The Beachhead

A friend who recently was appointed CEO of a company called me this week looking for a soundboard to sort out ideas he had in his head about how to proceed with company operations and strategic direction. The company is looking to shift strategic priorities, and he was looking for an outside voice to make sense of the new direction in relation to the legacy systems he’d need to grapple with.

One of the topics that came up reminded me of a concept I learned about while reading Susan Eisenhower’s book about her grandfather’s time during World War 2 and his subsequent Presidential years.

At two times during Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in significant leadership roles, he had to create a beachhead to establish his forces (literal and metaphorical) to push towards his objectives. During the war, Operation Overlord’s first phase was to establish a beachhead in Normandy to create a defensible position to allow Allied Forces to work their way into Europe to push back Germany’s army. Establishing a beachhead is critical to success, but is often difficult for offensive forces to complete as the defending force usually has the upper hand in terms of resources and strategic positioning. While the offensive forces need to both set up a foothold and protect its lines to allow more troops to arrive, the defending forces merely have to reinforce it’s occupying positions to clamp down on fresh troops from joining the beachhead. Once the effects of first-mover advantage wears off, the offensive force must contend with protecting supply lines, fighting active defense from the opponent, and pushing past inertia to avoid grinding to a halt in order to win. Once established, a successful beachhead serves as a ratchet for the offensive force – the location of which all future offensives are launched from, and from which the troops need not backslide past. Traction is gained, and the army moves forward.

Similarly, during Eisenhower’s presidency, he saw the importance of passing civil rights legislation, but saw the difficult uphill battle that would needed to both move the country towards accepting civil rights AND enshrining those rights in law (turning both hearts and minds of the nation). While he would have aspired to complete civil rights equality in his time, he knew that if poorly planned, then history, culture, and opposing interests would ensure that forward progress towards equality would halt. Instead, he sought to establish a kind of metaphorical beachhead for civil rights, working on government programs and legislation that would lay the foundation for future leaders to take up and ratchet their work – allowing the movement to progress forward without worrying about losing traction and backsliding.

In listening to my friend, I noted that he also needed to take this lesson from history and focus on his own beachhead. While we think that a CEO is all-powerful in terms of exerting their will over the company, we must also face the reality that comes with working with legacy systems and people. Change is difficult and slow, and when poorly executed either stalls from inertia or alienates your workforce. And so I suggested he take a leaf from Eisenhower’s example and focus on what his core objective is that is reasonable within the timeline he’s being given, and focus on establishing a beachhead to deliver value back to the company president.

Since reading about Eisenhower, I’ve thought about my own beachheads – what are the areas of my life that I must focus on to ensure I’m moving forward with my goals, whether they are family, work, health, or passions. It is still very much a work in progress, but I want to find those areas that I can carve out and secure so that when it’s time to take risks towards my goals, I have a safe space to launch from.

Stay Awesome,


World Limits

I’ve been thinking about the limits of my world, specifically as it relates to my ability to understand it. Much of the time, I operate as if I have access to capital-T Truth, that I have some connection with facts about the world. It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking – when I can predict and explain events, it gives me feedback that I know things about the world in a meaningful sense.

But I also know that this confidence in my knowledge is not as strong as I assume it to be. I have to remind myself to adjudicate the claims I encounter, or to remind myself of the difference between history and the past. It’s also good to listen to others who have learned about issues from multiple vantage points (see this amazing conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast with Noah Feldman, and his experiences with constitution building in the Middle East).

Generally speaking, all of our experience in life has presented us with a mostly successful set of interactions with the world, but those interactions are subjective and limited. Taking the long view of world events, learning new languages, and empathy provide the Archimedean point beyond ourselves to attempt to stand on some point of objectivity (if this is even possible).

As Wittgenstein says, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This shouldn’t be literally taken to mean language (though I’m assuming that’s what Wittgenstein meant), but we should apply this to our understanding vis a vis experience. The limits of my world are constrained by the limits of my experience and the mental framework I use to make sense of it. If I want to seek to expand my worldview, it’s important to both prune out the dead branches of knowledge while cultivating new seeds of wisdom.

Stay Awesome,


History vs The Past

While listening to a BBC podcast about Heroditus, the panelists described how Heroditus set about his project with the purpose of recording events with some accuracy before the details were lost from memory. Unlike some historians from Greek antiquity, Heroditus was writing about events that were within his lifetime. This created a new kind of writing that set itself apart from others in his genre because it aimed at corroborating stories rather than recording myth.

