17 September 2014

Review: Waking Up

I'm always in awe of Sam Harris for his ability to identify the blind spot in our collective discourse and then proceed to write a book that fully illuminates it. For too long, there has been a rift between rationality and spirituality. Those who orbit around the heft of scientific thinking often dismiss spirituality as a distracting waste of time, while those who embrace spirituality often bastardize scientific knowledge to a frustrating degree. Finally, someone has managed to bridge the gap in an elegant and intellectually honest way that makes it OK to say you're spiritual, without having to believe in all that mystical crap.

It was never enough to simply leave the religious folk to their boundless love and speaking in tongues while dismissing it as self-delusional brain-hacking. Harris rightly points out that though those people are mistaken as to the essential cause of their religious ecstasy, it does not diminish the fact that they are indeed experiencing it and they are justified in seeking it out. The greater point that the entire book revolves around is that every experience, sensation, and mental state that a religious adherent can achieve may also be achieved by an intelligent, rational, and disciplined individual without ever having to believe a single false assertion as to the nature of our universe.

Of course, the use of the word spiritual doesn't hit the brain the way one would hope. It's not perfect, but the alternatives fall much shorter. Throughout the book, Harris works with a surgical scalpel to separate what he means by the word from the excess baggage that many would ascribe to it. It can be tedious, but it makes the point all the clearer to see.

One of the bolder statements that Harris makes lies in his comparison of the major religions along the axis of introspection. If you guessed that the western Abrahamic religions fell short in this evaluation, you'd be correct. Western society, as groomed by these faiths, would sooner laugh at the thought of an inward gaze than to entertain its potential benefits. I'm grateful, then, that Harris is hardly bashful in touting Buddhism as his framework of choice when going down the spiritual path. The core teachings of Buddhism, he explains, are merely an empiricist's manual for how to harness your own mind.

I've written before about mindfulness and its benefits, so I will skip that part. For me, the real sense that I was learning something came when Harris began deconstructing the source of consciousness in the brain. Split-brain experiments have always posed the most interesting dilemmas for people who believe in souls or their like. How are you one person if the two sides of your brain behave differently and often in opposition to each other when they are separated? That's not the mind-blowing part. Harris drops the mic on that segment by tossing out the possibility that our brains are already split. If your brain demonstrates that it houses at least two separate centers of consciousness when it is surgically split, what's to say that these centers aren't separate when the brain is intact? What could be likely is that your feeling of self is in fact a conglomeration of many separate centers of consciousness blending together, overlapping and stepping aside in a dance just beyond your perception.

By far, the most entertaining segment is the one about spiritual gurus and the disastrous pitfalls of spiritual submission. Harris spends such a huge chunk of the book espousing the process of learning from a spiritual teacher that it's almost comical when he nearly goes Gallagher on the whole concept in a few easily-devoured pages. He pulls up just in time, with a healthy warning of vigilance, and the point is received. But I couldn't help but wonder how a follower would find a guru in the first place. Do they have Facebook pages? One story involved a group of people literally wandering around the mountains and caves in search of a teacher, but I can't imagine Sam himself used this method to find the many mentors he personally studied with. I guess you have to run in those circles.

07 June 2014

The Beauty of Nihilism

Last night, I was talking with a friend who was very honest with her opinion of my nihilist philosophy. She didn't see the point in feeling like there was no purpose or meaning to anything. Why would anyone need to take it that far? Understandably, stripping out all of the fuzzy concepts from existence and focusing on only the sharp, hard edges of reality can be a bit jarring, but I was able to come up with a few words in the defense of my stance.

I brought up a programming analogy, since I work around technology all day. When you write a program, there are infinite ways to achieve the same result. The method that you choose, however, affects many things along the way: performance, readability, configurability, extensibility, elegance... the list goes on. The ideal program, from a conceptual perspective, is one that accomplishes a very complex task with the simplest code.

For a very rudimentary example, imagine the task of calculating all prime numbers between 1 and 100. There are 25 of them, which means that, at worst, the program could consist of 25 lines of code, each one devoted to printing a single number. However, this method lacks many qualities. First, it puts the burden on the programmer to do the calculations first. Next, it cannot be used for any other purpose. Third, it's a redundant mess. There's more to say, but you get the point. This is NOT how programs are written.

An ideal solution might consist of a loop that performs a dynamic calculation and then spits out the result over and over until it is finished. You might be able to accomplish this in 4-6 lines of code, depending on the language you use. The key quality of this simple program is elegance: the ability to do a complex and robust task with only a simple set of instructions. This is how we find beauty in programming.

