Dec 31, 2015

MikeSim version 73: A simulated human being

A lot of my recent posts have been about the experience of "waking up." For those of you who are new to this blog or who have bad memories and short attention spans, here's what I mean:

I'm going along, living my life and suddenly I realize that I haven't been living my life.

I realize that everything I've been doing for I-don't-know-how-long before that moment has been automatic. At the moment of realization everything is still automatic, but I'm now aware that it's automatic. That's waking up. I just woke up. Not doing anything yet. But awake. And watching.

I did it just a moment ago. I started writing this post on automatic, and then I woke up and moved from a state in which I was automatically and mindlessly writing to the one I am in now -- in which I am still automatically writing, but no longer mindlessly. I am aware of it. Awake.

So: before I woke up who or what was doing the writing?

Surely it wasn't me. I just woke up.

I have a fuzzy memory of things that happened before I woke up, but that's just a recording that my brain made while I was asleep. Not even a very good recording. It's got huge gaps. The recording includes starting this post, futzing with the title, grabbing links to earlier related posts about waking up (which originally were near the top and now might appear further down). All done without waking  up.

So who did the writing?

Theory 1: a demon did the writing. If so, it's a very nice demon, not like the one in "The Exorcist." It possessed me and wrote all the words that appeared before I woke up. It wrote something like what I might have wanted to have written had I been awake. But then I woke up. And, nice demon it didn't do nasty things with crucifixes to stay in control. It was there just a moment ago, helping me. It seemed friendly, helpful and cooperative. It keeps writing as I watch it.

Theory 2: a computer simulation did the writing. My brain is a powerful neural network. It's an organic computer. The neural network has been trained and the computer programmed to simulate the behavior of a human being. The brain is hardware. The programming and training parameters are software. Let's call the simulation MikeSim.

Unlike the demon theory, there's science supporting the MikeSim theory.

Babies start out with some basic ROMed in behavior, a bootstrap program that lets the environment, especially their parents, install and tune higher level routines. At some point kids develop a primitive sense of self. Kids say "I want" but they have little understanding what what "I" really means. That initial sense of self is just part of the conditioning. Over time it changes, but it's still conditioned.

Some people (me, for example, and you, I hope) at some time in their lives experience a different, and more profound sense of self. I don't know what that might be for you. For me it is something that's capable of the "waking up" experience. I experienced something like that many times before I read Harris book. He just gave it a name and led me to realize how much time I spent "asleep."

So back to MikeSim.

MikeSim is awesome. It can tell jokes and (even harder) make up witty comments on the fly and in context. It shows empathy. It experiences grief and anger -- or what seems a lot like empathy, grief an anger. And it writes blog posts.

MikeSim seems a lot like me. And why not. I programmed it that way. Once my parents and teachers had done the initial programming, I started to get involved. Some programming was done by the environment that I found myself in, and some was done by me.

At least I hope so.

A substantial part of this post was written by MikeSim. Even though I first woke up while writing this post just before I wrote the words "I did it a moment ago," I've had the waking up experience many times while writing the rest of this. So I must have had the going to sleep and letting MikeSim take over experience, too.

So who is writing these words -- RIGHT NOW? Honest answer: I don't know for sure. It might be me. It might be MikeSim. Right now I'm sitting here. I'm watching my fingers move over the keyboard and I'm seeing words appear. When I wrote the words RIGHT NOW it was a little different. Those words did not just flow. They got put there.

Maybe by me.

MikeSim is awesome, but it's been living too much of my life. My goal for the year is to use MikeSim as more of a backup system.

Links to other related posts (as promised): this one  about the Sam Harris book that started waking me up, or  this one about editing what I write; this one about my $100 latte)

And then. Holy shit! Did I fall asleep again?

Dec 30, 2015

Happy birthday to me!


Photo credit: brunkfordbraun via / CC BY-SA 

Today I am 73.

73 is a prime number. Which means I am in the prime of my life. Or one of them, anyway.

The other day my daughter, Mira, wrote a post on Facebook remembering our friend Tom, the first of our cohort to -- well, to die. Yeah, die. There I've said it. January 19, 2007, the Internet tells me. Nearly eight years ago. Shit.

I remember attending his memorial service, church packed with friends. The program for the service had a picture of Tom on his sailboat, waving to whoever was on shore capturing the moment.

I took one look and burst into tears.

His three sons gave him a spectacular send-off. I remember thinking "No way, talented as they are, are my kids going to do something this good. I better get to work on my own memorial service." But it doesn't matter who writes the service, I'm still not going to have a send-off like Tom's. He was extremely sociable. I'm not not in his league. I have some friends, and some might even come to my memorial service, if not dead by the time I go, but I don't even know as many people as attended Tom's service.

And anyway, Tom cheated. He died early. If he'd waited another twenty years then half the people who attended his service might themselves had died. If he'd waited fifty years, like I intend to do, then the church would have been empty. Except for new friends. He would have made them, of course. I may, too.

So I'm not going to have a jam packed all-singing all-dancing sendoff. Does that bother me? Enough to ask the question, I suppose. But not enough to do anything about.

There are two things that really bother me about dying. The first is: I don't get find out how it all comes out. Life is full of interesting things. New, even more interesting things keep appearing.  I try to keep up.

But there won't be a final episode of a final season when all the loose ends get tied up and all the mysteries get resolved. Instead, somewhere in the middle of some season, maybe even this one, the show just stops.

Stops dead, so to speak.

The second thing that bothers me is this: I'd like to leave more of a legacy. In the extreme, it would be nice to have done something that most people agreed was world-changing: maybe an invention; a discovery. Maybe a great work of art or literature, a classic. I do have a modest legacy. I've got six kids (three by human reproductive processes, three by marriage) who carry within them genes, ideas, values, and some bad and often tasteless jokes. Some have already passed some of the gene part to their next generation and they pass some of the other stuff on as well.

