Star Trek values

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a panel at Silicon Valley Comic Con consisting of various members of the cast of the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes, Denise Crosby, Marina Sirtis and Robert O'Reilly were joined by original series cast member William Shatner to talk about the show, their lives as actors, and what the Star Trek universe has taught and can teach us about the real world.

For someone who watched every episode of the show when it originally aired and who has remained a fan since, it was an hour and a half of nearly pure joy. For one, I was just excited to be a part of a whole auditorium full of people reflecting on how much influence the stories, dialogue and creativity of the show had on our lives, the panelists included. Several audience members stood up to say just how strong that influence has been, informing the careers they chose, the people they've become, the kind of lives that they now lead, and I was right there with them.

In watching Star Trek as a young person I remember being invigorated by the complex problem-solving scenarios that the Enterprise crew faced week after week. I learned from the principles of collaboration, mutual respect and cross-species equity that were practiced. I saw strong women in leadership roles, and I saw non-Caucasian characters developed with an unusual (for mainstream TV, anyway) depth and texture. And I was inspired by a vision of the future that offered so many possibilities for exploration, discovery and growth. I'm sure that my real-world evolution as technologist and computer geek was propelled forward significantly by my immersion in that make-believe world of technological wonders.

The panel also highlighted a new angle of my appreciation for the Star Trek universe. I hadn't previously thought about Trek as having a political point of view, because I assumed that the vision of a world where humanity had figured out how to eliminate poverty and hunger, celebrated and built on our various differences, and employed innovation to protect and restore the environment was a vision that anyone would embrace and want to strive for, and not a particularly politically-charged one.

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What we are, what we can become

One of the many recent life lessons I've learned from parenting an 18-month-old is that where you are and what you know right now doesn't have to limit where you can go and what you can become.

It's been fascinating to watch our daughter learn about the world and incorporate that knowledge into her life on timelines that span mere days and weeks. I had apparently developed a cynical view of what people have the capacity to learn and how long it takes, and she is challenging those assumptions and views every day. The old, limiting way of thinking about this puzzle/game/word/object/creature is so yesterday, dad! It is delightful and surprising to watch the human brain expand its understanding of how the world works, and I must constantly re-evaluate what she is capable of in order to keep up.

It's also a good reminder for me about how much we as a society tend to categorize and label people and what they have the capacity to know or do based on our initial encounters of them.

I've been thinking lately about how this dynamic is at work in the tech world in particular - people are pigeonholed into being developers, support/customer service, marketing/sales people, administrative/HR people, founders, or other roles and then we quickly start to make assumptions from there about how they think, what they know and what they're capable of. We can quickly forget that someone might have a broad range of skills and life experience that would allow them to take on multiple roles or see a given problem space from multiple perspectives, even if they choose to primarily occupy one particular role right now. Even worse, there's strong temptation to use only one or two direct encounters to label someone as a good/bad/mediocre version of their singular role, never again mentally giving them the chance to demonstrate otherwise.

"Him? Oh yeah, I worked with him on a project three years ago. He's a so-so developer but I wouldn't trust him to really thrive with this new project."

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Tired of Cancer

My friend Carol Hunter died this past Sunday morning at the age of 68, of cancer.

I wrote to her recently about how much her teaching and life have meant to me:

I think the third term of Humanities during my first year at Earlham was the most time we ever spent together, gathering in the Meetinghouse Library four days a week to talk about the works of Willa Cather, Anzia Yezierska, Amílcar Cabral, Basil Davidson, Ayi Kwei Armah and others. I remember the gentle but persistent way you encouraged us to think, to organize our thoughts, and to share them in mature and helpful ways. I remember your way of talking of really hard things about the nature of the world - historical and modern alike - with a tone that was serious but encouraging. And I remember your overall kindness as a professor...I want to thank you for the life that you have lived, the challenges to heart and mind that you laid down for your students, and the ways you have shaped the rest of us through your time in this community and the way you have been as a family. I am grateful to you and for you.

