There is no better symbol of the Cold War than the nuclear submarine: A shadow meant to vaporize whole civilizations. The haunt at the end of everything.
The fundamental strangeness of the submarine concept doesn't get nearly enough credit. It's one thing for a technology to allow underwater travellike a mirror-image airplanebut since the USS Nautilus launched 61 years ago (today), submarines have been about something quite different: undersea existence. The modern military sub has more to do with the International Space Station than it does a 747 or, more likely, a B-58 strategic bomber.
Put differently, the Nautilus was the first submarine that didn't really have to ever come up. It was the first nuclear submarine, which might also be considered the first submarine in the proper sense of the term. Before the Nautilus, submarines were really just boats that went underwater sometimes: submersibles. With oxygen-hoarding (air-hoarding) diesel engines, pre-nuclear subs were hardly autonomous; they had to (noisily) come up for air and fuel.
A submarine is different. It makes its own power, and breathes its own air. A submarine is an undersea kingdom, an Atlantis or a Rapture writ tubular, that interacts with the surface when it so chooses and the rest of the time, well, it's probably sneaking an array of nuclear missiles into your backyard and generally doing the dirty work of Mutually Assured Destruction.
When we think of nuclear power we usually think of cooling towers, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Nuclear power, which is among the more chronically misunderstood science-things out there, looms in the popular imagination as another mega-technology. Yet it's pretty easy to make small.
After all, nuclear power started smallthe first turbine generator, housed in a high-desert lab in nowhere-Idaho, featured a core about the size of a football, outputting enough juice to first power a string of light bulbs and, later, a whole building.
The Nautilus arrived only a few years later than that demonstration turbine, though its planning had begun long before. In July 1951, the US Congress approved its development; a year later and construction was underway, kicked-off in a keel-laying ceremony attended by Harry S Truman. In January 1954, the Nautilus was christened and launched into the Thames River.
The Nautilus was about an eighth the size of a modern Typhoon class nuclear submarine, with a mere 4,000 or so tons of displacement. (Displacement is the amount of water that would otherwise occupy the space in which a naval vessel is in.) It also didn't carry quite the responsibility of a Typhoon; its armament was limited to six torpedo tubes, while a Typhoon is built to carry a load of up to 20 ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
The sort of reactor that powered the Nautilus wasn't all that different from the sort used to generate power for everyday/civilian electrical grids, and it even became a prototype for contemporary civilian nuclear reactors. The trick was in maximizing space and, obviously, ensuring stability. It was based off of the land-based S1W reactor, a design that used exceptionally highly-enriched uranium fuel and pressurized water as a coolant.
The pressurization was key, allowing for two separate loops of coolant water, one irradiated loop that could get reused again and again, and one other, lower-pressure loop that didn't interact with anything radioactive. Which is good, especially if you happen to be trapped underwater with the thing for many months on end.
Generally, the pressurized-water design is safer and more stable. For one, it outputs less power as core temperatures increase and, two, it's built to shutdown automatically should some bad shit happen. Its control rods are dangled above the reactor using electromagnets and, should current be lost for some (bad) reason, the rods activate just through gravity.
Image: World Nuclear Association
The Nautilus spent most of its life with a squadron based out of Connecticut, basically acting as an anti-submarine guard dog for the Atlantic Ocean while also testing out various new anti-sub technologies. Aside from just existing, the sub's real accomplishment was Operation Sunshine, in which it became the first ship of any sort to reach the North Pole.
This is where things become spooky in that special way only Cold War technology can provide. The Soviets had just recently launched the Sputnik rocket, which bore the first artificial satellitehow it's usually thought of nowbut it was also a demonstration of something very, very dark. Sputnik was the name given to an R-7 rocket, which was the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. Sputnik was proof that the Soviet Union could deliver nuclear weapons around the globe without leaving its backyard. In 1957, the US was at least a year behind.
The Nautilus' Operation Sunshine mission was the counter-flex to Sputnik. The US couldn't send a nuclear missile into space, but it could send it underwater, from anywhere to anywhere else, basically. Traversing the North Pole was the ultimate demonstration of that: the US didn't need to nuke the USSR from its backyard because it was already in the USSR's front-yard.
The mission might have offered any number of claustrophobic doomsdays to the Nautilus crew. The first attempt was rebuffed by deep undersea iceunder the Bering Strait, the gap between ice-bottom and seafloor was too narrow to accommodatewith the second, successful transit occurring about a month later. With compasses rendered all but useless underwater above the North Pole, the Nautilus depended on a modified cruise missile navigation system. It was still no guarantee that that sub wouldn't get locked in somewhere or just plain lost.
By the time of the crossing, the US had already placed an order for its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs, the George Washington class. They were ad hoc conversions of the Skipjack series of nuclear sub, which hit the water about a year after Operation Sunshine. The point was deterrence, as the point of the Cold War itself eventually became. Nice ICBMs, but check out our fleet of undersea nuclear ghosts, currently haunting your northern coastline, well within range of Moscow. Most all of this happened within just a couple years time.
The US nuclear ballistic missile subs were known as boomers, but mostly they behaved just as, indeed, ghosts. Their entire design eventually revolved around stealth: sonar-resistant rubber tiling, minimized and masked propulsion systems, and even machinery mounted on vibration-absorbing pads.
A nuclear-powered sub then, just at the technology's outset, could feasibly stay submerged for 10 years without refueling, with its crew surviving on oxygen harvested from the water and stored food. Submarines-as-ghosts is less a metaphor than reasonable descriptor: an entity that exists both within and without our world, silent patches of black intended to blow up entire cities.
The USS Skate surfaced in the Arctic. Image: US Navy
The newest British submarine class, the Astute series, is the quietest submarine ever built. Every possible sound a submarine might create was modeled and minimized to the point of being all but nothing. Instead of noisy sonar, it comes with a large array of hydrophones, some positioned at various points on the vessel's hull, while others drag along behind.
"We created computer models of structures involved in the propulsion and pipework systems," Stuart Godden, the project's lead engineer, told Wired, "and then modelled how we thought noise would be transmitted through those structures and pipe systems to the hull, and then obviously we tried to damp those noise paths to make the boat as quiet as we possibly could."
Also modeled was the effect of a torpedo strike against the sub, an event its designers claim an Astute can withstand. It should be able to survive both the force of an explosion itself, along with the resulting bubble of compressed air, which usually dooms an injured sub.
The Astutes' missions will last for months at a time, but it can stay underwater for 25 years without refueling. Its only limitation, its only necessary connection with the surface world, is food. And, surely, that limitation will soon enough be conquered as well. Otherwise, nuclear subs are ghosts, the latest in a technological lineage haunting the last hidden places on the planet, whether its under the North Pole or a dozen miles off Long Island.
The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. ― John Milton
The mind is certainly its own cosmos. — Alan Lightman
You go to school, study hard, get a degree, and you’re pleased with yourself. But are you wiser?
You get a job, achieve things at the job, gain responsibility, get paid more, move to a better company, gain even more responsibility, get paid even more, rent an apartment with a parking spot, stop doing your own laundry, and you buy one of those $9 juices where the stuff settles down to the bottom. But are you happier?
You do all kinds of life things—you buy groceries, read articles, get haircuts, chew things, take out the trash, buy a car, brush your teeth, shit, sneeze, shave, stretch, get drunk, put salt on things, have sex with someone, charge your laptop, jog, empty the dishwasher, walk the dog, buy a couch, close the curtains, button your shirt, wash your hands, zip your bag, set your alarm, fix your hair, order lunch, act friendly to someone, watch a movie, drink apple juice, and put a new paper towel roll on the thing.
But as you do these things day after day and year after year, are you improving as a human in a meaningful way?
In the last post, I described the way my own path had led me to be an atheist—but how in my satisfaction with being proudly nonreligious, I never gave serious thought to an active approach to internal improvement—hindering my own evolution in the process.
This wasn’t just my own naiveté at work. Society at large focuses on shallow things, so it doesn’t stress the need to take real growth seriously. The major institutions in the spiritual arena—religions—tend to focus on divinity over people, making salvation the end goal instead of self-improvement. The industries that do often focus on the human condition—philosophy, psychology, art, literature, self-help, etc.—lie more on the periphery, with their work often fragmented from each other. All of this sets up a world that makes it hard to treat internal growth as anything other than a hobby, an extra-curricular, icing on the life cake.
Considering that the human mind is an ocean of complexity that creates every part of our reality, working on what’s going on in there seems like it should be a more serious priority. In the same way a growing business relies on a clear mission with a well thought-out strategy and measurable metrics, a growing human needs a plan—if we want to meaningfully improve, we need to define a goal, understand how to get there, become aware of obstacles in the way, and have a strategy to get past them.
When I dove into this topic, I thought about my own situation and whether I was improving. The efforts were there—apparent in many of this blog’s post topics—but I had no growth model, no real plan, no clear mission. Just kind of haphazard attempts at self-improvement in one area or another, whenever I happened to feel like it. So I’ve attempted to consolidate my scattered efforts, philosophies, and strategies into a single framework—something solid I can hold onto in the future—and I’m gonna use this post to do a deep dive into it.
So settle in, grab some coffee, and get your brain out and onto the table in front of you—you’ll want to have it there to reference as we explore what a weird, complicated object it is.
Wisdom. More on that later.
How Do We Get to the Goal?
By being aware of the truth. When I say “the truth,” I’m not being one of those annoying people who says the word truth to mean some amorphous, mystical thing—I’m just referring to the actual facts of reality. The truth is a combination of what we know and what we don’t know—and gaining and maintaining awareness of both sides of this reality is the key to being wise.
Easy, right? We don’t have to know more than we know, we only have to be aware of what we know and what we don’t know. Truth is in plain sight, written on the whiteboard—we just have to look at the board and reflect upon it. There’s just this one thing—
What’s in Our Way?
To understand the fog, let’s first be clear that we’re not here:
And this isn’t the situation:
This is a really hard concept for humans to absorb, but it’s the starting place for growth. Declaring ourselves “conscious” allows us to call it a day and stop thinking about it. I like to think of it as a consciousness staircase:
An ant is more conscious than a bacterium, a chicken more than an ant, a monkey more than a chicken, and a human more than a monkey. But what’s above us?
