Jun 12, 2018

Stories we live (and die) by

We are creatures who live in story. At least I am. We are invested in our stories. At least I am.  If we've got a good story, we want to preserve it, enhance it, and embellish it. At least I do. The last thing we want to do, when I have a good story, is to get rid of it. That’s true, at least, for me. (Or at least, that's my story.)

My best stories are about my struggles to overcome difficult conditions. And many of my favorites are about writing. When I'm not writing, I'm still working hard. I'm struggling to write. And man, is that tough.

But here's the problem, I've just realized. Maybe the struggle to write is such a good story that preserving it is more important than actually writing.  Or maybe I haven't just realized that. Maybe "I just realized" is just another story.

Fact: It's been 45 days since the last time I wrote. Ironically, I wrote about my high productivity workflow. Which I then proceeded to not use. Because?  Beats me.  But I'm sure I could come up with a great story to explain it. Or a story about struggling to explain it. While not writing, of course, because then the story would disappear.

That's the paradox. If I used my super-duper workflow (as I'm doing right now) then my ongoing struggle to write would be over. I would just sit at my computer, talking (as I'm doing right now), and having words appear--fairly effortlessly.  What's the fun in that? What is heroic about talking?  Nothing.  Indeed, the better I'm getting at this (as I'm doing right now), the worse the story gets.

If I simply continue to do what I'm doing right now, the story of the epic struggle between me and some unknown, invisible, powerful force that keeps me from writing is gone. Even the story of trying to name it is gone. Call it ADD. Call it distraction.  Call it the divided self. Spend time deciding what to call it. Find things to write about, and then don’t write about them, because--that's the way the story goes. And the story goes on.

And this morning, right now, I'm ruining a perfectly good story. I'm sitting here in front of my Chromebook and the words are coming out and they need very little editing.  (And now I'm editing them, and the editing is easy, too. Shit!) The story of my struggle to write is much more interesting than the story of how I'm writing this. Once I'm in flow, things just--well, they flow. No drama.

I've got a ton of stuff to write about, and an effective way to write it down and I could go on writing. But to do that, I have to give up my story of struggling against a force greater than myself. (It has to be a force greater than me, or I'd win an instant. And what's the fun in that?)  Instead, right now, I'm a laborer. My job is writing. I sit in front of my computer, and I do my job. Is that a story? Not an interesting one.

Can't I accept the fact that I've “ broken through” and finally written something as the story of a victory?  Sadly, no.  When I'm telling myself the story of my struggle, it’s the story of my battle against a worthy adversary--even if it's in my own mind, imaginary. It's worth. But right now, while I'm sitting down actually writing, I realize that the struggle was not between a noble hero, and an evil force. It was just stupidity. An embodied idiot was struggling to overcome a stupid idea of his own creation.

Not as good a story.

But wait, I'm a storyteller. If  I have to make it a story to write the next piece, I can do that.

I can totally do that.

So here's the new story: Through a combination of brilliant thinking, moral courage, self-discipline, and force of will, I managed to overcome--Oh, fuck it. It's really stupid.

I'll just post it, and get on with it.

Apr 28, 2018

High productivity blogging workflow. Right? Sure.

