New Years Day: Things I Have Learned in The Last Ten Years

For this first day of the 2020s I would like to share with you some of the frustrating, hopeful, and baffling things I’ve learned over the last decade about humans and the planet we share. Most of what anyone learns in any decade isn’t particularly useful for others, and this is as true for me as anyone, whether it’s the fate of benthic foraminifera in the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (bad) or advancements in the treatment of HIV, spinal conditions, and Ebola (quite good!)  This is an update on what I learned in the first 10 years of the 21st century, and I hope to keep the trend going as long as I can manage.

May you come by this knowledge easier than I did.

  • The human capacity to heal and grow and move on is amazing, and comes with no dependable limits beyond death.
  • Luxembourg is a country between Germany, France, and Belgium.
  • You can’t do good for the world if you can’t do good for the people in front of you, and you can’t do good for the people in front of you if you can’t do good for yourself.
  • Most of the things people call self-care are in fact self-indulgence. Self-care comes with an annoying amount of self-discipline, high fiber foods, and socially inconvenient bedtimes.
  • Awareness raising only helps to a point, and that point is reached almost at once in the modern media environment. After that it’s often a fight against your own side to make people understand that fear isn’t a motivator or a teacher, and that anger isn’t advocacy. The things that feel righteous and build the feeling of righteous unity in activism are often destructive not only the the cause, but the people in it.
  • Harnessing your emotions, organizing your calendar, and getting the right data are the high fiber diets and early bedtimes of activism.
  • Being part of a mob can be euphoric, but is often damaging. Most dangerously, it is often both at once.
  • Computers are a deep part of the human story, like books and music before them, and like any part of the human story they repeatedly scream their flaws into the endless void of things humans just don’t want to deal with.
  • Almost all bugs and security flaws are solved problems, but our systems aren’t set up to care about creating safe or good software, or a safe or good internet.
  • The men from the government are as incompetent and clueless as anyone else, what really makes them dangerous is how often they don’t know it, and it’s no one’s job to tell them.
  • Both of these are choices we’ve made as a society and we could unmake them.
  • The problems we face in managing our planet, from climate change to pollution to food supply to biodiversity are like software — largely solved at a technical level. We know what to do, we even know how to do it.
  • Humanity rarely has technical problems for long, be they computer or civil engineering or resource management. What we generally  have, (and have in spades when it comes to climate change) is governance and coordination problems.
  • Despite there being only 7.6 billion people on the planet, there’s an infinite supply of asshats on the internet.
  • Leaderless collectives are easy for governments and other traditional sources of power to quash and co-opt. But as soon as they do, the leaderless collective problems get much stranger and more widespread. I hope to learn what this means in the next ten years.
  • Anything you say, do, or are, can and will be used against you and against your loved ones in order to weaken and destroy you. These people are not playing, and they are scared of everything.
  • We like larger-than-life and badly written superhero movies because we all have super powers now, which we treat with the maturity of a 13 year old that just got bitten by a radioactive mobile phone.
  • The constant media cycle has made us far too tolerant of mixed metaphors.
  • Do one thing at a time.
  • No matter how strong you are the world will find a way to break you, this goes for nation-states as well as people.
  • Representative democracy is in the process of failing. I don’t know if it’s new media forms, or just 7.6 billion people, but it’s time to invent new political forms that balance between the imposition of common values and comprehension of people’s hopes and desires. Figuring out how to coordinate and act on that information at scale is the point of a polity, and representative voting systems aren’t doing that anymore.
  • Redemption is going to be the most important story in the 21st century, so we ought to get started on that.
  • You have to watch the line, not the obstacles. What’s true in extreme sports is also true in politics and planetary coordination for the 21st century. If you look at the obstacles, you hit them. If you look beyond the obstacles to where you’re going, you have a chance of getting there.
  • In this past decade we’ve lost any idea we might have had about where we’re going, and we’re just aggressively driving into one obstacle after another. We should change that.
  • People often think when disasters happen they’ll all start eating each other. But in truth, mostly, they start feeding each other. When the chips are down, this is who we really are.
  • You should feel pretty good about that.
  • Reasoning with children works beautifully, whatever their age, but as with anything, it takes a lot of practice. Reasoning with adults works almost as well.
  • We give up on reasoning too fast. Imagine if we gave up on rollerblading or playing the piano as fast as we give up on reasoning with people.