This is an interesting distinction worth keeping in mind. There is a difference between “history” and “the past.” It can be helpful to think of history as a subset of the past. History is the collection of stories we tell, and as a consequence it is necessarily selective in what gets included and what is left out. This makes sense from a practical standpoint – it is nearly impossible to capture every detail, nor does every fact in the past bear a tangible, causal relationship to the story being told (even if arguably from a systems perspective, many things create ripples of unknown influence that overlap with other events).

The challenge of history is accuracy – capturing events that happened with fidelity and charity. As new facts are discovered, and as new facits of importance enter the discourse, history is revised to (hopefully) move closer to our aim of truth. (For the moment, let’s ignore questions about power and who tells these stories and for what aim).

However, we must not confuse history (the stories we tell) with the past (events that happened prior to the now). Ignoring this distinction places us in danger of imbuing our myths with an illusion of objectivity. The stories we tell ouselves matter, of course, but they also carry power. Who tells the stories, and whose stories get left out, can carry harmful consequences.

We try to learn the lessons from history, but we cannot be so arrogant to think that history is complete.

Stay Awesome,


A Draft Ontology of Shipwrecks and Identity

In a recent podcast episode I was listening to, the hosts were speaking glibly about progressivism. I won’t name the show because who was saying it is ultimately unimportant. At the crux of their tangential discussion away from Plato’s Greater and Minor Hippias was their dismissal of progressivist attitudes towards the flow of history, that those who come later in history will assert some sort of superiority (technological, moral, intellectual) over less developed, unenlightened peoples of the past. While I think they were onto something in thinking that any sort of change is not prima facie better, I was unconvinced of their move to dismiss it because they didn’t adequately set out a criteria by which to judge advancement. Instead, they proceeded to discuss (within the context of Plato’s dialogue) the relative comparisons of Athenian and Spartan laws. And when they came to a discussion in the text about the relative merits of spoons according to function and form, the one host came dangerously close to undermining his rebuttals of progressivism in my estimation.

But this isn’t a post about their podcast episode – truthfully I haven’t taken the time to go back and listen to their post for the fidelity of the above paragraph because that’s not what I want to write about. It serves as a frame from what it made me think about.

Instead, their conversation reminded me of folks who complain about changes to our understanding of the world, especially as it relates to mental health and/or personal identity concerning gender. There is a resistance to keeping an open mind because it doesn’t harmonize with a worldview they hold that’s often formed and set in ones late teens or early twenties. You see this come out in a number of ways in the way they talk about these issues, but a canonical refrain is “back in my day, they didn’t have x,” whether that is expanded definitions of mental health issues or nonbinary categories of gender. Instead, the proliferation of new words to capture experiences is seen as a self-evident refutation of these developments because they think the relative plurality of new understandings of the world must not be grounded in anything solid or universal. That is to say, if they haven’t experienced it, then it must clearly not be real in an ontological sense.

When I say real in an ontological sense I mean that the phenomenon the word is attached to doesn’t carry existence attached to a concrete thing1. In the podcast, they discussed this in the context of trees and trying to identify tree types. In the Platonic tradition, trees are trees because the thing I’m seeing out my window that grows tall, has a solid brown body covered in a rough exterior that is thicker near the bottom and branches out at the top, terminating in green thin pieces, participates in the Form of tree or tree-ness. The concept of tree is tied to the physical object, but to Plato the Form of tree exists independently of the tree in front of me. In biology, living things are categorized according to common, reliable traits that distinguish different types of organisms from another. A maple tree and a pine tree don’t share many common physical appearance traits, but they share a sufficient number of them that we call them both trees. The concept of tree is an abstraction used to describe something about the physical object. If we are being rigorous, there may be a debate whether the concept of tree as described above (as a Platonic Form) has an ontological existence, but for the purposes of our discussion, tree as a category is real because it is tied to a thing that physically exists out there in the world.

And so to circle back, the anti-progressivist disclaims new labels on people on the thinking that the label/category doesn’t map to something real. There is a reduction problem in their mind – the mental disorder or gender identity (in this sentence, I treat them as two separate concepts that are not intended to be inclusive) are not mapped to anything that can be pointed to. To them, gender identity is reducible only to secondary sexual characteristics (genitals), and mental health is based on stereotype behaviours easily observed (signs) rather than reported (symptoms). In the anti-progressivist mind, creating a new name or category means creating a new phenomenon; a phenomenon that did not exist before.

