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Two stories I heard this past week were connected in that they both concern rethinking profits.

The first story was a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about the Oregon Public House which calls itself America’s first nonprofit pub.

ophFounder Ryan Saari says that “I was having a beer, I was drinking, sitting in the backyard with my buddy and I thought, ‘What about a pub?’ ‘Cause there’s nothing more Portland than nonprofits and breweries.”

Portland has more than 60 breweries and is America’s craft brewing capital. It also has nearly 7,000 non profits. At the pub, a new batch of charities goes on the menu every six months. Buy a beer, add some food and pick your charity. The pub covers its costs and has donated more than $100,000 to dozens of causes the past 3 years. It might be a school, an urban farms, or groups that work with homeless teens or cancer survivors.

On their website, the pub explains its of “a family-friendly pub environment where our neighbors from the surrounding area can come to enjoy community around good food and craft beer while supporting great causes. To integrate this vision of pub with benevolent outreach, we have established relationships with a number of non-profit organizations to which our pub donates all profits after operating expenses and contingency savings.”

The pub is a business model that is the first of its kind. Besides the donations,  the community learns more about these non-profit organizations and can become involved in them too. Volunteers from the selected non-profits donate time as wait staff and can talk with customers about who they are and what they do.

You probably have heard that saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” but not many of us take it to action.

www.rentvine.com

The other story I heard was a podcast interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia, which sells high quality and high-priced clothing and gear, is not a non-profit, but its founder has different ideas about profit.

Yvon Chouinard started Patagonia in 1973 almost accidentally. He started making his own climbing gear and selling it to fellow climbers. He just wanted to make gear he couldn’t find elsewhere.

From the start, he was concerned with making the best possible products. He says he found a design principle in the writing of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French author and aviator. In Wind, Sand and Stars,  Exupéry wrote “Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent working over draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?”

Chouinard has written a number of books about his business philosophy . Patagonia, named by Fortune in 2007 as the coolest company on the planet, is known not only for quality products, but also for its environmental, business and social practices.

He also helped found 1% for the Planet, a global network of businesses, nonprofits and individuals working together for a healthy planet and more than $150 million dollars has been given back to the environment.

But another philosophy of Chouinard’s might be best summed up in the full-page ad he once took out in The New York Times that said: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” He says he has always had some guilt about making things that are “consumed.”

About his clothing, “I have a sense that it’s my responsibility to help people wear them as long as possible,” said Chouinard. “You hear ‘reuse, recycle,’ stuff like that. You also have to consider refuse. Refuse to buy something. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.”

It hurts his profits, but the Patagonia model is to get people to hang on to their clothing, repair it and when it is worn beyond repair, recycle the fabric for other uses. Patagonia even launched the Worn Wear Wagon, which is a mobile garment repair shop traveling the country and mending clothing from the brand, which already provides a lifetime guarantee.

Chouinard himself says he wears his own Patagonia clothing for years. This philosophy is also environmentally sound. They use organic cotton which costs more than non-organic cotton, but is environmentally sound. Patagonia plans to sell used gear in stores, along with new gear.

Ryan Saari, Director of the Oregon Public House, talks about his non-profit model.

Listen to Chouinard talk about all this on the How I Built This podcast.

The future often looks dystopian to writers of fiction. Since the election, the future seems dystopian in the real world to some people. In dystopian literature, the world of the future is the opposite of utopian. Everything is terrible and unpleasant. Sometimes it is a totalitarian society. Sometimes the world has been destroyed by war or is environmentally degraded.

That doesn’t seem like a world you would want to read about, but we have been reading about these places for a long time. Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels spans from Gulliver’s Travels, through The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Player Piano, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and Infinite Jest.

You can say that reading this literature is not something we do only out of pessimism, but we view them as cautionary tales. They are the Ghost of Christmas Future come to warn us of what might be if we continue on our current path.

These thoughts came to me as I read Children of the New World, a collection of stories by Alexander Weinstein. The stories use many of our current fears about technology gone mad. It exists not too far in the future but in a time when social media implants and memory manufacturing are possible. There are frighteningly immersive virtual reality games that aren’t so much games as they become reality. Robots are alarmingly intuitive. Many futures seem utopian at the beginning. These stories cover both ends. We have a utopian future of instant connection and gratification, at the cost of human distance, a price some of us are already willing to pay. There is also the world after the collapse landscape where we are once again primitive and rebuilding.

How about taking a vacation for $99? You can, by having a memory of a perfect vacation placed in your brain. It will be as real as any vacation you have actually take, but this one is perfect. (see false memories) The character who works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories in “The Cartographers” is so charmed by his creations that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a real-world relationship, or separate the virtual from the real.

