Sep 20, 2018

The landscape of my life

The day started out poorly. Bobbi and I had been discussing one of the problems that we wrestle with from time to time. These are not big problems. More like rough spots, mild but chronic irritations. Sometimes we make progress. More often we fail to make progress and disengage--we live to fight another day. Occasionally we solve one of these long-lasting problems and put it behind us. But until we do, these problems persist. When one creeps up on us, it demands our attention. The bad thing is these things exist and they don’t just go away. The good thing is that we keep communicating and loving each other.

There’s a pattern, and we were following it that day. As we talked, we moved from point A to point B. Then we talked some more and reasoned our way to point C. Then after some more discussion, we got to point D, And then, after a while, we discovered we had gotten back at Point A.  We've done this lots of times for each of these chronic problems. Our discussion wanders around and around and usually gets us nowhere. But we keep trying.

That day, suddenly, I had a vision. I saw our discussion as though we were traveling a path in the landscape of my life or ideas. Instead of being located somewhere, and seeing where we were and the paths that would lead to the next place, I saw myself above the landscape. I could see the path we’d been on, circling that central issue--but from above the path, not somewhere on the path. The path we had been on was well-worn and rutted. It led us in a circle.

And I could see more than just that path. I saw places off he path that I’d been to occasionally--places that I’d found by taking different, less traveled and less well-marked routes. The well-worn path was the easy path that went in circles. It was the one that I  naturally--and foolishly--followed. But if I looked carefully I could see the traces of other paths that I'd followed and the places that they'd led to. And I knew that looking from above I could more easily find one of the less-traveled paths that led to one of the better places.

And in my vision, I realized that I could do better than that. Because I was above the landscape and I could see the places I had been, I didn’t have to find a path and travel overland. I could just go there. And just like that, I was in one of the better places. Or more accurately, I was there, yet still above the landscape.

And in my vision, I could now see more of the landscape. Not just the area around the problem we’d been circling, not just the better places nearby that I'd gotten to, but the landscape over which I’d travelled during my life--including the places I'd never been to. I saw a landscape of something--perhaps the mental or emotional states that I had been in or could be in--the paths that led from one state to another. I could see the paths I’d turned into roads that got me quickly to desirable places. And I saw other paths with wrong turns and false starts and dead ends. I could see the best places I’d visited, the ones I’d managed--through hard work--to get to. And I could go directly to any of them. And I could see places I'd never been to--places that I'd imagined getting to. And perhaps I could go directly to some of them as well.

And I could see this pattern:

At night I’d go to sleep somewhere in that landscape. And in the morning I’d wake up in a place different from the place I'd gone to sleep. Most of the time I’d wake up somewhere nearby, but not always.

On most mornings, I’d wake up in a place that was slightly better than the place where I’d gone to sleep. Occasionally I'd wake up somewhere much better. But on a bad morning, I'd wake up in a bad place--or even a terrible place. I’d have gone downhill. I might find myself in a small depression, one that would be fairly to climb out of. A cold shower or some coffee might do the trick. But sometimes I’d find myself in a deeper depression. Maybe a ditch. Maybe a valley, or a crevasse, or even an abyss. And then whatever else I had to do, I would also have to spend time and energy climbing out of that low place. Sometimes it would take days to get back to a good place.

Sometimes something would happen--a setback in life that would knock me away from where I'd gotten to and plunge me into confusion and depression--places I'd need to climb out of. Less often something good would happen and I'd find myself suddenly in a better place than I'd been in shortly before. But sudden setbacks tended to be more common than sudden victories, and setbacks meant climbing out of the bad places I'd been thrown into.

Over the years I've learned how to get out of bad places. I’ve learned and developed techniques to help me climb and travel faster and more easily. I can reason my way out of some bad places. I can use music or dance to get out of others. I can practice gratitude. I can meditate. I can talk to people who are good at helping me climb. I can write.

