Dec 30, 2016

Four years in, a retrospective, WTF

Four years in, it's 74 Years Old WTF.

I've published 215 posts. I've written 105 drafts, some of which are crap, I am sure, and some of which may just need a bit of work. Who knows. I write shit, and I don't come back to it. Rarely, anyway.

So I decided to review what I've written, I'm four posts in. It's not great, but it's not bad. And it reminds me of things that I've forgotten.

Some may be best forgotten. A few are worth resurrecting, remembering, and even embellishing. Like SANFU. That's my acronym for "Starting and Not Finishing Up." I wrote about it here. There are certainly others on the same topic, trying to get back into a regular, disciplined posting routine.

Here's what I said:

So I'm going to invent and apply a few anti-SANFU policies. First, I hereby threaten myself to publish utter crap and incomplete work unless I have something good and complete to publish. Really it ain't that hard to finish something. All I have to do is sit my ass in the chair and the words come. And it's not that hard to produce something decent. Decent stuff comes when I am not overly ambitious

So let me riff on that for a few moments, and then move on to other things.

I've just sat my ass in the chair. Some words have come. Others will come as I continue my retrospective.

And more will come as I connect one of my good habits, the 750words habit to my posting habit.

I've written about my 750 words habit several times. I've gotten back into it, and I'm on day 166 of my latest streak.

Some of what I've written has been pretty good. And some has been truly awful. So here are my instructions to Future Self: if you can't post anything else, post what you've written in your 750 words site.

That'll teach you.

Dec 23, 2016

More debugging

Seventeen days ago I had an insight. I wrote about it here. I decided to make an important and beneficial change in my life and break my conditioning.

And promptly forgot.

That was December 6.

That was 17 fucking days ago.

I forgot about it. Forgot that I had even written it, that's how deep my conditioning is.

Today I reinvented this wheel. For my future self's reference, the long form wheel-reinvention appears below.

The fact that I could have had what I thought was an important insight, decided to do something, and then completely forgotten about it is horrifying.

I've had moments of "awake" since then, but in not one of those moments did I remember my "awakened" intention work on debugging, and my intention to recondition myself.

Even more horrifying: I wrote a whole bunch of posts that day, almost nothing since, and didn't have enough sense to go back and see what I wrote.

I am going to try again.

It's clear my conditioning is much stronger than I realized. I need aids and help if I am going to break it.

So on a piece of paper I have written "Debug" to remind me.

I have written this post as penance.

I will enlist some friends in the effort.

And I will post some of my notable debugging insights.

For the record, I tried four times(!) to write a new post about debugging before I realized that I had written one before.

Here's the CFAR post that kicked this off the first time.

Below, my earlier attempts, all written without recollection of having been here 

(Don't bother reading. Historical interest, only)

I'm trying to develop a debugging mindset: when I see a bug, then if I'm not under time pressure, I fix it. Right then. Like right now: I'm writing this post, which is an interruption of another post because I ran into a bug and I wanted to document what I did.

And there's another bug, right there. What I wanted to do is simple: I want to document my debugging mindset and give an example. Instead I've sidetracked into explaining what I was doing, how it came about, etc. So let me start again.

I've decided to develop a debugging mindset about what I write and what I do. If I see a bug, and I'm not under time pressure, I want to stop, analyze what's going on, fix the problem, and move on.

A common bug is distraction. I'm doing something, and I veer off to something else and often don't come back to the original task until much later.

But underlying the distraction is lack of clear intention. I started this particular post with a vague intention: "Write something about debugging mindset." And, as you can see from the first draft (below) I started wandering pretty quickly.

To focus my intention I want to try doing this--for this post: start with a summary; define my terms. Give an example of the problem. State the solution.

So try three:

When I find myself doing something other than what I've set out to do, it's due to a bug in my cognitive processes. After all, it's my cognitive processes that are driving my behavior.

Usually, I ignore the bug. A better idea is to stop, fix the bug and move on.

Example: distraction. I'm writing something, and I get distracted. As soon as I realize I'm distracted, I need to flag it as a bug, figure out why I was distracted, and how to correct whatever is under that.

Example: I'm writing something and I want to check a reference. Usually I will unthinkingly do the research. Better is to slug a TK into the essay and do it later. If the reference is critical to what I am writing I may not be able do do that. I might have to take the process back a step.

Try 4:

I know my cognitive processes are buggy. Everyone's are. The thing is: am I looking to spot bugs? And when I spot one, what do I do?

Until now, my MO has been: occasionally spot bugs, but mostly, just keep going.

And when I spot a bug, I might ignore it and follow my flawed thinking, or I might hack my way around the bug and return to what I was doing.

Now I am going to actively look for bugs.

And when I find one I am going to analyze it, find the root (or as deep a root as I can find) and then fix that root.

Evidence of a bug, by my definition is: any time results don't match intention, that's evidence of a bug.

So I need to have a clear intention--otherwise what can I compare my results to?

I need to continually monitor my result versus that intention.

I've done that several times in earlier drafts of this post. The earlier versions are below.

The underlying poblem for several of these bugs is that I start writing without a clear enough idea of what I want to say, and perhaps who I am saying it to.

So for this one, I knew I wanted to say: "I am going to look for bugs and fix them when I find them, if I have time" To say that, I need to first define what I mean by bug.

So my plan is going to be (for the moment) to write things to different bugs

Dec 15, 2016

My unwitting conversation with an AI

Kismet, a robot with rudimentary social skills
Kismet, a robot with rudimentary social skills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today I got a phone call. Here's what happened, as best I can remember.