“In this haunting and prescient debut collection, Weinstein evokes a vaguely dystopian, domestic existence where virtual reality, cybernetics, and social media are second nature. Like today we are disconnected despite being connected. We feel the insidious reach of technology, corporate forces, and climate change tightening into a chokehold. Over 13 tales, he steeps us in a realm of alternate realities close to our own, but each with a thought-provoking twist.”   – The Boston Globe

Two of the stories that got me thinking were the title story and “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” What these stories share are children. In the latter story, the robot brother of an adopted Chinese girl malfunctions and needs to be taken away, and finally buried. But he has become a real brother and son. This theme was explored in the Steven Spielberg film AI from the point of view of the robot child, and in the recent TV series Humans.

In our desire to make robots and AI more human, we encounter the fear that they will gain sentience and become human – or close enough that we can’t tell the difference. In that story and in the film and television series, the families do not recognize the attachment they have to the robot until it is gone.

This speculative fiction of Alexander Weinstein is dark, sad and sometimes funny. It is not set that far into the future, and the technology is not so much sci-fi as it is extensions of what already exists. That makes it more frightening and perhaps more prescient.

In the story, “Children of the New World,” we find a couple who enter the Dark City and a virtual world. Here they can have everything they need, including things they never had in their real life, such as children. But a virtual world can be infected by viruses.

Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a couple options with me, and finally said, “Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.”
“Yes.”
“You will need to delete them.”

These 13 rather short stories are an easy and fast read. Hopefully, they leave a reader thinking. As with any great film, I want to talk to people after I watch or read something “thought-provoking.” I want human connections.

“Rocket Night” reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson’s shocker “The Lottery.” The story is told by a parent in a calm, polite, logical way. It is about an event not unlike many held at elementary schools now, but for a twist that is revealed in the opening line.

“It was Rocket Night at our daughter’s elementary school, the night when parents, students, and the administration gather to place the least liked child in a rocket and shoot him into the stars. Last year we placed Laura Jackson into the capsule, a short, squat girl known for her limp dresses which hung crookedly on her body. The previous year we’d sent off a boy from India whose name none of us could remember.”

The more connected we are through technology, the less connected we really are to people and our world. Sherry Turkle’s non-fiction, Alone Together, made that point quite clearly right in its title and subtitle – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

I see that online many readers compare Weinstein’s stories to the current series Black Mirror and to the past Twilight Zone. I can see those connections, but there are many comparisons that can be made.

This book took me back to the short stories of Ray Bradbury that I loved in my youth, and have reread with new meanings lately. In those stories I found a child visiting a museum that had the last remaining tree on Earth. I discovered many years ago a smart home in “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  And in the disturbing story “The Veldt,” I could imagine the two children playing in their  “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they could imagine, and the horror a child’s imagination might create.

Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and parenting is something that runs through many of the stories. It is something that exists in all dystopian tales, because even if it is a future we personally will never see, we wonder about our children and their children. And we are worried.

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Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.

Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.

One term used  in these discussions is  “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.

You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.

An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.

When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.

“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.

“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.

And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police,  lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.

And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.

 

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Lydia consults the Handbook for the Recently Deceased in the film Beetlejuice

“I must go in. The fog is rising.” – last words of Emily Dickinson

I have a fascination with death. One reason may be that I was an English major. Poet Billy Collins has said that majoring in English is like majoring in death. Yes, it does seem to be a favorite theme in literature. But how can you not be somewhat fascinated with Death? It’s a much bigger and more important topic than birth.

One of my interests has been in the last words of people. Not everyone, famous or not, has a chance to say something just before they die, and not everyone has the wit to say something clever enough to be memorable.

Lots of people have a similar interest in dying words. The author John Green made that part of a character in his novel Looking for Alaska, and Green dropped them throughout the book and geeked out over a big book  of Last Words of Notable People that was published in 2012.

As I said, not everyone gets a chance at this last bit of fame. George Orwell’s last written words were, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.” He died at age 46.

Nostradamus said, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here” and correctly predicted his death.

I love Herman Melville. I was very surprised to learn that he died saying, “God bless Captain Vere!” Vere is a character in his then-unpublished novel Billy Budd, which was found on his desk after he died. One last act of self-promotion.

I stumbled upon The Oxford Book of Death in a bookstore, which sounds like a real downer that you should only assign as reading to some English majors in an honors seminar.

I paged through it and read things that caught my eye. It’s not all melancholy. The authors range from long-dead Plato to living (at least at the time) poets, playwrights and authors.