Be good to each other, and see you again in another ten years.


Picture CC By Paulius Malinovskis


My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon.

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54 replies
    • Mickquinas says:

      In the last decade, I learned a version of this that sets up a saying from Ed Friedman that has become my mantra, and pretty much sums up the advice I have for the ‘how’ of what we need – culture change – in order to address the issues we face, from politics to climate.

      Know your course.

      That’s the thing. Whether you write it down or not is less important than getting clarity (although I freely acknowledge the value in making a record that can be referred to and interrogated and edited) on what your deeply held beliefs, values, and commitments are. I think it’s Simon Sinek who describes it as “know your ‘why'”, but there’s more than that. Know your course; at least a general direction and a way of going, a basic ethic about the manner in which you’re traveling. What kind of world do you want to participate in creating? What kinds of things must you resist? What are your non-negotiables, and why? What are your must-haves, and why? Know your course, otherwise you’ll be reactive rather than responsive. Know your course, or it’ll be nearly impossible for you to differentiate between your thinking and you’re feeling. Know your course, or it’ll be nearly impossible for you to differentiate between your feelings and the emotional reactivity of those around you.

      Know your course.
      And then,
      Stay your course, stay calm, and stay connected.

  1. sproggit says:

    “Computers are a deep part of the human story, like books and music before them, and like any part of the human story they repeatedly scream their flaws into the endless void of things humans just don’t want to deal with.”

    I would be tempted to go slightly further and say, “Computers are an accelerrant… like nitrous oxide in a car engine or lighter fuel on a barbeque – they can get you there much, much faster than if you try to do something by hand.” But this statement is equally true if you are pointing towards a good place or a dark one: the outcome is up to you. (Kinda like an expansion on: “Garbage in, Garbage out…”)

  2. sproggit says:

    “Do one thing at a time…”

    A few years ago I was incredibly lucky to work for a wise, inspirational and courageous leader, who stepped in to run a department I worked for. One of the things I remember from his opening address was, “We are going to do less things well…”

    I think “Do one thing at a time” runs the same way: “be here now”…

      • sproggit says:

        Indeed. And I’ll guess (I don’t know) that wisdom is the ability to separate those which are worth doing well from those which are not.

        If the actual answer is simpler than that, someone please explain it to me.

      • Mooser says:

        “My father told me that not everything worth doing is worth doing well.”

        Arrrgh! You just made me realize, I’ve spent my whole goddam life trying to do well what wasn’t worth doing in the first place. And doing it badly, to boot.
        I have got to resolve to correct this in 2020. Perhaps the year will give us the vision associated with its name, I hope.

          • P J Evans says:

            One of my friends said the hardest thing to learn is when to say “it’s good enough – ship it”.

          • Mickquinas says:

            My sister had a wall hanging custom made for me with the quote “Perfection is the enemy of Done”. It was the thing that enabled me to finish my Master’s Thesis.

      • Cathy says:

        “…fewer things but do them…”

        Yours respectfully,

        Freelance Grammar Contractor Who Works Both Sides of the Conflict, Is Perforce Loved by None, and Believes Commas Should Be Sprinkled As Liberally Across Prose As Snowflakes Across a Winter Landscape Because, Let’s Face It, Punctuation Is Just Another Ever-Evolving Experiment and You Never Know Where Random Mutations Will Lead ❄

    • Valerie Klyman-Clark says:

      Thank you. I was reminded of this kernel when he died recently: “We’re all just walking each other home.” -Ram Dass

  3. sproggit says:

    “Almost all bugs and security flaws are solved problems, but our systems aren’t set up to care about creating safe or good software, or a safe or good internet.”

    Almost all bugs exist because of bad management, not bad programmers.

    Tell a developer, “This product must ship before year end” and you’ll get a product with bugs. Tell a developer, “Every confirmed bug in code you ship will result in your total compensation being cut by $500 for poor performance” and you’ll get reliable code.

    If you manage software development and experience code defects in your team output, take a look in the mirror. Chances are, you are the problem.

