Waking Up to the Gift of ‘Aliveness’

There are at least two natural, but equally flawed, responses to this announcement: constantly seek out newness or look for a stable, deeper meaning to your existing routine. In the 18th century, these responses were centered in Italy and Germany, respectively. Their descendants persevere today.

The Italian — Casanova was the paradigm — decides that what is missing from his life is spontaneity: He has died within his routine because it kills all his natural desires. To become alive again, he commits himself passionately to following his desires, take him where they may. He takes on many lovers — thrilling, consuming affairs! — but eventually he leaves each one for the next; he lives in the moment without a care for his past commitments or his future possibilities. His life moves from one raw excitement to another. Eventually, however, he becomes isolated, inconstant and unmoored. He hurts those around him. He becomes incapable of genuine connection with anyone and unsure of who he really is. He despairs.

The German takes a different approach. Shall we call him Kant? He decides that what is missing is a reason for his routine. He seeks it out. He tells himself a story, one that delivers a meaningful justification of his daily life. And then he enters into the routine once again, determined this time to live in the knowledge that no matter how deadening it becomes, it is justified and therefore must be pursued. It is his duty to do so. But even though he knows the why of what he is doing, he cannot escape the feeling that he is not living by doing it. The monotony re-establishes itself. He cannot escape the ruthless assertion of its insignificance. He despairs.

We see what these responses are aiming for — the aliveness they hope to achieve — by seeing how they ultimately fall short of their goal. To be alive is to have the passion of Casanova without its isolation, inconstancy and despair, or the resolute certainty of Kant, without its monotony and insignificance. Indeed, perhaps the best we can hope for is to point to the phenomenon in its absence: Aliveness is whatever is lacking when the monotony of the routine forces itself to the fore. But can we say something positive about what aliveness is?

A complete definition of the phenomenon is no doubt beyond our grasp. But there are two distinctive features of its elusiveness that I believe we can identify. The first is that every apparent source of aliveness disappears upon the inspection of it — the ground of aliveness recedes from view. Consider a simple example: the love you feel gazing at your lover’s face. When you are in love, you are alive; the whole world vibrates with significance. It is natural to want to hold onto that aliveness, to make it last forever, to find its source. And where else could it be but in your lover’s face? So you look. But beware! Look too closely and something falls apart.

For the greater the love that face evokes, the more transcendent your experience of that person, the less it seems possible that a face, a physical face, could actually be its ground. The phenomenon is filled with the deepest mystery, like the man who is God or the brain that is mind. After all, how could this fleshy, corporeal thing, of skin and veins and muscles and fat, how could this mere physical stuff and substance give rise to the ecstasy and transport of love? Of course it does! But the more you look at what a human face is, the less it seems capable of doing what it does. The object of love, as an object of love, dissolves in looking at it. The ground of aliveness withdraws from view.

The second feature is equally enigmatic. When you really feel alive, your past, your present and your future somehow make sense together as the unity they have always promised to be. I sometimes feel truly alive, for instance, when I am teaching my students. When it is going well, when we are connected and engaged and the classroom is buzzing, it is not just that we are sharing a special moment together. For me, that moment has the special character that it does because it fulfills the promise implicit in moments like that from my own childhood and youth. It is the validation of what came before just as it is the preparation for what comes after. When you see in your students the sense that what is happening now will stay with them, will remain alive as a future memory that can sustain them in some other moment, far away and very different from the one we are now sharing, then the moment vibrates with an energy it wouldn’t otherwise have.

That is at least one sense in which Bert unquestionably did write the line about aliveness in my lecture notes, because he manifested the very phenomenon it was about. For me, Bert’s classroom was the most alive place on earth. The line in my lecture notes that three decades later demanded my attention — that line was not an isolated entity. It referred back to and was prepared for by the very phenomenon of aliveness that Bert’s classroom introduced me to. The line is the fulfillment of all the aliveness that Bert’s teaching held and promised for us.

But recently, I began to wonder whether there isn’t a more literal sense in which Bert was the author of that line as well. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe I ever heard him talk about aliveness, and I don’t associate the thought with any others I know he had. It doesn’t even look like it belongs with the other lines around it there in the notes. But even so I am certain that line somehow emanates from him. For as surprising and unexpected as it is to hear that the goal of life is aliveness, I can see now that it is the view demanded by the life he led. And after all, isn’t that the way it is sometimes? There are things that you know must be said, that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.

And isn’t this, ultimately, another way to be alive? That we overflow with words and actions and ideas, at each moment saying and doing what it seems we must, but rarely understanding in its full depth why it is required? And sometimes we are wrong; we say or do things that mischaracterize or mistake. But sometimes we are right, deeply right — we say what is really and actually true — without knowing that we are right or understanding why. And when that happens our words and actions take on a life of their own — they come from us but extend beyond us, extend beyond even themselves.

