The cost of American Retreat

Protests at the San Francisco airport against the “Muslim Ban” in 2016


I moved to the United States because it inspired me. No where else in the world did I find the security, equality and opportunity to positively impact the world that the United States provides. Something I still entirely believe today, which is why I have made this my home. When I moved here, I was impressed by the humility of the Americans I met. They were self critical and had the objectivity to focus on continuing to improve the system. This was refreshing. Where I came from, there was not much civic engagement, and people complained without taking much initiative to actually do anything.

However, many of my American friends nowadays have become more cynical than ever, focusing entirely on the negatives and have lost the appreciation for all the good this system has brought to the world. Countless people around the world (including me) have come out of poverty and exploitation because of the American system of liberalism and economics. Yes, the United States has been involved in some really bad situations and has caused great harm in many instances. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it has been a net positive influence on the world as measured by most metrics we all care about.

We may not realize this but cynicism is often a sign of privilege. If we can afford to be cynical, maybe we haven’t experienced how bad and unfair life can be without the imperfect systems we criticize. And maybe we have less to lose regardless of the course we take. Before we promote huge course corrections, or propose booting the current orders in favor of alternative systems, we have to do the research to understand humans, to recognize that we are flawed, acknowledge that no system is ever going to be perfect, and that it’s a function of the fundamental nature of reality itself, not due to a lack of effort or foresight.

Many of us Americans like to believe that we are some of the most ignorant people in the world. This is good self-deprecating humor, but this is actually not true at all. We can’t keep criticizing ourselves while incorrectly idealizing everyone else. That actually makes us dumb. There’s ignorance everywhere. But an ignorant farmer in India has less impact on the world than an unfairly self-critical American. So the burden is very high on us here to understand the harm we bring by our cynicism, and our actions and inactions.

Quotes from the article below:

“The dra­matic change of course af­ter 1945 was not due to some sud­den tri­umph of our bet­ter an­gels or em­brace of En­light­en­ment prin­ci­ples that had been around for cen­turies, nor was it the nat­ural un­fold­ing of Uni­ver­sal His­tory in the di­rec­tion of lib­er­al­ism. Lib­eral ideals tri­umphed be­cause, for the first time, they had power be­hind them. A new player arose on the in­ternational scene: the United States. It pos­sessed a unique and ad­van­ta­geous ge­og­ra­phy, a large, pro­duc­tive pop­u­la­tion, un­prece­dented eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power, a na­tional ide­ol­ogy based on lib­eral prin­ci­ples, and a will­ing­ness, af­ter the war, to use its power to es­tab­lish and sus­tain a global or­der roughly con­sis­tent with those prin­ci­ples.”

“The ar­chi­tects of the new or­der were not utopian ide­al­ists. They be­lieved in the in­her­ent sin­ful­ness of hu­mans, the com­pet­i­tive­ness of na­tions and the ten­dency of all or­ders to col­lapse. They had stared into the abyss and seen the depths to which hu­mankind could fall. They knew the world they cre­ated would be flawed and costly to de­fend, but they be­lieved an im­per­fect lib­eral or­der was bet­ter than none at all.”

“We tend to view the decades af­ter 1945 through the lens of the Cold War, and So­viet com­mu­nism cer­tainly pre­oc­cu­pied Amer­i­cans. Yet the re­sponse to the So­viet threat, which in­cluded the de­ploy­ment of U.S. forces per­ma­nently in both Eu­rope and East Asia and the cre­ation of the global al­liance struc­ture, pro­duced a geopo­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion. Within the con­fines of that sys­tem, nor­mal geopo­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion all but ceased. Na­tions within the or­der, in West­ern Eu­rope and East Asia, didn’t com­pete with each for mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity, form strate­gic al­liances against one an­other or claim spheres of in­flu­ence. Since no bal­ance of power was nec­es­sary to pre­serve the peace among them, as it al­ways had been in the past, they could shift sub­stan­tial re­sources and en­ergy from mil­i­tary to eco­nomic and so­cial pur­poses.”

“Yet Amer­i­can hege­mony was never so in­tol­er­a­ble as to drive other mem­bers out. On the con­trary, na­tions banged on the door to come in. Par­tic­i­pants in the or­der, then and now, have shared the im­plicit un­der­stand­ing that how­ever flawed the Amer­i­can-led lib­eral world or­der might be, the re­al­is­tic al­ter­na­tives would al­most cer­tainly be far worse.”

“To­day many Amer­i­cans seem to have lost sight of that em­i­nently re­al­is­tic judg­ment, and this has hap­pened, un­for­tu­nately, just at the mo­ment when the world is slip­ping back into old pat­terns. Au­toc­racy, not so long ago dis­missed as an anachro­nism, has shown a strength and re­silience that Frank­lin Roo­sevelt’s gen­er­a­tion would have rec­og­nized, while the democ­ra­cies suf­fer from paral­y­sis and self-doubt, as they did in the 1930s.”