And this is akin to the beauty I see in nihilism. To me, nihilism is the simplest program necessary to interpret reality. We strip out all the extra lines of code (meaning, purpose, subjective opinion) and we're left with only what's necessary to understand what is there before us. And the code that remains is elegant in that it consists of only a few basic declarations, but establishes a foundation that potentially answers all substantial questions with truth.

The other thing I said in defense of nihilism is that reducing commonly romantic concepts down to their physical components is actually quite beneficial. For instance, happiness doesn't need to be this nebulous feeling that randomly finds or escapes you. If you whittle happiness down to its most basic elements, you can begin to understand what causes it, and work to maximize it through strategic actions.

Whenever you perceive something, you're writing a program in your mind that helps you conceptualize and understand it. Nihilism is, to me, the most elegant program in existence for that purpose.

23 April 2014

Nihilistic Mindfulness

I’ve been bad. I haven’t practiced meditating in a long time and I would easily classify most of my thoughts during the day as “mindless.” That is, of course, the opposite of “mindful”. Mindfulness is a skill that takes a fair amount of work to acquire. The most recognized route to mindfulness is through meditation, wherein you practice acknowledging your thoughts for what they are and then let them go. This leads to what is often called being “in the moment,” a state where you neither pine for the past, nor mull about the future, but instead appreciate your here and now.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation are so numerous that it may as well be considered a superpower (as close as you can get to one in this world). From various health improvements to a calmer, happier disposition, mindfulness will likely improve your life, if only a little bit. However, despite not meditating in ages, I do recognize the benefit of a certain kind of mindfulness in my life; I’ll call it a pseudo-mindfulness. It stems from my philosophy of nihilism and it allows me to do a little bit of what mindfulness meditation can help with: recognize things (thoughts, feelings, actions, objects) for what they objectively are, so that they can be processed clearly.

To set the stage, let’s clear it completely. Imagine only a vast expanse of emptiness. This is the total amassed universal value, worth, purpose and meaning of everything in existence. And while existence itself is full of stuff, nothing means anything and there is not a single reason for it to be here. Enter stage right: us. We are human minds with the propensity to arbitrarily assign value to anything; real or imagined. We must acknowledge that any value we give to things is not inherent, literal, or wholly transferable. It is a concept contained within our minds and it disappears when we do.

Understanding the intrinsic value of something (or lack thereof) puts its relative value to you in more accurate perspective. In fact, a philosophical framework in which all things begin by being valueless works in a similar fashion to the non-attachment that is practiced during meditation. The process through which things acquire value (in a subjective sense) is entirely mindful, as we must acknowledge what something means to us and why it deserves value before we allow it to hold any sway over us.

The nihilistic perspective is very lean, with little consideration given to the impractical and inconsequential. Just as a mindful meditator may find themselves no longer disturbed by things that used to rile them up, a nihilist also finds no cause to be shaken by something they haven’t bothered to give value to. With this method of thinking, we start evaluating more of the world around us because we become experts at determining subjective value.

This isn’t the same as walking through the park and silently judging everything, or blindly dismissing everything as meaningless. In the way you can appreciate an overheard conversation for its entertainment value, you can also walk away toward the next attraction because eavesdropping is nice, but not essential to your life.

Everything you experience is a chance to learn to control how you want to feel about it. Using myself as an example, I’ve become much more aware of myself during times of stress and anger. I’m able to quickly identify the source of my mood and its effect on me because I am not being taken by surprise by it - I’ve already recognized it for its potential to affect me. This allows me to recover very quickly and move on.

I am not saying that nihilism is a substitute for mindfulness meditation, nor will it improve your health by any measure. My only claim is that the nihilistic mindset that I’ve described is a philosophical approach to non-attachment that doesn’t require actual meditation practice. This is also not to say that adopting this mindset is easy or even recommended. I’ve only begun to explore the nuances of nihilism. I also acknowledge that someone eagerly following any philosophical model I have described in my writings is likely to find themselves with many unanswered questions. That being said, I look forward to explaining it further as the thoughts come to me.

17 April 2014

Where Does Power Lie?

How exactly do politics work? What’s the carrot and who’s holding the stick? These questions led me to start analyzing the chain of events that contribute to any political outcome. The ultimate question is this: Where does the true power lie? If we can realize this, we’ll know where to aim our focus to exact the most effective change in a system we aren’t satisfied with.

My initial guess is that the power is truly with the people as a whole. We’re the ones who elect officials. We’re the ones who the officials have to please in order to keep their positions. And we’re the ones to blame when the people we elect turn around and trample on our rights. However, there are some people who believe that The Man is the one with the power. They believe he has too much of it and he uses it to manipulate the people into supporting him, without their true consent and to their own detriment.

Who is correct?