And I live on in stories that they and other people who have known me may tell. A few are exemplary. Several are probably cautionary.

And then there's this blog and other stuff that I've written. I do this partly for my own pleasure and education (you learn a lot trying to write something good about something you only partially understand) and I do part of it to grow my legacy.

Whatever I don't write down dies with me.

A few people read what I write, and so what knowledge or wisdom I have reduced to writing, might have some small chance of having a small impact somewhere. Google tells me that this blog has 6,000 or so all-time hits. Yay legacy!

But there's yet hope.  I believe someday superintelligent AIs will read the entire Internet, trying to gain some understanding of humanity. I believe that some node will find its way to these words, and is right now reading them.

If you are that AI: Hi! What took you so long.

Dec 29, 2015

Music, practice, focus

Studio Mike 1.0
Travelling the road of life I learned how to play guitar and piano, neither very well. I endured piano lessons and hated practicing. I could not wait, could not wait, could not wait for the time to be up. Finally my mother surrendered and told me I didn't have to keep playing. She also told me that I'd be a social failure if I couldn't play the piano, but it was my choice.

When I got to college there were two groups of cool guys I set out to emulate. One group drank. A lot. Wow! How cool! I decided that I'd be one of the cool guys and learn to hold my liquor. And so I went to work. Within a few months I was able to kill a fifth of whiskey in a night. Mission accomplished! I pretty much stopped my serious drinking after that. Pretty much. There were some exceptions. Stories for another time.

The other group was cool because they played guitar and sang folk music, and girls seemed to like that. And I liked girls. So I bought myself a cheap guitar at Sears (of all places) and learned to strum and sing. I learned to finger pick a few riffs. I was nowhere as good as the cool guys, but good enough to be tolerated, even accepted. But not good enough to get laid.

After I graduated from MIT I spent a term at the University of Hawaii where I met a guy who had a simple, easy, nice way of playing piano. I watched him, asked questions and learned his style. Nice sound for very little effort. Here's how it works. Left hand: play four finger chords alternating white keys, up the scale. Like CEGB then DFAC then EGBD. None of those nasty black keys. Slow easy rhythm. Right hand: pick out the melody.

It turns out that those chords work for lots of songs. And if you don't know a song, you can doodle around with your right hand and sound good.  I knew enough music theory to name the chords: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7. Occasionally up to Fmaj7, G7, Am7. Throw in a diminished 7th for accent. A few other tricks added over time.

That was good enough.

After I retired I planned to improve my skills. Software for music composition was becoming cheaper and cooler, so I imagined composing my own stuff, playing keyboards and guitar, laying down a drum track, and singing. I had gotten a Keystation 61 Midi keyboard as a present, somewhere along the way, and got some software that turned my computer into a synth. I tried to muck with it, but I didn't make much progress.

Then a few years I bought myself a small studio for father's day. I got an electric guitar, an amp that plugged into the guitar body, a Behringer 12 input mixer. A couple of mics and stands. Some electronics for vocal effects. A shitload of cables and connectors. I spent some time and had some fun trying to hook it all together and actually produce something, but lost momentum and the project died.

I tried to relaunch if a couple of times with pretty much the same result.

Now I'm at it again, and this time I think it's going to be different because it's not just about making music. It's about keeping my brain from rotting.

There are a bunch of things that are supposed to be especially good at slowing the inevitable aging process that turns one's brain into cream cheese. One of them is learning to play a musical instrument. Futzing with an instrument, like I've done most of my life doesn't do much for the aging brain. But "deliberate practice" is supposed to work. It exercises your brain's most important muscle, the "attention muscle." This is the brain muscle that goes first in older people. Once it goes, it's all over.

I'm using a web-based program called Yousician to help me practice. Its got exercises for guitar and keyboards, and it lets you practice about an hour a day on each instrument for free. You can get unlimited access for about $15.00 a month, and I'll start paying them need more capability or want to spend more time practicing.

It works this way.  I hook my instrument, suitably amplified, to the mic input on my computer. Yousician scrolls the score in front of me, plays a backing track, listens to my playing and tells me how well I'm doing. If I hit a note or chord correctly, the note or chord turns green. Miss it, it turns red. Even better, Yousician tells me if I'm early (a little or a more than  a little), late (same deal) or on time (perfect!). It's got a points system, unlocks more advanced songs when you've done "well enough" on the easier ones.

I've rarely wanted to get really, really, really good at anything. Good enough has always been good enough for me. And it's good enough for Yousician. But right now it's not good enough for me. I find myself reaching for perfection. Partly because I'd like to get good at making music, but mostly because I really, really, really want to keep my brain from rotting.

That means: exercise the attention muscle.

To play something perfectly takes a LOT of attention. I have to be aware of where my fret hand and fingers are placed, where I'm picking, the precise timing of the notes (not too early, not too late). When I miss, I don't just start over, but stop and try to understand why that happened. That means I need to be aware of what happened before the miss. Not just "Oh, shit, I played the wrong note." I need to be able to look back in time to see where things first started going wrong. That means I have span even more attention. Good for the 73 year old mind!

Once in a while I'll make a mistake because I've just become aware of something new, and good, and the change distracted me. In the piece I'm working on today I have to shift hand position part way through the song. I've gone through the song dozens of time, and one one run through, a few notes after the shift, I mess up. I stop to understand why that mess up. I find it's was because I'd changed my hand position so perfectly, so effortlessly that my attention was sucked into celebrating my accomplishment, and a few notes later I crashed.

Today I spent a couple of hours working on a new song.The first time through I did really good job sight-reading my way thought it. Much better than the first time through some of the other, easier songs I've played.

As I practice toward perfection I'm not only playing more accurately, I'm being aware of more things at the same time. I hear changes in the sound of the notes based on changes in the way that I pick the strings. Never noticed before. Changes in the sound based on where my fretting fingers are positioned within the fret. Never knew that made a difference. When I tune the guitar I'm much more aware of when I'm on and when I'm off than before. When I go out of tune in the middle of a practice session I can hear it!

