Thursday, September 4, 2014

There goes the galaxy!

Renaming geographic areas is nothing new. Especially areas developers wish to make seem more attractive to prospective homebuyers. Here in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., we have North Bethesda (formerly Rockville) and North Potomac (almost Gaithersburg). It seems to be standard operation for an area about to go from semi-rural, low-density ex-urban, to something more suburban or citi-ish. North Bethesda, for example, was mostly the space between Bethesda and Rockville along Rockville Pike. It had a private school and a failing mall. But a new music center was built, and then town houses arrived, then an upscale marketplace. You can’t sell an area to potential retailer and residential investors by calling it, you know, “that really nice place between Bethesda and Rockville.” It needs its own real name: North Bethesda!

Well, guess what? It’s happening again, just on a slightly larger scale. Welcome to Laniakea! It’s Hawaiian for “immeasurable heaven.” Sounds positively lovely, doesn’t it? When I close my eyes and slowly whisper Laniakea I imagine reclining in my lounge chair on a white sandy beach shaded by coconut palms. A young lady with a grass skirt and flowers in her hair winks at me as she hands me a cool drink with fruit and a paper umbrella (or maybe for you he’s a bronzed young-man with no shirt and white cabana pants rolled up above the ankles). I take a sip and take in a deep breath. As I exhale I say to myself, “ahh, Laniakea.”

So where is Laniakea you ask? You are in it! Yup, Laniakea is a new designation for a place that has been around for a while. Turns out our Milky Way resides in the outskirts of  a “super-cluster” of galaxies. That super-cluster astronomers now call Laniakea. According to this article:

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, lies on the far outskirts of Laniakea near the border with another supercluster of galaxies named Perseus-Pisces. "When you look at it in three dimensions, is looks like a sphere that's been badly beaten up and we are over near the edge, being pulled towards the centre," said Brent Tully, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

Solar System image courtesy NASA
(NASA Identifier: C-1980-1550)
Oh boy. Here we go again. It’s been so peaceful here in our “far outskirts” part of the edge of the universe. No other life forms from other star systems really hassle us. Interstellar crime? None at all, hardly. There was that whole Roswell thing a while back, but they don’t bother us anymore. But now? Now our little out-of-the-way galaxy is part of “Laniakea” a so-called “super cluster.” It sounds peaceful but don’t be fooled. Times they are a changing and our simple Milky Way way of life is under attack! Before you know it there is going to be a lot of construction going on, probably right here in our happy little Solar System. It’ll start with something simple. Probably a model planet will go up between Earth and Mars where some sales rep tries to sucker in investors. There will be a giant sign you can see for light-years teasing, “If you live here you’d be on your home planet by now.” Once they have enough commitments and cash they’ll build out a whole new planetary subdivision. Then they’ll have to tear down some of our empty space and put in wormholes for all the new spacecraft. Ugh! The noise, and traffic, and congestion. What a mess! Who needs it?

Mark my words, some slick huckster from the inner part of the “super cluster” is going to make an offer our Solar System can’t refuse. They’re going to buy us out and put in some retro “Laniakea Super-Clustre Centre” with a Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Chipotle.

I’ve seen it before. But we can stop these so-called "astronomers." There are environmental impact studies and re-zoning petitions. Call up your stellar reps and tell them to “say no” to galactic development. And with our environmental woes right here on Earth, surely we humans are an endangered species. We can throw that at them and slow this whole thing down in the courts.

Are you with me?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Confessions of a Text Addict

Hi. My name is John and I text and drive.

I should say, I’m a recovering texter-while-driving. Now, before you start looking down at me, know this: I don’t text while I am driving anymore. I’ve been texter-while-driving free since 2008. You see, back in the 2000’s (by the way, I still don’t know what to call that first decade. Is it the 2000’s? Or the 2000 and oughts? Or just the oughts?)

Anyway . . .