My friend Roland Kreager died on May 28 of this year at the age of 65, of cancer. His obituary only begins to paint a picture of what a kind, active, generous, loving soul he was. He worked hard to create a world that was more just and equitable. Roland surprised me often with his ability to find good and hope within complex situations, even horrible ones. Even within his experience of cancer.

I can only hope to have a small piece of both Carol's and Roland's tremendous perspective on life as I grieve their deaths and feel anger and sadness at how quickly and profoundly a world can be turned upside down by illness.

Unfortunately this particular kind of anger and sadness is not new to me, or to many other people.

And it feels like cancer is everywhere.

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For/Against

The people who I see making the most progress in community building (at any level) are the ones who can effectively articulate the things that they are working toward, what they're for, and then get other people excited about different ways to make that happen.

The people who I see doing the most damage to community building efforts are the ones who only seem able to talk about the things they are against.

Maybe you recognize these different profiles?

For...

  • Is usually dreaming about ways to make something better
  • Celebrates existing strengths and accomplishments as a foundation to build on
  • Understands possibilities for the future, describes them well
  • Lets their ideas evolve as they get feedback
  • Connects with stakeholders and figures out how to help
  • Engages through questions, observation and collaboration

Against...

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Post Fact

What do you do if you find yourself living in a world where facts no longer matter to most people?

From the New York Times coverage of the historic British vote to leave the European Union:

The British campaign featured assertions and allegations tossed around with little regard to the facts. Both sides played to emotion, and the most common emotion played upon was fear.

Sound familiar?

Sure, it could describe the current U.S. Presidential campaign, but it could also describe myriad other campaigns about the environment and climate change, energy, food and health, poverty, war, immigration, politics, economics, laws and justice...the list goes on.

If there's an issue being debated, there's probably someone out there making an argument that is not based in fact and that plays upon our fears. Unfortunately, those are probably also the most well-funded, successful players in the campaign. Anyone asking for a reasoned, logical, fact-based approach are probably drowned out quickly if they're ever even heard at all.

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What if the police weren't on your side?

For most of my life, the police have been on my side.

They've helped protect the businesses and buildings I've owned. They've patrolled the neighborhoods I've lived in. They've brought law enforcement and a helpful presence to the places I've traveled. They've held me accountable - for the most part, with politeness and respect - when I've operated my vehicle in a way that broke the law. I've always felt like I could approach a police officer with a question or concern. When I've called 911 to report danger, they've come quickly and ready to help.

What an amazing and potentially live-saving privilege it has been to have the police on my side. I am thankful.

But what if the police weren't on my side?

As we honor the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., commemorate the accomplishments and sacrifices of a civil rights movement that is still ongoing, and seek peace with justice in the many parts of the world where such things are elusive, it's a question we must ask.

My friend Bob asked it today as he told the story of the night in 1959 that the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee was raided by the police in an attempt to discourage it from continuing to support integration and civil rights. The 50 or so organizers and students at the school sat in the dark as sheriffs with guns and billy clubs came in uninvited and ransacked the place. They could not call the police to help, the police were not on their side.

What if the police weren't on your side?

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Zombie analysis paralysis

How many everyday decisions do you tackle through the filter of "what does this mean for the coming zombie apocalypse?"

I'm worried the number is kind of high for me.

For example, when my eye doctor's office asks me how many sets of contact lenses I want, I don't have a fast answer. I could base it on price, maybe a guess about how long it will be until my prescription might renew or change. Most people do this calculation quickly in their head and respond.

My mind wanders into the territory of "will I be able to see when I am running from the zombies?" If I stockpile too many sets of lenses now, it's possible they'll expire before I can get through them all - doomsday scenarios could be a ways off - but if I don't get enough, I could find myself nearsighted at just the wrong moment, missing the faint silhouette of a brain-thirsty member of the undead off in the distance and losing precious seconds to act.

(The "zombie apocalypse" is of course shorthand for any number of dramatic world-changing events that could leave me and presumably some other humans alive but fighting for survival while deprived of most or all modern conveniences like power, clean water and Prime shipping. Global political/social unrest, catastrophic climate change, accidental nuclear launches, etc. just begin the list of events that could match an actual zombie outbreak in impact, but it helps me focus by summing it all up with "zombies.")

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