So if Bert really was the author of that line, it’s not just because he wrote it. It’s because moreover, without even knowing it, he somehow buried it there in my lecture notes, long ago, as a secret treasure. And there it lay for years, for decades, waiting for the time when it could sprout up and come to life. A gift. A gift from him.

And now it is announced.

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Is Apple Slowing Down Old iPhones? Questions and Answers

What Apple is acknowledging is a power management technique in which the iPhone scales back processing power to keep the device running for longer when its battery health is low. Lithium ion batteries have a limited number of charge “cycles” before they can no longer be recharged properly. Apple’s website says the battery loses about 20 percent of its original capacity after 500 charge cycles.

In other words, if your iPhone is beginning to run out of battery capacity, these slowdowns might kick in to keep it running for longer or prevent it from shutting down unexpectedly.

Apple is not admitting to planned obsolescence. If Apple explicitly said that they injected code into older iPhones to slow them down because new ones came out, that would be admission. All it is admitting to now is trying to keep the old iPhones running for longer.

Does this change your conclusion last month that this is not a conspiracy to force users to buy new phones?

The premise of my previous column was that the vast majority of slowdown problems are fixable without buying a new phone. That point stands, and now we have even more information supporting that premise: a battery replacement also helps.

How many users does this affect?

Apple has said the power management technique works on iPhone 6, 6S, SE and 7.

What else could be slowing the older phones down?

Often, a buggy operating system upgrade can cause glitches when running apps. Another common cause is having little available device storage. Smartphones rely on flash storage, which keeps data in the cells of semiconductor chips. When stored, that data is scattered across the drive. So when you call it up by opening an app or a document, you are retrieving it from multiple parts of the drive. If lots of space is occupied, the data gets crowded and the device may feel sluggish.

Some users say that installing bigger batteries seems to fix the problem. Does that make sense? What else can users do to, short of buying new phones?

I would recommend paying a third-party repair shop to replace the aged battery with a fresh one. This will cost between $20 and $70, depending on where you live and which iPhone you own. Repair shops will probably recommend against installing a battery that has a larger capacity than the original, as there can be risks of damage.

The other solutions I wrote about in my last column included doing a clean install of the operating system and freeing up storage on the device. There is a scenario where you absolutely can’t get around buying a new phone: App and game makers design their software to work better on newer, faster devices. So if you have an older smartphone and you want a brand-new game with heavy graphics to work as well as it possibly could, you’ll want a new phone.

Is this unusual? Do other smartphone makers — or, more broadly, electronics companies — do this, too?

I don’t find the power management technique that surprising or unusual. You have probably noticed that when your smartphone (iPhone or Android) is running out of battery, like when there is less than 10 percent, the device begins to run more slowly. That is partly to keep it running for longer.

Could Apple have avoided this by, say, using a different type of battery?

We all dream about the day that the tech industry will adopt a longer-lasting, smarter battery than lithium ion. But battery technologies have to pass rigorous safety testing — if something goes wrong, they are miniature bombs. (You saw what happened with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7.) Lithium ion, though flawed, is still the safest and most easily reproducible battery technology on the market.

Apple is known for its masterful marketing. Do you think it has handled this controversy well?

No, it could have avoided controversy by being more transparent to begin with. It could have notified people that a power management mode was kicking in to keep their iPhones running for longer because their batteries are running out of juice. That would also inform people that they should be getting their batteries replaced. Because Apple was not transparent, it’s natural for people to suspect it of deliberately crippling their devices to get them to buy new ones.

This episode is a good reminder that even digital devices need maintenance. Many people believe that because gadgets lack moving parts, they should keep working as intended. But we still need to take care of them. Last year I wrote a column about maintaining our devices, which included tips like replacing aging batteries, freeing up storage and, in the case of desktop computers, removing the cover and blowing out dust.

[Want more advice and tips on the technology changing how you live? Sign up for the Bits Newsletter here.]

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Gratitude: In Sickness and Health

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes our experience as a perpetual transitioning between unreflective consciousness, “living-in-the-world,” and reflective consciousness, “thinking-about-the-world.” Gratitude seems to necessitate an act of reflection on experience, which, in turn, requires a certain abstraction away from that direct experience. Paradoxically, our capacity for gratitude is simultaneously enhanced and frustrated as we strive to attain it.