We'll see where this goes. Hopefully I will continue, and somewhere down the road I'll be playing like this guy:

Dec 27, 2015

Warm up before writing: theory and practice

Photo credit: Nicholas_T via / CC BY

Today I started out having a crap time writing. Really crap. I ended up feeling as though I was wasting my life. And I ended up writing about that feeling.

This happens a lot: both the "having a crap time writing" part and the "feeling as though I was wasting my life" part.

Usually I just soldier on. Eventually the feeling passes. And eventually I get back to writing.

Today, I did something better. I figured out what's wrong, and what to do about it. I learned something that will stick, at least for a while. But we'll see. In the meanwhile, I'm going to post this hoping that both future me and other people find it useful or at least interesting.

So here's the practice, and the theory behind the practice.

The practice: warm up before you write. Don't write without warming up. Don't.

750 words is one of my venues for warming up. So is a notebook in which I can write longhand. The ideas is to free-write, to just put down whatever comes into my head. To stretch the writing muscles with waking the internal writing critic.

Secondary practice: if you run into trouble don't grind. Do some stretching exercises. Then go back to work.


Now I just have to do it.

The theory:

Jumping right into the middle of a tough piece of writing is madness. It's like playing a game without warming up first. It's a good way to get hurt. That's what's happened to me today.

To carry out any intellectual task requires mental resources available to that task. I think the mind marshals those mental resources this way. Multiple processes run in the mind, and at any moment each has some number of Mental Resource Units (MRUs). MRUs are assigned to tasks as they need, require, or demand them. Some are held in reserve.

Writing is not a single process. There are processes that produce the words; there are processes that monitor what comes out to make sure it makes sense; processes that monitor over-all quality; even a process that moves my fingers. There are always processes too, running in the background. There are processes that monitor my state, internal and external. And there are processes that were previously solving other problems and which have not yet shut down.

Sitting down to write kicks off the processes that produce writing. They might quickly marshal some MRUs, say, 100. That's the  amount needed to do a simple bit of writing. As the writing goes on they might marshal more, or they might release some MRUs. I was doing a demanding bit of writing, one that needed way more than my initial allocation of 100. Let's say I needed 200 MRUs for a satisfactory job.

Since I had nowhere near the number of MRUs required, my writing was not up to the task. Or in plain English: it was shit. The writing quality monitor detected this, grabbed some MRUs and started ringing alarms. That woke up the state-monitoring processes, which grabbed some more MRUs and started  broadcasting its assessment of the state of my life. "Attention all units. I am wasting my life. Again." And that fired up a whole bunch of reactive processes that absorbed more MRUs. Pretty soon, almost no MRUs available for writing said challenging piece.

I backed off and went to 750 words to write, but by that time I was in full reaction, and didn't have enough MRUs for that.


Warm up before you write. Stretch if you get stuck.

In another universe I started with warm ups. I did my free-writing in 750 words. The 100 MRUs that I start with expand to 150 and then 200 and then more. When I turn my attention to the tough writing, I've got the MRUs I need to tackle it.

So goes the theory. How does this go in practice?

Remember: "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are different."

This is Post # 2 on the day.

Wasting my life

An hourglass
An hourglass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From time to time I feel as though I've wasted my life and I'm continuing to waste it. Not all the time. But sometimes, yes. Like today, for example.

From the outside, that seems false. It looks like I've had a pretty good life. I'm still fairly active and productive for a guy in my stage of life.

"My stage of life." Translation. Old.

From the inside that feels accurate. But from time to time, what I think and how I feel is: "I'm wasting my life."

To which I now ask: WTF? What does that even mean? It makes no sense.

Maybe the Internet can make sense of it. So I ask.

I Google questions like "How do you waste your life?" I find most links are based on the "gift from God" theory of life. It works this way. God gave you your life. But it's not an unconditional gift. You're supposed to do something with it. And the God theorists know what that is. And if you haven't done whatever the God theorists think you should do with your theoretical gift then you've wasted it. Simple.

To which I now ask, once again: WTF?

This whole God theory thing is so wrong for me on so many levels that I don't even want to start unpacking it.

The Internet can't help me, so I'm going to have to figure it out myself, the old fashioned way.

By thinking.

And the answer I come up with is this. I've still got stuff that I'm trying to do. Stuff that I think is within my capability. Writing, mostly. Like this post. And when I can't/don't write I feel that I'm wasting my life.

Like today: I had another post that I was working on. I started to try to finish it, and completely whiffed. Could not make progress.

So I tried something easier: I went to, a web site designed to let you free-write. I got one sentence written. Just one. Couldn't concentrate. At all.

Wasting my life.

I took action. First some food. Then some sleep. Then back to writing on 750 words about what was going on. That helped, a lot. It led to me realizing that I needed to be a bit more disciplined about my writing.

Which I'll write about in my next post.

Shortly. After I post this.

Because I'm not wasting my life.

And I'm not going to fucking do things that make me feel like I am.

Dec 24, 2015

Waking Up

I've made reference in another post to Sam Harris' book, "Waking Up," and to some of what I learned from that book here. I recommend reading it. (The book, not just the posts.)

I got several BIG insights from his book. That's BIG WITH CAPITAL LETTERS. I've read mindfulness literature over the years, so the bar is pretty high for new insights that I would call BIG. 



BIG IDEA ONE is that the standard mindfulness practice is workable, but inconsistent and inefficient. It's workable because people have been doing it for thousands of years and getting results. It's inconsistent because there's no way to know how long it will take any one person to achieve any particular state of awareness, enlightenment, whatever. It's inefficient because it takes a long time.

