Dec 31, 2017

Birthday activity -- Part 2

I the earlier post in this series I started to describe what I did on my 75th birthday. But I ran out of time, energy, or brain power before I completed it, so I posted what I had before I went to bed. And now, it's 3:38 AM. I've got some time, some energy, and some brain power. So let me try to finish the job.

I was writing the prior post and reached this point:

A bit more email, and I write an email to Jared Golden who is will be running for the Maine 2 House seat and Jonathan Breed, his campaign manager, telling them to connect me up to like-minded volunteers.
When I checked my email and made this observation:
(I get an email back while I'm composing this, and spend a bit of time researching some stuff to reply to them.) But that's later. 
Now it's later. Jon's email asked me what I had in mind. My answer was

I did GOTV for Hancock County Dems for the Clinton campaign, and what they gave us sucked, sucked, sucked. Make sure that what you give us does not suck by the time the election rolls around. 
What the Dems provided us was years behind the times. They gave us paper lists of voters organized by street. No routing. No App. Effing paper! Paper!! 
And the data was out of date. I went home and put the data into Google Maps which gave me a route. That made my driving less time-wasting but it did not solve the data quality problem. Nor did it solve the record keeping. Both of which sucked. 
Brexit did it right. I'm a student of their success--and what Trump did, too. 
Dominic Cummings was one of the movers and shakers behind Brexit. He's a brilliant guy and he's documented what they did at his website. The Brexit gang even released the software that they used to manage their campaign. It's available to use--or to study and learn from. Cummings explains how they used the software in this post. He's documented their whole campaign. There are many lessons to be learned. 
If you get your volunteer team moving, we can start learning lessons. 
The Brexit team built their software platform themselves because what they had inherited was "rubbish." That's Brit for "sucked, sucked, sucked." They did it fast and cheap because people who know how to build software these days know how to build it fast and cheap. It does not take money so much as people who know what they are doing. 
Cruz used something similar and made a run for it. But the guy who was most successful using something like what the Brexit team used was Jared Kushner working for Trump.  If you have not read the Forbes article "How Jared Kushner Won Trump the White House" you should do so. Kushner mobilized a team of data scientists and without their effort, Trump would not have won. If you remember, the Dems were mocking the fact that Trump had no ground game. He didn't. And it didn't matter because Kushner was conducting an air war and guerrilla warfare against a last-generation under-provisioned ground army of over-confident Democrats. 
I don't know what resources you are getting from the Dems or what resources you are hiring, It may be state of the art. Or it may suck. Get your volunteer digital team talking together as fast as you can and get a second opinion. There's a good chance that what you are doing is going to be great and we will say that. But there's also a good chance that some good salesperson has convinced you to get something that will suck. That's the only way I can explain the crap that the Dems used.  If your volunteer digital team is plugged into the cutting edge of technology they can either validate your choice or help you avoid the kind of disaster that the ACA Website turned into. Anyone who knew anything about software knew they were doing it wrong and headed for disaster. Only when the site rolled out and failed to the delight of Republicans everywhere did the administration FINALLY pull in people from Silicon Valley who actually knew how to build software and who then got the mess fixed. 
 That took a bit of time, and a bit of research and I didn't finish it up until Bobbi and I had gone to the Arborvine for dinner. Ahh! The Arborvine. Great service. And great food. And a somewhat troubling conversation. I'd gotten myself steamed up about the things I had been reading about climate, which put me at odds with my tribe. Bobbi suggested that I talk to some of our friends, but I really didn't want to do that. We'd just be disagreeing, and unable to come to a resolution because--as I saw it--minds were made up and were not about to be changed. And it annoyed me.

But in the end I found a way to make peace with myself and with anyone that I disagreed with--and that was simply to take a "cosmic viewpoint." I know that I am biased. It took me a long time to realize how biased I am. I self-identify as a liberal (Democrat type, not historical type) and as a New England Patriots fan, and I have the same response to the Pats making bad plays that I have when Democrats make stupid arguments. I hate it! And I have the same response to Pats' opponents making great plays that I have when Republicans make good arguments. I admire what they've done, but I hate it. I want my team to be the best.

So I know I have these biases, and I work mightily to overcome my biases. There's good research that says that even when you know that you're biased that you can't overcome it. And I believe that. I know I work at it. I know I don't succeed and I believe that--to a large degree--I can't succeed. But still, I try.

So when I study something that is politically polarized and I come to a conclusion--with my team or against it--I am not certain that I have found _the_ answer.  I know that I may be wrong. And I know that I am right to doubt my own conclusion.