Getting out of a bad place is not easy. It's always hard work. If I find myself in a bad place I've been in before then Iknow that I can look for the path that led me out before and retrace it. But sometimes I forget the path and I have to discover it again. And sometimes new obstacles block a path that once led out.

One obstacle is the desire to give up. I’ve climbed out of enough bad places to know not to let that stop me. I know that eventually, if I keep going, I’ll find my way out. What used to take me days now might take me hours and what used to take me months might take weeks. It always takes time. And it's not much fun. But I know I'll get out.

I could see that falling into a hole that I’ve fallen into before meant I could use the knowledge I've gained to get out faster. And I could see that the fact that I've fallen back always makes me feel stupid and then angry. That makes climbing out it harder because I carry that anger with me.

I could see that I could create new patterns. Going directly to any place on the landscape that I’d ever been was a new pattern. I didn’t need to find or follow a twisting difficult path within the landscape. I could move above it.

That was my vision. But the day was just starting. And there were more visions to come.

Sep 12, 2018

What matters?

In an earlier post, Mortality 101, I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life making the most valuable contributions to the world that I could make. What were they? How would I go about finding them?
Self-referentially, the most important thing I could do at the moment was to figure out the most important thing I could do. But what then?
I had been talking with John on our way to Wallingford, CT to see Jordan Peterson. John gave me several suggestions. One: ask people. He was right to suggest that. My inclination would have been to try and figure it out on my own. Two: write about my experience. We’re all going to have to ask those same questions, sooner or later, he said. So what you learn can help other people. Not a bad idea. So here I am taking his advice.
Peterson was an amazing speaker and what he said was something I needed to hear. I was looking for direction. A goal. An ideal. And he said this:
The problem with an ideal [is this] if you have an ideal, that’s great, because it gives you something to strive for. Because the fact is that if you have something to strive for—thank God for that! Because if you don’t have anything to strive for you don’t have any meaning in your life. And so you absolutely need a moral hierarchy, otherwise you don’t have any direction in your life. But the price you pay for that ideal, that goal, is your own insufficiency.
That was exactly the problem. I could have easy goals or ambitious goals. If I chose easy goals—ones that I could accomplish fairly easily—then I’d have the satisfaction of reaching my stupid little goal. If I chose ambitious goals I’d probably never reach the goal—which might be OK—but I’d have the satisfaction of working on something important.
But I’d also realize my own insufficiency. The greater the goal the more important it was to work on it, but the greater the intensity of my own insufficiency.
.>And then to deal with that insufficiency you have to take on responsibility in proportion to the magnitude of the goal. And that can be absolutely terrifying.
And it was. Because I had inklings of what I wanted to do, and thinking about it filled me with anxiety.
If you are ambitiously responsible and if you have a noble ideal set out ahead of you, then the first thing you’re going to realize is that you’re insufficient in all sorts of terrible ways. And that’s a blow, not only a blow from the perspective of— a word I hate—self-esteem but also means you have a tremendous responsibility to take on. And maybe you don’t want that.
And that’s where I am right now.

Sep 9, 2018

Mortality 101

Yeah, I know, I'm going to die. This is not news. We're all going to die. I don't think that I'm an exception. Well, I sort of do. But that's another whole story. But assuming that I am going to die, how long to I have?

This estimator says that there's a 42% chance that I'm dead before I'm 85. There's an 89% chance I'm dead before I'm 95. It doesn't take into account lots of things: I'm better than average healthy, I'm better than average economically. I'm better than average exercising. Better than average IQ. Better than average white. So my odds of living are better than the 11% chance that the average 75-year-old American dude might have. But still. Tick tock. The clock is ticking.

So I'm making a plan for the rest of my life. Tick tock. Dying definitely has to be part of the plan. Tick tock. Living has to be part of the plan, too. Tick tock.

Even though the life I have left is limited, I've got a plenty left. And it's precious. Most of the universe is dead, and I'm not. Not yet, as I write this. Every second counts. Tick tock.