      • e.a.f. says:

        sort of like that old Meatloaf song, Two out of Three ain’t bad. I want you, I need you, but I’m never going to love you. Two out of three ain’t bad.

        think that two out of three things apply to a lot of things in our lives. we just need to figure out which two are most important to us. Health care can fall under that two out of three ain’t bad, unless of course you die because of it all.

  4. e.a.f. says:

    point 4 is well, it just is and very correct.

    HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    Now its time to write my M.P. and P.M. to find out why the press is reporting the RCMP has drawn up plans to send snipers to the pipeline protests in northern B.C. I do believe that comes under one of those points, ah, perhaps failing democracy.

  5. Savage Librarian says:

    To paraphrase a popular toast:
    Drink not to the past which may be weak and indefensible, nor to the present which is not above reproach, but let us drink to the future which, thank goodness, is immaculate!

    “The 9 Best Blobs of 2019” – Live Science (an article about bubbles, tiny and immense, some even legendary)
    https://www.livescience.com/best-blobs-of-2019.html

    The 12 Most Important and Stunning Quantum Experiments of 2019
    https://www.livescience.com/most-important-surprising-quantum-physics-of-2019.html

    • Cathy says:

      Noice. The review of quantum experiments has led to further inspection of turtles:

      Checking out the image atop the article “A Computer Spotted a Turtle Hiding Out in a Cloud of ‘Quantum Fireworks’“ (https://www.livescience.com/64744-quantum-fireworks-turtle-artificial-intelligence.html), it occurs to me that Terry Pratchett was indeed on to something with his astrochelonian (https://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Great_A'Tuin).

      Obviously (now) the parable of the eight eggs of the Great A’Tuin in “The Light Fantastic” is symbolic of an infinite generation of star turtles. The research by the folks from the University of Chicago heavily weights the astrochelonian reproduction debate toward parthenogenesis: apparently a magnetic field can trigger the process by exciting a Bose-Einstein condensate (i.e., star turtle egg). Although we should note, as Krullian astrozoologists would undoubtedly point out, this process has so far been observed only under laboratory conditions and may not correspond to astrochelonian reproductive behavior in the wild.

      “[P]erhaps his time with Twoflower, who only saw things as they ought to be, had taught him to see things as they are.”
      – The Light Fantastic

      We all need a little time with Twoflower now and again. :-)

  6. Mitch Neher says:

    Kick Trump in the nuts.

    Kick Trump in the nuts early.

    Kick Trump in the nuts often.

    I refuse to call those observations about kicking Trump in the nuts early and often by the name of “things I have learned in the last ten years.”

    • e.a.f. says:

      dtrump has “nuts”? o.k. he most likely was born with the male genitals, but never have thought of him as a man, much less a human being, beyond his form and that isn’t much either. He isn’t worth kicking. He isn’t worth spitting on. He isn’t work pissing on. Now burying him under a mountain of shit, perhaps……….let him do some work shovelling out of it. He’s very good at shovelling shit already, so now he could demonstrate it while actually doing some work. See if he can preform farm labour and do something useful

      • bmaz says:

        His name is Trump. Are we back to this petty bullshit? Identify the President by his name. If you can’t, stop. Do NOT make us look stupid with this dumb bunk.

  7. jaango says:

    I am the “Prime” when it comes to being a ‘beneficiary’ of today’s Democracy. For my being long of tooth and grey of beard, these past twenty years as a political writer, my “porch” consists of the Indigenous Creator–Happiness, Health and Decency Personified, and thusly, has been a boon to my expanding my skill set, and well as to the access that is ‘research’ that must be readily available. Therefore, the “stabilizing factor” is of the everyday and incessant squabbles– not the overt drumbeat of chicanery and all that that follows.

    In contrast, my attention is focused on Demographics and how this human behavior plays itself over these next ten or ten years, and as the voting patterns change to benefit, us, the new ‘cagers’ and how we change America for the butter. And as such, yesterday’s history is of little value to each of us, especially you’re an Anglo parent with kids that are truly bi-lingual or multi-lingual. Thus, integration and assimilation is a ‘given’ as a daily accomplishment for any success being achieved. Of course, my forgetfulness should not include Hard Work, Self-Discipline and Ambition.