What gets me pulsed is when other people offer their views and are certain that they are right. And when they believe that they are unbiased. The views that they hold may or may not correct, but their confidence in their correctness is certainly wrong.

My cosmic viewpoint is this: I try the best that I can, but I'm inevitably stuck in a narrow viewpoint. Instead of fighting to understand something I'm fighting against people who are not fighting to understand. And why? Because that's my team: the team of people who fight to understand. And the others? People who are not doing that? They're the enemy, of course. As evil as the Oakland Raiders are to a Pats fan. (We will never forget Daryll Stingley). Or the New York Giants (Head catch, anyone?)

So I step back from my hard "you are the enemy because..." position and instead imagine myself in interstellar space, outside the game, even away from the sidelines, and I imagine myself just watching.

After dinner we return home and watch the movie "While you were sleeping," with Bill Pullman and Sandra Bullock. After the movie I go back to work on my blog post, take a hot bath, decide I'm not going to finish. label it Part 1 and eventually post it.

So: that was my day. In between times, I started reading Michael Lewis' book, "The Undoing Project," which I'd gotten for Christmas. And I read some things on my phone that were interesting, as well. One was an article titled "Your company's culture is who you hire, fire, and promote" which featured this "Performace/Values Matrix." Note the lower right corner:  "Incompetent Assholes." He's got several follow-up posts about assholes--how they're made and how they behave whe they become managers.

I also read a couple of posts by James Kwak, who has written a book called "Economism" that I want to read. I've read a few posts from his blog The Baseline Scenario that convinces me that there has important things to say about economics.

The term Economism is drawn by parallel from "Scientism" which is defined as "excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques." It's not that science is bad. To the contrary, it's good. But it has its limits, and applying it beyond its limits and having excessive confidence in things that seem scientifically valid is scientism.

He describes it:
The central theme of Economism is that some of the basic models taught in “Economics 101” have acquired disproportionate influence in contemporary society and are routinely and systematically misapplied to important policy questions. The problem is not that introductory models are wrong, but that too many people forget their limitations and believe that their simple conclusions can be reflexively applied to the real world.  
This is something I'll write about at greater length later on.

Birthday Activity--Part 1

Today I'm seventy-five. I started writing this at 4:51 PM. And by that time, here's what I had done.

Yesterday, while making a list of things to write, I found this item: "Angel (6) de la Cruz." That's the remembered name of someone I met when I was working at SAC Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska in the late 60's. Angel (6), as I remembered the story, had a grandfather who was in love with numbers. He counted everything. He knew how many eggs he'd eaten. How many stairs he'd climbed. He gave all his sons the same name (Angel) and his daughters the same name (Silvia?) and distinguished them by an appended number. Apparently, Angel (6)'s dad--or mom--had kept up the family tradition.

Google is wonderful. I put in "Angel (6) de La Cruz" (including the quotes) and find his LinkedIn profile, and a genealogy record that tells us that "Angel 6 de la Cruz Silva" is the son of Silvia (4) Silva Baez, and a record at the Elk's Club International site that says Angel 6 De La Cruz Silva is the secretary for a Peurto Rican lodge, a Twitter account for @a6d, and a Facebook post from an Elk's lodge in the US reaching out to their brethren in Puerto Rico and mentioning Angel.

So I sent an email to Angel (6)'s email to see if he was the man I remembered--or a different Angel (6) and if he was to ask him to retell me the story of his grandfather.

Then some more emails, and then a silly message to Daniel and Justin, pointing out that I was nearly as old as the two of them put together.

And a little time spent reading "The Science of Doom." That's a blog that tries very hard to explain climate science. The comments are heavily moderated, resulting in a useful discussion of the content of the post, rather than partisan posturing of one kind or another. This morning I was reading about atmospheric radiation and the greenhouse effect, which I had misunderstood. No surprise: so had almost everything I had read.

Science of Doom has an article "Confirmation Bias, a Feature, Not a Bug" which I liked. The article quotes Jonathan Haidt:
The worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion..
..The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.
As they put it, “skilled arguers ..are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet it’s very hard, and nobody has yet found a way to do it. It’s hard because the confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind)..
Then Bobbi sends me a review from The Intercept of the latest Star Wars movie. The Intercept is "an online news publication dedicated to what it describes as, 'adversarial journalism'. One of the founders is Glenn Greenwald, well known for being the main point of contact for Edward Snowden's revelations. After reading the review I decide I want a T-shirt that says "Rebel Scum."