Some people are funny, sarcastic or witty right to the end.

Drummer Buddy Rich died after having surgery, but when he was being prepped, a nurse asked him, “Is there anything you can’t take?” and Buddy replied, “Yeah, country music.”

Sir Winston Churchill’s last words were, “I’m bored with it all.”

Actor, tough guy, drinker and smoker Humphrey Bogart ended with “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis.”

George Appel, executed by electric chair in 1928, said before the pulled the switch, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” I bet that wasn’t an ad-lib.

Poets are not always poetic at the end. “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record,” said the heavy drinking Dylan Thomas before he died of pneumonia.  And “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight, ” were the closing lines from Lord Byron. Not even a rhyming couplet.

Johnny Ace, a 1950s rhythm and blues singer, was playing Russian roulette with his revolver on a backstage at a concert on Christmas Day 1954. He said “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?” and when he pulled the trigger with the gun pointed at his face, there was a bullet, and it killed him instantly.

Socialite Lady Nancy Astor, was very ill and awoke on her deathbed to see her family all around her. She said, “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”

Sir Walter Raleigh, English writer, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer said to his executioner just before the axe came down on his neck, “Strike, man, strike!”

The very practical inventor Thomas A. Edison went out with the hopeful line “It’s very beautiful over there.”

Edison’s closing line is the kind of thought you want to believe is what we see as we cross over from this life – that is, if you believe there is a place to cross over to. We haven’t had any reliable reports from the other side.

That’s why I like the movie Beetlejuice. In its darkly comic way, we get to follow a couple who have just died and are definitely not ready to move on. One of the things they get on the other side is a copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. I actually found that they sell it on Amazon.com but you may be disappointed to find this reproduction of the movie prop book is a blank book. Perhaps, it is intended for you to take notes after death. Perhaps, the information only appears to the recently dead. I use it to catalog last words and good quotes about death. I figure those will come in handy in the afterlife.

But in Tim Burton’s excellent 1988 film (with Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder) there is actual advice. There are important things for the recently deceased to know, such as that living people generally ignore the strange and unusual. The rules for ghost and the dead aren’t fixed and vary from manifestation to manifestation. Deaths are personal. Ghosts vary based on how a person lived and died. The book suggests that in case of an emergency, draw a door and knock three times. It also lets you know how to do a séance and how to haunt the living.

The recently deceased consult the Handbook

The recently deceased Adam and Barbara consult the Handbook

This laughing about death is healthy. It doesn’t make me feel very good about the whole process to know that the short story writer O. Henry (who loved surprise endings) said at his end ‘Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”  I don’t want to go over in the dark either. I hoping for that warm, inviting light and the smell of baking bread that I keep hearing about.

dolphin-pixabay image

Dolphin stuck in the desert

Did you know that you have a chronotype? Did you know that there was such a thing as a chronotype? This weekend I’m thinking, like many of you, about the new year. I’m not making any new resolutions because I have plenty of past ones that were never resolved to keep me busy for a lifetime.

But today I am considering that part of my problem might be not knowing the best time to do things. I mean from the best time to have my coffee, to the best time to go for my exercise walk, to the best time to have sex. The answers vary according to your body’s chronotype.

You can find lots of self-help advice out there about WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but not much about WHEN to do it.

The when part has to do with your biology, hormones and the circadian rhythms of your body clock.

In the book, The Power of When by Michael Breus, you can “Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.”

I’m not sure you can confirm all those times so easily, but it is certainly interesting to take his quick online quiz and see what chronotype you are supposed to be.

Are you a Bear, Lion, Dolphin or Wolf? Once you know, you can do some lifehacking on when to do different activities. I came out as a Dolphin.

Your chronotype is your biological clock. It is when your body naturally wants to do things like sleep, eat, exercise and work. Most of us fight our body’s internal clock because we follow the unnatural clocks and schedules that tell us it’s time for breakfast, time to go to work, time to get to sleep.

Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour timekeeper. It regulates not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, blood flow, and gut bacteria. It also ebbs and flows, so certain tasks done at certain hours will yield better results.

I have a habit of taking my prescription drugs in the morning, but it may be better to do it before I go to sleep.  I don’t take any cholesterol drugs but they work better before bed because that’s when the liver also starts breaking down cholesterol, and the drugs can work in tandem with the body. It seems that blood pressure pills may have more impact at night because some people with hypertension don’t experience a natural dip in blood pressure when they sleep.