  8. Yohei72 says:

    I wanted to ask the knowledgable commenters here for advice with my own New Years resolution. If this is deemed not appropriate for this thread, I understand and my apologies to the mods and participants.

    I want to volunteer for get out the vote work in battleground states, for the presidential and/or Senate races. I live in NYC, so my state is reliably going blue in those races and I feel my individual vote counts for frustratingly little. I have generous pay and a generous vacation allotment, and I want to use those to make my tiny contribution at this vital tipping point. I figure there are contributors here who would have informed ideas about which organizations I could most fruitfully address myself to, or other ideas about what I should do.

    Thanks, everyone.

    • P J Evans says:

      They generally need people to make phone calls – you can do that without traveling. Ask also about “postcarding” – writing postcards to send out, encouraging people to vote.

      • Yohei72 says:

        Good points both, thank you. Although haven’t I read somewhere that on-the-ground, face-to-face canvassing is the most effective? Possibly I’m making that up.

  9. Charles says:

    I learned this a long time ago, but it’s the one piece of wisdom I earned that I think is worth passing on:

    If you want to win an argument, listen to your opponent, and see where their logic leads. They will usually hand you the rhetorical weapon to which their argument is most vulnerable.

    Example: If the opponent claims that abortion is murder, consider the different kinds of abortion. Spontaneous abortion occurs in up to a third of pregnancies. Since spontaneous abortion does not occur through human agency, any non-atheist must conclude that divine agency is responsible. Therefore, any religious person who calls those who have or conduct abortions “murderers” is accusing God of being a murderer as well. Just ask the opponent if he/she is ok with making that accusation.

    Sadly, I do not see the more sane among us listening very much. All of us are vulnerable to thinking we must have an opinion on everything, and that we smart enough not to need to learn from those we talk to. One of the smartest men I know had an eighth grade education. The best thing I learned from him was not to dismiss the value of anyone. Once we consider that others have something of value to say, it’s much easier to hear them.

    • 200Toros says:

      First off, I agree with what you’re saying. However the abortion example you provide doesn’t really work with Christians. They will generally say that yes, God has the power to decide life or death; we don’t. The lord giveth, and the lord taketh away. Case closed.

      I remember reading that certain animals have the ability to hold a fertilized egg in stasis, if environmental conditions are harsh, like a drought or famine, and either resume the pregnancy later, when conditions improve, or terminate if they don’t. Nature is amazing. THAT, I think, is the better argument. Nature can decide when environmental conditions don’t support bringing new life into the world. (Although since we are better at modifying our environment than other animals, this seems to affect us less.) We ourselves have to decide when economic, emotional, psychological and other conditions warrant the same.

      This is logical, but faith isn’t really big on logic, in my humble opinion.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Something to consider as the pack of Democratic presidential candidates dwindles:

    “Every quality Pete [Buttigieg] fakes, [Julian] Castro has in IRL. Pete will end on the scrap heap as a giant waste of time, energy and money. Castro is the real deal. We need to think hard as Democrats about why we collectively decided to inflate Pete while ignoring everything truly great about Castro.”

    https://twitter.com/AJentleson

    Not to ignore individual agency and decision making, but the MSM considered Pete a safe, sexy, younger Joe Biden, another great white hope for the establishment. Castro was “boring” and spoke Spanish too well. The MSM is great at dismissing change agents through superficial objections that mask its deep aversion to change. Sites like this are an important corrective to that anti-progressive force.

    • e.a.f. says:

      Castro has more experience at the national level than Pete. Its unfortunate he dropped out.

      In my opinion, some of these candidates have big egos and need to put them in their pocket. What if the whole bunch of them, after wards agree to whom would be vice president, and put forward a cabinet at the same time. In Canada, its only those who have been elected as M.P.s who can be Cabinet members. From time to time, a P.M. has used some one from the Senate, but its unusual.

      There is some real talent amongst the Democratic candidates and even if they don’t make President, they’d make great Cabinet members. Wonder what it would look like to voters if the Democrats decided to present a full package to the electorate.

  11. Jenny says:

    Thank you Quinn, experience is knowledge.
    I say:
    Life is a bowl of cherries, don’t forget to spit out the seeds.
    and
    Expect the unexpected unexpectedly.