A bit more email, and I write an email to Jared Golden who is will be running for the Maine 2 House seat and Jonathan Breed, his campaign manager, telling them to connect me up to like-minded volunteers. (I get an email back while I'm composing this, and spend a bit of time researching some stuff to reply to them.) But that's later.

At around 10:30 Bobbi and I research options for our trip to the West Coast. We could take a train, all the way. Or drive to Chicago and take a train from there. Then there's visiting Gil and Kiry in Boise. So I dash off an email and research possible routes. Stop in SLC and drive, then drive back to Reno and take the train the rest of the way. Or just drive the rest of the way.

We find out that Gil and Kiry are happy to have us, so we fine-tune the trip and consider alternative routes back. From LA? Through NewOrleansd and Panama City Beach? Or drive back.

Finally, over dinner, we decide to maximize freedom and comfort and drive. But on one condition: I do my writing in the morning before we leave. Non negotiable.

I read the "lost Einstein" paper, sent to me by a friend. For those who have not seen it, the paper examines innovation--using patent data as a proxy--and back-correlates the patent holders with their intellectual performance as children and teens (IQ), where they grew up, and their families economic status and their race and gender. Whew! A few things stand out. In general people with higher ability do better than those with lesser ability--but kids with higher IQs from minority groups and from less privileged economic backgrounds substantially underperform kids with lower IQsd whose parents happen to be wealthy. Women do better in a particular domain when they see older women succeeding in the same domain. Success does not transfer across domains (surprising) and it does not transfer across genders (a little surprising).

So I compose a long email to the Pioneer Prize Group and suggest that we take a different tack: try to create a culture of innovation. Give kids a chance to see adults inventing things by organizing adults who already know how to make things and teaching adults who don't know how. To back it up I do a bunch of research on hardware: Raspberry Pi ($35.00 plus another $15 for a power supply) and other programmable computing devices (under $10 for a LinkNode relay board with WiFi capability. What!) And I learn about Coding Clubs, a big thing in England, sponsored by the non-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. There are more than 6,000 clubs in England (population about 60 million). So in Maine, there should be about 100 such. And there are probably none. I research Girls Who Code and see about the same, sad picture. And CodeDojo, another similar program.

In the meanwhile Bobbi tells me of a horror story about wetlands in Louisina threatened by climate change. So I have to research that. And find out that it's partly true--but only partly. While the sea levels are rising, the land is also sinking, and while those wetlands have historically been built up by annual floods that carry fresh silt, dams and canals have diverted the floods and conducted the silt right out to sea. 

Back to research where I find CoderDojo and more Girls Who Code and Code Club info and finally send out my email.

And then I start to write this. Later, we go out to dinner. And I come back and I write some more.

That will all be in Part 2.

Dec 29, 2017

75 Years - 1 days: A couple of topic lists recovered

Previous post in this series

Today I dug through some old handwritten notes and some Google docs and spreadsheets and recovered about a hundred topics for posts. Some of the topics might overlap the 116 drafts. And then I have an Evernote notebook where I've filed 60 more web pages that I thought were blogworthy. And there are others in other notebooks. So it looks as though I'm organizing myself to do a lot of writing. We'll see.

I've also been organizing my Google Docs, finding essays that I've written that never turned into posts. Or maybe they did. That will be the next challenge: organizing my completed posts so that I know what I've written.

So let's see what happens tomorrow.

Dec 28, 2017

75 Years - 2 days: The list of posts and drafts

This morning I decided to make a document containing all of my posts. The idea was to tag any posts that had not been tagged, then sort by tag, then organize into one or more documents that grouped like posts together. Kind of the way that Miles Kimball does on his blog.

It seemed like a not too hard project. I could grab the list of posts that Blogger kindly provides, then parse the HTML, and then <mumble mumble>. I looked to see if this was an already solved problem. After all, what I was doing was scraping content from a web page, and web scraping is a pretty mature technology category, isn't it? Maybe it is, but many hours into the project I was not convinced.

I started out with a post,"Top 30 Free Web Scraping Software."  I ran down the list skipping anything that required me to download a library or a tool, and looked at the ones that ran scraping services from the web. I settled on ScapingHub's service called Portia which (a) was free and (b) had a point and click interface for specifying what you wanted to scrape. Several hours later I had something that scraped some of my existing posts but which failed to scrape them all, for unknown reasons. So I tried to do it a different way. This got me more posts, but still only about a quarter of what I'd produced.

