How everything is never quite enough

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They say you can’t take it with you when you die, and that’s a major problem for the tiny number of ultra-wealthy people who spend enough on fripperies each year that, repurposed, their expenditures could feed most of the world’s hungriest people.

Larry Ellison, who founded Oracle Corporation all the way back in 1977, reputedly spent over $650 million on research that he hoped would enable him to extend his lifespan so that he could keep enjoying his private jets and superyachts and mansions for longer than humanly possible.

When you have everything, the fear of losing it becomes paramount…

How crushing reasoned dissent is now easier than ever

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Our species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years under conditions of scarcity. As marginal hunter-gatherers who should more accurately have been called scavenger-gatherers, we eked out a precarious existence as obligate omnivores scrabbling for whatever calories we could find. Most humans died in their mid-twenties, falling to sickness, injury, and a wide range of predators. While we humans love to self-aggrandize (even our self-appointed species name is hilariously inaccurate puffery) the hard fact is that we are very far indeed from being sapient. For most people at most times, the brain is merely 1.4kg …

Do acts of compassion have to be infrequent in order to be meaningful?

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Many years ago, when I was in my first marriage, I nursed my then-wife through an illness. It wasn’t difficult to do: just checking in on her regularly, making sure she was hydrated, comfortable, taking her medications on time, and was supplied with snacks she could digest. The illness lasted only a few days and I was happy to tend to her. Toward the end of this time, one of her friends dropped by for a visit and was surprised by how attentive I was.

“Wow,” the friend said, “you’re so lucky to have someone looking after you so good!”

Why even communist regimes are eager capitalists

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We humans have developed a wide variety of tools over the last few hundred thousand years, and among the many useful tools we use are words. Other animals communicate, like us, by means of sounds and gestures and when we look at our primate cousins we can see how very like them we are. But our ability to exchange generalized concepts by means of specific sounds is unparalleled in the animal world, and this is what enables us to create more sophisticated cultural artifacts than can be created by other creatures.

Yet we rarely notice how imprecise nearly all of…

Why the pop science explanation is wrong

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Those who pay attention to such things know that in the first part of the twentieth century our conception of the universe expanded dramatically. Prior to then, we believed our galaxy was the universe and we believed it had always been as it is today. The universe was eternal, unchanging, unmoving. There was no particular reason to believe this, but there was no particular reason to believe anything else either. And so we thought we lived in a fairly modest and predictable universe.

Even Einstein, whose 1915 equations of General Relativity showed that a universe could not be static but…

How the many near-homophones of English combined with the decline of reading results in marvelous new usages

Image credit: The Answer Is Chocolate

English is a historically phonetic language. Although US spellings often attempt to remove the endless confusions arising from the fact that written British English is as much a linguistic archeological record as a usable orthographic system, for the most part most people rely on what they hear rather than have reference to a wide mental lexicon in order to make sense of the sounds coming into their ears. Thus old spellings bear little resemblance to modern pronunciations and unless one reads widely, one must guess at spellings. …

Why our imaginary deities are so fragile

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Most people in the world believe in at least one invisible magical creature to which they ascribe various supernatural capabilities. Although today most of these invisible magical creatures tend to be monolithic, until quite recently most people believed in pantheons of such creatures, so that we had the polytheisms of the Greek, Roman and Norse gods in Europe and indeed Hinduism is still polytheistic although the process of condensation has commenced even here, albeit barely.

As evolution has shaped us to believe whatever we’re told by purported authority figures, conform automatically to group norms (whatever they may be), and accept…

Sometimes life provides proof very rapidly

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Several days ago I wrote here on Medium a story called The Death Of Privacy and in one section of the article I pointed out that our personal devices are a primary means by which third parties can learn all about us. As I’ve worked in cyber-security off-and-on for nearly two decades and have occasionally consulted to the intelligence community, I happen to know a bit about the subject. …

How great things usually flop first time around

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The original BBC version of The Office is now regarded as one of the high points of British comedy, a classic, and a ground-breaking inspirational work. When it first aired, however, it bombed, receiving the lowest-ever first night viewing figures for any BBC comedy since they started counting audience numbers.

When John Cleese, former Monty Python team member, released the first series of Fawlty Towers it garnered low viewing figures and was panned by the critics who opined that outside of Python, Cleese was clearly a no-hoper. …

Why all of us need to cultivate empathy rather than invent more reasons to cut ourselves off from others

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We humans evolved in the context of small closely-knit inter-related hunter-gatherer groups numbering rarely more than one hundred and fifty individuals. For 98% of our evolutionary history we had to cling together in order to combat predators, hunger, and other groups of humans seeking to encroach on our precious territory. Not surprisingly, our brains are highly adapted to see life in terms of who’s in our group and who’s on the outside.

Although today our groups are much larger and more diverse, so than a single person may be part of a family, part of a work organization, part of…

Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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