A) Definitely something, and B) Nothing we can understand better than a monkey can understand our world and how we think.
There’s no reason to think the staircase doesn’t extend upwards forever. The red alien a few steps above us on the staircase would see human consciousness the same way we see that of an orangutan—they might think we’re pretty impressive for an animal, but that of course we don’t actually begin to understand anything. Our most brilliant scientist would be outmatched by one of their toddlers.
To the green alien up there higher on the staircase, the red alien might seem as intelligent and conscious as a chicken seems to us. And when the green alien looks at us, it sees the simplest little pre-programmed ants.
We can’t conceive of what life higher on the staircase would be like, but absorbing the fact that higher stairs exist and trying to view ourselves from the perspective of one of those steps is the key mindset we need to be in for this exercise.
For now, let’s ignore those much higher steps and just focus on the step right above us—that light green step. A species on that step might see us like a three-year-old child—emerging into consciousness through a blur of simplicity and naiveté. Let’s imagine that a representative from that species was sent to observe humans and report back to his home planet about them—what would he think of the way we thought and behaved? What about us would impress him? What would make him cringe?
I think he’d very quickly see a conflict going on in the human mind. On one hand, all of those steps on the staircase below the human are where we grew from. Hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary adaptations geared toward animal survival in a rough world are very much rooted in our DNA, and the primitive impulses in us have birthed a bunch of low-grade qualities—fear, pettiness, jealousy, greed, instant-gratification, etc. Those qualities are the remnants of our animal past and still a prominent part of our brains, creating a zoo of small-minded emotions and motivations in our heads:
But over the past six million years, our evolutionary line has experienced a rapid growth in consciousness and the incredible ability to reason in a way no other species on Earth can. We’ve taken a big step up the consciousness staircase, very quickly—let’s call this burgeoning element of higher consciousness our Higher Being.
The Higher Being is brilliant, big-thinking, and totally rational. But on the grand timescale, he’s a very new resident in our heads, while the primal animal forces are ancient, and their coexistence in the human mind makes it a strange place:
So it’s not that a human is the Higher Being and the Higher Being is three years old—it’s that a human is the combination of the Higher Being and the low-level animals, and they blend into the three-year-old that we are. The Higher Being alone would be a more advanced species, and the animals alone would be one far more primitive, and it’s their particular coexistence that makes us distinctly human.
As humans evolved and the Higher Being began to wake up, he looked around your brain and found himself in an odd and unfamiliar jungle full of powerful primitive creatures that didn’t understand who or what he was. His mission was to give you clarity and high-level thought, but with animals tramping around his work environment, it wasn’t an easy job. And things were about to get much worse. Human evolution continued to make the Higher Being more and more sentient, until one day, he realized something shocking:
WE’RE GOING TO DIE
It marked the first time any species on planet Earth was conscious enough to understand that fact, and it threw all of those animals in the brain—who were not built to handle that kind of information—into a complete frenzy, sending the whole ecosystem into chaos:
The animals had never experienced this kind of fear before, and their freakout about this—one that continues today—was the last thing the Higher Being needed as he was trying to grow and learn and make decisions for us.
The adrenaline-charged animals romping around our brain can take over our mind, clouding our thoughts, judgment, sense of self, and understanding of the world. The collective force of the animals is what I call “the fog.” The more the animals are running the show and making us deaf and blind to the thoughts and insights of the Higher Being, the thicker the fog is around our head, often so thick we can only see a few inches in front of our face:
Let’s think back to our goal above and our path to it—being aware of the truth. The Higher Being can see the truth just fine in almost any situation. But when the fog is thick around us, blocking our eyes and ears and coating our brain, we have no access to the Higher Being or his insight. This is why being continually aware of the truth is so hard—we’re too lost in the fog to see it or think about it.
And when the alien representative is finished observing us and heads back to his home planet, I think this would be his sum-up of our problems:
The battle of the Higher Being against the animals—of trying to see through the fog to clarity—is the core internal human struggle.
This struggle in our heads takes place on many fronts. We’ve examined a few of them here: the Higher Being (in his role as the Rational Decision Maker) fighting the Instant Gratification Monkey; the Higher Being (in the role of the Authentic Voice) battling against the overwhelmingly scared Social Survival Mammoth; the Higher Being’s message that life is just a bunch of Todays getting lost in the blinding light of fog-based yearning for better tomorrows. Those are all part of the same core conflict between our primal past and our enlightened future.
The shittiest thing about the fog is that when you’re in the fog, it blocks your vision so you can’t see that you’re in the fog. It’s when the fog is thickest that you’re the least aware that it’s there at all—it makes you unconscious. Being aware that the fog exists and learning how to recognize it is the key first step to rising up in consciousness and becoming a wiser person.
So we’ve established that our goal is wisdom, that to get there we need to become as aware as possible of the truth, and that the main thing standing in our way is the fog. Let’s zoom in on the battlefield to look at why “being aware of the truth” is so important and how we can overcome the fog to get there:
No matter how hard we tried, it would be impossible for humans to access that light green step one above us on the consciousness staircase. Our advanced capability—the Higher Being—just isn’t there yet. Maybe in a million years or two. For now, the only place this battle can happen is on the one step where we live, so that’s where we’re going to zoom in. We need to focus on the mini spectrum of consciousness within our step, which we can do by breaking our step down into four substeps:
Climbing this mini consciousness staircase is the road to truth, the way to wisdom, my personal mission for growth, and a bunch of other cliché statements I never thought I’d hear myself say. We just have to understand the game and work hard to get good at it.
Let’s look at each step to try to understand the challenges we’re dealing with and how we can make progress:
Step 1: Our Lives in the Fog
Step 1 is the lowest step, the foggiest step, and unfortunately, for most of us it’s our default level of existence. On Step 1, the fog is all up in our shit, thick and close and clogging our senses, leaving us going through life unconscious. Down here, the thoughts, values, and priorities of the Higher Being are completely lost in the blinding fog and the deafening roaring, tweeting, honking, howling, and squawking of the animals in our heads. This makes us 1) small-minded, 2) short-sighted, and 3) stupid. Let’s discuss each of these:
1) On Step 1, you’re terribly small-minded because the animals are running the show.
When I look at the wide range of motivating emotions that humans experience, I don’t see them as a scattered range, but rather falling into two distinct bins: the high-minded, love-based, advanced emotions of the Higher Being, and the small-minded, fear-based, primitive emotions of our brain animals.
And on Step 1, we’re completely intoxicated by the animal emotions as they roar at us through the dense fog.
This is what makes us petty and jealous and what makes us so thoroughly enjoy the misfortune of others. It’s what makes us scared, anxious, and insecure. It’s why we’re self-absorbed and narcissistic; vain and greedy; narrow-minded and judgmental; cold, callous, and even cruel. And only on Step 1 do we feel that primitive “us versus them” tribalism that makes us hate people different than us.
You can find most of these same emotions in a clan of capuchin monkeys—and that makes sense, because at their core, these emotions can be boiled down to the two keys of animal survival: self-preservation and the need to reproduce.
Step 1 emotions are brutish and powerful and grab you by the collar, and when they’re upon you, the Higher Being and his high-minded, love-based emotions are shoved into the sewer.
2) On Step 1, you’re short-sighted, because the fog is six inches in front of your face, preventing you from seeing the big picture.
The fog explains all kinds of totally illogical and embarrassingly short-sighted human behavior.
Why else would anyone ever take a grandparent or parent for granted while they’re around, seeing them only occasionally, opening up to them only rarely, and asking them barely any questions—even though after they die, you can only think about how amazing they were and how you can’t believe you didn’t relish the opportunity to enjoy your relationship with them and get to know them better when they were around?
Why else would people brag so much, even though if they could see the big picture, it would be obvious that everyone finds out about the good things in your life eventually either way—and that you always serve yourself way more by being modest?
Why else would someone do the bare minimum at work, cut corners on work projects, and be dishonest about their efforts—when anyone looking at the big picture would know that in a work environment, the truth about someone’s work habits eventually becomes completely apparent to both bosses and colleagues, and you’re never really fooling anyone? Why would someone insist on making sure everyone knows when they did something valuable for the company—when it should be obvious that acting that way is transparent and makes it seem like you’re working hard just for the credit, while just doing things well and having one of those things happen to be noticed does much more for your long term reputation and level of respect at the company?
If not for thick fog, why would anyone ever pinch pennies over a restaurant bill or keep an unpleasantly-rigid scorecard of who paid for what on a trip, when everyone reading this could right now give each of their friends a quick and accurate 1-10 rating on the cheap-to-generous (or selfish-to-considerate) scale, and the few hundred bucks you save over time by being on the cheap end of the scale is hardly worth it considering how much more likable and respectable it is to be generous?
What other explanation is there for the utterly inexplicable decision by so many famous men in positions of power to bring down the career and marriage they spent their lives building by having an affair?
And why would anyone bend and loosen their integrity for tiny insignificant gains when integrity affects your long-term self esteem and tiny insignificant gains affect nothing in the long term?
How else could you explain the decision by so many people to let the fear of what others might think dictate the way they live, when if they could see clearly they’d realize that A) that’s a terrible reason to do or not do something, and B) no one’s really thinking about you anyway—they’re buried in their own lives.
And then there are all the times when someone’s opaque blinders keep them in the wrong relationship, job, city, apartment, friendship, etc. for years, sometimes decades, only for them to finally make a change and say “I can’t believe I didn’t do this earlier,” or “I can’t believe I couldn’t see how wrong that was for me.” They should absolutely believe it, because that’s the power of the fog.
3) On Step 1, you’re very, very stupid.
One way this stupidity shows up is in us making the same obvious mistakes over and over and over again.1
The most glaring example is the way the fog convinces us, time after time after time, that certain things will make us happy that in reality absolutely don’t. The fog lines up a row of carrots, tells us that they’re the key to happiness, and tells us to forget today’s happiness in favor of directing all of our hope to all the happiness the future will hold because we’re gonna get those carrots.