Here we come to the title of this post’s line of thinking. What the anti-progressivist is confusing is the difference between creating new categories, and giving words to describe something already existing but had yet to become clarified. For this, I invoke the late Paul Virilio and shipwrecks. The anti-progressivist2 treats mental disorder and gender identity as concepts invented wholly new like the concept of a shipwreck. Before the invention of the ship, there was no concept of shipwreck, or train derailment before trains, car crash before automobiles, etc.3 These concept categories did not exist previously, and their existence is contingent on us inventing them (even if by accident). But I think this is the wrong way to capture what is going on when we create a new category of understanding.

It is not the case that more children are coming out as transgender because its faddish, trendy, or a socially acceptable way of acting out against social norms. To the contrary, it’s more likely that more children (or people generally) are publicly identifying as trans (or nonbinary, or homosexual/bisexual/asexual, etc.) because we’ve given them language to make sense of what they are feeling within. I do not have a source to provide, but I read a lament once that because of previously draconian crackdowns on LGBT communities, many people did not live long enough to allow their existences to be counted. The number of people who identify as LGBT is not growing because people are suddenly “becoming queer.” Rather, our language and society is moving towards a place that has space for a plurality of lives.

And I think the same thing is happening as we redefine and clarify mental health issues – these issues are likely not new4, but instead we are better able to understand the internal lives of others because we are listening to what these individuals are saying about their experiences. We aren’t inventing new categories so much as we are finally recognizing things that can now be counted. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. The old terms that were used to medicalize people’s internal lives were insufficient to either understand or treat the person, and so we refine our language to better capture their experiences.

When we reclassify our language, we create nuance. We create a more interesting and vibrant world. This is a good thing – we understand the world in new ways and can appreciate the diversity and complexity that comes from this understanding. I agree that progress for its own sake is not automatically good. Progress must be paired with wisdom and experience if we want to avoid creating harm in the future. But progress should not be halted on the belief that change is flippant, nor should it be dismissed because it introduces complexity to our worldview. The anti-progressivist seems to hold that society is sliding from order to disorder, away from some ideal that we must actively work to return to. To them, anything new is to be distrusted merely because past progress yielded harms. They place more weight on the mis-steps and ignore the improvements to the quality of our lives. This view is just as false as assuming a teleological bent to society evolving – that society is always aiming at getting better.

Society is neither sliding away from perfection nor building towards it. It is moving from simplicity to complexity; from blunt and clumsy to fine and precise.5 As our understanding of the world grows, so too must our language to describe it. With understanding comes language, with language comes empathy, with empathy comes diversity, and from diversity comes strength.6

Stay Awesome,


[P.S. – A few days after publishing this, I read a post from Seth Godin on Cyber-realists that says some of what I say above about wisdom tempering progress, but much more succinctly.]


1For those who have studied metaphysics and ontology, I apologize if my take comes off as uninformed – I must admit that this is me working through the ideas in my head.

2I’ve typed this word many times in this post without critically thinking whether this is the appropriate term to give to the person/line of thinking to which I’m responding. However, this post is mostly a first-draft attempt at clarifying my thoughts, and so I leave it for now with the understanding that this is all mutable upon further consideration.

3This is perhaps one of the few areas where I’m sympathetic to the anti-progressivist – not all progress is devoid of negatives or downsides. With any effect, there will be unintended or unanticipated side effects and consequences. The technology that helps preserve food and makes it cheaper to produce might also be causing health problems from fast food, for example.

4Here I’m talking about reclassifying old or outdated diagnostic methods, rather than genuinely new classifications that are the result of modern life, though this might be up for debate – is it genuinely new or merely a sub-classification of already existing conditions, such as video game addiction. I’m out of my expertise here, so I can’t say anything with authority on the matter.

5There is a conversation to be had here that brings Kuhn into the party, but this post has groaned on too long. I like Kuhn’s ideas that rather than a steady march of progress, science changes through the adoption of new worldviews, but I think this is less about knowledge and more about the sociology of knowing-peoples. People, ideology, and politics makes science messy.

6Admittedly, this is appears to be a slippery slope that requires a lot more argument to make clear. As with Kuhn, this could be left to a different post, but my main argument is that diversity is good because it hedges against downsides. I think there are limited cases where uniformity and homogeneity are preferable, but those are exceptions that prove the rule.