Your chronotype can shift as you age. No chronotype is “better” than any other and some things are shared across types. For example, when it comes to romance, for all chronotypes, 11 am to 2 pm is when bonding hormones are at their lowest. Forget that lunch date. Go for the dinner hours.

According to a study Breus cites, most people have sex between 11 pm and 1 am and that is the worst possible time. Late at night, levels of sleep-inducing melatonin rise and testosterone is at its lowest. When you wake up, testosterone levels are at their peak. Breus says, “I’d love for everyone to make a point of having Saturday-morning sex.”  Set a reminder for next weekend.

Some of his advice I have heard before. For a long time I had heard that because we are more insulin-resistant after 3 pm,we don’t efficiently convert sugar to energy, and instead store it as fat. So, you should eat your big meal earlier as often as you can. Of course, that doesn’t fit in well with most working folks.

Of the four chronotypes (Dolphin, Lion, Bear, and Wolf), most people fit into the “Bear” category.

I haven’t tested the chronotypes theories out yet (New Year?) but you can take a start by taking Breus’s quick chronotype quiz to find out which one you are.

For Dolphin me I’m going to think about whether or not:

  • My most creative time of day is between 10:00am and noon.
  • My 4 key personality traits are: cautiousness, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence
  • and my 4 key behaviors are: avoiding risky situations, striving for perfection, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fixating on details.
  • I already know that my “Sleep/Alertness Pattern” is that I usually wake up feeling unrefreshed (sleep apnea too) and I get an energy boost late in the evening.
  • I’m supposed to be most productive: in spurts throughout the day.
  • I agree that when it comes to naps, I try to catch up on sleep but can’t quite make it happen.
  • My fellow dolphins are unihemispheric sleepers – one half of the brain shuts down while the other half stays alert. Not a bad thing if you want to prevent drowning and being eaten by predators, but a drag for those of us who are land dwellers in houses. Dolphins lie awake thinking about mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes we don’t know whether or not we actually slept at all.

I like those watery dolphins, but I’m not thrilled about being one. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

Artist's impression of a Dyson swarm

Artist’s impression of a Dyson swarm. By Vedexent at en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY 2.5

Something is blocking the light coming from a distant star known as KIC 8462852. The star has become a kind of mystery because no one seems to be able to figure out what is blocking it. Whatever it is, it is massive. Like 1000 times the area of Earth.

KIC 8462852 (where KIC stands for Kepler Input Catalog) is one of 150,000 stars studied by NASA’s Kepler space telescope that is searching for planets. It was found in a star-packed region of the Milky Way. What caught the attention of astronomers over the past 4 years is that the star repeatedly and inexplicably would dim and then brighten again. It doesn’t seem to be the star itself which is stable. And the flickering is irregular, so they discount that it is the shadows of planets passing in front of the star. Is it comet dust? Debris from a shattered planet?  The star itself is calm and stable, but it is getting dimmer.

Is it just a oddball star or the one example we have found of another type of star?

KIC 8462852 is sometimes called “Tabby’s star” after planet-hunter Tabetha Boyajian and her team of  researchers who study it. It is also called the WTF Star for “where’s the flux” because of its unusual brightness variations.

The wildest explanation, and therefore the one I’m interested in, is that it is an alien megastructure.

One astronomer, Jason Wright, got a lot of media attention when he hypothesized that a megastructure made by an alien civilization might be what is blocking the star. There is something called a Dyson swarm which is a hypothetical structure that an advanced civilization might build around a star to intercept some of its light for their energy needs. Is it a solar power satellite or a space habitat?

This idea was popularized by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation.” Dyson speculated that if we looked for such things we would be likely to find alien civilizations. These structures would be the logical consequence of the escalating energy needs of a technological civilization and would be a necessity for its long-term survival. Those aliens need a lot of power.

Even Jason Wright thinks the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence causing the star to dim is quite low.

This story reminds me a bit of the Wow! Signal which is also still mysterious after much study. People are still studying the Wow! Signal and the WTF Star and I would think that WTF Star is a good SETI target for finding extra-terrestrial life.

Boyajian thinks it probably is an unusual type of comet swarm, but I’m still hoping for something more alien. However, a friend of mine has warned me that my wish is a bad one. “What do you want them to find – a Death Star?,” he asked me.

No, I don’t want it to be like the Death Stars appearing in the Star Wars movies. But even the second Death Star was only 99 mi (160 km) in diameter. Imagine a Death Star 1000 times the size of Earth designed to gather massive power from the star and able to easily destroy an entire planet with a blast from some superlaser.

Okay, I guess it better be a comet swarm rather than a Dyson swarm – although that would make a boring movie.

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