And even though the fog has proven again and again that it has no idea how human happiness works—even though we’ve had so many experiences finally getting a carrot and feeling a ton of temporary happiness, only to watch that happiness fade right back down to our default level a few days later—we continue to fall for the trick.
It’s like hiring a nutritionist to help you with your exhaustion, and they tell you that the key is to drink an espresso shot anytime you’re tired. So you’d try it and think the nutritionist was a genius until an hour later when it dropped you like an anvil back into exhaustion. You go back to the nutritionist, who gives you the same advice, so you try it again and the same thing happens. That would probably be it right? You’d fire the nutritionist. Right? So why are we so gullible when it comes to the fog’s advice on happiness and fulfillment?
The fog is also much more harmful than the nutritionist because not only does it give us terrible advice—but the fog itself is the source of unhappiness. The only real solution to exhaustion is to sleep, and the only real way to improve happiness in a lasting way is to make progress in the battle against the fog.
There’s a concept in psychology called The Hedonic Treadmill, which suggests that humans have a stagnant default happiness level and when something good or bad happens, after an initial change in happiness, we always return to that default level. And on Step 1, this is completely true of course, given that trying to become permanently happier while in the fog is like trying to dry your body off while standing under the shower with the water running.
But I refuse to believe the same species that builds skyscrapers, writes symphonies, flies to the moon, and understands what a Higgs boson is is incapable of getting off the treadmill and actually improving in a meaningful way.
I think the way to do it is by learning to climb this consciousness staircase to spend more of our time on Steps 2, 3, and 4, and less of it mired unconsciously in the fog.
Step 2: Thinning the Fog to Reveal Context
Humans can do something amazing that no other creature on Earth can do—they can imagine. If you show an animal a tree, they see a tree. Only a human can imagine the acorn that sunk into the ground 40 years earlier, the small flimsy stalk it was at three years old, how stark the tree must look when it’s winter, and the eventual dead tree lying horizontally in that same place.
This is the magic of the Higher Being in our heads.
On the other hand, the animals in your head, like their real world relatives, can only see a tree, and when they see one, they react instantly to it based on their primitive needs. When you’re on Step 1, your unconscious animal-run state doesn’t even remember that the Higher Being exists, and his genius abilities go to waste.
Step 2 is all about thinning out the fog enough to bring the Higher Being’s thoughts and abilities into your consciousness, allowing you to see behind and around the things that happen in life. Step 2 is about bringing context into your awareness, which reveals a far deeper and more nuanced version of the truth.
There are plenty of activities or undertakings that can help thin out your fog. To name three:
1) Learning more about the world through education, travel, and life experience—as your perspective broadens, you can see a clearer and more accurate version of the truth.
2) Active reflection. This is what a journal can help with, or therapy, which is basically examining your own brain with the help of a fog expert. Sometimes a hypothetical question can be used as “fog goggles,” allowing you to see something clearly through the fog—questions like, “What would I do if money were no object?” or “How would I advise someone else on this?” or “Will I regret not having done this when I’m 80?” These questions are a way to ask your Higher Being’s opinion on something without the animals realizing what’s going on, so they’ll stay calm and the Higher Being can actually talk—like when parents spell out a word in front of their four-year-old when they don’t want him to know what they’re saying.2
3) Meditation, exercise, yoga, etc.—activities that help quiet the brain’s unconscious chatter, i.e. allowing the fog to settle.
But the easiest and most effective way to thin out the fog is simply to be aware of it. By knowing that fog exists, understanding what it is and the different forms it takes, and learning to recognize when you’re in it, you hinder its ability to run your life. You can’t get to Step 2 if you don’t know when you’re on Step 1.
The way to move onto Step 2 is by remembering to stay aware of the context behind and around what you see, what you come across, and the decisions you make. That’s it—remaining cognizant of the fog and remembering to look at the whole context keeps you conscious, aware of reality, and as you’ll see, makes you a much better version of yourself than you are on Step 1. Some examples—
Here’s what a rude cashier looks like on Step 1 vs. Step 2:
Here’s what gratitude looks like:
Something good happening:
Something bad happening:
That phenomenon where everything suddenly seems horrible late at night in bed:
A flat tire:
Looking at context makes us aware how much we actually know about most situations (as well as what we don’t know, like what the cashier’s day was like so far), and it reminds us of the complexity and nuance of people, life, and situations. When we’re on Step 2, this broader scope and increased clarity makes us feel calmer and less fearful of things that aren’t actually scary, and the animals—who gain their strength from fear and thrive off of unconsciousness—suddenly just look kind of ridiculous:
When the small-minded animal emotions are less in our face, the more advanced emotions of the Higher Being—love, compassion, humility, empathy, etc.—begin to light up.
The good news is there’s no learning required to be on Step 2—your Higher Being already knows the context around all of these life situations. It doesn’t take hard work, and no additional information or expertise is needed—you only have to consciously think about being on Step 2 instead of Step 1 and you’re there. You’re probably there right now just by reading this.
The bad news is that it’s extremely hard to stay on Step 2 for long. The Catch-22 here is that it’s not easy to stay conscious of the fog because the fog makes you unconscious.
That’s the first challenge at hand. You can’t get rid of the fog, and you can’t always keep it thin, but you can get better at noticing when it’s thick and develop effective strategies for thinning it out whenever you consciously focus on it. If you’re evolving successfully, as you get older, you should be spending more and more time on Step 2 and less and less on Step 1.
Step 3: Shocking Reality
I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe. —Richard Feynman
Step 3 is when things start to get weird. Even on the more enlightened Step 2, we kind of think we’re here:
As delightful as that is, it’s a complete delusion. We live our days as if we’re just here on this green and brown land with our blue sky and our chipmunks and our caterpillars. But this is actually what’s happening:
But even more actually, this is happening:
We also tend to kind of think this is the situation:
When really, it’s this:
You might even think you’re a thing. Do you?
No you’re a ton of these:
This is the next iteration of truth on our little staircase, and our brains can’t really handle it. Asking a human to internalize the vastness of space or the eternity of time or the tininess of atoms is like asking a dog to stand up on its hind legs—you can do it if you focus, but it’s a strain and you can’t hold it for very long.3
You can think about the facts anytime—The Big Bang was 13.8 billion years ago, which is about 130,000 times longer than humans have existed; if the sun were a ping pong ball in New York, the closest star to us would be a ping pong ball in Atlanta; the Milky Way is so big that if you made a scale model of it that was the size of the US, you would still need a microscope to see the sun; atoms are so small that there are about as many atoms in one grain of salt as there are grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth. But once in a while, when you deeply reflect on one of these facts, or when you’re in the right late night conversation with the right person, or when you’re staring at the stars, or when you think too hard about what death actually means—you have a Whoa moment.
A true Whoa moment is hard to come by and even harder to maintain for very long, like our dog’s standing difficulties. Thinking about this level of reality is like looking at an amazing photo of the Grand Canyon; a Whoa moment is like being at the Grand Canyon—the two experiences are similar but somehow vastly different. Facts can be fascinating, but only in a Whoa moment does your brain actually wrap itself around true reality. In a Whoa moment, your brain for a second transcends what it’s been built to do and offers you a brief glimpse into the astonishing truth of our existence. And a Whoa moment is how you get to Step 3.
I love Whoa moments. They make me feel some intense combination of awe, elation, sadness, and wonder. More than anything, they make me feel ridiculously, profoundly humble—and that level of humility does weird things to a person. In those moments, all those words religious people use—awe, worship, miracle, eternal connection—make perfect sense. I want to get on my knees and surrender. This is when I feel spiritual.
And in those fleeting moments, there is no fog—my Higher Being is in full flow and can see everything in perfect clarity. The normally-complicated world of morality is suddenly crystal clear, because the only fathomable emotions on Step 3 are the most high-level. Any form of pettiness or hatred is a laughable concept up on Step 3—with no fog to obscure things, the animals are completely naked, exposed for the sad little creatures that they are.
On Step 1, I snap back at the rude cashier, who had the nerve to be a dick to me. On Step 2, the rudeness doesn’t faze me because I know it’s about him, not me, and that I have no idea what his day or life has been like. On Step 3, I see myself as a miraculous arrangement of atoms in vast space that for a split second in endless eternity has come together to form a moment of consciousness that is my life…and I see that cashier as another moment of consciousness that happens to exist on the same speck of time and space that I do. And the only possible emotion I could have for him on Step 3 is love.
In a Whoa moment’s transcendent level of consciousness, I see every interaction, every motivation, every news headline in unusual clarity—and difficult life decisions are much more obvious. I feel wise.
Of course, if this were my normal state, I’d be teaching monks somewhere on a mountain in Myanmar, and I’m not teaching any monks anywhere because it’s not my normal state. Whoa moments are rare and very soon after one, I’m back down here being a human again. But the emotions and the clarity of Step 3 are so powerful, that even after you topple off the step, some of it sticks around. Each time you humiliate the animals, a little bit of their future power over you is diminished. And that’s why Step 3 is so important—even though no one that I know can live permanently on Step 3, regular visits help you dramatically in the ongoing Step 1 vs Step 2 battle, which makes you a better and happier person.
Step 3 is also the answer to anyone who accuses atheists of being amoral or cynical or nihilistic, or wonders how atheists find any meaning in life without the hope and incentive of an afterlife. That’s a Step 1 way to view an atheist, where life on Earth is taken for granted and it’s assumed that any positive impulse or emotion must be due to circumstances outside of life. On Step 3, I feel immensely lucky to be alive and can’t believe how cool it is that I’m a group of atoms that can think about atoms—on Step 3, life itself is more than enough to make me excited, hopeful, loving, and kind. But Step 3 is only possible because science has cleared the way there, which is why Carl Sagan said that “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” In this way, science is the “prophet” of this framework—the one who reveals new truth to us and gives us an opportunity to alter ourselves by accessing it.
So to recap so far—on Step 1, you’re in a delusional bubble that Step 2 pops. On Step 2, there’s much more clarity about life, but it’s within a much bigger delusional bubble, one that Step 3 pops. But Step 3 is supposed to be total, fog-free clarity on truth—so how could there be another step?