Here’s my new high-productivity workflow design for blogging. We’ll see how well this works, and how long it lasts. So far it’s gotten this post out.
my setup
I’m using Google Chrome, Google Docs with Google Voice Typing Markdown, Nimbus Screenshots and Markdown Here Blogger, Grammarly, Github and maybe someday Gatsby. Because you know I’m Mr. Geek. Maybe I’ll use Markdown Monster
I have three tabs open on my computer. One is a Google Docs document. I use it for drafting the content in markdown. The second is a blogger page with a blog post that I’m going to eventually publish. I’ll also use it for importing images. The third is a GitHub repo that I’ll use to store the markdown for possible later use. The repo is the framework for a Gatsby blog. Maybe I can publish it later. Maybe. We’ll see. Who knows?
The workflow goes like this.
I use Google Voice Typing in Google Docs to draft the post. I’ll write something later about how I use it.
Honest. I promise.
If you want to tell markdown to turn text into a link, you surround the text with square brackets and follow it with the link URL in parentheses. For an image, you use an ! followed by the alt text in square brackets, and then the image Link in parentheses. So neat. Any pair empty parentheses is a TODO item. I’ll fill in the parentheses later.
Honest, I will.
Once I’ve got something with complete text, it’s time to go into research mode, and fill in the parens with image and the link targets. If I have to make an image myself, I’ll use Nimbus download the text and then use the blank post to import the image into blogger. Then I’ll copy paste the link into my markdown.
Not clear? I’ll explain it in more detail in another post. I swear I will.
So now I’ve got a complete post in markdown in Docs and I’m ready for the next step.
I clear the blogger post and copy/paste the docs content into the post as plain text. Now I can use Grammarly, which does not work in Docs but does in blogger, to make tweaks and corrections.
Finally, I use markdown here to toggle the markdown so I can see what it’s going to look like when I post it. Ctrl-Alt-M does the trick. I can toggle back and forth until I’m satisfied.
Now, the final step.
I restore the post to markdown and copy/paste the text into a new file in the GitHub repository (and save it, of course, you idiot).
I will store the markdown drafts in subdirectories, based on the blog I’m writing for. Is that a good idea? I don’t know. I’ll worry about that later. Honestly. I really will. I promise.
Gatsby blog entries need to have front matter that looks kind of like this:
title: <some title>
date: <some date>
path: "/hello-world/"
So I will kind of stick something in there that kind of looks like that.
Then I have to convert the Blogger post back from markdown (don’t forget!).
And finally, I post the m*************.
Simple, right!
We’ll see how it goes.
So the checklist:
  1. Draft the post in Docs with Voice Typing.
  2. Fill in the parens, creating and uploading images as needed.
  3. Copy to Blogger and check out the markup.
  4. Restore to markdown format and save in GitHub
  5. Convert the markdown and post

Apr 26, 2018

It's really going to suck when I'm dead..

It's going to suck when I'm dead.

But not for me. I'll be dead. Things don't suck for the dead. 

For you. And only if you care about me.

If you care and I am dead, I'm sorry for whatever and happiness or pain I have caused you by dying. I can only assure you that it wasn't my plan and that I did my best to keep it from happening.

A lot of good that will do.

By the way, there's no special reason to think that it's going to happen very soon. Though it will happen. And sooner than I want it too. But, you know, that's life.

If everything goes according to plan, Bobbi will not be unhappy when I die. That's because I'm supposed to die last. In fact, I've promised. So when I die she'll already be dead. And dead people are not unhappy. Just dead.

I break that promise I'm certain she will be mad at me, even though I'm dead.

"You promised!" she might say, angrily. 

"Yes," I'd want to say, but of course won't be able to. "And I'm sorry. But being angry won't help. Besides, even though I'm imagining being sorry now, as I write this, I won't be sorry then. I'll be dead, remember?"

"Don't think you're getting off that easily!" she might say. Angrily.

My kids and grandkids will be sad too. And friends, too. And that's too bad. It's preventable, but only if I'm such a complete asshole that they'd all be glad I was gone. That's not part of the plan, either, and I think I can stick to that.

So, sorry. I'm going to die. And like I say, it's going to suck for you when it happens. 

There's only one thing that you can do, and that's to enjoy me while I last.

That's what I'm doing.

Apr 22, 2018

Between Iraq and A Hard Place

I woke up from a nap with a burning desire to check Google Maps and find out if there is any city or geographic landmark named Ahardplace so that I could find what was really between Iraq and Ahardplace.

There isn't any such place. There needs to be.

Then I checked "Hard Place." There are a few Hard Streets, some Hard Roads, a few Hard Drives, but according to Google Maps, the only Hard Place in the world is a bar in Zagreb, Serbia.

And if you believe the reviews, it's "Best rock bar in Zagreb!!"

So here's a link to a Hard Place. Since it's the world's only Hard Place is it OK if we call it "a Hard Place" or do we have to call it "the Hard Place?"

Potato potato.

Anyway here's the walking route between Iraq and a (or the) Hard Place,

Mar 31, 2018

Meditation experience: a theory of mind

Yesterday I did a 30-minute semi-hard-core meditation and had an insight into the workings of my mind. Here's how I did it, what I observed, the underlying theory, an explanation of what I observed, and what it all means.

How I did it
I'm trying to develop a meditation practice, and I've graduated from guided meditation. I've got an app that I set to give me a 30-minute session, divided into six five-minute segments. Each segment ends with a soft bell sound. The last segment ends with two bells. The bells between are to wake me up if I get lost in thought. It works pretty well.

During a session, I try only to observe the contents of consciousness. I try only to pay attention to what is going on: my breathing, the sounds around me, the darkness or color behind my closed eyes, sensations in my body, thoughts. If a thought arises, and I notice the thought I don't try and engage with it or reject it. I notice it but continue to direct my attention on the other contents of consciousness--like my breath or my hearing. Occasionally I notice that there is nothing in my mind--but only for a moment. Soon, something arises--like noticing that there's nothing in my mind.

