The Good Nurses

At first reflection, Charles Graeber’s 2013 book, The Good Nurse, might provoke dread in anyone who thinks they or their loved ones will depend at some time on the work of health care professionals. But my further thoughts about the story led me to affirm that, while anyone in Charles Cullen’s position could do what he did—kill dozens (maybe hundreds) of patients with random overdoses in order to satisfy his need for control—none of the nearly three million nurses currently working in the US has.

If I didn’t know any nurses and had never been a recipient of their care, Cullen’s chilling work might cause me to fear nurses or hospitals in general. But in the last few years I have depended on the care of some excellent nurses, and I currently hang around a lot of them as a volunteer. My relationship with genuinely good nurses protects me from such an irrational fear.

Indeed, irrational fears are often enabled by a lack of familiarity with their object:

One of the most common abuses of power is generating irrational fear based on hate and mistrust. But we can choose not to be controlled and limited by irrational fears and resist the appeals to hate by taking control and overcoming those fears.

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Getting Better, V

News of success is the best way to inspire continued progress, according to Australian think tank Future Crunch.

“We really feel that negativity leads to cynicism, apathy, hopelessness and even hate,” said FC’s Tane Hunter. “While it does galvanise a few people into action, for the vast majority it really causes a retraction.”

“We believe a much better way to inspire change is through optimism. We believe that’s the best method and emotion to drive creative innovation and to build a better future.”

One example is to go beyond the stories heralding the economic “success stories” of these nations in the last few years:

According to Future Crunch, the greatest economic success story of all time is currently taking place in countries around the world.

For most of recorded history, they said, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. By far the majority of people were dirt poor—”bone-crushing, unrelenting, one-inadequate-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, no-dentist, no-doctor, no-electricity, single-accident-means-life-and-death poor”; inequality was just the way the world worked. As recently as 1970, around 60% of the world’s 3.7 billion people lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% do, the lowest proportion of people in extreme poverty ever.

As Oxford researcher Max Roser puts it, the front page headline every day for the last 25 years should have read:

SINCE YESTERDAY, 137,000 PEOPLE
HAVE BEEN LIFTED OUT OF EXTREME POVERTY.

Future Crunch know the world is not a perfect place. “We still have massive issues with climate change, mass migration, Trump, Brexit, the rise of the alt-right, terrorism and Syria,” Hunter said.

But they insist, “you have to hold two ideas in your head at once: that the world is getting better and the world is not yet good enough. Our successors in the past should really give us hope as we move forward into the future.”

For the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. That’s a story well worth telling.

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No Newspapers, No Spreadsheets, No Waiting

As a kid in the 1970s, my friends and I played simulated baseball games by rolling dice and viewing charts made using the statistics of Major League players from previous seasons. Before long, however, we decided that the probabilities represented by the charts were not based on recent enough data. So we started taking the current season’s numbers—a limited version of which was printed in the newspaper every Sunday—and making new charts for our games every week.

Beginning in the 1980s, a scoring system called rotisserie baseball allowed people to form teams that competed based on the current statistics of Major League players, similar to what we had done, but without the probability-based gameplay aspect.

In the early 1990s, some friends in the office started a rotisserie (or fantasy) baseball league that relied heavily on two resources which had appeared just a few years before:

  • USA Today
  • Electronic spreadsheets

Introduced in 1982 as a national daily newspaper, USA Today printed the complete Major League Baseball statistics in the paper’s sports section every week of the season. It was a twice-weekly ritual to assign one of the league’s team managers to acquire a copy of the paper—for American League numbers on Tuesday and National League numbers on Wednesday—on the way to the office. We knew where the delivery boxes were around town and often what time they were typically filled, and we relied on the paper on those days for the week’s statistics to update the numbers for our players.

The league’s commissioner (who didn’t have a computer at home) would go to the office on Saturdays and enter the week’s numbers from the paper into our spreadsheet, which calculated current team totals and league standings that were printed and distributed to the owners on Mondays.

When the web came along in the late 1990s, of course, online fantasy leagues were quickly launched by major sports entities to attract visitors to their sites. Now, I manage fantasy teams in leagues with owners across the country and around the world. And while I no longer celebrate successes at year’s end with a Yoo-Hoo shower in a borrowed tuxedo, during the season I have access to my players’ data and the league standings in real time, pitch by pitch. No newspapers. No spreadsheets. No waiting. Amazing.

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Understanding History

Historian and columnist T.R. Fehrenbach said in his book, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, “History is too often revised to match contemporary views. It has been said that each generation must rewrite history in order to understand it. The opposite is true. Moderns revise history to make it palatable, not to understand it. Those who edit ‘history’ to popular taste each decade will never understand the past—neither the horrors nor glories of which the human race is equally capable—and for that reason, they will fail to understand themselves.”

Indeed, we must understand history in order to perform the necessary process of rewriting it. News has been properly characterized as “the first rough draft of history,” and more formal, considered formats must involve rewriting. The problems Fehrenbach describes arise with the object and intent of many revisions.

His blanket accusation that “moderns” are motivated to revise by a desire to serve their own ends and to protect an audience they deem lacking in discernment may have been prompted by the most flagrant example of this type of revision, which is his own state’s school board. While they commit a heinous crime, born of arrogance and paranoia, such groups and individuals are more appropriately described as bizarre anachronisms than “moderns.”

Truly modern scholars understand more than ever that history is improved by filling gaps, restoring original contexts and exploring interrelationships between events. At one time, too much weight was given to established portrayals by believing and teaching that there was only one way for history to be understood. Michael Conway insisted in The Atlantic that “rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”

Much of history in the Western world was written by white men who believed that the universe—Galileo and Copernicus notwithstanding—revolved around them, and responsible and enlightened revision can only provide an improved history that will, indeed, help us better understand ourselves.

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The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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My Heart’s Desire

What does travel do for us? Mark Twain said that it’s “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” That can be true, of course, but certainly the act of traveling is not a guaranteed cure for small, unhealthy thinking.

Several years ago, one of my sisters and her husband sent what I consider the most obnoxious Christmas card ever. Its greeting was, “This year we got to go to Paris. Again.”

Marcel Proust insisted that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” and you can do that without leaving home. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” And L. Frank Baum’s cherished protagonist Dorothy Gale learned, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

Malcolm Gladwell once proposed a prohibition on ever telling anyone what college you attended in order to remove prestige as a factor in college selection. What if travelers were prohibited from ever telling anyone on their return where they had been in order to remove prestige as a motivation for traveling? Would that encourage us instead—at home or on the road—to “carry the beautiful with us”?

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