I pick up.

"Hello," I say.

"Hi Mike," comes a voice on the other end. It's a woman with a very pleasant phone voice. If you rated the last hundred strangers I've talked to on the phone, she'd come out way on top.

"You're as hard to get hold of as it is to get my kids to clean up their room," she continues.

I chuckle appropriately.

"I'm calling on behalf of the breast cancer association," she goes on and launches into a spiel. Something tips me off. Maybe she's a bit too smooth.

So I interrupt. "Wait a minute. Are you a real person? Or are you some kind of a robot."

I expect she's going to keep going. But she stops, in mid-spiel.

"Well," she says smoothly, "to ensure quality control, I am using prerecorded segments of speech. But there is a real live person on the call."

My brain freezes. Somewhere in my unconscious, I realize that I just asked a robot if it was a robot, and the robot understood my question and played the pre-recorded speech that explained and excused itself for being a robot. Or maybe a real live person was listening and switched from one pre-recorded segment to another. I don't know, but I'm inclined to believe that it was AI all the way.

"Sorry," I said, mind-numbed. "We don't respond to telephone solicitations of any kind."

"That's OK," the voice continued smoothly. "Just tell three of your friends something something." I hang up in a mild panic state.

Thirty seconds later, I wish I hadn't. I would have liked to explore whatever was on the other end of the phone. Would it have answered other questions? How would it have managed the transition to the "real person" if it had to? If I got to a real person, would it be the one with the awesome phone voice, monitoring twenty lines, and jumping in only when necessary? Or would it be someone who called herself Jane but had a think Indian accent, like so many Janes do.

This is the shape of things to come. Here's a computer system handling a one-on-one sales conversation. The repertoire for this conversation is pretty limited, and I outed it pretty quickly, but I'll bet that it takes a lot of people to the end of a conversation without them suspecting it's a computer, not a person.

And there are lots of jobs that don't require a lot more skill than that. Customer support, for example. It's all flow charted. A computer can follow a flow chart as well as a low-wage operator. Better, actually.

Every interaction provides information for improvement. Alternate speech segments can be A/B tested. The algorithm can match the voice of the "operator" to the profile of the client, based on information that they've scraped off the net. I got someone who sounded like a well-educated white woman. If I was black would I get a well educated black woman? If I was a woman, would I get a man? Or is a woman better? Which one did I respond to? Give more like that. Where does the conversation break down? Fix that segment. What question did someone ask for which there wasn't a pre-built sound bite? Build that bite.

The analysis can be done automatically. The system spits out the metrics. Coming up with a solution takes people, right now. But each solution scales across all campaigns and all domains. The AI gets better and better. The jobs that people do become less.

When the system can't deal with a situation, it temporizes while, in real time, a human being gets all the contextual information needed to fill a gap. The person fills the gap, speaking in their own voice. The result is parsed and synthesized in the "voice of the ideal operator for this customer." The repertoire grows larger.

And it's early days.

It's going to better.

On the other hand, if you're hoping that your interpersonal skills will keep you from being replaced by a computer, it's going to get a lot worse.

Dec 13, 2016

Universal understanding

I opened my eyes, and the universe appeared.
"Actually," said the universe, "I didn't appear. You created me."
"How did I do that?" I asked.
"You just did it," said the universe. "I don't know how. I just know what you said: you opened your eyes, and I appeared. That act brought me into existence."
"Huh?" I said. "You're saying that you didn't exist before that?"
"That's pretty much it," said the universe.
"I don't understand," I said, confused. "Can you explain how that can be?"
"No," said the universe. "Look, I'm just a universe, not a philosopher. Ontology is beyond me. I just know that I didn't exist until you opened your eyes and saw me. And I'm telling you what I know."
"But I remember the universe existing before I closed my eyes," I said. "What about that?"
"Different universe," the universe said.
"What about for him?" I asked, pointing to an old man sitting in the corner of the room I was in. "Did you exist for him before I opened my eyes?"
"No," said the universe. "He's also got a different universe. I'm your universe, now, not his. And not your universe, earlier."
"So you are saying that he and I are in different universes?" I asked.
"Of course," said the universe. "How could it be otherwise?"
"How could it be the way that you're saying? There's just one universe, isn't there."
"No," said the universe. "There's one universe for each observer. For all practical purposes, you can consider us the same universe. But we are not."
"Makes no sense," I said.
"Well, I'm sorry," said the universe. "It's the way it works. It's not my job to make sense of it. If it's anyone's job, it's yours."

Dec 7, 2016

Six phase meditation and reconditioning

I've tried meditation. And I hope one day I can do it. Evidence of the benefits is pretty clear. But there's a bootstrapping problem. If my mind was calm enough for me to meditate, I would meditate. But it's not. Meditation could calm me enough, but my mind is not calm enough. And so on.

Yesterday I came across a YouTube talk about a helpful mind hack: 6 phase meditation. It seemed to fit with my "reconditioning" theme, so I'm experimenting with it.

Here's the original talk.

If you are going to listen to it, I recommend listening to the first part at high speed (click to go to YouTube on a desktop, then use the settings button to speed it up) and the rest at normal speed.

Vishen Lakhiani, the guy who gives the talk, starts with six basic human needs and from them derives six parts for a daily meditation:

1. Compassion
2. Gratitude
3. Forgiveness
4. Future vision
5. Perfect day
6. Blessing

You take ten minutes and spend a minute or two on each part.