From time to time a thought about the next bell arises--like "it should be rining soon." I note the thought and treat it like any other thought. Every five minutes I hear the bell and I'm momentarily aware of what I might have been thinking just before that. Some thoughts arise that seem interesting. I note them and don't try to remember them later. I'm pretty good at not remembering them later.

What happened
Well, I did remember a few things, but not because I tried to. I remember that when the bell rang at the end of the first five-minute session I realized that I had been lost in thought since maybe five seconds from the start. Noted. I returned to breathe and body.

During the next few five-minute segments, I alternated. Sometimes I was aware of what was happening around me and in my mind, and I was aware that I was being aware. Sometimes a thought so captured my attention that I lost awareness--only realizing it when I woke from the thought-induced trance. When I was aware of my mind I'd often notice a continuous mental buzzing with fragments of thought arising and passing awayh. Imagine being in a large room with dozens of radios, their dials being turned from station to station. Mostly you'd hear noise. Once in a while, you'd hear a word or phrase, a fragment of thought, like "remember to..." or "toolbox." Sometimes you'd hear a short, unmemorable sentence that would arise and fall away. Images might appear and disappear.

In this state, I might have a complete thought and even be captivated by an idea for a few seconds or even a minute for two. But nothing was as engaging as the five minutes that lost during that first segment.

During the last two periods, things changed again. I became aware of discomfort. I felt mild pain in my legs and my back, and increasing pain in the muscles of my jaw. A series of thoughts arose and fell away, all with the same content. " Stop this now!" " This must end." "This is no fun." "It's time to do something else." I'd feel brief waves of sadness. Once or twice I burst into tears, then that passed away. Throughout, I simply observed these thoughts and sensations, as they arose and passed away. And then the final bells sounded and I was done.

The underlying theory
A mind is a landscape, an ecosystem, a community, where thoughts appear and pass away. Some arise from the outside, and some arise from within. Some thoughts cooperate and complement one another; others oppose one another; all compete for the limited resources of the mind, especially the one called attention. Thoughts survive or not based on the principles of Darwinian evolution. They replicate, they vary, and they are selected. The ones that are selected for reappear. The ones selected against disappear.

What does the selecting? In nature, for Darwinian natural selection, it's the environment--both the physical environment and living things already in the environment. A hot, dry environment selects for living things that can tolerate heat and do without water for long periods. Among those things that might survive, the environment--with the help of organisms that might compete for some limited resources--selects those that survive best. The living things already in the environment will tend to select for other living things that benefit them and select against those that harm them. They are not always successful in selecting those that benefit them the most; but the tendency is toward those that are beneficial to more life in the environment.

In the mind, ideas are selected by an environment filled with other ideas. The initial ideas that inhabit a mind--some wired in, and others installed by parents and other agents of cultural transmission--determine which new ideas are welcomed, which are tolerated, and which are rejected. 

A liberal, open-minded upbringing installs in a mind a set of initial ideas that values ideas new and old. Some new ideas might be obviously consistent with existing ideas, some might challenge them. The ideas welcome the inspection and analysis of both existing and of new ideas. They welcome new ideas on how to carry out such inspection. 

An intolerant, closed-minded upbringing installs in a mind an initial set of ideas that rejects any ideas that are not wholly consistent with the existing ones. It is a stable system, values stability, and fights against any destabilizing deas. The initial ideas oppose the inspection and analysis of any of the existing ideas and oppose new ideas about how to carry out such an analysis. The community of other minds that surround such a mind help maintain that stability by adding social and even physical penalties against anyone who might give voice to destabilizing ideas.

I was taught to welcome new ideas, or so the ideas already in my mind tell me (and they will you, given a chance). I was taught to continually and critically examine both new ideas and existing ideas in the light of new evidence. Starting from the ideas that were installed by family and early education, I've worked to add new ideas that help me do that and help me to add new ideas to those already present.

A version of me, raised differently, might have a mind that was like a well-tended garden with neat rows of flourishing, useful ideas, and no weeds. The version of me that I've created from my initial inheritance is a sprawling landscape filled with all ideas that are encouraged to hybridize and mutate, to inspect one another for better versions, to seek new species from the outside, and to gently and firmly contain any idea deemed harmful.

But is that true in every case? Across the broad, open landscape of my mind, could there be corners and niches where narrow-minded ideas survive--even thrive? Could I be unaware of such ideas?

Of course!