Step 4: The Great Unknown
If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. —Carl Sagan
The game so far has for the most part been clearing out fog to become as conscious as possible of what we as people and as a species know about truth:
On Step 4, we’re reminded of the complete truth—which is this:
The fact is, any discussion of our full reality—of the truth of the universe or our existence—is a complete delusion without acknowledging that big purple blob that makes up almost all of that reality.
But you know humans—they don’t like that purple blob one bit. Never have. The blob frightens and humiliates humans, and we have a rich history of denying its existence entirely, which is like living on the beach and pretending the ocean isn’t there. Instead, we just stamp our foot and claim that now we’ve finally figured it all out. On the religious side, we invent myths and proclaim them as truth—and even a devout religious believer reading this who stands by the truth of their particular book would agree with me about the fabrication of the other few thousand books out there. On the science front, we’ve managed to be consistently gullible in believing that “realizing you’ve been horribly wrong about reality” is a phenomenon only of the past.
Having our understanding of reality overturned by a new groundbreaking discovery is like a shocking twist in this epic mystery novel humanity is reading, and scientific progress is regularly dotted with these twists—the Earth being round, the solar system being heliocentric, not geocentric, the discovery of subatomic particles or galaxies other than our own, and evolutionary theory, to name a few. So how is it possible, with the knowledge of all those breakthroughs, that Lord Kelvin, one of history’s greatest scientists, said in the year 1900, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement”4—i.e. this time, all the twists actually are finished.
Of course, Kelvin was as wrong as every other arrogant scientist in history—the theory of general relativity and then the theory of quantum mechanics would both topple science on its face over the next century.
Even if we acknowledge today that there will be more twists in the future, we’re probably kind of inclined to think we’ve figured out most of the major things and have a far closer-to-complete picture of reality than the people who thought the Earth was flat. Which, to me, sounds like this:
The fact is, let’s remember that we don’t know what the universe is. Is it everything? Is it one tiny bubble in a multiverse frothing with bubbles? Is it not a bubble at all but an optical illusion hologram? And we know about the Big Bang, but was that the beginning of everything? Did something arise from nothing, or was it just the latest in a long series of expansion/collapse cycles?5 We have no clue what dark matter is, only that there’s a shit-ton of it in the universe, and when we discussed The Fermi Paradox, it became entirely clear that science has no idea about whether there’s other life out there or how advanced it might be. How about String Theory, which claims to be the secret to unifying the two grand but seemingly-unrelated theories of the physical world, general relativity and quantum mechanics? It’s either the grandest theory we’ve ever come up with or totally false, and there are great scientists on both sides of this debate. And as laypeople, all we need to do is take a look at those two well-accepted theories to realize how vastly different reality can be from how it seems: like general relativity telling us that if you flew to a black hole and circled around it a few times in intense gravity and then returned to Earth a few hours after you left, decades would have passed on Earth while you were gone. And that’s like an ice cream cone compared to the insane shit quantum mechanics tells us—like two particles across the universe from one another being mysteriously linked to each other’s behavior, or a cat that’s both alive and dead at the same time, until you look at it.
And the thing is, everything I just mentioned is still within the realm of our understanding. As we established earlier, compared to a more evolved level of consciousness, we might be like a three-year-old, a monkey, or an ant—so why would we assume that we’re even capable of understanding everything in that purple blob? A monkey can’t understand that the Earth is a round planet, let alone that the solar system, galaxy, or universe exists. You could try to explain it to a monkey for years and it wouldn’t be possible. So what are we completely incapable of grasping even if a more intelligent species tried its hardest to explain it to us? Probably almost everything.
There are really two options when thinking about the big, big picture: be humble or be absurd.
The nonsensical thing about humans feigning certainty because we’re scared is that in the old days, when it seemed on the surface that we were the center of all creation, uncertainty was frightening because it made our reality seem so much bleaker than we had thought—but now, with so much more uncovered, things look highly bleak for us as people and as a species, so our fear should welcome uncertainty. Given my default outlook that I have a small handful of decades left and then an eternity of nonexistence, the fact that we might be totally wrong sounds tremendously hopeful to me.
Ironically, when my thinking reaches the top of this rooted-in-atheism staircase, the notion that something that seems divine to us might exist doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. I’m still totally atheist when it comes to all human-created conceptions of a divine higher force—which all, in my opinion, proclaim far too much certainty. But could a super-advanced force exist? It seems more than likely. Could we have been created by something/someone bigger than us or be living as part of a simulation without realizing it? Sure—I’m a three-year-old, remember, so who am I to say no?
To me, complete rational logic tells me to be atheist about all of the Earth’s religions and utterly agnostic about the nature of our existence or the possible existence of a higher being. I don’t arrive there via any form of faith, just by logic.
I find Step 4 mentally mind-blowing but I’m not sure I’m ever quite able to access it in a spiritual way like I sometimes can with Step 3—Step 4 Whoa moments might be reserved for Einstein-level thinkers—but even if I can’t get my feet up on Step 4, I can know it’s there, what it means, and I can remind myself of its existence. So what does that do for me as a human?
Well remember that powerful humility I mentioned in Step 3? It multiples that by 100. For reasons I just discussed, it makes me feel more hopeful. And it leaves me feeling pleasantly resigned to the fact that I will never understand what’s going on, which makes me feel like I can take my hand off the wheel, sit back, relax, and just enjoy the ride. In this way, I think Step 4 can make us live more in the present—if I’m just a molecule floating around an ocean I can’t understand, I might as well just enjoy it.
The way Step 4 can serve humanity is by helping to crush the notion of certainty. Certainty is primitive, leads to “us versus them” tribalism, and starts wars. We should be united in our uncertainty, not divided over fabricated certainty. And the more humans turn around and look at that big purple blob, the better off we’ll be.
Why Wisdom is the Goal
Nothing clears fog like a deathbed, which is why it’s then that people can always see with more clarity what they should have done differently—I wish I had spent less time working; I wish I had communicated with my wife more; I wish I had traveled more; etc. The goal of personal growth should be to gain that deathbed clarity while your life is still happening so you can actually do something about it.
The way you do that is by developing as much wisdom as possible, as early as possible. To me, wisdom is the most important thing to work towards as a human. It’s the big objective—the umbrella goal under which all other goals fall into place. I believe I have one and only one chance to live, and I want to do it in the most fulfilled and meaningful way possible—that’s the best outcome for me, and I do a lot more good for the world that way. Wisdom gives people the insight to know what “fulfilled and meaningful” actually means and the courage to make the choices that will get them there.
And while life experience can contribute to wisdom, I think wisdom is mostly already in all of our heads—it’s everything the Higher Being knows. When we’re not wise, it’s because we don’t have access to the Higher Being’s wisdom because it’s buried in fog. The fog is anti-wisdom, and when you move up the staircase into a clearer place, wisdom is simply a by-product of that increased consciousness.
One thing I learned at some point is that growing old or growing tall is not the same as growing up. Being a grownup is about your level of wisdom and the size of your mind’s scope—and it turns out that it doesn’t especially correlate with age. After a certain age, growing up is about overcoming your fog, and that’s about the person, not the age. I know some supremely wise older people, but there are also a lot of people my age who seem much wiser than their parents about a lot of things. Someone on a growth path whose fog thins as they age will become wiser with age, but I find the reverse happens with people who don’t actively grow—the fog hardens around them and they actually become even less conscious, and even more certain about everything, with age.
When I think about people I know, I realize that my level of respect and admiration for a person is almost entirely in line with how wise and conscious a person I think they are. The people I hold in the highest regard are the grownups in my life—and their ages completely vary.
Another Look at Religion in Light of this Framework:
This discussion helps clarify my issues with traditional organized religion. There are plenty of good people, good ideas, good values, and good wisdom in the religious world, but to me that seems like something happening in spite of religion and not because of it. Using religion for growth requires an innovative take on things, since at a fundamental level, most religions seem to treat people like children instead of pushing them to grow. Many of today’s religions play to people’s fog with “believe in this or else…” fear-mongering and books that are often a rallying cry for ‘us vs. them’ divisiveness. They tell people to look to ancient scripture for answers instead of the depths of the mind, and their stubborn certainty when it comes to right and wrong often leaves them at the back of the pack when it comes to the evolution of social issues. Their certainty when it comes to history ends up actively pushing their followers away from truth—as evidenced by the 42% of Americans who have been deprived of knowing the truth about evolution. (An even worse staircase criminal is the loathsome world of American politics, with a culture that lives on Step 1 and where politicians appeal directly to people’s animals, deliberately avoiding anything on Steps 2-4.)
So What Am I?
Yes, I’m an atheist, but atheism isn’t a growth model any more than “I don’t like rollerblading” is a workout strategy.
So I’m making up a term for what I am—I’m a Truthist. In my framework, truth is what I’m always looking for, truth is what I worship, and learning to see truth more easily and more often is what leads to growth.
In Truthism, the goal is to grow wiser over time, and wisdom falls into your lap whenever you’re conscious enough to see the truth about people, situations, the world, or the universe. The fog is what stands in your way, making you unconscious, delusional, and small-minded, so the key day-to-day growth strategy is staying cognizant of the fog and training your mind to try to see the full truth in any situation.
Over time, you want your [Time on Step 2] / [Time on Step 1] ratio to go up a little bit each year, and you want to get better and better at inducing Step 3 Whoa moments and reminding yourself of the Step 4 purple blob. If you do those things, I think you’re evolving in the best possible way, and it will have profound effects on all aspects of your life.
That’s it. That’s Truthism.
Am I a good Truthist? I’m okay. Better than I used to be with a long way to go. But defining this framework will help—I’ll know where to put my focus, what to be wary of, and how to evaluate my progress, which will help me make sure I’m actually improving and lead to quicker growth.
To help keep me on mission, I made a Truthism logo:
That’s my symbol, my mantra, my WWJD—it’s the thing I can look at when something good or bad happens, when a big decision is at hand, or on a normal day as a reminder to stay aware of the fog and keep my eye on the big picture.
And What Are You?
My challenge to you is to decide on a term for yourself that accurately sums up your growth framework.