So I'm thinking: "What do I want to accomplish in what is left of the life I'm living?" This is new to me, in two ways. First: that I'm actually thinking. Second: thinking about "the rest of my life."

What does it mean "to think?" In the past few weeks, I've changed my idea of what "thinking" means. What I would have formerly called "thinking" now looks like "reacting." Like actually avoiding thinking. Thinking starts with a problem. Having a problem is uncomfortable. So what I used to call thinking was a set of techniques for avoiding discomfort. When life presented me with a problem I'd look for the quickest path away from that discomfort. One path was to do research. I really like doing research, so that's my go-to "thinking" strategy. It's nice, because there's no thinking required. Another is to find something to do that was easy and seemed to move in the direction of a solution. The emphasis was on doing something, not finding the best thing to do.

If what I did didn't work, fine. I did something. Now I can do something else. Like more research. Something.

So what do I mean by thinking? It still starts with a problem. In this case I want to find the most important problem that I can work on, not the first problem that pops into my head. And that will take some real thought. And once I think my way to find the right problem to work on I'll need to find a good solution. Not the first, easiest one, but the best one.

So what is the most important problem I can work on?

Not an easy question to answer. But I have one. It took a while but I realized that the most important problem that I can work on is deciding the most important problem I can work on. That's oddly satisfying to self-reference-loving inner geek.

OK, what comes next? And how do I figure out the answer? A clue came from talking this out with my son, John. What if I knew I had six months to live? What if I had only a week? How would I spend my time?

I realized that the less time I had the faster I'd have to decide. If I had six months, then taking a week to figure things out would make sense. If I had only a week, then I'd have to do it much faster.

And, John pointed out, I was most likely thinking about it the wrong way--trying to figure it out by myself. Which is typically my style. If I had a short time I'd start by contacting the people I most cared about, telling them how much time I had left and asking them what they'd want me to do in my remaining time that would be most valuable. And, John pointed out, the people who know me really well might suggest things that I wouldn't have thought of by myself. Not just things that they wanted, and that I would not have known, but things that I had forgotten that I wanted and now would have my last chance to get or to do.

And then I realized that even though I thought I was trying to figure this out by myself, that I'd actually started talking to people to get their ideas. I'd spent time talking to Bobbi (of course) but also with Gil, and Daniel, and now John--with precisely this goal in mind: what do I do to make the rest of my life most satisfying to me. Which means making it satisfying to the people I love and who love me.

So that's the challenge.

We were driving down to hear a talk by Jordan Peterson and his talk helped me better understand the shape of an answer that would satisfy me.

That comes in the next post. If I don't die first. If I do, ask John because I told him.