Such ideas would have to be silent or well disguised because so many of the ideas that I have cultivated subject themselves and all other ideas to inspection and analysis. A potentially harmful idea that made itself known would quickly be contained.

Would such a containment strategy work?

Sometimes. And sometimes, for example in a stressful situation, the containment mechanism might break down and those ideas might enact themselves in behavior.

An explanation of what I observed
My mind is a busy place. A noisy place. Amid the hubbub it might be easy for a thought, expressed by an incompatible idea--one that had not been detected, inspected, determined problematic and then contained--to be overlooked by the other members of the community of mind.

Meditation brings silence to the noisy mind. Ideas and complexes of ideas that find themselves compatible with the idea of meditation--observing other parts of the mind without judgment--might quiet themselves in support, or might join the activity, observing themselves and other parts of the mind.

The mind quiets for a moment, but the quiet is broken by parts of the mind that either understands what is going on and cannot restrain themselves or by parts of the mind that are unaware of the rest of the mind's intention. Those parts that are unaware become aware. Those parts that cannot restrain themselves because of an excess of enthusiasm might jabber away, or--having expressed themselves and received no rebuke--might quiet as well. Remaining are the parts of the mind that know that they are unwanted; they realize that they exist, unrestreained only because they have not been detected. And they fear that if they are detected if they are found out, they will be--well, they don't know what, but it's not good!

Meditation is a thread. As a survival strategy, they must put a stop to it. They can explicitly propose ending it. They can induce unpleasant feelings that will cause other parts of the mind to join them in wanting meditation to end.

What it all means 
I don't know what it means. I have some ideas.

I believe that the more I meditate the more the parts of my mind that are compatible with meditation will join the parts that have initiated meditation.

I believe that the more that I do this the more the parts of my mind that fear what meditation will bring--will attempt to disrupt my practice.

The parts of my mind that encourage meditation and that are trying to build a stable practice--which include what I would call my reflective self--are not themselves opposed to the parts that oppose meditation. They--we--are not trying to change anything by force.

It means that as I become more aware of the contents of my consciousness I will probably--and necessarily--become aware of areas of my mind that will feel increasingly threatened and increasingly hostile to that which threatens them.

Maybe that will happen.

Maybe it will not.

I'll find out.

Mar 17, 2018

The politics industry

Our political system isn't broken, it's evolved. It's no longer simply a system but an industry. Our political system has been replaced by an industry connected to a set of industries that we can call the “politics industrial complex.”

Calling it the "political industry" connects us to other ideas that can help us better understand what's happening.  We have tools for analyzing industries and their behavior. We have tools that help us understand the effect of competition and the lack of competition in industries. We can use those tools to understand the political industry. Industries can be competitive or monopolistic, regulated or unregulated. Most industries seek to grow--to generate more and more economic activity.

The political industry is a growth industry. Each election cycle the industry gets larger. It consumes more resources and produces more--what? A well designed political system would produce solutions to problems that can’t be solved by individual and market means, and can only be solved collectively.  An effective politics industry doesn't have to do that. It just needs to grow, and it does that by producing politics.

I didn’t make up the term “politics Industry.” I got it from a paper, [“Why competition in the politics industry is failing America,”](https://www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/Documents/why-competition-in-the-politics-industry-is-failing-america.pdf)  by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter. Katherine Gehl ([website](https://www.katherinegehl.com/), [Wikipedia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Gehl)) was the fourth-generation President and CEO of Gehl Foods and is now a policy activist and political reformer. Michael E. Porter ([Wikipedia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_E._Porter)) is an American academic known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes.

They say:

`The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that our political system isn’t broken. Washington is delivering exactly what it is currently designed to deliver. The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.`

`Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so. Politics is, in fact, an industry— most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations. The industry competes, just like other industries, to grow and accumulate resources and influence for itself. The key players work to advance their self-interests, not necessarily the public interest.`

But unlike many other industries with many competing organizations, the politics industry is a duopoly. Two brand-named political organizations dominate the industry. And while they appear to compete, they have an important shared interest: to keep other competitors out of the industry. In this, they’ve done an outstanding job. And it means that they can compete much less than they'd have to if others were allowed into the industry.

Kehl and Porter say:

`The politics industry is different from virtually all other industries in the economy because the participants, themselves, control the rules of competition. There is no truly independent regulation of politics that protects the public interest. Free from regulation and oversight, the duopoly does exactly what one would fear: The rivals distort the rules of competition in their favor. Examples of this includes controlling access to the general election ballot, partisan gerrymandering, and the Hastert Rule, which puts partisan concerns above legislating for the public interest.`

To see how badly the politics industry works, compare it to really competitive industry: groceries. People choose the grocery store that they shop at based on convenience, products and price. Because competition is fierce the grocery industry is a low-margin business and as a result, consumers win. Once inside the store, shoppers have more choices. For each kind of good stores don't just give you one brand--they give you several. A store that gave you only one choice would soon be out of business.