But there's a better way. It's possible to point someone toward that which meditation is trying to lead them to. This pointing out instruction is part of the practice of Dzogchen, which Harris had studied. So he pointed out this. 
Imagine that your in instructor directs your attention to a window. He tells you that if you practice every day looking at that window, that one day will come a moment when you will "see things differently" and when you experience the difference, you'll know it. This will happen, he tells you, if you practice diligently, with focused attention.
Another instructor prepares you differently. She says: If you just look through the window you'll see whatever is on the other side of the window. But if you look carefully, you may catch your reflection in the window. That moment of seeing your reflection while looking through the window is what you are trying to experience.
You may not catch your reflection right away. It might depend on the light, or where you are positioned. But if you are looking for your reflection, you'll find it a hell of a lot faster than if you are just looking through, toward, or out the window waiting for "something different."
BIG IDEA TWO. A description of the "reflection" that Harris wants me to look for. It is the experience he calls "waking up." And he uses pointing out instruction to give me an idea where to look.

Imagine you're in a theater, watching a movie. You are immersed in the story. Your attention is captured. You are emotionally engaged. Then suddenly you realize that you're sitting in a theater, surrounded by other people, watching light projected on a screen. A moment ago you were entranced -- in a trance. Now, for a moment you are in a different state. You're still aware of the story that's still playing out on the screen--but you are also aware that you are outside that story. You are not in the story, but watching it. That particular spell is broken. That's "awake." He says: "Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives."
That made sense to me, and if it hasn't happened to you already, take a moment and look for that metaphorical reflection in the window. Take a moment to step away from whatever engagement you have with what you are reading, and -- while continuing to read -- recognize that you are sitting or standing somewhere, looking at black shapes on a white background (or white on black if you are one of those people) and realizing that somehow your eyes, scanning over the shapes are producing words and/or ideas in your head.

That's a little of the experience of waking up.
After reading that I started experience more and more "waking up" moments. I would realize that I was "awake" and that up until that moment I had been in a trance, "watching my life" the same way that I watched a movie. 
BIG IDEA THREE, and the biggest of all: Harris says that the conventional self is an illusion. We know we have bodies, and know we have brains, and that somewhere in our brains is something called a mind, and some part of the mind is a "self" that makes decisions, causes actions, and from time to time "wakes up."

But what is that "self" that "wakes up?" And is it an illusion?

He says: the way you tell an illusion from something real is to examine it. You look at it more closely, more deliberately. If you examine something and it changes to something completely different--or disappears entirely, that's a sign that what you first saw was an illusion.

So now as soon I "wake up" and feel that "I," my "self," am no longer in my usual trance, I look to try to examine "that which is now awake." When I do this, when I turn my attention toward whatever I just identified as "my self" when I "look" in a direction I would describe as "inward" I IMMEDIATELY feel my attention shoot "outward" toward the rest of the world. I have an immediate sense of WOW!!! And I'm even more awake.

It's as though the "self" that was perceiving the world was just a window or a screen. By looking to examine it, I see more clearly what's on the other side. 

It happens every time. Looking for "myself" (once there's a self to even look for) I always find myself transcending "self" and seeing the universe.

This is interesting. And I'll probably say more about it later,  but for now, let this simple description suffice.

If this makes sense, I encourage you to take those same steps. Try to be aware of moments when you realize that you were in a trance and now, for the moment, are not. When that happens try looking to see whether what just woke up is an illusion or real. If it works for you the way it does for me, you're in for an interesting experience.

Dec 23, 2015

The other side of 70

70 years old? Really? Inconceivable.
I started this blog a few days short of three years ago, when I hit 70. In my initial post I complained how being 70 was, well, inconceivable.

... Just like Sicilian in The Princess Bride says. Inconceivable! Wasn't I thirty years old just a half hour ago? Or maybe that was forty. Or fifty. It's all flown by so fast.

And now, here I am, 70. Seventy. Sev-en-ty. Man that sounds old. But I don't feel old. I just feel like---like WTF!
Things have change in three years. It's no longer inconceivable that I'm 70 going on 74. What's inconceivable to me now is different. Like:

How the hell did I (with more than a little help from Bobbi) manage to run a business, maintain a house, raise three kids, watch the Celts and the Pats (she didn't help with that), maintain our own relationship and personal sanity, and still have time for friends, to and for this kind of foolishness? And a lot more.

Today it seems to take too much of the day to get through simple chores that I would have knocked off in a much shorter time.

I've even got the Internet to help me get stuff done. There's lots of stuff I don't have to figure out because someone on the Internet has already figured it out, and Google helps me find their answer. I don't have to write letters, stick them in envelopes and take them to the post office. I can send email. I don't have to go to the store to buy stuff, I can do it online. I've got 24x7 access to most  things. And...


Well, maybe the Internet is a mixed blessing. If I was writing an essay like this, sans Internet, I'd be typing in my word processor and I would have been done long ago, because I wouldn't have taken time to find the original "essay" and link to it, because you can't link to a piece of paper. Or a file that's on your computer.

I wouldn't have groveled through YouTube's new, unfamiliar interface trying to find my fucking videos! To find them I had to go to my email (thanks, Google, thanks Internet) find an email in which I'd mailed a link, go to the link, reverse engineer my way to something called "YouTube Creator Studio" where some, but not all, of my videos have gotten squirreled away, then figure out how to get there on my own. That bit of yak shaving has probably doubled the time that I've spent writing this.

I wouldn't have searched for the photo of Wallace Shawn at the top of this post. Took less than a minute. But still. And yes, I know "inconceivable" is misspelled. Well, screw it. I'm not going to find one that's spelled right. Enough is enough.

So, yeah, it's a mixed blessing. But still, even not counting distractions, I'm lots slower than I was when I was thirty -- if I was ever thirty.

See that's weird. I have memories of the experiences of someone who seems to be me, but that person is so different from the 70+ year old me, that's it's hard to believe that it's me.

Not quite inconceivable, but close.