You can also try an abbreviated version, without the explanation of underlying theory, here:

I did this yesterday. Today I started doing it, but I had a lot of writing that I wanted to do, and didn't want to take ten minutes to do the exercise formally. And there are people that are so busy that they can't afford to take the time, despite the likely benefit.

So I came up with a variant as a starting point:

1. Do it once, to get the idea
2. Whenever you have a moment, (sitting at a stop-light, just finishing something, whatever) take the list of six items as a checklist, pick the one that needs the most work, and do it.
3. Alternatively, just take a minute or two and run down the list

My experience is that these small steps help.

And since part of my "Perfect day" involves having the time to do this, and a bunch of other, beneficial things, by applying step 4 and 5 to a future in which this is part of my life, and a perfect day in which I do this, I'll be reconditioning myself.

Likewise, this looks like a pretty good six item debug list. So I'm working from there, too.

Broken streak and request for abolution

Shit shit shit shit shit!

My streak is broken!

I've been using the website to jump start my writing. It's based on the book "The Artist's Way." I've written earlier, and earlier and a few times earlier about using the site.

I've been on a writing streak for about a hundred forty days. Every day 750 words. Whatever comes into my head. No editing. Well, sometimes, some.

Writing on the site is based on faith in the method. If I write every day, get the cobwebs out, or whatever, then the good kind of writing that I want, the writing that the artist within me wants to do will come. If I write it, it will come.

Mostly what comes out is crap, charitably, crap. And that's OK. That's kind of what's supposed to happen. And sometimes what comes out is a good first draft for a post. So, success.  But it's inconsistent. I'm producing something, and that's good. But I'm not producing what I want to produce, and that's not so good.

But faith! Do my words every day. Keep the streak going. Keep working. If I build it, the artist within me will come.

And yesterday it happened. I started the day working on a post that had originally been a shitty first draft in my 750 words writing space, and the stars aligned. Not completely by themselves. I had to help them a little, but they did line up. I wrote that post and another and another and suddenly I was flying. All the backed-up creativity released and my inner editor gave up, and the words came out and I posted another thing and another and another. Seven in total.

Yes, it wasn't just my daily practice that did it. I'd uncovered some "bugs" in the way that I was thinking about the kind of writing that I wanted to do, and that made a difference. That was one of my posts. But the daily discipline helped. I am sure of it.

I went to bed last night, satisfied and happy, with the idea for the next day's first post already in my mind.

And I woke up this morning, happy, looking forward to writing it.

And then, I realized that with all my productivity the prior day, I hadn't written my 750 words! I sometimes do that. I'd like my habit to be: do that first thing in the morning, but I'm sloppy in that, as I am in many things, and did not. I had the page open. I looked at it a few times, but I was having such a good time FINALLY getting things out. And then it slipped from my consciousness. Faded. It was gone.

Lying in bed at 5:45 I wondered whether to get up and start writing or snooze a bit more. I realized that I had not finished my words, but no worries. I could time travel.

Time traveling is when I change my setting so that instead of my time zone being Eastern, I set it to Central, or even Pacific, to get a few more hours in the day. In rare cases, I've had to time travel to Alaska, or even the International Date Line.

So I got up, peed, gathered my stuff, turned on my computer, and prepared to do my writing. No worries. I'd been to the International Date Line before, early in the morning. No rush.

I saw a couple of Hangouts messages including one with a short video of Siena and Daniel "talking."

I switched my time zones and prepared to write. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the time at the date line. 11:58.


Shit shit shit shit shit!

I'd wanted to do 750 words of original writing, but now there wasn't time. But I'd written a lot, and I wouldn't be entirely cheating if I grabbed some of those words, put them on the site and saved them. Part of my brain was thinking that I could still do it. Part was thinking shit shit shit shit shit.

I fumbled my way to my blogging site, grabbed a nice long post, copied it. Took it back to 750 words and pasted it. And...too late...

It was a new day in American Samoa and the Date Line. That little excursion watching Siena had been enough to keep me from keeping my streak going--even by somewhat suspicious means.

So here I am, doing what I maybe ought to have done yesterday. Get up early. Do your words. Get the day started out right. Drink water. Meditate. Maybe exercise. And THEN do the rest of your day.

And here I am, having written today's first post, the story of how I broke my streak.

There's another way that I might be redeemed, though. I can write , who runs the site and ask her to restore my streak.  I've done it before, and she's been kind enough to do it. So this post, which I drafted this AM in 750words is my long-winded explanation.

The way you see it is the way that I wrote it (except for adding the links later and fixing a few typos). It's not a bad first draft, and that's the way it's going to get posted.

Then I'll write Kellianne a note, reference this post and hope she restores my streak.

If (when) she does, I'll post an update.

Dec 6, 2016

Poo pouri

I don't usually watch ads on YouTube all the way to the end. But I watched this one.

And it's a real product. You can get it on Amazon. They've even got a "Master Crapsman" gift kit.

Debugging and reconditioning myself

For years I've whined about the fact that "I don't do what I intend to do." At some point in the day I might decide what I intend to do. Later, I realize that I had an enjoyable, even productive day, but I didn't do what I intended to do.


I've come to realize that I spend most of my life in a dream and only realize that I'm in a dream in the moment of waking. It's like sitting in the audience of a good movie, engaged, interested, absorbed and suddenly realizing that you're watching a movie, not living the life on the screen. That moment of realization is the moment of waking.