Perhaps, then, there is an important difference between reflecting on wellness and experiencing wellness. My habitual understanding of gratitude had me forcefully lodging myself into the realm of reflective consciousness, pulling me away from living-in-the-world. I was constantly making an inventory of my wellness, too busy counting the coins to ever spend them.

Gratitude, in the experiential sense, requires that we wade back into the current of unreflective consciousness, which, to the egocentric mind, can easily feel like an annihilation of consciousness altogether. Yet, Sartre says that action that is unreflective isn’t necessarily unconscious. There is something Zen about this, the actor disappearing into the action. It is the way of the artist in the act of creative expression, the musician in the flow of performance. But, to most of us, it is a loss of self — and the sense of competency that comes with it.

My attempts to harness the vibrancy of illness have largely been to avoid this plunge into the present. Before cancer, I would strain forward to my future self, the one who had already endured loss. He was the older sage that I have always intuited — helplessly, hopelessly — I am on my way to becoming.

After cancer, I’ve clamored backward to my past self — the one who knew pain, the glaring absence of things. He was the younger, battle-tested soldier whose courage I feel, on most days, has been lost.

Both these selves are removed from me now — not by distance, but by degree. The sage is lost to speculation while the soldier is trapped on the other side of some existential barrier that even memory — no matter how vivid and haunting — cannot penetrate. There is grief in realizing that, in holding one’s ear to that wall, exiled to the other side of pain.

I am left with one thing: my ordinary, present self who is as empty-handed as he was the day before diagnosis — no better equipped for the ensuing battles of life, no better shielded from pain he will yet face. And it is not just heroic pain. It is the hurt of parking tickets, the ache of commuting, the grief of deadening routine — small pains to which I was immune while they were eclipsed by cancer. But that moon has since passed.

And yet, that isn’t reason for despair. It’s strangely consoling to be reminded of my failure, to remember that my efforts to be prepared for epic loss were mostly in vain. I wasn’t ready then, and yet, I got through it. I won’t be ready next time, but I have reason (and experience) to believe that I will get through it again.

If there is any sage in me, he says I must accept the vulnerability of letting the pain fade, of allowing the wounds to heal. Even in the wake of grave illness — or, more unsettlingly, in anticipation of it — we must risk falling back asleep into wellness.

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Net Neutrality Repeal: What Could Happen and How It Could Affect You

What Might Happen?

The biggest concern is that the internet will become pay-to-play technology with two tiers: one that has speedy service and one that doesn’t. The high-speed lane would be occupied by big internet and media companies, and affluent households. For everyone else there would be the slow lane.

The brand-name internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, analysts say, will comfortably be able to pay the higher rent. It will not affect their business, though it may crimp their profits. Avoiding higher prices is one reason the major internet companies have been champions of net neutrality.

But higher prices may be prohibitive for start-up companies and new voices in the media and entertainment worlds. W. Kamau Bell, a comedian and host of the CNN documentary series “United Shades of America,” recently described in The New York Times how the internet is so often the path to popular and commercial success for newcomers. They upload a video and it goes viral.

That will no longer be true, Mr. Bell wrote, without net neutrality rules that “ensure that anyone who puts something on the internet has a fair shot at finding a life-changing audience.”

The government-backed guarantee of equal access is why public interest groups, nongovernmental organizations, charities and millions of private citizens wrote to the F.C.C. in support of the net neutrality rules.

But the broadband and telecom companies — and some economists — say that the freedom to charge different prices for different products and services is vital to healthy markets. That kind of “price discrimination,” they say, is the fuel of innovation and efficiency.

In a public comment earlier this year to the F.C.C., AT&T called the Obama-era rules “an unprecedented regulatory overreach for which there is no economic or marketplace justification.”

The F.C.C. rules mandated net neutrality principles under a utility-style telecommunications law, called Title 2, that dates to 1934. The carriers fear that it all but ensures price regulation.

“What they really object to is Title 2, not the net neutrality principles,” said Craig Moffett, an independent analyst.


Major telecommunication and broadband companies including Comcast have argued that the internet should not be subject to utility-style government regulation. They say that reduces their incentives to invest and improve service. But supporters of net neutrality rules say repeal will give internet providers too much power. Credit Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Comcast

So Whom Do You Trust?

The answer, like so many these days, is politically charged. The repeal reflects the conservative backlash against government regulation, which has been a hallmark of the Trump administration.

Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University who is credited with coining the phrase “net neutrality,” said the repeal plan not only rolls back the Obama-era rules, it goes further. It specifically permits broadband carriers to block media content, Mr. Wu said, an added power which was not the case during the administration of George W. Bush.

“An allowance of blocking is really pretty shocking.” Mr. Wu said in an email.