You see, back in the early days of this century, when I first had a cell phone (we called them "blackberries" back then), I didn’t know any better. I’d occasionally text while I was driving and I often called someone while I was driving. Without a headset. I had a longer commute back then and, well, it just made sense, you see, to take care of some business calls, check in on staff or clients.

But then we learned some things about “distracted driving.” We learned that distracted driving isn't that good for us. We learned it just like we learned about 40 years ago or so that smoking, as it turns out, really isn’t that good for us either. So now we have laws that forbid texting while driving and require hands-free devices for making cell phone calls and the like. And it’s a good thing too. According to this scary government website “distracted driving” caused over 400,000 injuries and 3000 deaths in 2012.

So, there it is: I am a recovering texter-while-driving. And now? I never touch the stuff.

Hardly at all.

Well, there was this time the other day when I was approaching a stoplight. It was nothing really. I was the only car. Or no one was in front of me at least, and I just, I don’t know, instinctively reached for my phone in the passenger seat. It wasn’t really my fault. I just don’t know what came over me. It was like I wasn’t even in control. It was like someone else had inhabited my right arm. And I just reached over and picked up my phone as I came to a stop. You got a problem with that? I just wanted to be sure someone hadn’t texted me or FB-messaged me! I didn’t want them to wait on me. Really! That's it. Is that so bad? I know what you are thinking but really, it was nothing. Just a small glance. For real! I hardly looked at all, and I was barely moving!

I was sharing this recently with my sponsor. I’ll call her “Jane from North Carolina.” She is also in texter-while-driving recovery. She understands me and helps me get out of my “shaming place."

As we talked, I started thinking about this impulse to reach for my phone. Okay, its more than an impulse. I admit it. It’s an addiction.

Except, maybe, actually, it turns out it may not be an addiction, as such, but rather a human necessity.

According to Dr. Matthew Lieberman from UCLA, in his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, recent neuroscience research shows that not only are our brains designed to form social connections, but also the pain caused by social rejection activates the same region of the brain as actual physical pain. That’s right, social pain and physical pain, as far as the brain knows, are the same. I'm greatly simplifying in the interest of brevity, but that's the gist of it.

And get this: The research also shows that over-the-counter pain medication will reduce the pain of social rejection in just the same way as it will reduce the pain of, say, a sore shoulder or back. How about that! So if you are suffering from a broken heart, don't feel bad. Or I should say, it's normal to feel bad. It's like your heart is literally broke. And I mean literally-literally, not figurative-literally!

It turns out social connections are as essential for human survival as food and water. It's true!

Let's pause for a moment and consider what we have evolved into. In the animal kingdom, “red in tooth and claw,” we are only of modest height and weight. We are not that fast or strong. We don't have sharp claws or big teeth. We can’t fly. We can swim, sort of, but not faster than other creatures that like to eat us. Face it: On our own we’re doomed. But we’re not doomed thanks to one advantage: We have this big-ass brain. It lets us work on complex tasks and, more importantly, work on them together! Only in groups can we fend off saber-toothed tigers with pointed sticks and chase buffalo off cliffs. Alone? We wouldn’t have made it out of the savannah.

This need for social connection is hard-wired and I imagine, for some of us, the fear of being dis-connected gets activated, at some primal level, when we alone in a car. There must be some primitive need to frequently scan the horizon to be sure we are not alone; not separated from the tribe. Thus, when I am all-alone in my car, it is not only human for me to check my smart-phone to ensure I am still connected to my tribe. It’s a matter of survival!

It occurs to me the problem isn’t texting. Texting and all the other technologies that allow us to connect with each other are great. So what is the problem? The problem is DRIVING! We’ve created a society, and economic model to go with it, requiring a vast number of us to spend hours, each day, alone in our cars. I know, some of you may enjoy, even seek out, that precious alone time. And some of you are clever enough to develop a strategy on how to use that time for self-improvement through audio books or Great Courses or whatever. But lets be honest. Most of us, or maybe I should say, if you are like me, you’d rather be doing almost anything else than commuting.

So, everyone, I say: Put down that car and start texting! Driving? Now that's dangerous.