When I wake up, I appreciate the fact that I'm awake. I might briefly celebrate it. I might try to maintain it or enhance it. But it doesn't last long. All too quickly I go back into the dream and the pattern of my life.

Most of my day is spent on automatic, carried out by what I've called my "conditioned self" or "auto-Mike."

Auto-Mike is pretty awesome. Most people would be very happy to be that good and so am I. But I want more.

Fortunately, part of my conditioning includes conditioned self-improvement. So without waking up, without breaking my conditioning, I continue to improve. But there are limitations. I can't make changes that my adaptive conditioning does not know how to make.

I have a good life but I don't just want to have a good life. I want to have a good life doing what I intend to do.

I thought that "waking up" would be the answer. I've been working on it. I've been trying to stay awake more often and for longer periods. That's been beneficial, but it hasn't brought about the change that I want.

I realize I need to do something else.

I've tried meditating, but I'm not able to do it consistently.

I've thought of joining a meditation community, but I'm not able to break my conditioning enough to actually do that.

Yesterday I found something that may be part of the solution: the idea of "debugging" from CFAR. CFAR is the "Center for Applied Rationality." Here's what sent me off in that direction.
So the concept of ‘bugs’ is really useful: once you’ve labelled something a bug, it is now in the category of ‘problems that I can practice solving to get better at life’. 
That led me to read more at the CFAR site. Which lead me to this, and back to LessWrong, where I found the "unofficial CFAR canon." And back to a bunch of CFAR videos.

Among them, I found this video:

What he said made a lot of sense. I write, and write, and write, and never give myself the kind of enthusiastic reinforcement that he recommends.

What he's doing is conditioning himself. And I realized that I need to recondition myself.

So I did. I went to a different place to write, worked hard at debugging myself, changing my behavior and rewards, and managed to get six posts written--and posted.

Repeat: and posted. That's a month of typical work. And I felt great!

I've been thinking more about reconditioning myself. I not only need to debug myself, but do a fairly substantial overhaul: reconditioning.

Since I spend so little time awake, most of my reconditioning will have to be meta-reconditioning. I have to develop some automatic routines that modify my self-correcting conditioning so that it modifies the automatic processes that aren't what I intend.


Tonight I found something else that I think might help:

I listened to most of it at 2x speed, to get the gist of his argument. Then when he actually shows how his mind hack works, I played it at normal speed.

Here's a shorter version of the meditation.

So tomorrow I take the next step.

Not good enough to destroy the planet

I remember reading this years ago in Michael Crichton's "Jurrasic Park." 

It's a good thing to bear in mind when people talk about Climate Change or some other human behavior destroying the planet. I'm not saying it's not a problem. Just saying that "destroying the planet" is, as Chriton says "intoxicating vanity." 

We're not capable of destroying the planet. Even if we wanted to. We're just not that good.

Quoted at GoodReads, here

You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity. Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There's been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away -- all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It's powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that's happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive glass, like fluorine. When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time. A hundred years ago we didn't have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can't imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven't got the humility to try. We've been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we're gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

Egg Bot

I found this recipe for Easter Eggs at Modernist Cuisine. The eggs were decorated with an Egg Bot.

EggBot? Really. Yes. Here. And you can buy a kit here and here.

The egg

Andy Weir, author of "The Martian" wrote a story called "The Egg."

It's a good story, worth reading.

The purpose of life, the universe, and everything

We know that the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything has an answer. t's 42.

But is there a purpose to life, the universe, and everything? If so, what is it?

What's a purpose?

Oxford dictionaries defines purpose this way: "the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists."

On that definition, the purpose of a slot-headed screwdriver is to drive slot-headed screws. I've got slot-headed screwdrivers, and can personally attest to having used them for exactly that purpose. My experience matches the theory.

But I've also used my screwdrivers for other purposes. I've used them to open paint cans (even though there are tools made for that specific purpose.) And more than once I've used a screwdriver for the purpose for which wood chisels were invented.

Purposes are not fixed. We even have a word "repurpose" to describe common situations in which something is used for a new purpose.

And purpose is not singular. An object can have many purposes, depending on situation and need.

So I'll extend the Oxford definition of purpose to reflect reality and say: Purpose: the reason or reasons for which something is done or created or for which something exists or is used.

Does the leaf of an oak tree have a purpose? Many would say, yes. It exists to produce the carbohydrates that a tree needs in order to live and to grow. That seems obvious.

Does the chlorophyll in an oak leaf have a purpose? Many would say, yes. It exists to catalyze photosynthesis. That also seems obvious.

Does the trunk of an oak tree have a purpose? Many would say, yes. It exists to provide support for the branches, which in their turn support the leaves. That seems obvious as well.

Does an acorn have a purpose? Many would say, yes. It exists to grow a new oak tree. No acorn, no new oak. And to a squirrel its purpose is food.

Does an oak have a purpose? If it's part of a managed forest, its purpose would be to produce lumber. But what if the oak tree is off in the wild never to be seen by humans. What's its purpose then? To produce acorns?

So it seems that the purpose of a thing depends on the system in which it exists. The purpose of a leaf seems obvious because it's part of a system called a tree. Likewise the purpose of chlorophyll, or a tree trunk. An acorn is part of a system that produces oak trees, which produce acorns, which produce oak trees. The reasoning is circular, but so is the system.

Some would say that the purpose of any living thing is to survive, grow, and reproduce.

Then what's the purpose of that rock next to that oak tree? To erode? To take up space?

