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

Image credit: Big Happy Backyard

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

Image credit: VAG

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

Image credit: David Butler

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

Image credit: Universal Pictures

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

Image credit: Middle East Group

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

Image credit: Netflix

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

Image credit: Irish Mirror

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…

Why we used to imagine we saw angels visiting us and now we imagine we’re seeing alien ships

Image credit: USAF

All brains deal in the business of pattern recognition. Mammalian brains are very sophisticated pattern-recognition machines, enabling animals to navigate and interact in complex ways with their environments. In order to do so reliably, brains “fill in the gaps” by providing the illusion of certainty when in reality some elements are missing. All animals are unaware of this function. For example, we humans have two blank areas in the center of our vision but as our brain automatically “fills in the gaps” we’re entirely unaware of the fact. …

How our digital technologies return us to the pre-industrial age

Image credit: Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

Up until the late 1700s, privacy was almost an unknown concept. As hunter-gatherers, we had no privacy because we lived in small intimate tribes. Then, after the agricultural revolution, we gathered into modestly-sized conurbations in which privacy was likewise essentially impossible. As nearly everyone lived within small villages and towns, neighbors were generally privy to all of one’s life events. As there was little in the way of mass entertainment, gossip provided what today we get from trash TV reality shows: salacious details about other people’s intimacies and weaknesses, scandals, and other mindless distractions.

Even the very wealthy, who could…

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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