  12. Richard says:

    “What we generally have, (and have in spades when it comes to climate change) is governance and coordination problems.”
    …caused by a lack of leadership as the GI Generation passed, the Silent Generation (Joe Biden) negotiate and compromise but don’t lead. Millennials represent the new Hero Generation (The 4th Turning by Strauss and Howe) that will lead America out of our current dysfunction and crisis into a new golden era.
    First though we have to experience “The Shot Heard Round the World”, the attack on Fort Sumter, or a Pearl Harbor; these are metaphors to say: expect an event that activates everyone into survival mode.
    There will be clear winners and losers, not like now with the stalemate.
    Maybe Nov 3, 2020? maybe Inauguration Day 2020?
    Maybe Australia’s bushfires are their version of a Pearl Harbor?

    For the first time in my 70 years, I was activated this past summer testifying at city council meetings about their climate action plan. They approved it on 11/12/2019. Now 2020 we need to implement it.

  13. Richard says:

    What would you say in 5 minutes about the climate emergency to a city council in your city?
    Write it down, post it online, use social media to share with as many people as possible. Take constructive feedback, re-evaluate, reflect on what you need to revise and update your post. Repeat.
    Go to City council meeting and in 5 minute visitor comment period, read your prepared remarks and leave a copy with the city recorder.

    • e.a.f. says:

      Richard makes an excellent suggestion. We all need to get out there and present the ideas so politicians clearly understand, where the voters are. There is nothing like a ‘personal’ touch.

      the ‘come to Jesus’ moment hasn’t arrived for the P.M. of Australia yet. He is still too invested in coal. However, when the fires start burning in the city of Sidney, he may see the light. In Australia, Canada, and California we have built too far into the former wilderness and didn’t mitigate the dangers of forest fires. California suffered through the Paradise fire and Canada had the Kelowna and Fort McMurray Fires, but the cities stood. Not until a medium size city burns to the ground will any one really pay attention and make a few changes. We have so much land/space we think we can simply move things around and it will be o.k. No thought is given to the mental toll all of this takes on humans. They dont’ factor into the financial equation. its sort of like, when companies are sued and loose big time, that’s usually the first time they are willing to make changes. When it comes to the climate, its about the same. the cost of doing nothing has to be greater than the cost of doing what is necessary, then we will see change. That is what I learned a long time ago: when dealing with the complaint is easier than not deal with it, management makes changes and not until then..

    • P J Evans says:

      For mine:
      Past weather doesn’t guarantee that future weather will be the same. Don’t assume that enough rain this year means anything for next year; it’s safer to assume that *every* year will be dry until proven otherwise.
      (Enforce rules about water conservation, regardless.)

  14. PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

    I think you’re a talented writer and it’s always good to have someone with the ability to write technically on security research and such, but I still sometimes have trouble reconciling the statements you made in that infamous episode several years ago. At the same time I have traveled in those irc channels and get how you can become inured to racist language, which is scary in and of itself.

    The biggest hurdle I have to get over to read your work is weev. The guy is a Nazi and a shitty human being and he has driven some of worst spreading of foul content from the chans and while in eastern Europe has worked with agencies spreading disinformation online as part of attacks on elections in the West.

    I guess what I’m asking is, what would you say to me to help me read your columns with more of a clear mind? Have things changed over the years?

  15. PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

    That being said it’s bullshit that you got exiled while many males on national TV had similar scenarios and are still employed. My angst and question still stands though.

  16. JamesJoyce says:

    Mr. Quinn,

    Your post is quite enlightening.

    “Despite there being only 7.6 billion people on the planet, there’s an infinite supply of asshats on the internet.“

    The executive asshat takes the prize…

    Your candor is not radical.
    It is spot on and accurate.

    “Light Cycles” was a phenomenal post.

    https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/06/14/light-cycles/

    “In 8 minutes, 18 seconds, around 2,000 babies are born. 45218 barrels of oil are imported into America. We pay $3,074,824 for that 8 minutes, 18 seconds. During that time, more energy will hit the Earth in the form of solar photons than we use in a year.“

    “Asshats” have no use for facts or truth.

    Crudes Up….
    Thanks for the data👍

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