If we don't know what system it's part of, then it's hard to determine its purpose.

If I came on an object and I didn't know its purpose (or purposes) I'd determine them this way.

I'd observe it, and see if it did something on its own. If it created some discernable and consistent effect then I'd infer that creating that effect was one of its purposes.

If I could see how people interacted with it, I'd observe what they did with it. From that (and possibly asking them questions with them) I could learn about their purposes for it.

I might try to use that object to achieve some goal of my own. I might use it in the same way as others did, or in unique ways. However I used it, I'd count the purpose to which I applied it to be among its purposes. I might use it for several different purposes. Each would be valid.

If I could find the maker of that the object I might ask the maker for the purpose that impelled the object's creation. That purpose would hold no privileged position to me. The purpose for which it was made would be just one of its purposes. If could not find the object's maker, I'd make do with the other purposes that I'd found.

So what's the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?

I like to start with what I know for sure--and that is that I am conscious. As I have said, that's the only thing that I can know with certainty. And it's important enough that I felt obligated to write another post to justify it.

I know that all phenomena extend from me as an observer. Wherever I go, there I am. Whatever I perceive, I'm right in the middle of.

So to me a purpose of the universe is this: it's something of which I can  be conscious. It might be an illusion, but it's one of which I can be conscious.

Alternatively, a purpose of the universe is: so I can exist. No universe, no me.

There's an interesting story that explains how the universe caused me to exist. The universe started, 13.77 billion years ago. It cooled, and hydrogen and some helium atoms appeared. Eventually, some atoms collected into Population I stars. Then some of those stars exploded, producing atoms of the other natural elements. The atoms that pre-existed and the atoms that resulted from the explosions collected  into Population II stars (like our sun) and planets (like Earth). Then, on at least one planet, about 4 billion years ago, life appeared. And then around 74 years ago I appeared.

This could be just part of an elaborate illusion, and the universe could have sprung into existence a just now. Or an hour ago.

You exist, too, I presume. But maybe not exactly. So another purpose of the universe is to create you.

I could extend the list of purposes of the universe by listing everything in the universe, and asserting that causing that thing to come into being was one of the universe's purposes. But I can make the mechanism more general and more useful.

The way that the universe caused me (and you, if you exist) to exist is simple: it collected, organized, transformed, and conveyed information. It did it until life appeared. Then life continued to do it until consciousness appeared. Then conscious life continued to do it until I appeared. Then I continued to do it until I wrote this.

That's the generalized purpose of life, the universe, and everything: it collects, organizes, transforms, and conveys information.

Information means: "what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things."

The arrangement of base pairs in DNA conveys and represents information. So does the arrangement of rock strata in the Grand Canyon. So does the arrangement of stars in a galaxies or galaxies in a supercluster.

The universe, on its own, through natural processes and initially without interference by living things, collects information, organizes it, transforms it, and conveys it and it keeps doing that until life appears.

Once life has appeared, it accelerates the process until thinking things appear. And that accelerates the process further.

Right now, by writing this, I am helping the universe carry out this purpose. Over time I have collected information (and I am collecting additional bits as I write this). I am organizing that information in the form of this essay. And I hope to convey it to you, a reader. And since you are reading this, I've succeeded.

If you find it worthwhile you will add it to your own collection and if you organize it and convey it further, you'll be helping carry out the purpose of life, the universe, and everything.

Meanwhile, I'm posting this. Because it's my purpose to do so. The universe created me so that I could do that. That's my purpose. And I'm posting it, on purpose.

The only thing I can be certain of

If I'm going to write more stuff it made sense to start with "The purpose of life, the universe and everything" and fit the rest of the world into that. Doesn't it? Made sense to me.

As I was writing the blog post "The purpose of life, the universe and everything" I realized that the answer to such an important question should be based on what I knew with certainty, and not on commonly held assumptions or theories or illusions.

There's only one thing of which I can be certain, so I made that the basis for my argument.

Then, after <embarrassing number of> minutes spent searching for an earlier post that I thought I had written on the subject, I decided I might not have written what I thought I'd written. It might have been another illusion.

So I wrote this.

And then I spent <embarrassing number of> minutes of my existence trying to decide whether to incorporate this into "The purpose of life, the universe, and everything" or making it a separate post, I decided to solve it with "Coin Flip" as I recommended to myself, here.

I did, in fact, write about the things that I learned from reading Sam Harris' book Waking Up. But I seem to have failed to write one of the most important points. So here's my do-over.
  1. If you examine something carefully and it changes into something different, then what you started to examine was an illusion.
  2. We know that the human perception system is subject to all kinds of illusions.
  3. We know that the way we perceive reality is based on a set of illusions. Each of our eyes gets a slightly different 2D image and our brain combines them to tell us that there is a 3D world "our there." There may be such a world, but we don't perceive it. Instead, we see an illusion created by our eyes and nervous system.
  4. The ONLY thing that can't be an illusion is my in-the-moment experience of my own consciousness. If I'm not conscious, right now, then there's nothing there to be tricked into experiencing conscious.
  5. Anything else CAN be an illusion. In another post I argue that it MUST be.
Some other observations:
  1. Most of the things that I do, I do automatically, without being conscious of doing them or having intended to do them. I say that they are done by my "conditioned self."
  2. My experience of "waking up" is the sudden transition to being "conscious of being conscious." But what was the earlier state? Conscious, but unconscious of being conscious? Unconscious? I don't know. I can only be sure of "conscious of being conscious" and only when I am in that state.
  3. My memories of having been more or less conscious at other times could all be illusions 
  4. The only thing I can be certain of is my present consciousness. Assuming that I am conscious.
  5. The "self," the "thing" that I perceive as being conscious could be an illusion. The BIG IDEA from Harris was this: after experiencing "waking up" see what I feel is now awake, and see whether it might also be an illusion.
  6. My experience: every time I carry out that last step, looking inward to "the thing that is conscious" I discover myself looking outward, at the world around me.
All that seems to have required me to write this, so that I can post this.

