said, “Thank you for coming. I stand before you tonight wearing another man’s underpants…”
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.