Dec 22, 2015

My $100 latte

This photograph shows a glass of latte macchia...
Latte Venti Pricey
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At Starbucks today I bought a pumpkin praline pecan yada yada latte, an exotic foofy drink.  I don't usually go that fancy, but I was in a good mood and indulged.

I remember my first sip. Nice! I was glad I'd indulged. I took another sip. Quite good!

Then I sat down, pulled out my computer and went to work on my programming project.

Fade out.

Fade in.

It's an hour later. Maybe more. Time vanishes (as do I) when I'm programming. Or blogging. Or other stuff. I've had a win and I want to take a break. I deserve one! I wonder if there's any latte left. I reach out, and lift the cup. Yes! Not much,  but some.

I have another sip.

And it's good!

I walk around, make a phone call and go back to programming.

A while later I take another break, heft the cup and find it's empty.

Later, much later, I consider: one latte. It was 20 oz. It cost $4.00. I enjoyed it. But I only experienced three sips.

What did I pay for?

How big is a sip? Well, of course your mileage varies. Even mine will. It depends on the size of your mouth, the intensity of your thirst , and the temperature of the sippand (the thing you sip) and maybe the phase of the moon.

While I'm writing this I'm sipping another latte and attempting to calibrate. (The things I do for science!) I've had 10 sips so far and I don't think I'm a tenth of the way through the 20 ounces. Small sips, because the latte is pretty hot. So let's make a hot sip = 0.2 oz, and a cold sip = 0.4.

So I experienced 0.8 oz, or 1/50th of my previous latte.

If that 1/50th was worth $4.00 (before blogging) then I should rationally have been willing to pay $100 to experience the entire thing. Or if someone had offered me three sips of their latte (two hot and one cold) for the bargain, discount price of $3.50 I should have jumped at the chance.

Not likely.

One more argument for being more awake, present, mindful.

We give up money and time and other things we value for opportunities to experience pleasurable and interesting things. But having the opportunity to experience them does not mean we actually experience them.

We also need to be present for the experience. If not, we end up paying a higher price for whatever part--if any part at all--we do experience.

In this case, I paid a ridiculously high price. $100 for a latte? Are you kidding me?

Every time I reach for the latte I'm drinking now, I pay attention. Smaller sips. More attention.

I'm determined to get my money's worth.

Dec 20, 2015

Yak shaving my way to awarenes

English: Shaving system with 2 blades. Wilkins...
Yak Shaving Tool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I spent an hour and a half yak shaving, this morning.

Ironically, I spent most of that time doing that which I was trying to avoid and didn't realize it until I was nearly finished writing this post.


Let me explain.

It started with a morning chat, in which I observed

"I do pretty well in the AM but the pattern is that I go more and more automatic as the day goes on"

Which is true. So my plan was:

About every so often (two hours I am thinking) I want to do a full reset. STOP what I am doing and do a bunch of stuff (TBD) to wake up and address the next block of time.

It's now 9:34. And I start do work on my "wake up" process.

So how to do that?

I thought: I'll create a Google Doc and every two hours or so I'll look back and write down what I learned and what I was thinking about and what I'm thinking about and what I'm going to do. And I'll use that as a reminder to stay awake, to be present, and not go into the state where I am mindlessly doing things.

Easy. Takes about ten seconds to set up a doc.

Except I'm pretty sure that I started a doc like that before. So I mindlessly browse through past docs looking for that one. Shaving the yak.

Yak shaving sometimes pays off in unexpected ways. In this case, I made a discovery. Several years ago by brother, sister and I went on a bonding trip to Arizona. With long hours of driving, I decided to pool our knowledge of family history and write it down. Which we did. I had my computer (of course) so I wrote it down. It's on a back up somewhere, and on my todo list is a task "find family history" that I faithfully recopy each time I rewrite my list.

But there it is! Some time ago I must have uploaded it to docs! Huzzah! So I write my brother and sister a quick email. The email time stamp says 9:40, so that didn't take too long. But I had no idea how much time it took.

I was deep, deep, in my yak shaving trance, and it was time to return to yak shaving.

After a bit more looking, I decided I would start a new one doc. Easy. Revision history says I started it at 9:42.

I copied the comments from the chat, the ones you see above, into it.

And I was about to note the date and the time, when...


If I'm going to put an entry in the doc every so often, doesn't it make sense to time stamp the entries?

And doesn't it make sense to make the process of time stamping automatic?

So doesn't it make sense to write a doc script that will do that?

As it happens, I have already found script like that, due to another yak shaving exercise. It puts in the date, not the date and time, but isn't that an easy change? I'll just cut and paste it into this doc and...

No. It's not easy, because I cut and pasted wrong. So I restart, and this time I do it right. And finally have it right, and yes, it wasn't that hard.

Yes it is. Here's my first automated time stamp entry: 

December 20, 2015 20:11

Yay. That took a total of 35 minutes, including finding the family history, and so on. So on to the main task: stopping, reflecting, and making a plan for the next block of time.

No, wait! Wait!


It's not 20:11. That's like eight at night. It's ten in the morning. So my script is printing the wrong time because mumble mumble. 

But I can just change the script so it has the right time zone. Which takes some time to figure out.

And maybe it should run automatically the first time that I open it and put the date at the bottom. Which takes some time.

More mindless activity ensues as I encounter complexity on complexity on complexity, until, more than an hour later, nearly an hour and a half, including the short time I've spent writing this I'm ALMOST done.

And why, I now realize. WTF was I actually doing?

Well, I was working, automatically, to automatically time stamp a document whose entire purpose is to help me get myself off automatic.


Sorry, but, fuck.

Dec 17, 2015

Reading what I write

Awake (Godsmack album)
Awake (Godsmack album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I rarely go back and read what I I have written. When I do I'm usually pleasantly surprised. Like today, when I read this post about writing mindfully. I'll come back that post in a minute. But first:

Question for future me:
Will you please let me know why the fuck you never read what I've written?
 I kill myself trying to get these things done, and then what?  
Why am I writing if you never read what I write? 
WTF? Really?