Good enough for an audience of one

I'd like to be like Scott Alexander. He's one of my personal heroes. He writes long, thoughtful, meticulously researched posts at his blog SlateStarCodex. But as near as I can tell, I'm not.

There are a lot of other writers who I admire, and who I sometimes wish to be. But near as I can tell, I'm not any of them.

(But if Andy Weir, author of "The Maritan" is right, in this story, I might be all of them. Wouldn't that be cool?)

But being me is not a bad thing to be. It's actually pretty good. But it's sometimes frustrating.

When a friend writes me an email that prompts a response I'll drop everything and spend a large block of time researching, thinking, and writing a long, meticulously worded reply. Not up to the standard of one of Scott's posts. But not total crap.

Why don't I post them?

I just asked myself that question, and here's what I told myself:

"Good enough for an email back, but not good enough to post."

For who? I have no audience. I'm just an ordinary guy who likes to write and tries to figure out the kinds of things that ordinary guys try to figure out, like The purpose of life, the universe, and everything.

Which was also not good enough to post until I wrote "The only thing that I can be certain of."

Which was also not good enough to post, so had to write this and figure out how to give myself permission to post it.

For who?

The answer has to be: I need to post for me. Only me. Period.

As of right now, the standard for what goes on this blog is being revised. Down. Dramatically down.

I'd rather post more stuff with lower quality.

I'd rather long, thoughtful, meticulously researched posts than anything else. But I'd rather post more than less.

Writing is the way that I get thinking done.

Writing makes me happy.

Having determined what I believe The purpose of life, the universe, and everything to be, my personal contribution to that purpose is writing and posting

So, time to post.

Nov 30, 2016

Flip a coin

I just read an essay that may turn out to be one of the more important things I've read.

The title is: How To Choose.

The subtitle: "When your reasons are worse than useless, sometimes the most rational choice is a random stab in the dark"

The short form: faced with a decision, it's easy to get rid of choices that are obviously stupid and wrong. But because of cognitive problems, when we choosing among non-stupid options we are more likely to be driven by bad reasons than good ones.


But, yes. It makes sense.

It may be that there may be no "best answer" in which case whatever I do is a waste of time. But, the article argues, when choosing among the somewhat good answers, my decision-making process is likely to be so broken that I am more likely to choose a worse answer than a better one.

So I'm not just wasting my time trying to find the better answer; I'm spending time making things worse.

So my policy is: once I've eliminated all the bad, stupid, completely idiotic options, I'm going to choose randomly rather than spending more time trying to come up with the best.

This makes sense.

So here I am with twenty-three (ish) ideas for things to write about sorting through them trying to decide what's the best. Or starting on one, and deciding another is better. And then switching to that one, and deciding that there's another one that comes first.

And along comes an article that tells me: "flip a coin."

That resonates. It seems better than "choose one and go with it." Because I've done it, and failed. And I think I know why: as long as I am doing the choosing, my choice is open to my questioning.

But if I surrender control to the coin or the twenty-three sided die or the wave function for the universe, then it's made the choice, not me.

I can argue with myself (and have) but who am I to argue with the wave function?

So am I done writing this?

Heads, I'm done and I post it. Tails, one more pass. OK, flip this.


Nov 12, 2016

Luck, Gratitude, Thanks, and One Shot

According to the best science we have, the universe appears to have been come into existence around 13.77 billion years ago. According to the best scientific theories we have, the universe will continue to exist for a long time: at least another 5 billion years, and possibly pretty much forever.

According to the best information that I have, I was not alive from the start of the universe until very recently. I've been alive for 73.8 years (a little more if you count intrauterine existence). I expect to be not alive for the rest of time, however long that is.

I would welcome any surprises on that account, but I'm not counting on it. Based on history, I've been mostly dead. Though as Miracle Max tells us: "mostly dead is slightly alive."

Still mostly dead, and currently alive makes me one of the lucky ones. Entirely dead is normal. Any amount of alive is an exception. Consciousness is even rarer. Self-reflective consciousness rarest of all.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am alive right now against all odds. I am conscious, against more odds. And I can examine my consciousness!

And you are alive and conscious too, on the reasonable assumption that you are reading this.

And I am grateful and thankful for all of that--that I am alive, and someone is reading this. This is the season of gratitude and thanksgiving and Thanksgiving and I am all of those?

To who? Or Who? Or Whom?

I don't know. I'm not a conventional believer-in-God. But it seems dickish when you discover you've got something unasked-for and pretty much undeserved to not want to say thanks. And I try not to be a dick.

Some lives suck, and I can imagine lives so sucky that they are not worth living. But I think few lives are that terrible (and then, most times, they can be ended). There have been periods when I have (stupidly) hoped for my existence to end. There have been periods when I have (stupidly) thought about helping the process along. I remember when the thought that stood between me and the next step toward killing myself was "it would set a bad example for my kids." I remember when the thought was "I don't have enough life insurance to kill myself, and it would be irresponsible."