If Christianity is your thing and it’s genuinely helping you grow, that word can be Christian. Maybe you already have your own clear, well-defined advancement strategy and you just need a name for it. Maybe Truthism hit home for you, resembles the way you already think, and you want to try being a Truthist with me.
Or maybe you have no idea what your growth framework is, or what you’re using isn’t working. If either A) you don’t feel like you’ve evolved in a meaningful way in the past couple years, or B) you aren’t able to corroborate your values and philosophies with actual reasoning that matters to you, then you need to find a new framework.
To do this, just ask yourself the same questions I asked myself: What’s the goal that you want to evolve towards (and why is that the goal), what does the path look like that gets you there, what’s in your way, and how do you overcome those obstacles? What are your practices on a day-to-day level, and what should your progress look like year-to-year? Most importantly, how do you stay strong and maintain the practice for years and years, not four days? After you’ve thought that through, name the framework and make a symbol or mantra. (Then share your strategy in the comments or email me about it, because articulating it helps clarify it in your head, and because it’s useful and interesting for others to hear about your framework.)
I hope I’ve convinced you how important this is. Don’t wait until your deathbed to figure out what life is all about.
Related Wait But Why Posts
Unrelatedly, after finishing my outline for this post, I estimated that the writing part would take me 10 hours—which is odd, because I’m about eight hours in now and still on Step 1 of the staircase. You’d think that after writing about 50 posts in the past year and underestimating how long each of them would take, I might not have been so dramatically delusional by this point. You’d think.
If you were to continue thinking, you might also assume that yesterday, when I needed to go from 116th Street in Manhattan to the World Trade Center for an event I absolutely could not be late for, I’d have considered the fact that I know from experience that this usually takes an hour before leaving for the event only 40 minutes ahead of time. We agree that that’s what you’d think. So why was I sprinting at the end to make it there on time? Why would I end up sweating to make it somewhere on time—for the nine trillionth time in my life—when this grossly undignified and unpleasant experience is so easily avoidable?
Because when I make these inexplicably stupid, self-defeating decisions, I’m swimming in fog.↩
I use a weird one, where I pretend I have a dial I can set to a number of sleep hours and then press the button and instantly it’s that many hours later and I’ve slept the number of hours on the dial, and I can resume doing what I’m doing. I’m a night owl, but if I had that dial, I’d go to bed around 11pm and sleep eight hours almost every night of the year. This isolates for me the fact that I’m not actually a night owl—my Higher Being wants to sleep from 11-7—it’s just that I have a short-sighted, fog-based resistance against going to sleep. Which probably annoyingly boils down to fear of death somehow.↩
Some dispute that Kelvin said this, claiming it was actually said by another great 19th century physicist, Albert A. Michaelson. Whichever account is correct, a great scientist said it.↩
Always amazing stories
The scariest thing I'll see in Yemen looms up at me before the plane has even landed. I have dozed my way from Abu Dhabi across most of the Arabian Penninsula, including the Empty Quarter, that vast uninhabitable sandbox in the interior were they didn't even bother to put in borders until fifteen years ago. That just looked like storybook desert, although there was an appalling lot of it.
But now the plane is well into its descent to Sana’a, the flaps are coming down, and all I can see below is bare rock from which every trace of sand has been scraped clean by an angry and pitiless wind. At last I understand why it took three billion years for creatures to come out of the sea and colonize the land. One glimpse of these rocks is enough to send anyone flopping back into the ocean, tail tucked between not-yet-evolved legs. Enormous stone fingers point upwards, reaching nearly as high as the plane. Between them are deep scars where water in some inconceivably distant past rushed to get the hell out of this forlorn place. There isn’t the smallest trace of life, let alone human settlement. It is the most pitiless, hostile, and frankly malevolent landscape I have ever seen.
The plane crosses a high ridge and at last, thank God, there are some dark dots of vegetation. Fearless people are irrigating this bit of Lovecraftian madness. The dots turn into rows, then clumps, and soon in places I can see the white scar of a road. The mountains subside into a broad, flat, dun-colored plateau. As the plane dips a wing to begin its final approach, I notice that the monochrome ground becomes boxy and pixellated out towards the horizon, where thousands and thousands of tiny cubes seem to rise out of the desert, as if the Yemeni landscape had a bug in its loader.
The cubes are houses, hundreds of thousands of them, all the same color as the ground. That is my first view of the city of Sana’a.
Sana’a is so strange and marvelous. If Yemen weren't in permanent crisis, the city would be awash in archaeologists, one of whom might even settle the question of how long people have lived here. Like Damascus or Jericho, Sana’a has a credible claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. But what truly makes this place unique isn't its age, but its astonishing buildings. Old Sana’a looks like a gingerbread tribute to Manhattan.
While everyone else was content to build mud huts, tents, old caves or other basic dwellings, industrious Yemenis put up skyscrapers using only stone, mud, and lime. Confined by its protective wall from growing outwards, the city instead grew up, a forest of tower houses from five to nine stories high. These beautiful dwellings still stand, an ancient urban landscape where only the satellite dishes and metal water tanks tip you off that you are no longer in the Middle Ages.
It's hard to believe it when you're gasping for breath in a stairwell, but the tower houses of Sana’a are also quite practical. They allowed for a high population density within the city walls, permitted extended families to share a dwelling, and were handy in the real-life tower defense game against the hill tribes whose fondest activity for the past two thousand years has been plundering this lovely city.
Just as odd as the architecture is the city's climate. Tucked into the southwest corner of the Arabian Penninsula, near the mouth of the Red Sea, Sana’a is surrounded by some of the world's hotter deserts. By all rights, it should be a sweltering furnace like Riyadh or Khartoum. But because the plateau it sits on is over two and a half kilometers above sea level, the climate in Sana’a is positively mild. Northern Yemen may be the only place in Arabia where you can wear a sweater in June and live to write about it.
As the landing gear come down, I start to see details down in the streets. The pixel squares resolve into individual houses with chaotically unfinished roofs. Every rooftop has a low wall around it and has been capped off with a little cone of rubble. In between the houses there are long, stalled strings of cars, stretching out for kilometers. “Army checkpoints,” I think, but then I see that each thread of cars ends at a gas station. There are goats in the road, too. With their more flexible fuel requirements, they go where they please.
Right before the runway threshold, the plane passes a graveyard of Hind helicopters, rusted-out jet engines, and other airplane parts. The edge of the runway is lined with still functional helicopters, along with a row of big open hangars, each one sheltering a MiG fighter jet. It is terrifically windy. A vast Yemeni flag snaps in the breeze. Looking out at the barren landscape and tiny terminal, a single question wafts into my mind.
“What the hell am I doing here?”
Even with one tire out, the Soviet-made BTR-50 remains a formidable boot-drying platform
I've struggled for weeks to come up with a convincing irrationale for my visit, something more persuasive than the truth ("I really want to go"). The best I can do is steal an argument from my tour agency and stress that all the recent kidnappings have happened to Westerners who live in Yemen and have an established routine, not tourists who are tumbling through. I can cite the impressively thorough report on abductions in Yemen as proof that no tourist has been kidnapped since 2010, when two Americans were briefly detained. I can even picture the flipboard at the Yemen Ministry of Tourism:
 days since last tourist abduction. Welcome to Yemen!
But it's possible tourists don't get kidnapped for the same reason there aren't many car accidents on the Moon. The few Westerners who come here tend to confine their visit to the old city, or the unequivocally safe (and remote) island of Soqotra. And there's no rule that prevents the bad people from changing their tactics if they get tired of staking out diplomats and English teachers. Given their scarcity, tourists in Yemen are about as inconspicuous as the Second Coming.
Kidnapping in Yemen used to be more fun. A disaffected tribe with a grievance would grab you for a week, play cards and chew qat, and then return you once the government had made whatever concession they were after. Lately, though, the kidnappers have been selling their victims to the local branch of al-Qaeda. Yemeni al-Qaeda is not particularly stabby, but they are serious about getting good value for abductees, and willing to wait as long as it takes to collect a solid ransom. They've kept some people for years. And they are probably no fun at all to play cards with.
The less vivid, but more likely risk is of just being in the wrong place when something bad happens. Maybe an American drone pilot will be having a rough morning in Nevada. Or maybe I'll be passing a government building as someone is detonating something to make a point. I promise myself to limit my time in the capital, try not to look too American (except from above), and avoid particularly risky spots like the Bab al-Yemen.
As my departure date approaches, I start to wake up with that hollow feeling that the body uses to tell the brain it's doing something stupid. The trip is getting uncomfortably real. Plane tickets are bought for actual money. My visa comes through, removing my best hope for weaseling out without chickening out. And then one bright morning I find myself in Abu Dhabi, overcrowded travel hub to the world, standing at the gate in a line full of grandfathers wearing headscarves. There aren't many of us foreigners on this flight, just an older Filipino man and a young Chinese couple. A woman behind me asks me if she's in the right line for Sana’a. It's the only time on this trip I'll be addressed by a Yemeni woman whose face I can see.
Sana’a International is not a sprawling, perfumes-and-Cinnabon kind of airport. My tour company has told me to look for a visa window as I enter the terminal, promising me it's easy to find. They weren't kidding. The arrivals hall is a single room, with passport booths at the far end and two holes in the wall on the left. The first hole is a currency desk, where a man in a synthetic suit sits quietly with an open briefcase of money in his lap. There is an exchange rate board hanging up, but all the numbers on it read 00.
The Chinese guy approaches me and quietly asks if this is a scam. I'm equally confused, but I figure if they're scamming us already we may as well just empty our pockets. He goes off to confer with his partner while I trade two hundred euro for a small mountain of very dirty green thousand-rial notes. I can see a figure on the baggage claim side of the window waving to get my attention, motioning for me to move to the visa window. My ride is waiting for me!
Showing my ignorance, I attempt to stand in line at the visa hole. Queuing is not done in Yemen; it demonstrates passivity and a shameful lack of seriousness about the task at hand. The correct approach is to press forward and assert your claim as loudly as you can; it's up to other people to shout you down. Friendly hands propel me forward and I shove my passport into the window.
A big fellow in the visa line asks me where I'm from. He's wearing an embroidered skullcap and the Abe-Lincoln-style beard of a devout Salafist.