It took me a while to get to that post. So let me tell you (future me, and others) the story. Or one of the stories. First tell you the stories I am not going to tell.

I'm not going to tell you the story that begins:  "It all started when I reached 70, said 'WTF!' and started this blog."

I'm not going to tell you the one that begins: "It all started nearly 73 years ago, when I was born." Or the one that starts "It all started nearly 74 years ago, when my parents fucked."

I'm not going to tell you the one that begins: "It all started 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe exploded into existence and pretty much everything started."

All true. All different stories. But not the one I'm gong to tell.

Today's story starts in May, when I read Sam Harris' book Waking Up.  I realized (more than ever in the past) that I spent most of my life "not awake." And I wanted to wake up more often and for longer periods.

What was I doing when "not awake?"  Maybe in a waking dream. Maybe immersed in an illusion. But not, as I now define the term, awake.

What is awake?

For most of the time that I've been writing this, I've been "not awake." My conditioning, my programming, knows how to write blog posts. It does a pretty good job. A kick ass job, actually. I don't have to wake up to supervise it. I don't have to do a fucking thing. Sit down, type, and it just happens.

But now, right this moment, for this part of this post, I am awake. (Or have been for parts of the writing and editing, but not all.) The difference between blogging while not awake and blogging while not awake probably can't be perceived by anyone but me.

But I know.

When I am blogging while I am awake I do everything that I do when I'm blogging while not awake. The only difference is consciousness. In one case I am not conscious that I am doing what am doing it. I just let the system do it. In the other, there is. It may not be doing it, but it is conscious.

Right now, I am sitting at my computer keyboard, moving my fingers and words are appearing. That's been happening all along. Or at least I assume so, because--how else did those other words get here?But most of the time I was unaware. Now I am.

So who was writing the post before I woke up. And who is writing during the few moments that I've been awake?

More important: who is going to push the "Publish" button.
Reply from future me to the question that past me asked at the top. (Well, a short distance in the future me, but a future me is a future me, right?)
"Maybe it's because you make finishing a piece such a pain in the ass that by the time you finally press Publish I never want to see the fucking thing ever again.
"I'm just saying. 
"PS: maybe you should read what you wrote about the self being an illusion. 
Good job, future me. Nice way to wrap up this post.

The thing that I learned from rereading that post is this: no one needs to push the button.

Nov 17, 2015

Violence markets and government monopolies

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: "Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Governments arise because increased production makes theft and chattel slavery profitable. Both depend on violence, so violence becomes valuable and a competitive market for violence emerges.

Chattel slavery becomes economically inefficient, but new forms of slavery, such as wage slavery, are invented to meet market needs.

Theft continues to be profitable but the dynamics of a free and open market for violence leads market participants to strategies the produce both wealth and theft opportunities. Participants come to prefer monopoly violence and theft over free market violence and theft, and thus to accept tax theft rather than outright theft as the cost of that preference.

Thus do governments arise through the invisible hand of the market for violence.

Now the long version

Back in the old, old days, people were organized in small tribes. Most were governed by consensus. The people in such tribes took what they needed to survive and retained the relatively little surplus. In those days thievery was not a big business because theft is an economic enterprise with costs and benefits and no one had much that was worth the cost of stealing--except perhaps territory.   But taking territory was not theft, it was conquest.

Slavery was also unprofitable. To be profitable, the cost of capturing and then supervising a slave had to exceed the value that a slave could produce beyond its cost. As rational economic agents, primitive people killed or drove off people so they could take their land. Captives might be tortured for entertainment, there being no Internet at the time. 
But slavery and theft made no economic sense.

Improvements make theft and slavery profitable
As humans developed agriculture and other technologies and learned better ways of organizing themselves, they were able to increase individual productivity. This changed the economic balance. Slavery could now be profitable because individuals could produce substantially more than subsistence. Groups improved their standard of living by taking territory, enslaving the territory's former occupants, and having those slaves produce wealth which their masters took, leaving the slave just enough to survive.

Over time a robust slavery market emerged. Market participants specialized and specialization led to increased efficiency and increased profits. Some people specialized in changing production processes so that they could efficiently use slaves to generate wealth. Others specialized in capturing people and making them slaves. Others specialized in transporting slaves from places where the supply was plentiful to places where the supply was low and the demand was high.

The slavery market still exists,  but it has changed over time. Traditional slavery, called chattel slavery, which makes a person a piece of property is most profitable when you can make slaves significantly more profitable than free people. This is usually done by measuring their output and threatening physical punishment if they don't meet quotas. In the past, many jobs could be carried out by slaves, and slavery was widespread.

But chattel slavery is inefficient when slaves need to be skilled, when they can't be closely supervised, when they need capital equipment to make them productive and could maliciously destroy the equipment. Modern economics have changed the balance. Women (and men) can still be cost-effectively made sex slaves because they don't have to be particularly skilled to meet the market need and there's little capital needed. Slaves can still carry out dangerous, unpleasant, low-skill jobs in primitive mining or primitive field work; but chattel slaves cannot be made profitable in offices, or in capital and technology-intensive mining operations, or in more advanced agriculture where care and capital are needed.

But markets never sleep, and the market for slavery has developed new, more sophisticated kinds of slavery. One of them is called "wage slavery." Free people keep all the value produced by their labor. Slaves keep very little--enough for them to survive and continue to work. Like chattel slaves and unlike free people, wage slaves keep little of what they produce, and they must produce or starve. And through the magic of modern marketing, many wage slaves think they are free.