Of course, that's overly dramatic. If I got rid of those thoughts, I'm pretty sure that my next step would not have been to off myself, but to invent another blocking thought. Because I've never really wanted to die. Otherwise, I expect, I'd already be dead.

Once upon a time there were millions of sperms swimming like crazy to get to that one egg.

I was that lucky sperm. I don't remember it, but that must have been me. I probably wasn't the fastest. I don't think I was any smarter. But I was good enough, and lucky enough, and here I am! I had one shot, and I took it.

When I say "one shot" I'm not talking about one shot at fame or riches, or enlightenment or whatever you are going for. As long as you are alive, you get a lot of shots. Every time a door closes, another one opens, and all that.

No, I'm talking about life. This is the only one I have. This is my one shot.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am grateful and thankful for the very fact of my existence.

And I don't know about you, but at 73.8 I am like that little sperm I once was, still moving forward.

And I am not throwing away my shot!

Nov 8, 2016

Thank you, Donald Trump

I am grateful for Donald Trump.
No, really. Hear me out. I really am grateful. I don’t want him to be president. In fact, I hate the idea. I hate the idea that this is even something that has a reasonable probability of happening. I rebel against it viscerally, but I don’t trust my gut. I rebel against it intellectually, and I do trust my intellect. And I don’t trust him.
But I am grateful.
I showed up at Democratic Headquarters in Ellsworth the other day and volunteered for duty canvassing. Someone said, “Thank you for your help.” I answered: “Don’t thank me. Thank Donald Trump. He’s the reason that I’m here.”
That’s the kind of gratitude I’m talking about.
It’s election night, and I’m deliberately staying away from news sites while I write this. When I’m done, I’m going to post it, turn off my internet connection, and go to sleep. In the morning I will wake up and either Hillary Clinton will be the winner or Trump. Or the agony will grind on the way it did with Bush/Gore.
And even if Clinton wins, there’s a good chance that Trump will make the agony drag on.
I care who wins, but in the end, as Scott Alexander says, unless there’s a blowout, it doesn’t matter who wins the election. Tuesday Shouldn’t Change the Narrative
If a Trump victory tomorrow would convince you that X is true, I suggest that you believe X is true regardless of whether or not Trump wins, because Trump’s victory almost certainly will depend more on noise than on X. If a Hillary victory tomorrow would convince you that Y is true, I suggest that you believe Y is true regardless of whether or not Hillary wins, for the same reason. If there’s some Z that you will believe only if Trump wins but not if Hillary wins, then I suggest you seriously reconsider what thought process has led you to decide that you will flip your views on politics and society depending on whether or not there’s a rainstorm or a 2% polling error or whatever.
Instead, I suggest people precommit to their views on politics and society now. We live in a country and a world where Hillary can be at about 47% and Trump at about 45%. This is pretty much all you need to know. It suggests that a lot of people are willing to support a nationalist candidate, and a lot of other people really hate that candidate. It suggests that political fundamentals are totally compatible with a situation where either Trump or Hillary could win based on noise in the electoral
The votes are being counted, and I’ve precomitted.
I want to help Democrats do a better job of explaining liberal policies—and do a better job crafting them. And I want to work to help Republicans do a better job of explaining conservative policies—and do a better job of crafting them.
Ideally, I’d like to see both parties working together to understand that the world ain’t what it used to be and combine the best ideas to deal with our changing reality. But I don’t think that much chance of happening.
But at a minimum, I’d like to help make sure that neither party nominates someone like Donald Trump again.
I don’t think that’s likely, either.
But the fact that it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
I was an idiosyncratic political activist in the ‘60s, working for the military-industrial complex during the week, and marching with anti-war protesters on the weekend. I wasn’t against war and I’m still not. I think it sometimes is the answer. But I am against stupidity. My objection was not to the war in Vietnam, but its stupidity.
War sometimes is the answer. Stupidity should never be.
Trump is not stupid, and he is not without virtues. I value hard work and drive, and showmanship and risk-taking, and I believe he’s got those virtues. He’s also shown himself to be creative and innovative. And depending on your taste, you may find him charming.
Is he a misogynist? A racist? A xenophobe? I don’t know, and neither do you. Nor can you. These are states of mind, and none of us are mind readers. So let’s just take those questions off the table, and instead consider the attributes of his character, made visible by his behavior.
Trump has attributes that I admire, but he fails to show me that he has another set of attributes that I value: among them are consistency, honesty, politeness, transparency, self-perception, and self-control.
To the contrary, he shows himself to be inconsistent, dishonest, impolite, opaque, narcissistic, and temperamental. He showed those traits throughout the campaign, and most dramatically for me, in the debates.
Someone who I regard highly proposed that the ability to debate is not a job requirement for the president. And he’s right, as far as that argument goes.
But what are the job requirements? And how does one demonstrate them?
In the end, there’s only one job requirement, and that’s the ability to win a majority in the electoral college. Performance in the primaries, and in the campaign, and the debates aren’t job requirements. They’re a kind of ordeal—for the candidates and for us. They are a means for helping us understand some important job-related attributes of a potential president.
If you can’t put together a good-enough organization to contend, you’re probably not going to be a good president. Trump has done that. So has Clinton. If you don’t have the stamina to show up and keep showing up, you probably don’t have what it takes. Notwithstanding what seemed like a lack of stamina in the debates—after accusing Clinton—Trump has stamina. And so does Clinton. He is in great shape for a 70-year-old guy. And she’s in great shape for a woman who will be 70 within the year.