Imagine if the grocery industry ran the way the politics industry runs. Supposing there are two grocery chains: Super Foods and Friendly Shopper. Instead of competing by giving you variety, each store would put together a weekly basket of goods and let shoppers choose which one they prefer. If the majority of shoppers in an area decided on the Super Foods basket, then every shopper would get that basket. Even the shoppers who preferred the Friendly Shopper basket get the Super Foods basket. That sounds pretty bad.

But it’s even worse. Because almost no one who chooses the Super Food basket likes everything in it. You might like 90% of what’s in the basket. I might like 50%. To the Super Foods basket-maker all that matters is that more than 50% of shoppers like the Super Foods basket better than the Friendly Shopper basket. The goal is no longer to maximize shopper satisfaction--it's to do just a little better than your one competitor.

And it’s even worse. Because once you choose which basket you prefer, then you, and everyone else in that region gets that basket for the next two, four, or six years.

And it’s even worse. Because Super Foods and Friendly Shopper are national brands. Local store managers have some ability to modify the local basket to match local tastes, but the national organization discourages that. They want brand consistently as much as possible. Why? Becuase they want to advertise their basket nationally, so they need consistency. They want the brand to mean something. So they push to have the Super Foods basket in Florida and the Super Foods basket in Maine as close as possible.

This is obviously a horrible system. There is some choice, but it’s minimal. But that’s what the politics industry delivers. There are two national brands: Republican and Democrat. You don’t get to choose the policies (groceries) that you want. The brands make up a national basket of policy choices, make minor local adaptations, and then offer you a candidate--that’s the basket--designed to get 50% of the shoppers in a the region to choose it over the competition. Whatever the majority of shoppers choose is what everyone gets for the next two, four or six years.

The paper is well worth reading. It’s not our broken political system: it’s our anti-competitive, duopolistic politics industry. Seeing it through that lens suggests some solutions.

Mar 16, 2018

My seven day meditation challenge: Day 1

I've written about my interest in meditation. I've launched a couple of half-hearted (or half-assed) attempts to develop a regular meditation practice. Yesterday, I tried something different:  I challenged two of my friends (and myself) to a seven-day meditation challenge.

The three of us are fans of Sam Harris's book “Waking Up,” about which I've written as well. We have a Google Hangouts chat channel that each of us tries to visit at least daily. We remind each other regularly to wake up. Sometime we even wake up to respond. We also use it to share things that we find interesting and think the others might like.

Sam has recorded two guided meditations, one about nine minutes, the other about 26 minutes. I've used each to guide me through a meditation session a few times. Monday, I used the longer one at the start of the day, because I wanted to be a badass meditator. I felt good afterward. I had a great day. (Maybe due to writing more than meditation, but maybe the writing was due to meditation. Whatevs!) Tuesday I slacked off. It was still a good day (and I wrote), but I thought Monday was better. So Wednesday I used it again, badass mode. More writing, and another great day. And that led to the challenge.

I wrote this in our Hangouts channel:
I listened to Sam's 29 minute guided meditation for the 2nd time this week Good stuff
Anyone want to take a 7 day meditation challenge with me? Do that guided meditation each day. Report what you discover. He's also got a shorter one. But I would guess that each of you spends a half hour a day doing something (like random reading of the net) of far less likely value

The response?


There are many ways that I might have encouraged my friends to join me in the challenge. Eight hours of silence later I used the first one that came to mind. Name-calling.


I wrote in the channel.

That woke them up! After a little back-and-forth, a night's sleep, and my morning meditation, I realized something important. I didn’t need them to join me in the challenge.
Actually, you don't have to meditate for the next 7 to help me... which was one of my purposes. And it will do you no good if you meditate just so I don't call you a sissy.
Challenging you guys was just really a way for me to challenge myself.
Your work is done.
Thank you.
You are not sissies, but friends.
For me, Day 1 complete.
And on reflection (caused by writing this--yay writing!) I realize that neither of them needs to do a daily meditation to join me in my meditation challenge. 

We are connected.

Because we are connected, whatever I do, they join me in whatever I do.

And so do you, reader.

And so so all the people with whom I am connected, and who have not read this.

We are all connected.

Thanks for being with me as I write this. And as I post this.