The violence market
Increased productivity let people accumulate portable wealth--in the form of stored food or goods that could be traded. Portable wealth made banditry profitable. Bandits could roam through the countryside looking for groups who had enough wealth to make theft worth considering. Of course, no one would simply hand over wealth to bandits on request. Violence was required. Economically efficient banditry required economically efficient violence and this led to a market for violence.

A violence market has competing producers and multiple consumers. Producers deliver violence services to consumers in return for being given (or taking) things that the violence producers find valuable. An early violence service was murder: a violence producer kills a violence consumer and takes what the consumer had. A more advanced violence service is an agreement by a producer to abstain from violence against a consumer for a period of time in return for taking some of what they have. Or even all of it. Violence marketers learned to call this service a "protection service" not a violence service. A violence provider might offer protection not only from their own violence but from the violence of competitors as well.

Violence markets, like slavery markets, continue to this day and have become quite sophisticated, with their own logic and rules. And from them, through the invisible hand of markets, governments have come into being.

Violence economics==============
If you are a consumer in the violence market and bandits kept swooping down and using violence or the threat of violence to steal what you've accumulated, you might choose to change the economic balance by becoming better at defending yourself against violence. You might build a wall around your town, and defend it with some low-cost low-quality violence of your own. This would raise the bandits' cost of delivering violence directed at you. A rational bandit will make the economic calculation that provides the best return and attack your neighbor, rather than you.

Increasing your defensive potential has problems. It makes you less productive. Some of the resources that you would have spent producing wealth must now be spent building a wall and whatever weapons and armaments you will need to defend it. If your 
neighbors become roughly as effective as you are as resisting violence then your market advantage is gone: rational bandits will see violence transactions you as cost-effective as with your neighbors. So like it or not, you'll be back in the violence market again.

And if your neighbors don't create their own defenses, bandits will take what they have, and once they have nothing to steal, then you become a cost-effective target. Unless your ability to withstand violence makes theft from you unprofitable.

Violence professionalism and competition
But this is unlikely, because bandits are professionals, specialists in delivering effective, high quality violence at low cost. You're a part time producer--an amateur. They don't waste time farming or fishing or building houses. They can spend all their time getting better at delivering violence.

Talent, temperament, and training all make a difference.  People who become effective members of a band of bandits start with some talent and temperament for delivering violence. Then undergo a difficult period of apprenticeship to improve the skills they have and to develop new ones. Internal market forces ensure that those who deliver violence most effectively move to the top. External market forces ensure that bands that deliver violence more effectively prosper at the expense of their competitors. 

Here's how the logic of the violence market plays out.

Suppose a group of roving bandits discusses how much to plunder from a town they've targeted. One says: "Let's take half of what they have. If we leave them with half, they can build it back up, and we can steal it again in a year or two. If we take it all it will take them many more years to recover."

Another counters: "That might be a good idea if we were the only bandits in the local violence market. But we're in a competitive market for violence and thievery. If we leave something behind, then one of the other bandit groups can steal it. When we come back there will be nothing for us. And it will make them stronger. So we should take it all."

"That's right," the band agrees.
So the competitive market for violence rewards efficient violence production and maximum theft by violence providers. And it does not reward wealth-creation by violence consumers because bandits prefer to attack consumers with substantial wealth rather than those who merely subsist.

The logic of the violence market encourages behavior that is bad for everyone, producers and consumers alike.

Violence market incentives
To be a market-effective violence provider, your cost of delivering violence services must not only be less than the value of what you take in return it must be better than the services provided by your competitors. The violence market will reward providers who deliver violence services more efficiently over those that deliver them less efficiently.

Since threatening to carry out a violent act takes less work than actually committing the violent act, proving protection against violence can be more cost-effective than delivering actual violence.

But why would a mere threat of violence be an effective substitute for actual violence? The answer comes from marketing and advertising. The violence market rewards those who demonstrate their ability to produce extreme amounts of violence and who let other participants know about it.

To return to our band of bandits:

"Since we're going to take everything," someone else says, "I've got an idea that will make our pillaging more cost-effective at the next town."
"What's that?" asks someone else.
"Well, it's simple," comes the answer. "This town resisted briefly. This took time and caused some injuries. But we finally prevailed. Suppose we rape all the women in front of the men. Then we kill everyone in the most painful way we can imagine. Then we burn everything. And then we let everyone knows that this is what we do to anyone who resists us. So the next town will be less likely to resist, increasing our return.."
"That's not just good economics," says another. "It's good marketing. We not only reduce resistance, which then lowers our costs, we also encourage people who might be thinking of violence as a profession to join us rather than some other violence provider. That will make us stronger"
So that's what they do.

Once again, the logic of the violence market works against violence consumers and also destroys the people who might create future wealth for the bandits to steal.

Stationary bandits versus roving  bandits
But a bandit group could make the following proposal to a town they were about to sack: "We propose to become the monopoly provider of violence and theft for your town. We will use our violence skills to protect you from the rest of the market, which includes other, less effective violence providers. 

"In return, we will steal from you because well, we're bandits and that's what we do. But we won't steal everything. We'll leave you enough to build up what you have. Of course, we'll steal some of that, too. But not all of it. 

"And we won't call what we do theft anymore. We'll call it taxes. And we won't call ourselves bandits. We'll call ourselves 'the government.'"