“I'm American,” I tell him.
“Oh,” he says, visibly surprised.
“Where are you from?”
I shake his hand heartily and introduce myself, and it's only a few minutes later that it occurs to me to wonder what a devout Pakistani dude might be doing in Yemen.
(And some days later, when I've had time to learn that Yemen is full of ancient mosques, and that scholars from all over the world come here to study, I will feel like an ass for assuming that this guy was anything but a religious student. I mention both reactions here to illustrate how useless my gut instincts are before I've even technically entered the country.)
I watch my passport circulate until it emerges from the wall. Yemen has never developed the fetish for bureaucracy that dogs so much of the Arab world. I notice on my visa that they got tired of writing out my name and just stopped halfway through. The border guards stamp me in and release me into the custody of my contact and driver, who have been waiting patiently in the terminal. Five minutes later, I've been bundled into the back of a Land Cruiser and we are heading downtown.
There are about a dozen military checkpoints between the airport and central Sana’a, but getting through them is a breeze. Usually there are three soldiers; one of them pokes his head in the car and Ali the driver says 'guest' or 'tourist'. Another verifies that the back seat is not piled with RPGs; the third dozes in the shade of a nearby armored vehicle. Ali has the checkpoints timed perfectly; he can roll through most of them without stopping.
I never do figure out the Yemen camouflage scheme. Each checkpoint seems to have its own look. Most popular is a 'leopard' camo (bright yellow background with dark shapes), but the visually arresting purple and fuschia combo comes in a strong second. Very occasionally an iconoclast soldier dresses in colors that might be found in nature. The armored vehicles at the checkpoints are similarly festive. Not many of them look ready to swing into immediate action. One APC still has the cover on its gun barrel, hanging off limply like a burlap condom.
In between the checkpoints is a broad road full of traffic, noise, and blowing dust. Pedestrians position themselves like pit crews, ready to ask for alms or sell trinkets whenever the cars slow down. Women in full niqab go from car to car, carrying ill children. Small kids run over trying to sell a box of tissues or a pitiful flower. The traffic never really stops or even forms into recognizable lanes; people just squeeze in and around obstructions as necessary. Whenever we pass a truly epic tangle of cars, it inevitably marks a gas station. None of the pumps are working.
The transition to Old Sana’a is abrupt and astonishing. The ramshackle cinder block buildings turn into iced gingerbread houses, and suddenly I'm in the middle of the pictures that I have admired for so long online. Central casting has even provided a camel; he stands meditating across the street from the hotel.
At the hotel gate I'm introduced to Fouad, my guide, and I have to bodily push him back into the courtyard to avoid breaking the Slavic taboo against shaking hands over a threshold. It's rude and awkward, but I'm in a place where I can't afford to take chances.
The Felix Arabia is the only hotel that is still open in the Old City, and today I will be its only guest. They have graciously put me on the fourth floor, where I'll have views of the entire city, and Fouad waits for me to make the long climb upstairs. I can really feel the altitude; my legs start to wobble after the second flight of stairs, and I have to stop at all the landings to catch my breath.
Fouad is a slight guy around my age, with wide-set eyes and a wispy moustache. He's dressed in a coat and slacks rather than the thawb-and-dagger outfit that most men here seem to favor. Almost as soon as we start walking, he turns to me and asks:
"What does that mean?"
"This is an important phrase. It means, do you chew qat?"
"Well of course! When in Yemen!"
We settle on a plan. Fouad will show me the city, we'll have lunch, come back to the hotel, chew some qat, and then take a walk again in the evening when the light is at its prettiest.
Walking around Sana’a as a white dude gives me an inkling of that it's like to be famous. As we follow the narrow streets, I see my own pie-eyed reaction to the architecture reflected in the faces of passing children, who are just as surprised to see a foreigner as I am to see a six-hundred-year-old skyscraper. Adults are more circumspect, but it's obvious that I am attracting attention. Fouad is an excellent minder. He keeps me moving, unobtrusively but efficiently, through little street after little street. A lot of people come up to welcome me to Yemen. Kids and a few adults ask me to take their picture.
It's not any individual building that makes Sana’a so incredible, but rather the cumulative effect. The towers are full of curious details.
From the outside, the buildings look like confectionery. The icing is decorative white trim made from lime. There are some ornamental and structural features that I see again and again. Many houses have a sort of carved stone cage affixed at some of the windows that serves as a cooling station for meat or water. It’s set up so that the breeze will blow through and chill whatever's inside. There is a lot of strategic draught management in Yemeni architecture. While the city can get hot, it is also nearly always windy, and this is fully exploited to keep structures cool.
There are also highly decorated, carved wooden boxes mounted onto some of the higher windows. These were—are—a way for unveiled women to look out into the street without raining shame down upon their household.
(The veiling thing is seriously creeping me out. I've been in Yemen's capital city for hours and I have yet to see a woman's face. They move like black ghosts through the streets of Sana’a, and the niqab works as intended—it's really easy to forget that they're even there. On this one issue I've hit the limits of cultural sensitivity. Carry an AK-47, chew qat, wake me up at four with an ear-splitting call to prayer, I don't care. But this veiling business has got to go.)
Many of the houses have a white vertical gutter coming down from an upper floor, mercifully no longer used, which once served as a sanitation system. The city used to be a far more pungent place. Human waste would be collected, dried, and used to stoke fires in the large Turkish baths, thick hemispherical structures that look like vast bread ovens placed in the landscape.
Near the hotel we pass a large walled garden, about a city block in size. It is divided into numerous small lots. Fouad explains that each tower house got its own allotment of land, to use as a vegetable garden or to grow herbs to sell. The practice is falling into disuse as families move out of the Old City. The ground belongs to the nearby mosque (in a perpetual endowment called a waqf) and the garden is irrigated by water from the ritual ablutions required before prayer. It's a small example of how self-sufficient the city used to be, before half the country tried to move here.
"So what do you think of Sana’a so far?" Fouad asks me.
“It's incredible. I've never seen anything like it. But I am just a little bit afraid.”
He stops and looks at me seriously and says:
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry at all. We are together. If something happens to you today, it will happen to me. If you die, I will die with you!”
I would also have accepted “there's nothing to worry about”, but I'm touched by how seriously he answers me. Life is very difficult for people here right now. There are no jobs, no fuel, and no sign that things might get better. The tourist sector is dead. Walking me around Sana’a today is the first paid work Fouad has had in three weeks. He has more pressing problems to deal with than the vague anxieties of a pampered visitor. But he's looking at me with real concern.
One thing Arab and Slavic cultures share is a belief in the comforts of fatalism. Sometimes it's nice to sink into the inevitable like an overstuffed armchair.
"It's all written up there," I suggest, pointing melodramatically at the sky.
"That's exactly right. Maybe we die today, maybe we live another fifty years. It is already written. Insha'allah."
And he takes me by the arm to go buy some qat.
The qat seller is a gentleman sitting cross-legged with a big black sack on his lap. He opens it to reveal individual bags of leaves, the kind of vaguely salad-like baby greens you would expect to pay twenty dollars for at Whole Foods. Part of the ritual of buying qat is a minute botanical examination of the plant. The seller lets the qat out of the bag long enough for Fouad to reject half a dozen packets. After some back and forth, the price settles at two thousand rials (four bucks) for two bags of young leaves.
Physiologically qat is a stimulant, but in Yemeni culture it plays a social role akin to alcohol. Qat is what you buy for your guests at a wedding. Qat is what you blow your paycheck on. Qat is what keeps you out late with your good-for-nothing friends. You can chew qat alone, but the best way to enjoy it is with a group of other men, seated together in a mufraj (the Yemeni lounge and chillout room). Ideally you set aside a block of four or five hours in the afternoon to get nice and lit. People who can rarely afford qat might stay up all night to chew it, minds racing. Habitual users usually start their session after lunch and spit out the wad before bedtime. You're not supposed to chew qat on an empty stomach, and since you can't really eat (nor do you feel hungry) once there is a big lump of the stuff in your cheek, it's normal to wait to chew until after the big meal of the day.
We take our new stash to a restaurant, a big tiled room with one wall open to the street. Women are selling fresh-baked bread in the doorway, and Fouad buys us two disks the size of manhole covers, thin and still very hot. Yemeni bread is unbelievably tasty for the first hour after baking; after that it turns into a regular kind of chewy pita. A cookpot the size of my first apartment simmers away on a platform by the entrance.
The restaurant is dark, dirty, and minimally furnished. There’s a jerry can of water at each table, but Fouad warns me not to drink it. It is for Yemeni stomachs only. While he's off finding me bottled water, the waiter brings over a little boiling iron cauldron of saltah, the Yemeni national dish. There's a yellow foam on top that looks like melted cheese.
Saltah is a meat stew. The yellow foam is whipped fenugreek (hilbeh), a bitter and mucilaginous herb that people tell me is an acquired taste. It is supposed to do wonders for the digestion. The server brings us several bowls of room-temperature broth that we can pour into the cauldron to moderate the boiling.
The protocol in Yemen is to eat with your right hand. The bread serves as a heat shield for the fingers, and you depth-charge your way in and try to grab pieces of meat without scalding yourself or your neighbors. Maybe we eat the fenugreek layer first, or maybe I adjust to the taste and start to like it, but by the end the meal is delicious.
On my way out, my path is blocked by some other diners, who are calling out to me. It takes me a second to process what's going on.
"Please take our picture. Welcome to Yemen!"
This kind of thing happens everywhere. I can't overstress how welcoming the men in this city are to visitors. Yemenis love their country, and they show great affection to those who make the effort to come see it.
After lunch, a man's fancies naturally turn to tea. Fouad asks me if I want to sit and drink at a tea stand, or take the stuff to go in a plastic cup. We're very close to the Bab al-Yemen, the main gate where the Old Town connects to the heart of the road network in the new city, the one place in Sana’a that I don't care to linger. So I suggest we drink on the run. Like an idiot, though, I reach for an actual glass of tea instead of the plastic cup that has been poured for me.