Animated version of the graphic at the top. Because it's kind of cool

Sep 4, 2018

My ethical take on climate action

My friend Mark challenged me to explain where I really stood on the subject of climate change. Not this or this or but something personal.
It took me a long time to get there. Three or four different false starts and probably more than ten hours of writing. Then emailed a version of this, decided to blog it, and five hours later it had doubled in size. But I’m glad I wrote it.
So first: it’s a trolley problem—-a kind of problem in morality or ethics. In the classic trolley problem, there’s this trolley that’s going down the track toward a switch. If you don’t throw the switch the trolley will go straight and kill five people. You can see them. They look like nice people. If you do throw the switch it will go down a side track and kill one person. Looks like a nice person, too. Not wearing a MAGA hat or anything. What’s the ethical thing to do.
Some people decide such problems using a utilitarian view of ethics: five dead people are less bad than one dead person, so the ethical choice is to throw the switch. But utilitarianism runs into all sorts of other problems that I’m not going in to here. Trust me. There are problems.
Others take a deontological view. There are rules, and you follow them. One rule: you don’t kill people. Even if you save five to kill the one, the five you save doesn’t justify the one you killed. If could throw the switch and save five people without killing anyone, then the ethical choice is to throw it. But if throwing the switch kills someone, the only ethical choice is to not throw it. This has problems too, of course. Because nothing is simple.
So I’m not a pure utilitarian, but I’m more of a utilitarian than a deontologist. I’ll throw the switch if the difference between lives saved and lives lost is worth my time. Say throwing the switch kills 4,999 people instead of 5,000. I mean they’re all pretty stupid to be standing around on a railroad track. So the first thing I want to know is: how much out of my way do I have to go just to save one of these morons?
And besides, how do I know the count is accurate? In the original trolley problem, I can trust my own perception: I can count the number of people verify the switch works as expected. But as things scale up, I have to rely on other people. Is it really 5,000 vs 4,999? Maybe someone miscounted? Maybe it’s 4,999 vs 5,000? Are any of them wearing MAGA hats? That might change my mind.
And it gets worse. Suppose someone tells me the number of people who die in each case is determined by a machine that’s driven by a random number generator. In both cases it will pick a number from a uniform distribution. In one case the mean number of people killed is 1,000, in the other case will be 5,000. The choice that kills an average of 1,000 people is better than the choice that kills an average of 5,000, but you don’t get to choose an average outcome. You make a choice and some number of people will die.
But who told you that the mean number of people in one case is 1,000 people, and the mean number in the other case is 5,000. What if they’re wrong about the mean. And is it really a uniform distribution? What if the shape of the distribution is different? And do you change your mind depending on the distribution mean?
What if instead of a random number generator someone has written an economic model that tells you how many people will die in the near-term if you make a certain policy choice and someone else has written a climate model and tied it to an economic model that tells you how many people will die in the longer-term if you make that choice.
What if we’re not talking about death but about misery? What if some of the miserable people are people in far off lands? Does that change your thinking?
Here are the factors that affect my view of this wickedly complex trolley problems.
Humans are conscious creatures—but not the only conscious creatures. One should not act in ways that cause or continue unnecessary suffering by conscious creatures. But not all conscious creatures are equal, in my reckoning. Humans are different from other conscious creatures in ways that I think are important. Because of those differences, I place a higher value on preventing the unnecessary human suffering and on improving human well-being than on preventing the suffering of other conscious creatures.
We humans are a brutal species, but we are not the only brutal species. We are one of the few species (but not the only one) with members that murder their own kind in pursuit of selfish ends. We are not the only species with members who rape others of our own and other species—-sometimes to death and past death. Humans are not the only species with members that brutalize and eventually kill other creatures for no other discernable purpose than pleasure.
To talk of “humans vs nature” is a metaphor rather than a fact. Like every species on this planet, we have evolved through natural selection. The human species is as much part of nature as any other species. But the human species is also different from every other species in important ways. We are not the only species on the planet whose members are conscious, but we are the only species with some members that show evidence that they are conscious of being conscious. I think this is important.
We are also the only species with members that write and appreciate poetry among other forays into arts that are unique to humans. We are the only species with members who have discovered and continue to discover the laws underlying regularities in the universe—including those that produce weather and climate. We are the only species with members who are aware of the impact their species on the planet and consider what to do about it. We are the only species with members who know we are on a planet! We are the only species with members who think about the long-term future of their species, planet and even the universe. We are the only species that have developed ethical frameworks and with members who think about the ethical consequences of their actions.
As far as we know, we are not just the only species on this planet that does these things, we are the only such species in this galaxy. There are reasonable, scientific arguments for believing that our uniqueness is a fact independent of the bounds of our knowledge.
The thriving of almost every kind of living thing is at the expense of the thriving of some other kinds living thing—and to the benefit of some other kinds. Because of the unique qualities of humans—that we are conscious, that we have and continue to gain knowledge—I place a higher value on the thriving of humans (and the species that are our symbiotes along with us) than on the thriving of other groups of species.
The ethical issue underlying my view of climate change is this: if some number of human lives a hundred years in the future could be saved at the cost of even one human today continuing its suffering, how many future lives would I want to save to support actions that allow one person to suffer longer? How certain would I want to be that those lives will actually be saved before supporting actions that continue suffering in the present?
That’s the trolley problem. Take some action, we certainly cause harm to some number of people? Some even die. The harm can be measured by prolonged human suffering. We know that impoverished people seek to leave their lives of misery and privation and suffering. We know that actions that raise the cost of energy make this more difficult, and thus preserve their suffering. For me, it must be fairly certain that proposed action will be an effective way to prevent a large amount of future suffering to justify the continued suffering that it will certainly produce.
How many suffer? I know that if the action is substantial then the effects will be substantial, and there are people who will give you a number.
It is reasonable to take the IPCC reports as our best understanding of the range of likely future climate outcomes. The reports tell us that if we take no steps to mitigate CO2 emissions that disastrous outcomes are possible. But disastrous outcomes, according to the IPCC are far from certain. The IPCC reports tell us the range of effects of assumed mitigating actions. The benefits of the mitigation are also far from certain.
How many people will suffer? There are people who will give you a number. So what action should an ethical person take if they know it will cause an unknown amount of suffering in the nearer-tem and prevent unknown amount in the longer-term?
I would be willing to take actions that are likely to result in gaining critical knowledge that we lack even knowing those actions will cause some harm. The knowledge that I believe is critical includes greater knowledge of climate mechanisms, greater knowledge of variability, greater knowledge of the probability of outcomes, greater knowledge of the consequences of solutions we know about, and knowledge of new solutions that might be more effective.
I am not willing to support actions that prolong suffering on the assertion that because there is some likelihood of disaster—and there is some likelihood of disaster, no doubt—that “we must do something—or everything we can—before it’s too late.” It may already be too late. It may be too late if we don’t act in ways that we could act. It may not be too late at all. I don’t know and I do not believe anyone knows. Other people may be willing to advocate actions that prolong suffering out of fear, because of their faith in others’ certainty, despite the fact that such certainty is almost entirely unwarranted, and despite their own ignorance and inability to make their own judgment. I am not.
OK, there you have it.
I don’t think that climate change is the biggest problem that we face, and I don’t think that it’s the best problem for me to apply my talents and resources to solving. What are the biggest problems and what do I work on? That’s the subject of another post. Maybe several.