Yet if government is in retreat, then consumers are left to trust the behavior of the internet-access companies like Charter and AT&T. In their filings with the F.C.C., the companies have claimed that faith would be well founded. Market incentives, Charter told the F.C.C., push the companies to provide the best service to its customers, catering to consumer demand.

Charter said it voluntarily adheres to net neutrality principles, and will continue to do so. “We do not block, throttle, or otherwise interfere with the online activity of our customers,” the company said.

But a weakness in the free-market argument, industry analysts say, is that in some regional and rural markets, households have only one internet provider available to them. That undermines the theory that competition will protect consumers.

Roger L. Kay, an independent technology analyst, predicted that larger bills — not content blocking — would be the most likely result. If the big internet and media companies will have to pay their carriers more for high-speed services, the expenses will trickle down to households.

Consumers, Mr. Kay said, “will end up paying higher prices for essentially the same service.”

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Op-Ed Contributor: The Uncomfortable Truth About Swedish Anti-Semitism

Some are answering yes. One reason is the nature of the current threat.

Historically, anti-Semitism in Sweden could mainly be attributed to right-wing extremists. While this problem persists, a study from 2013 showed that 51 percent of anti-Semitic incidents in Sweden were attributed to Muslim extremists. Only 5 percent were carried out by right-wing extremists; 25 percent were perpetrated by left-wing extremists.

Swedish politicians have no problem condemning anti-Semitism carried out by right-wingers. When neo-Nazis planned a march that would go past the Goteborg synagogue on Yom Kippur this September, for example, it stirred up outrage across the political spectrum. A court ruled that the demonstrators had to change their route.

There is, however, tremendous hesitation to speak out against hate crimes committed by members of another minority group in a country that prides itself on welcoming minorities and immigrants. In 2015, Sweden was second only to Germany in the number of Syrian refugees it welcomed. Yet the three men arrested in the Molotov cocktail attack were newly arrived immigrants, two Syrians and a Palestinian.

The fear of being accused of intolerance has paralyzed Sweden’s leaders from properly addressing deep-seated intolerance.

Some of the country’s leaders have even used Israel as a convenient boogeyman to explain violence. After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, explained radicalism among European Muslims with reference to Israel: “Here, once again, we are brought back to situations like the one in the Middle East, where not least, the Palestinians see that there isn’t a future. We must either accept a desperate situation or resort to violence.”

In an interview in June, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was asked whether Sweden had been naïve about the link between immigration and anti-Semitism. His response was typical of the way in which leading politicians have avoided giving straight answers about the threat against the country’s Jews: “We have a problem in Sweden with anti-Semitism, and it doesn’t matter who expresses it, it’s still as darn wrong.”

But the problem has grown so dire that it finally forced Mr. Lofven to admit in an interview this month: “We will not ignore the fact that many people have come here from the Middle East, where anti-Semitism is a widespread idea, almost part of the ideology. We must become even clearer, dare to talk more about it.”

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ScienceTake: Curious Orangutans, Raised by Humans, Do Better on Cognitive Tests

First they exposed them to new foods and plastic snakes and other novelties.

The ones who had spent their youth in the forest, learned the lessons of caution well. They didn’t try new foods, avoided the fake snake and in general showed the expected lack of curiosity.

Which makes sense. “Imagine you were dropped in the middle of a rain forest,” said Dr. Damerius. It would be unwise to touch all the plants, let alone pop them in your mouth.

But the orangutans raised by humans or brought to a rehab center at a young age experienced a relatively safe environment and human role models who were themselves curious. They were far more likely to eat the dyed purple rice or potato mush, and to investigate a fake snake.

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers used a variety of cognitive tests, requiring the apes to figure out how to open a box, or reach into a chamber in an awkward way to get a treat, or other tasks.

The more curious orangutans did much better.

Dr. Damerius said the research showed several things. It confirmed what is called the captivity effect, that time spent in a zoo or other safe environment promotes curiosity.

And it also showed that the younger the apes were when they spent time with humans the more curious they were. Orangutans that grew up in the forest did not have a big spike in curiosity from being at a rehabilitation center.

It also showed that curiosity helps in what are usually thought of as intelligence tests. “Curiosity is contributing to problem solving,” Dr. Damerius said. ”It increases the opportunities for learning.”

In addition, a species thought to be incurious turned out to be quite curious in the right circumstances. So this was a matter of environmental influence, not genetic endowment. She said it was “striking” that the different environment could elicit curiosity in orangutans. “I think there is this dormant, inherited potential.”

The findings do raise a question, she said, about what it means to release an orangutan with more developed curiosity back into the wild, where it may well be the unexamined snake that makes life possible, let alone worth living.

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