It's a beautiful day. It feels frankly foolish to be worried here, like some hayseed in New York City terrified he'll be mugged the second he sets foot in Times Square. The mood on the street is the opposite of tense. People are strolling comfortably along the broad plaza, and the Bab al-Yemen itself is lovely, a striped layer cake of colored stone. I sit, grin, and silently burn my mouth in my haste to get through that damned cup of tea.
The hotel has a mufraj right off of the reception desk and for the moment, we have the space to ourselves. Fouad shows me how to relax in the Yemeni fashion: you lie on your side, with your elbow on a bolster, and place one foot on top of the other so that one knee points upwards in a kind of jaunty Tom Selleck pose. It's important not to point the soles of your feet at people. Yemeni men have all kinds of techniques (which I mercifully don't have to master) to avoid upskirt situations while sitting or reclining.
The qat lesson is easier than the sitting lesson. You chew the leaves and softer stems down to a pulp, then push that mass into your cheek. The thicker stems go in the trash. You let the chewed-up leaves sit in your cheek and work their magic.
The hotel manager walks in on us and chastises Fouad for letting me eat qat out of a plastic bag. This is no way to introduce a stranger to qat! He takes my stash and brings it back a minute later, washed and neatly arranged in a cloth.
Qat is no taste sensation. You can enjoy a similar experience at home by sprinkling Sanka on a houseplant. There's a definite astringency to the leaves that makes me pucker my mouth and have to take many tiny sips of water. But it's also not particularly vile, nowhere near as bad as tobacco.
"How do you like it?" Fouad asks.
"It's not as good as the fenugreek," I tell him. He clicks his tongue impatiently and tells me to wait an hour. "You'll be flying like a bird!"
Some of the other hotel staff are starting to arrive, each man with his own bag of qat in his hand or tucked into his shirt. One thing I quickly come to love about Yemen is the absence of small talk. People may eventually ask you where you're from, what you do, and even what you think about the weather, but not before they've tried you out in some real conversation.
Topics under discussion today include the World Cup, the economically devastating expulsion of Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia in 1991 (when Yemen's president rashly backed Saddam Hussein), the wisdom of the adage ‘give praise in public, criticize in private’, and whether or not it's an insult to praise the beauty of a foreign man's wife in his presence. This last point is raised by the desk clerk, who has learned to say “your wife is very beautiful” in five languages and argues passionately that there's nothing unseemly about stating facts.
The conversation ebbs and flows. These guys spend every afternoon together, there is no time pressure. People ebb and flow too; sometimes a man will come in and just sit for a while without speaking, then leave the room. Women chew qat as well, but they do it in their own world, which I will never get to see.
At one point when it's just me and Fouad again, he says:
“You know how you've been saying today you're Polish and American?”
“Maybe as you travel outside Sana’a, don’t talk about living in America. Maybe it’s better to just say you’re Polish.”
“Is it dangerous to say I’m American?”
“No, no, it’s fine. There’s no danger. Just for some people, maybe it’s better if you say Poland.”
The afternoon light has turned Sana’a into a different city, and I'm on the right drug to appreciate it. The slanting rays bring out all kinds of detail in the buildings, and the qat is making me feel chatty. Only the difficulty of Arabic grammar keeps me from talking Fouad's ear off. Every man we pass is boasting a golf-ball sized lump of qat in his cheek, and it's comforting to know that in this small way, I fit in.
Most of the men I see on the street are wearing either a thawb or a shirt with sarong-like skirt that wraps around the hips. They also wear a Western-style suit jacket, which gives them a curiously elegant and formal look. Nearly every man wears a jambiyah, the curved ceremonial knife so emblematic of the country, positioned right at navel height. The women, as I've said, are uniformly veiled in black.
Fouad takes me into a tower house that has been restored and set up as a kind of museum. On the ground floor are the three things every tower house required: a grain store, a mill wheel, and a well. The second floor has a kitchen. The third floor has a film crew. They are shooting a period soap opera and are very unhappy with our presence. Ramadan is coming up, the biggest month for television in the Arab world, and they are on a tight schedule. We negotiate passage to the upper floors with the promise that we'll be quiet and leave almost immediately.
Before the days of television crews, the lower residential floors were reserved for womens' quarters, the men lived above them (of course), and the top room in the tower was set aside for an opulent mufraj, with cushion-lined walls, elegant teapots and panoramic views of the city. In between some landings there are cubbyholes that look big enough to hold a large dog. This is where servants would curl up to sleep.
There are some clever details to these houses. The windows are set low to the floor to keep the sun from heating up the rooms too much at midday. Above them are beautiful semicircles of stained glass, called moon windows. Many of the windowpanes in the stairwells are made from alabaster instead of glass, preserving privacy while letting in a beautiful white light.
There's even a neat system for storage. "Closets" and pantries are recesses in the wall up near the ceiling. To get to them, you pull out sliding planks mounted into the walls that form a little temporary staircase.
From the roof, the city is breathtaking. I mean that literally. I am gasping from the altitude, and it doesn't help that the steps in these houses are so exceptionally steep. I enjoy the view in every direction while Fouad points out the highlights. The gigantic, kitschy mosque in the distance was built by Yemen's former strongman Saleh, to make sure the country would always remember him. It's rumored to be full of weapons, and there's even said to be a tunnel connecting it to the presidential palace. Saleh's old buddies refuse to let the army come inside. Closer in is the Ministry of Defense, where fifty-six people died in a bomb attack in December. And just over this nearby rooftop is the American embassy, which was attacked by a mob in late 2012. At this point Fouad has to take a call, and I am relieved to have him stop pointing things out.
Sana’a is a city full of problems, but the biggest problem is hiding under our feet. That well in the basement is never going to draw water again. Sana'a is on the point of running completely dry.
There are no rivers in Yemen. Sana’a used to get by with wells, but back then Sana'a was a much smaller city. In modern times, the population has exploded, from sixty thousand residents in the nineteen forties to estimates of over two million today (the country is too broken for an actual census). The days when you could sink a well from your basement are long gone.
In the seventies, you might hit water after drilling a few dozen meters. Today there are wells going dry that are over a kilometer deep. The water table is dropping by two meters a year. The city is drinking fossil water deposited thousands of years ago, and what's worse, using it for agriculture. Part of the urgency in my trip is the worry that there won't be a city to visit for much longer.
In a less broken country, the water crisis would dominate every facet of public life. In Yemen, public life is a joke. The government is so corrupt and paralyzed by crisis that it can't perform the most basic tasks. The city's wells are completely unmonitored; no one even knows how many there are. Private owners will keep drilling for as long as they can, but at some point even the deepest wells are going to run dry. And then something awful will happen.
Old Sana’a may survive as some kind of a museum exhibit, but in a matter of years (not decades) the rest of this vast city will have to move or die. The situation is so dire that the previous government seriously considered moving the capital to the stifling Red Sea coast, or somehow piping desalinated water over the three kilometer high mountains that separate the capital from the coast, at inconceivable expense.
It's hard to look at a city this old and imagine it could just go away. But the numbers don't add up. There isn't enough water here for two million people. There certainly isn't enough water for two million people and agriculture. But how do you tell a desperately poor farmer to stop growing qat? And who is going to make him listen?
The streets have grown livelier now that the sun is not so high. The market is filling up with silent black ghosts. Most of them have toddlers in tow. Fouad takes me through the pungent spice market to the large Souq al-Milh (salt market) where everything is on sale, from men's decorative daggers to textiles to cookware. This is technically the most touristed spot in Yemen, yet there's not a single t-shirt store or even postcard stand in the place.
Having just come from Morocco, I'm used to mild commercial harrasment and the kind of instant street friendships that end with one party bringing home a carpet. So Sana’a really puts me off my stride. Merchants who yell out 'hello' really just want to say hello. If I stop and engage them, they ask me where I'm from, welcome me to Yemen, and send me on my way. A lot of people insist I take their picture with no expectation that they'll ever get to see it themselves. It's a upside down world for a tourist.
Watching Fouad teaches me how to move through public spaces. You never stop to let people through; you just adjust your pace and path to squeeze by as necessary. People in tight spaces will flow like a liquid, and it turns out that if everyone presses forward, the system works. The only way to screw up is by being unpredictable in your movements, or trying to apologize. People who need to get through more urgently will yell or honk as they're coming up behind you. Tomorrow I'll learn that this system applies also to driving, and works just as well. For now it's enough to experience it on foot.
We stop in at the Great Mosque, the only place that I don't feel fully welcome. I am only allowed to step onto the threshold. Fouad urges me to take a picture, though I would prefer not to. Someone bumps my knees with the shoes they're carrying in their hand; I can't tell if it's a passive-aggressive gesture or not, but I'm happy to move on. The Great Mosque is more impressive for its antiquity than its appearance; like many of the earliest mosques, it is very plain and somewhat blocky. This one was built while Mohammed was still alive. I look up with apprehension at the massive loudspeakers on the minaret, pointed directly at my hotel room.
We stop at this great little cafe—you've probably never heard of it—that used to be a caravansarai. The building is an old courtyard where merchants coming in from the city would tie up their camels and rest. Now a man in the doorway makes the most delicious coffee I have ever had, a kind of Yemeni frappucino with evaported milk, cinnamon, cardamom, sesame, and a whole lot of sugar. And here is a pair of European tourists, the only sighting of the day! Russians! For whatever reason, only the former Warsaw Pact and Italy are still visiting Yemen. Even the Germans, normally hard to rattle, have moved on.
Like a gentleman, Fouad gets me back to the hotel before nightfall, and I have the chance to survey the place. There is a Russian book on the table—Mohammed, Prophet of God. A sign in the bathroom reminds me in English that I am in a "traditional Moslemic society" and should take care not to parade naked in front of the low windows where half of Sana’a can see me.
My last appointment of the day is down in the courtyard, with Tina Zorman, who along with her husband runs the tour operator Eternal Yemen. The days when you could travel in Yemen by yourself are gone, and now every foreigner needs an itinerary, a driver, and a security escort, all approved by the Ministry of Tourism. Tina is coming to brief me about my itinerary and answer my questions before sending me out into the countryside.