Aug 20, 2018

Voice typing is the bomb!

Voice timing typing is the bomb!

I've been trying to get into using better at using voice typing to write my blog posts. It's been a slow process with lots of setbacks. But I think I finally am hitting my stride.

My aspiration is simple. Here's my aspiration: I'd like to be able to write a complete blog posts, fairly long, and with moderate intellectual content, and produce it them in the a single draft. As I am trying to do right now.

(I'm two paragraphs into this thing, and it's going pretty well.)

The secret to being able to do this, as with all things his practice.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

My phone is my tool of choice for the first draft. I like to produce them first drafts while I'm walking up and down my 500-foot driveway. I started this on the way up. Right now, I'm on the way back down. walking back down my 500  foot driveway; Walking does might not permit work for voice typing the deepest sort of thinking ideas, but it's not bad for producing something moderately thoughtful like this.

I do my first drafts in a Google dDoc that I've got shortcut head shortcutted on my phone's home screen. That way I can lets me work on the same document on my phone and on my other devices.

Writing something that requires deeper thinking takes other tools. I can speak athe first draft on my phone. Bbut then I have to go to need a device with a keyboard and to revise it. And for more thoughtful pieces, to rewrite it. My tool of choice for that activity is I use Google Docs, with a voice typing on either my Chromebook or my Lenovo ThinkPad. I like my Chromebook because it's portable and I think it's got a for its better microphone. I like my ThinkPad because it's got a for its better keyboard.