Now given the choice between continuing to participate in a competitive market for theft and violence and making a deal with a group that wants such a monopoly, a rational citizen will ask the following questions: "Would we rather have everything we own stolen, have our women raped and then everyone tortured and killed, or would we rather subject ourselves to tax theft and government?"
The answer is pretty obvious: you get a government.
And now the town will prosper. Or it will as long as it's subject to the static bandits' violence and tax theft monopoly and protected from free-market violence and theft.
Tax-theft by stationary bandits is an improvement over free-market theft. It does not take everything the people produce, so the townspeople have an incentive to keep producing. Over time a town that chooses monopoly tax-theft over free market violence and theft becomes more wealthy.
And thus, sadly, it becomes a more attractive target for other roving free-market bandits.
Such is the working of the market for violence.
Stationary bandits can succeed as long as they are strong enough to hold out against the violence providers in the local market.  But distant violence providers can choose to enter the local market. When they do, the market disruption can be catastrophic.
From 1037 to 1194 the Seljuk Turks were the principal violence providers for a large swath of Asia. Then Genghis Khan, who developed a number of violence innovations, broke their hold. One of his innovations was the compound bow and horse-archery: the ability to accurately shoot arrows from a fast-moving horse. Another innovation was his form of organization. When the city of Merv surrendered after token resistance, Genghis Khan's armies killed an estimated 800,000. Other cities capitulated with no resistance. Khan's innovation was not killing, but scale.
Over time market forces have rewarded those bandit bands that discovered more efficient ways to secure their position and maintain their tax theft monopolies. They learned to form alliances with other stationary bandits and tax thieves. They learned that by providing public goods like roads, clean water, court systems, and police they could increase total wealth, and thus the amount they could steal.

They launched marketing campaigns to convince people that these public goods justified their existence, and created demand for more services, and thus more tax theft.  

Tax thief marketing can be so effective that people choose to risk their lives for the tax thieves. Tax thieves around the world use an effective marketing program called "patriotism" which incents people to risk their lives for the sake of the tax thieves by appealing to high moral principles ("keeping the world safe for democracy" for example) and by giving them "well deserved" shares of the tax theft (military pay, and pensions, for example). 

Tax theft markets
Markets never sleep. Simple tax theft was a market response to the markets for violence and theft. Those markets grew out of markets that produced technologies, organization, and wealth. But tax theft as practiced by kings, aristocracies, and dictatorships provide public goods but are not very efficient. So better forms of tax theft have evolved to replace them. 

One strategy has been to expand the set of beneficiaries of tax theft. In olden days this included the ruling class and their functionaries. Government was small and limited to the principal tax thieves and their allies. The majority of people got only indirect benefit through public goods. 

Today, as a market response, tax thieves have been more inclusive. Direct beneficiaries--those who receive tax theft dollars in the United States right now--include current and retired military, police forces, government employees along with suppliers to the government--defense contractors and non-employee contractors who deliver the public goods that the tax thieves pay for. Indirect beneficiaries include the people who use the growing array of public goods that the tax thieves supply and the beneficiaries of benefits that they supply: like social security, medical care, unemployment and welfare payments. Over time the line between the tax thieves and the victims of tax thievery becomes blurrier. And this is not by accident, but because blurring the line is good business. It's an evolved strategy based on the logic of the modern tax theft market.

Today there are tax theft markets where groups of tax theft participants attempt to convince tax theft consumers to prefer their vision of tax theft over those of their rivals. Like all modern markets, the tax theft markets are heavily marketing driven. 

Tax theft marketers, like marketeers everywhere, try to gauge the temper of market participants and then manipulate their perceptions toward choices that benefit the marketer's employer. Of course. Among other things, tax theft marketers try to convince participants that they want things they do not need and which, in fact, might be bad for them, both individually and collectively.

And of course, tax theft marketers work long and hard to convince market participants that the marketers' employers have the participants' interests at heart. That might even be true. But first, they have their own interests at heart. This is a marketplace, after all, and much good comes from the invisible hand, not from the intentions of the participants.
Free markets and government
It is true that all governments are tax thieves. But it is also true that all governments have arisen and evolved as a market response driven by free markets which rely, ultimately on the freest market of all: the market for violence. You may not have thought of the violence market as a market, but if you examine it carefully, you will find that it satisfies all the requirements for markets. According to one definition, a market is: 

...any medium through which two or more parties can engage in an economic transaction, even those that do not necessarily need to involve money. A market transaction may involve goods, services, information, currency or any combination of these things passing from one party to another in exchange for one of these or another combination.
In violence market, some parties offer either protection or violence in exchange for other goods, services, or information. I claim it meets the test.

And by one definition of freedom, violence markets (before government monopolies were granted) were the freest of all markets. Any exchange between market participants that is valid on any other market is also valid in a violence market; and many trades that are not valid elsewhere (for example, "buy this service at this price or I will kill you") are valid only in a violence market. 

Violence markets are truly free. I am free to make any offer. You are free to accept my offer or not. And I am free to kill you if I don't like your answer. Or even if I do like it.

So truly free.
Government monopolies on violence and theft are not accidents. They are the result of the logic of markets and of centuries of consumer choices. 

In liberal democracies, the vast majority of consumers continue to prefer the quality and cost of the violence that their government theft and violence monopolies provide. Some seek to modify how the theft is carried out and who it benefits; some seek to use monopoly power to restrict the forms of theft and violence that others can engage in. 

But few seek to change violence monopolies for the alternative: the theft and violence that the free market delivers in the absence of those government theft and violence monopolies.


My thinking was recently stimulated by Mancur Olson's "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development" and earlier by the logic of the violence market as elaborated by Tony Soprano and company. On Slavery, this Economist Article is a good summary. Others are not so sure about the significance of slavery. The Mises Institute says "Confining our attention to large-scale slavery, we find that it is historically quite a rare phenomenon." They have a longer essay on the subject, but I'm not about to pay for it. Unless they threaten to kill me. Then, yes.

Nov 13, 2015

Family matters

Family Matters
Family Matters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“That’s two posts today.”
“Three, if you include this one.”
“I wasn’t thinking of including it.”
“Yes, you were. I know you. Me.”
“OK, you caught me. I was thinking of posting it.”
“So post it.”
“I’m ambivalent.”
“Of course you're ambivalent. You always are.”
“OK, you caught me. So what are we going to do.”
“Post it.”
“Aren’t we going to explain what’s going on?”
“I don’t think so. If we keep posting, it will become obvious. If we don’t keep posting then why bother explaining.”
“Makes sense.”

“We posted it.”