Watching shows like House of Cards (vague spoilers ahead), you begin to wonder if the people have any power at all. In the show, a power-hungry politician manipulates the system he was elected into as a lowly House Representative and manages to find himself in great positions of authority without a single vote cast further in his favor. The millions of lives he manages to affect with his power plays are casualties of his ambition. His path transcends the politics that we see on the nightly news and takes an entirely different route – one that not a single citizen could have prevented at the polls.

While that is a scary picture, we must also admit that it is fiction. The world may contain comparably bloodthirsty figures vying for power, but many things needed to go conveniently right for Frances Underwood to get to where he was going. Reality simply doesn’t work that way.

Election campaign consultants have things down to an eerie science. They’ll advise a candidate that they have to support Topics A and B, but denounce Topic C in order to gain exactly 4% in the polls. These suggestions are delivered without respect to the candidate’s personal values or their party’s philosophy. It’s a game of doing whatever it takes to win. Values be damned.

In this situation, it may not be obvious who has the power, but the answer is the people. Ultimately, the politician needs to appeal to the people, who hold opinions on Topics A, B and C. In order to get elected, they must align themselves with their constituents, even if they personally disagree.

That isn’t the entire story, though. If the politicians don’t like what the people want, they have a few options to change the voting landscape. Gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, propaganda, limiting options, and outright vote rigging are all tools of manipulative influence that politicians can use to bend the outcomes of “democratic” elections in their favor. The question is: how effective are any of these methods?

At the risk of overloading the conversation with yet more questions, there are still plenty of factors to consider when it comes to determining who has the power. After the election is won, there is nothing that says a politician must adhere to the promises they made on the campaign trail. A recent study by Princeton University revealed that the policies enacted by the US government largely deviate from the average voter opinion. In fact, they align more closely with those of special interests and organized groups. The people may vote, but it’s the money that speaks.

Given this knowledge, the people are, at best, disorganized in their ability to prevent the power from slipping from their grasp. Incumbency rates in Congress are at 85%, despite record low approval ratings. Assuming the same people being polled for their approval are the same ones voting for their congressional representatives, how the hell does anyone keep their job? This is how we indirectly answer the question of how effective voter manipulation efforts are, as a whole.

Popularly suggested solutions to the supposed oligarchy that has replaced our democracy seem to center on the influence of special interest money on our policies. Remove the money and it will clear out the corruption, right? Maybe. Removing one source of corruption does not immunize against it entirely, though. There are ways to be compensated for loyalty to special interests other than cash.

The linchpin of democracy, the election, is what must be repaired in my opinion. This is a multi-faceted problem. We must ensure that everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote. We must ensure that votes are properly counted. We must ensure that voting districts are drawn with realistic boundaries. We must ensure that the information which people vote on is truthful. Lastly, we must ensure that people have the option to vote for a candidate who actually represents their interests. A tall order, but it’s something to aim for.

Every election should represent a chance to flush out our previous bad decisions and make improvements. With the effect of elections on our politics almost nullified, we, The People, are nearly powerless. It concerns me to think of what we must resort to if our elections fail to enact the change that we desperately need.

20 March 2014

What Rational Looks Like

At my work right now, we’re searching someone who is “ruthlessly logical” to fill the role of a marketing strategist. Nailing down the specifics of the kind of person we’re looking for has been fairly difficult, but we seem to like one of the attributes described in a recent New York Times article, How to Get a Job at Google. Essentially, we want someone who can make a passionate argument for something, but upon learning new information, be able to drop their opinion and reform it based on their new knowledge.

Before this search started, one of my recent tweets that I’m most proud of went like this:

Most people are driven by the need to be right. This means that when they find an answer to something or form an opinion, they jealously guard it from all assailants. While they feel right, they are often objectively wrong. This benefits nobody. I would like to propose a new motivation for all to adopt:

Be driven by the need to find the correct answer.

This is a sentiment that I try very hard to impress on others. Embrace being wrong when you are. Be thankful to the person who opened your eyes. You are now a smarter person for it. While it is certainly valuable to be able to present your argument passionately and convincingly, if you cannot accept new information into your model, your opinion is worthless. As new information comes out and others accept it into their worldviews, you’ll be preaching to a thinning crowd. This is the human equivalent of being obsolete.

In an environment like my work, where collaboration is important, we don't have the time to deal with obsolete people. Society as a whole moves a lot slower, but it's starting to pick up speed. Don't get left behind.

07 March 2014

Happy About Nothing

Lately, I’ve been appreciating my life and, as I tend to do, questioning what it is about my life that makes it good. There are many reasons, realized and unrealized, for my current state and those reasons can be divided into two distinct categories: things I can control and things I didn’t choose for myself (but am happy to have them remain). While it would be wrong to deny that I am fortunate in the latter department, I can definitely attribute a lot of my happiness to something I actively worked to refine: my philosophy of nihilism.