I'm done sp with speaking my first draft. Instead of revising it and losing all the changes, I'll deliberately red line it so you can see what's difference different between my first draft and the final.

I copy/pasted the text from Google Docs into the Blogger editor which makes it easy for me to strike through deleted text and underline additions (like this sentence.)

iIf you aspire to be able to do this as well too, I have three words for you. Practice! Practice! Practice!

PS: I will get better at doing this. How? I have three words for you. Guess which ones.

A meditation on assholery

I'm a decent person. Not a great one, but a decent one. But I'm also kind of an asshole. I admit it. There’s something honest about this admission, and there’s something dishonest and assholish about it, too. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking how wonderful I am for admitting that I’m an asshole. I’m thinking that makes me better than you, whoever you are. I may be an asshole, but I’m an asshole who can admit he’s an asshole--a better kind of an asshole. What about you? I thought so. You’re just an ordinary asshole. I’m better.

I know I’m an asshole because I know all the bad, stupid, malicious, vengeful, thoughtless, spiteful, uncaring things I’ve done. I don’t go around telling people about them, for God’s sake! I may be an asshole, but I’m not a stupid asshole.

I am also an egotistical asshole. If I were a modest asshole I’d admit my assholery to myself and go about the business of making myself less of an asshole. Instead, I’m writing what I hope will be a charming and amusing blog post about how what an asshole I am. Maybe that way I can get away with it.

Or not. I hope I’m not writing this just to get away with it. I hope I’m writing this to get some of my personal assholery out of my system. And I hope that I’m writing it to make it easier for other assholes who might realize that they are assholes to admit it to themselves and maybe even others. But who knows? I’ve discovered, over the course of a lifetime, that I have an outstanding ability to deny, explain, justify, and make excuses for my own behavior. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that I’m kidding myself.

But maybe my ability to mislead and fool myself isn’t outstanding. Maybe I’m just average. I don’t really know. And it doesn’t matter. No matter how good I think I am--even at bad things like self-delusion, I’m probably not that good. And no matter how bad I might think I am, I'm probably worse. I almost certainly overvalue the good things that I've done and I undervalue the harm. Such is being human. Or at least that’s what I tell myself to help me live with that knowledge.

It must be true that the better you know me the more you know of the bad things I’ve done. It’s not just because I’ve done more bad things to you or in your presence, but also because I have probably shared with you (very carefully) some of my more disreputable acts. I’ve shared a lot with Bobbi. She knows me better than anyone but me and knows more bad things about me than anyone but me. And still, it seems that she loves me. I’m a lucky guy.

Over the course of my life, I’ve become good at forgiving myself. After all, you can only go so far with denial and self-justification. But I do live with myself and I think that's because I have learned how to forgive myself for the worst things I've done. Or at least the worst things that I'm not currently in denial about.

I think that the ability to forgive is a virtue, and to be forgiven is a great gift. When I listen to the song “It's quiet uptown” from the soundtrack of “Hamilton” and the chorus sings “Forgiveness! Can you imagine? Forgiveness!” I reliably burst into tears. I can imagine forgiveness. I've experienced it because I have forgiven myself. I’ve learned to forgive others. I’ve done it selfishly--to justify forgiving myself. How can I not forgive them, when I’ve done worse? But I’ve also done it because--well, I don’t know. I’ve done it.

Why do I cry when I hear that song? Maybe it’s because something big remains unforgiven. Maybe it’s because the song reminds me that forgiveness is possible, and a gift, and I have received that gift, even though I am undeserving. Maybe it’s because I like telling stories that prove how sensitive I am because it makes it look like I’m less of an asshole. I really don’t know. How could I possibly know? I’ve already said it. I’m just an asshole.

Aug 18, 2018

Jordan Peterson on the rise of the new media

The popularity of my ideas is partly a consequence of a technological revolution. I've seen that more clearly since October partly because I can see the mainstream media dying at a faster and faster rate and the alternative media expanding faster and faster.