But if you show up for your debate, after bragging about how you don’t need to prepare, and demonstrate that you are unprepared; if you claim you’ve won—thereby accepting the premise that winning the debate is an important test of capability—and the majority of objective observers judge that you’ve lost, and lost badly—then we’ve learned some important things about you.
And if you behave during the debate the way Trump behaved—behavior consistent with his behavior through the campaign and compressed into a 90-minute concentrated dose of “raw Trump”—if you show yourself lacking the consistency, honesty, politeness, transparency, self-perception, and self-control that I want in my president—not to mention seeming ignorance or disregard of facts and an understanding of policy then you’ve told me something about yourself.
You’re not the person I want as my president.
Trump showed himself clearly to be inconsistent, dishonest, impolite, opaque, narcissistic, and temperamental. And if you don’t find those worrisome in a prospective president well—I guess we think very differently about these things.
But he’s a success. He is the CEO of a large organization and he’s running for CEO of the company. Doesn’t his success in business show there’s a good chance for him to be successful as president?
I don’t think it does.
Bono, front-man for U2 started from nothing and is reported to be worth $600 million. Some of that money is because of his ability as an entertainer. But a lot comes from investments. He and six partners made an investment in Facebook that was worth 1.4 billion more than he has ever made in his music career
Does that qualify Bono to be president (never mind he’s not a citizen)?
Oprah Winfrey, starting from nothing, is worth more than $3 Billion, close to what Forbes estimates Trump is worth—and he had a big head start. Oprah for president?
I grant that it takes a lot of skill to run a company that builds buildings and manages staffs of people. I think it takes a lot of skill to even run such a company badly. But there’s an argument to be made that Trump’s wealth is more the result of his status as a performer and a marketer, and less as an executive.
But never mind that. Let’s consider Trump’s virtues.
It’s true that it’s hard to be successful if you don’t have the virtues that Trump has. And I acknowledge he has them.
But you can’t even be a successful crook, con-man, or psychopath without those same virtues. Or a successful rock star.
So let me be clear: Trump’s having the set of virtues that I grant him is not sufficient to distinguish him from a crook, con-man or psychopath.
Maybe if he had shown consistency, honesty, politeness, transparency, self-perception, and self-control I would think differently. But in the debates and the campaign he did not.
She, on the other hand, did.
I started out disliking her. Looked at my feelings and wrote a post to explain that she did not deserve my disliking her as much as I did
And that changed my opinion of her—not much.
It was the debate that made the real difference. She agreed with Trump that winning was important. Her self-perception told her that she needed to prepare. She prepared.
Is she inconsistent? It is true that her opinions on some topics have changed. If you want to say that makes her inconsistent, you can. But his reversals are epic. He’s a pro-choice guy who has become pro-life. A guy who said he identified as a Democrat and who said the Republicans had become “too crazy right.” Listen to Trump.
As someone pointed out: the chances of Trump winning are about the same chances of losing at Russian roulette, and the consequences—well, let’s skip that.
I like the theory (or theories) of multiple universes, and if true, then in an infinite number of universes people wake up and he’s president. I hope that they all the people in those universes are NPCs and that tomorrow (as I write this) and today (as you read this) my consciousness wakes in a universe where Donald Trump is not going to be president.
Still, win or lose, I am grateful for Trump.
I’m grateful for Trump in the same way that I grateful for the pain I endured between July of 2015 and February 2016. I did something that in retrospect was stupid and hurt my back and my knee. I didn’t take the pain seriously enough, and it got worse and worse. Every time it got better, I went back to something like a “normal routine” and it got horribly worse again.
Finally, I learned some of the lessons that the pain was trying to teach me. I learned to be more considerate of my aging body; I learned to appreciate my wife’s heroic efforts to live with her own ongoing pain; I learned to care more about preserving my mind because I learned that pain makes you stupid.
I don’t think I would have learned those things by reading about them (although I am hoping that some people will read what I’ve written and will learn even a little from my experience.)
And since I’m grateful for the outcome, I must be grateful for the cause, mustn’t I?
Well, perhaps I need not be, in a moral sense. But I need to be because the person I have come to be is grateful.
And so, here I am, after years and years away from political involvement, rushing to finish up my draft of this essay so that I can run off to the local Democratic Headquarters and volunteer. And I’m determined to stick with it.
I’ve discovered that one of my almost-neighbors, a woman in nearby Brooksville named Libby Chamberlain started a facebook group supporting Hillary Clinton called “Pantsuit Nation.” It’s gone viral with about 2,400,000 members as I write the draft. So here’s someone nearby who is making a difference. Maybe I can help her make a bigger difference.
I don’t know, but my life’s direction has changed, thanks to Donald Trump.
I’ve been discussing and debating policy with some friends who hold differing views. The discussions have been enlightening. I’ve gained respect for people I used to dismiss, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, high on the list. I’ve come to have a higher regard for conservatism, not the jingoism of the neoCons, and not the people who say “let’s go back to the way it was” but the fundamental conservative idea that you need to conserve what works, and change things slowly and not radically.
To a degree. I thank my friends for leading me to greater understanding. But I also thank Donald Trump. He’s the one who has moved me to action.
Trump helps me appreciate rational conservatives, people with whom you can have policy discussions more than I did before. Not to say that I did not appreciate them before; I did. I just appreciate them much more than I used to.
My future activism is motivated by Trump.
If I ever do something politically useful, you can thank Donald Trump.