I have been looking forward to our conversation, hoping a fellow Slav might help me get my bearings and give me a culturally reassuring point of reference. But Tina is a Slovenian woman with an Arab soul. As if to demonstrate the verbal effects of qat, she monologues for over an hour before we get anywhere near the topic of my upcoming trip. I realize that if I want to be a part of this conversation, I will to have to fight my way in.
The itinerary is pretty much fixed; a standard loop through the small triangle of Yemen where tourists are still allowed to go. I have already met my driver, Ali, who I will come to recognize as a prince among men. The security situation is safe, Tina assures me, but she likes to wait until the last minute to submit the itinerary and request the permit. "It's better not to give too much notice." That means we won't find out until tomorrow morning how many soldiers are coming on the trip.
I know from reading a blog post by Wandering Earl (a guy who looks like he would drink your last beer out of the hostel fridge) that American citizens get a military escort in Yemen. Unfortunately, a few weeks before my arrival the Tourism Ministry expanded this policy to cover all visitors. Even Polish citizens are no longer safe from the protection of the Yemeni armed forces.
When I was planning my trip, traveling with soldiers sounded like it might be a fun, wacky thing to write about. But now, on the eve of my departure, it just sounds like a hassle. It's hard to keep a low profile with a squad of soldiers by your side. Tina is even less happy about it than I am. She will have to feed this private army and supply them with qat and a place to sleep.
(A week later, when I find myself surrounded not just by soldiers, but by an entire company of tanks, with a Hind helicopter buzzing over our heads for protection, I'll think wistfully back on this moment. The government of Yemen cannot guarantee your safety, but it makes sure you'll go down swinging.)
The power goes out halfway through our talk, and we're left sitting in dark for a while, until the hotel can spin up its generator. “You're going to want to buy some batteries and a flashlight. This happens pretty much every day.”
That evening I wait up in my room for the generator powered lights to go off. Blackouts are so common in Sana’a that the hotel has installed an entire parallel lighting system that runs off the generators. Unfortunately, there's no way to switch these lights off. I feel very conspicuous, silhouetted in my turret against the night sky while I can't make out anything of what's happening in the streets below. The situation perfectly captures what it feels like to visit Yemen. Outside the city is dark, except for the far-off flashing neon of a modern casino hotel. There are invisible people down in the streets yelling at each other, and from time to time I can hear the sound of running footsteps. A red tracer bullet drifts up over the Presidential mosque, a few miles away. As best I can tell, this is just a normal evening in Sana’a.
Eight more days to go!
(The title references Shanley Kane's post by the same name. This post represents my views on what men can do.)
It's no secret that programming is an incredibly male dominated field.
Figures vary, but somewhere from 20% to 29% of currently working programmers are female.
Less than 12% of Computer Science bachelor's degrees were awarded to women at US PhD-granting institutions in 2010.
So, on average, only about 1 out of every 5 working programmers you'll encounter will be female. You could say technology has a man problem.
In an earlier post I noted that many software developers I've known have traits of Aspergers. Aspergers is a spectrum disorder; the more severe the symptoms, the closer it is to autism. And did you know that autism skews heavily towards males at a 4:1 ratio?
Interesting. I might even go so far as to say some of those traits are what makes one good at programming.
That's the way it currently is. But is that the way it should be? I remember noticing that the workforce of the maternity ward at the hospital where our children were born was incredibly female dominated. Is there something inherently wrong with professions that naturally skew heavily male or female?
Consider this list of the most male and female dominated occupations in the Netherlands from 2004. It notes that:
In higher and academic level positions, men and women are more often represented equally. This pattern of employment has hardly changed over the last years.
Is programming a higher and academic level occupation? I'm not so sure, given that I've compared programmers to auto mechanics and plumbers in the past. And you'll notice squarely where those occupations are on the above graphs. There's nothing wrong with being an auto mechanic or a plumber (or a programmer, for that matter), but is there anything about those particular professions that demands, in the name of social justice, that there must be 50% male plumbers and 50% female plumbers?
For a counterpoint, here's a blog post from Sara J. Chipps. When I've e-mailed her in the past with my stupid questions on topics like this, she tries her best to educate me with empathy and compassion. That's why I love her.
This is an excerpt from a blog post she wrote in 2012 which answered my question:
Many people I meet ask me a variant of the question “I understand we want more women in technology, but why?” It’s a great question, and not at all something we should be offended by. Often men are afraid to ask questions like this for fear there will be backlash, and I think that fear can lead to stifling an important conversation.
Frankly, the Internet is thriving without women building it, why should that change? Three reasons:
1) Diversity leads to better products and results
As illustrated in this Cornell study along with many others, diversity improves performance, morale, and end product. More women engineers means building a better internet, and improving software that can service society as a whole. Building a better Internet is why I started doing software development in the first place. I think we can all agree this is of utmost importance.
2) The Internet is the largest recording of human history ever built
Right now the architecture for that platform is being built disproportionally by white and asian males. You’ve heard the phrase “he who writes history makes history”? We don’t yet know how this will affect future generations.
How can architecture be decidedly male? I like to refer to the anecdotal story of the Apple Store glass stairs. While visually appealing, there was one unforeseen consequence to their design: the large groups of strange men that spend hours each day standing under them looking up. As a woman, the first time I saw them I thought “thank god I’m not wearing a skirt today.” Such considerations were not taken in designing these stairs. I think it’s probable, if not easily predictable, that in a few years we will see such holes in the design of the web.
3) Women in 10 years need to be able to provide for themselves, and their families
Now, this reason is purely selfish on the part of women, but we all have mothers, and sisters, so I hope we can relate.
This year there are 6 million information technology jobs in the US, up from 628,600 in 1987 and 1.34 million in 1997. Right now jobs in technology have half the unemployment rate of the rest of the workforce. There is no sign this will change anytime soon. If growth continues at the current rate, it will not be long until women will not be able to sustain themselves if not involved in a technical field.
We have to start educating young girls about this now, or they may ultimately become the poorest demographic among us.
These are good reasons. I'm particularly fond of #1. Diversity in social perspectives is hugely valuable when building social software intended for, y'know, human beings of all genders, like Discourse and Stack Exchange. Also, I get really, really tired of all the aggressive mansplaining in software development. Yes, even my own. Sometimes it would be good to get some ladysplaining all mixed up in there for variety.
I suppose any effort to encourage more women to become software engineers should ideally start in childhood.
Dolls? Pshaw. In our household, every child, male or female, is issued a regulation iPad at birth. You know, the best, most complex toy there is: a computer. And, shocker, I'm kind of weird about it – I religiously refer to it as a computer, never as an iPad. Never. Not once. Not gonna happen in my house. Branding is for marketing weasels. So the twin girls will run around, frantically calling out for their so-called "'puter". It puts a grin on my face every time. And when anything isn't here, Maisie has gotten in the habit of saying "dada chargin'". Where's the milk, Maisie? "dada chargin'".
But not everyone has the luxury of spawning their own processes and starting from boot. (You really should, though. It will kick your ass.)
If you're reading this, there's about an 80% chance that you're a man. So after you give me the secret man club handshake, let's talk about what we men can do, right now, today, to make programming a more welcoming profession for women.
Abide by the Hacker School Rules
Let's start with the freaking brilliant Hacker School rules. This cuts directly to the unfortunate but oh-so-common Aspergers tendencies in programmers I mentioned earlier:
Does any of this sound familiar? Because it should. Oh God does this sound familar. Just read the whole set of Hacker School guidelines and recognize your natural tendencies, and try to rein them in. That's all I'm proposing.
Well, actually, I'll be proposing a few more things.
Really listen. What? I SAID LISTEN.
Remember this scene in Fight Club?
This is why I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you. Everything else about their checkbook balance and radio songs and messy hair went out the window. You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting for their turn to speak. And when they spoke, they weren't just telling you a story. When the two of you talked, you were building something, and afterward you were both different than before.
Guilty as charged.
My wife is a scientist, and she complains about this happening a lot at her work. I don't even think this one is about sexism, it's about basic respect. What does respect mean? Well, a bunch of things, but let's start with openly listening to people and giving them our full attention when they talk to us – rather than just waiting for our turn to speak.
Let's shut up and listen quietly with the same thoughtfulness that we wish others would listen to us. We'll get our turn. We always do, don't we?
If you see bad behavior from other men, speak up.
It's not other people's job to make sure that everyone enjoys a safe, respectful, civil environment at work and online.
It's my job. It's your job. It is our job.
There is no mythical men's club where it is OK to be a jerk to women. If you see any behavior that gives you pause, behavior that makes you wonder "is that OK?", behavior that you'd be uncomfortable with directed toward your sister, your wife, your daughter – speak up. Honestly, as one man to another. And if that doesn't work for whatever reason, escalate.
Don't attempt romantic relationships at work.
Do you run a company? Institute a no-dating rule as policy. Yeah, I know, you can't truly enforce it, but it should still be the official company policy. And whether the place where you work has this policy or not, you should have it on a personal level.
I'm sorry I have to be that guy who dumps on true love, but let's be honest: the odds of any random office romance working out are pretty slim. And when it doesn't, how will you handle showing up to work every day and seeing this person? Will there be Capulet vs Montague drama? The women usually get the rough end of this deal, too, because men aren't good at handling the inevitable rejection.
Just don't do it. Have all the romantic relationships you want outside work, but do not bring it to work.
No drinking at work events.
I think it is very, very unwise for companies to have a culture associated with drinking and the lowered inhibitions that come with drinking. I've heard some terrifyingly awful stories that I don't even want to link to here. Men, plus women, plus alcohol is a great recipe for college. That's about all I remember from college, in fact. But as a safe work environment for women? Not so much.
If you want to drink, be my guest. Drink. You're a grown up. I'm not the boss of you. But don't drink in a situation or event that is officially connected with work in any way. That should absolutely be your personal and company policy – no exceptions.
There you have it. Five relatively simple things you, I, and all other working male programmers can do to help encourage a better environment for men and women in software plumbing. I mean engineering.
So let's get to it.
(I haven't listed anything here about mentoring. That's because I am an awful mentor. But please do feel free to mention good resources, like Girl Develop It, that encourage mentoring of female software engineers by people that are actually good at it, in the comments.)
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