Vigilance and the Price of Progress

I recently joined a book club, and last week we met virtually to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The book has been circling my periphery for some time, coming up in recommended reads lists for at least a year. When it came time for me to suggest the next read, I chose this book without really knowing much about the subject. I was vaguely aware that Henrietta Lacks’s cells were instrumental to many scientific and medical advances, and I was aware that the obtaining of the cells was likely done unethically, as was the case for many Black Americans who found themselves under medical scrutiny in the middle of the last century. Since I review research ethics applications on two ethics boards I serve on, and because of the ongoing conversation around Black lives, I thought this would be a good book for us to read and learn from.

In short, the book is fantastic as a piece of writing.

But the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is heartbreaking. The book paints a vivid portrait of who Henrietta was, and gives intimate glimpses into the life of her decedents. It also presents a comprehensive history of both the rise of research ethics since the end of World War Two and of the many advances made by science thanks to Henrietta’s cells. However, those advances were done with cells acquired neither with proper consent nor compensation. For many years after her early death, Henrietta’s name became lost to obscurity outside of her family, but everyone in the cellular biology community knew her cells because of how abundant they were. In a tragic twist, the very medical advances that gave way to better understandings of radiation, viruses, and vaccines, were often not available to the impoverished Lacks family. While the Lacks’s remained stuck in poverty, others profited.

I highly recommend everyone read this book.

As we discussed the book last week, I realized that this was an example of why it’s important to enlarge the domain of one’s ignorance. Learning about history shouldn’t be an exercise in theory; often we forget that history is presented as an abstraction away from the stories of individual people. If we forget about their individual lives, we can sometimes take the wrong lessons from history. As the saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, we continue to exploit the voiceless, and profit on the backs of the disenfranchised – those who don’t have the power to speak back.

Reading books like this gives me a greater context for history, and it helps me understand the lived-history of people. I review research projects to understand the ethical consequences of our search for knowledge. If I lack a historical context – the history of how research was and is carried out – then I run the risk of perpetuating the same injustices on the people of today that the research is meant to help.

Research is supposed to be dispassionate, but we must understand and situate it within its proper historical context.

In an allusion to Picard, I close with this: constant vigilance is the price we must pay for progress.

Stay Awesome,


Friday Round-up – July 17, 2020

I missed posting last week again! I’m not perfect, and so I keep moving forward and try to do better.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 17th:

🎧 Listen – “This Is What Living Through History Looks Like” | Daily Stoic Podcast

This is a short and sweet observation that hit me just at the right time. I’ve been feeling low recently and lamenting some of the stuff I have on my plate that’s causing me minor stress. Were it not for the pandemic, I mused, I wouldn’t be having problems coping – if only things were easier. Then a line popped from this podcast to give me perspective: “What did you think that living through history was going to be like?” I can pine for the fabled good ol’ days, but we should be honest that between the periods of calm, there will be periods punctuated with strife. And as observed in the podcast, only time will turn the turmoil of the present into a passage in a history book.

🎧 Listen – “#444: Hugh Jackman on Best Decisions, Daily Routines, The 85% Rule, Favourite Exercises, Mind Training, and Much More” | Tim Ferriss Show Podcast

Hugh Jackman has a bit of a reputation for being a good guy, and this podcast did not disappoint. He’s sweet, thoughtful, humble, and genuinely a person you’d want to aspire towards. He’s an example worth following.

🎧 Listen – “JRE #1504 – Alan Levinovitz” | The Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

I’m a bit of a casual listener to the JRE podcast. I’ll usually check things out depending on who the guest is. In this case, Rogan sent out an image on Instagram with the author, Alan Levinovitz, holding up his book. The caption referenced how quick and enjoyable the 3.5hr show zipped by. Then I caught the book’s subtitle: How faith in nature’s goodness leads to harmful fads, unjust laws, and flawed science. Colour me interested, but I’m a sucker for discussions about the appeal to nature fallacy, so I check it out.

How cool is it that the author tweeted back!?!

To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what the book’s about after listening to the episode. I have a vague sense that Levinovitz is looking to push back against those who believe things that are natural are automatically good/valuable as well as its opposite that things that are artificial or manipulated are automatically bad. I’m not saying that the episode was bad. Just the opposite – the episode was so good. I’m glad that Rogen doesn’t bring on guests to discuss well-rehearsed talking points to promote the book. Instead, they have a free-wheeling conversation that follows their curiosities. And based on some of the ideas that Levinovitz has, and how he calls for a kinder form of discourse, I was made an instant fan and grabbed the audiobook.

Stay Awesome,


History Snippets – Demagoguery

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be.  While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide.  I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force.  The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States.  Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.

Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse.  Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”

Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago.  Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.

Stay Awesome,