Facebook investing in people feeling inspired and positive


Facebook is investing in features that are bound to reduce “engagement” as it was measured the old way. The old metric was “time spent”. Now the new metric is time spent “with intention, being inspired and feeling positive.”

Short-term investors saw this and decided that it’s a bad thing – as engagement goes down, so will revenue. And FB stock took a hit. But if we take the long view, we can see how this strategy is like to pay off.

(FB’s revenue model was similarly questioned several years ago when users were moving from Desktop to Mobile. The fear then was that they couldn’t show as many ads on mobile as they could on desktop. But what actually happened is that as the number of ads went down the price of ads went up as there was limited space to show them on mobile.)

The Benefits of Optimism Are Real


Having a positive outlook is the most important predictor of resilience. This is something I always notice, either consciously or sub-consciously about people that I meet. Being optimistic is a choice that is often entirely within our control. And it demonstrates the work one has done to confront one’s own self, and the ability to act on a longer term, holistic view of things.

“Pi says, “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“Pi’s resilience is incredible once you realize what happens on board the lifeboat and how Pi copes with the tragedy that he witnesses and endures. There’s more to the story than the boy and the tiger. Though what really happened is terrible, Pi chooses to tell a different story. His story parallels what really happened, but is beautiful not bleak, transcendent not nihilistic.”

“Which story do you prefer?” he asks at the end.”

—

Moral dilemma when trying to help street children in Mumbai


In Mumbai, you experience a lot of poverty everywhere. It’s a very hard place where we have to confront our darkest and most difficult truths.

Jeremy Horner/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Most traffic lights have panhandlers who walk around asking for money. The ones who stand out are the women with babies in their arms. You feel terrible for the children and you give money to those mothers, hoping it would give the child an opportunity at a better life.

Talking with friends and acquaintances who do humanitarian work in this space, I learned that this is just a business. Panhandlers have a “license” to “work” a neighborhood. And a percentage of their revenue goes to the local underworld. Babies get rented out, drugged, and used to increase the earnings by the panhandlers. Often times the babies are abducted. Many times they are hurt and intentionally disfigured and maimed as that means even more collections at the traffic lights.

This made me realize that my actions coming from a moral dilemma of trying to help a child can sometimes be putting more children in danger and not doing much to solve the real problem behind the issue.

Camping at the base of Brokeoff Mountain


This was our campsite in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The “black” triangle in the top center is Brokeoff Mountain (also known as Mt Tehama). This was at 4am. We had just woken up to an “alpine start”, to try and summit the peak while the snow was still hard, before the sun came out and turned it into something too slushy to ascent in. The moon had just set in the West behind that ridge – and its afterglow still leaked into the sky, leaving only the brightest stars visible.

Wayfinding in the backcountry when the GPS fails


When out in the backcountry, especially in the winter, you can’t really count on having any marked trails. We spent a good amount of time studying maps of the area, identifying the trailhead, waypoints and landmark features before we even left home. We also researched recent trip reports from others and talked to the rangers on the phone to better understand what to anticipate on the ground. Then we plotted our planned route with waypoints on the map using the Garmin software on my laptop. We loaded the map and route onto the GPS. And then also printed the map on paper and laminated it so it wouldn’t get damaged in the snow.

On the trail, it took us way longer than our most liberal estimate as we got lost quite a few times and had to backtrack and re-evaluate our plan a few times. Eventually, the GPS battery died. We had 4 more sets of backup batteries between the two of us so that wasn’t an actual problem. But a GPS can stop working for various other reasons.

So we decided to use this as an opportunity to sharpen our compass-based way-finding skills. Paper doesn’t run out of power 😋 Not so fast, however. We hadn’t checked our compasses closely. Both of them had developed bubbles after years of use. Maybe we left our packs out in too much heat without realizing it. But that meant it became very unreliable to sight using the compasses.

So we finally switched to the last fail-safe. Using landmarks (and elevation using the solar altimeter) to locate ourselves and chart our progress. That turned out to be quite easy as there were a lot of streams that served as natural guide-rails. We emerged exactly where we had parked our car within +/- 10ft error. That was a little surprising but quite awesome.

Always carry extra batteries for every electronic device you rely on. Always have an analog backup if possible. Spend some time thinking about things that are most likely to go wrong and have mitigations in place.

FaceId on iPhone X tested in mountaineering gear

General, Photo

I was blown away by something unexpected this weekend. I looked like this but the FaceId on My iPhone X recognized me each time I looked at it!

I didn’t really expect it to detect my features but it kinda makes sense as the glasses block UV and visible light but FaceId uses IR light.

I didn’t do any additional testing to check if this was more of a false positive. But it was nice not having to unglove the hand to use a fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone in the cold, chilly weather.