In case you’ve never heard of the term, nihilism is simply what you get when you realize that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to anything. It is the tabula rasa of morality. It feels counter-intuitive that happiness might come from a lack of purpose, but I’m going to explain just how it happens – it’s not how you might think.

Now, nihilism in and of itself says nothing about happiness. It’s simply a statement about the condition of the universe. There are no moral imperatives inherent in nihilism and there certainly are no “oughts.” The trail from nihilism to happiness requires pragmatism (the dictionary definition, not the school of philosophy).

When you have a moral blank slate, and nothing is pushing you to feel a certain way about anything, you start to realize how many societal “rules” are propped up by unfounded beliefs and values. In fact, you start to realize that your reactions to things are more determined by society than your actual feelings on the matter. You don’t have to think that bugs are gross. You don’t have to think that virginity is sacred. You don’t have to worry about what other people might think about your personal decisions.

The deeper you follow this line of thinking; you start to also realize that the vast majority of those “rules” are meant to make you feel badly about various situations. Once you grasp this, you can actively choose not to be disturbed by things. This doesn’t mean you lose your motivation in fixing problems. It just means that you deal with problems more matter-of-factly. You begin to mitigate all of the opportunities in your life for undue negativity.

If I were to subscribe to society’s expectations, my life would be riddled with guilt and shame. I’m actually kind of proud of that because there's no real good reason for me to feel that way, other than dumb herd mentality. I’ve escaped the repressive grasp that a society built upon false beliefs has over everyone else. I’m making my own decisions about how to behave in a situation. It’s a more mindful existence that allows me to experience life on my own terms. I’m no longer doing things that I would otherwise feel obligated to do. I do things because I want to do them.

In short, I’m being true to my self. It just so happens that my self is a kind, well-meaning, thoughtful person, so I happen to like him a lot. Freedom of thought begets fewer burdens, which begets truth of self, which begets self-esteem, which begets happiness. Go figure.

17 February 2014

Playing Card Game: Masquerade Ball

One of my hobbies is to sit in silence with a deck of playing cards in my hand and concoct original games which can be played with it. This is the latest game of mine, which is intended to be a strategic mixture of memory and chess, with a little back story for flavor. I got the inspiration from the game of Mafia, which is a party game in which participants try to suss out who among them are killing everyone off. Please play this with your friends and report back.

Masquerade Ball

Two opposing factions are attending a formal masquerade ball on neutral ground. Think: Montagues vs. Capulets. Their members are masked and intermingled as they dance and swap partners. Both are plotting to eliminate the other's leaders.

Players: 2

Playing Area:
The playing area is a 5x5 grid, similar to a BINGO card, with a card placed in each cell. This grid does not need to be drawn, as it is small enough to be imagined.

1. Separate all face cards and aces from the deck
2. Deal out an additional 9 cards on top of the 16 cards that were removed
3. Shuffle the 25 cards
4. Arrange the 25 cards randomly in a 5x5 grid, face down.
5. One player owns the red face cards, the other player owns the black face cards.
6. Draw from the leftover cards to see who goes first (highest card wins)

Card Names:
J & Q = Operative: can attack other cards
K = VIP: must be protected
A = Bodyguard: if attacked, kills attacker while also being killed. Becomes an operative (no longer a bodyguard) when all other operatives are dead or are revealed.

Eliminate both of your opponent's VIPs or all of their operatives first.

Each turn, a player may choose to perform up to 2 of 3 possible moves:
1. Reveal (Peek under the mask): the player peeks at one card of their choice to learn its identity. Other player cannot see.
2. Swap (Trade partners): the player chooses to swap the position of two cards on the grid. Optionally, a card may simply be moved into an empty spot which is local to it. In both cases, the cards can only be moved to grid positions that are touching the card (sides and corners).
3. Attack: if the player knows where one of their operatives are located, they can indicate a card adjacent (touching a side) to it to attack by flipping both cards over. The dead card is removed and its space on the grid remains empty. The attacking operative is then flipped face-up and is unable to be moved by its own player for the rest of the game, and can only be swapped by the opposing player. If the card being attacked is a Bodyguard, the attacking card dies as well. The player may accidentally attack its own cards, and the result is the same.

Players take turns until victory conditions are met.

Note: If a player reveals a card in error or indicates a card to attack with that is not one of their operatives, the card must be revealed to the other player (then hidden) and the offending player loses their next turn.

Masquerade Ball is an original card game that uses a standard deck of playing cards. It was developed by Andrew Gonsalves. All rights to its name and rules belong to Andrew Gonsalves. You must obtain permission from Andrew before using these rules for commercial use.