Next, I decided that I'd programatically read pages and parse the HTML using a node library. Simple in concept, but difficult in execution. Several hours later I had figured out how to solve various problems that I'd encounter, but didn't have anything that worked.

But wait! Maybe the was another way to do it. I could bring up the page with my list of drafts and copy/paste it into a spreadsheet. Which didn't work. Pasting into a spreadsheet kept the post names, but stripped out the links. But I could paste the list into a document, then extract the document and put it into a spreadsheet. That worked. Except that the links went to the pages that let me edit the posts and not to the published posts themselves.

So it's back to reading web pages and extracting data, formatting the results as markdown and then converting the markdown back to HTML, or something like that.

I'll find the answer tomorrow. In the meantime, I learned a lot. I had some fun. And I've got a ton of stuff that I visited along the way that I want to write about.

But that will be tomorrow. Not today.  

Dec 27, 2017

75 Years - 3 days: Drafts: complete or delete

The other day I reviewed the 273 posts that I'd published over the past five years. Today I looked at the 116 drafts that I've accumulated. Lots of good ideas that I started on and never completed. At my prior posting rate that's enough to keep me going for about two years.

But I'm going to do better than that. I'm going to go through them and complete or delete each one.

If I remember correctly, at least one of those draft isn't a draft at all. It's a list of topics. And today I banged out a list of twenty more. So plenty of stuff to write about. Now all I have to do is get into the writing habit.

Which I didn't do today, Instead, Bobbi and I drove up to Bangor to watch the latest Star Wars movie--a colossal waste of time--other than a nice drive together, and being able to say "we saw it." But really? The movie was loosely connected series of opportunities for special effects. There were just a couple of good lines in the movies--and that was it.

75 Years - 4 days: Work Routine

I intend to become a post-a-day guy like my current hero, Miles Kimball. To do that, I'm going to have to make some changes to my writing routine--or lack of routine.

My theory is that the best time to do my writing is in the morning. The routine that I want to establish has me start each day by brainstorming topics for 15 minutes. Then I either pick a topic or not and do my Daily Pages. If the result of my Pages is a shitty first draft for an article, then I use that and I finish it up. Otherwise, I pick a topic to write on and I write on that topic.

To make this practice, and not just activity, I've got to review the words that I've written and try to learn something from what I've written. I'd like to produce articles that flow. I'd like first drafts that are last drafts. To the degree that I don't get that, I need to change my process.

Tomorrow, also, I'm going to go through my published posts and organize them in categories: make a list of recurring topics, and put each article in its category. And make sure that each article has a title that will make it easy for me to find it again.

Tomorrow I'm also going to set up my sound system--at least to the point that I can record speech. Once I can record speech I'm going to record the first chapter of Champion, put it in SoundCloud and send it on to Mira and Luke.

That will be fun, I think.

I'm also going to work on my 9/11 fantasy and see if I can move that project forward.

And I'm going to make a to-do list and get back into that routine.

Dec 25, 2017

75 years - 5 days. Posting retrospective

I've published 272 posts since I started this blog. When I thought about what I've written, the first three that I remembered being particularly proud of writing were "Violence Markets and Government Monopolies" and "The Illusion of Liberal Failure" and "Reality Isn't Optional" Each is a fairly well thought through treatment of a political/economic idea.

Tonight I reviewed the other posts that I've written and found some recurring themes. There are some other posts about economics and politics that I'm also proud of. There's a series sparked by my reading Sam Harris' book, "Waking Up." and there are other posts on the subject of mindfulness. I've written a series of posts on my own experience blogging, and another series about my experience as I continue to age and to deteriorate.

Miles Kimball has recurring themes and "sub-blogs" in his blog In his blog, Supply Side Liberal. When he writes a post on a topic he includes, at the end of the post, a list of posts in the series. I've found tins useful when reading his arguments to find the earlier posts in the series. He also occasionally writes a "top-level" post that provides context, motivation, and overview for the posts in a particular series. These are all good ideas, and I'm going to adopt them.

I've decided to go through my old posts and organize them by topic, create top-level posts and put links to the details in all the posts in a series so that someone (if only me) can follow the thread of argument from one post to another.


75 years - 6 days. WTF? Deliberate practice is not fun

Today I learned something important: that the practice that matters is not fun. Source: here.

A while ago I'd learned that practice was essential. I'd learned that if I wanted to grow beyond my natural gifts, I needed to practice. So I began to practice.

I'd also learned the adage "Practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect." So I tried to practice perfectly. But I didn't know how to do that. So I just practiced.

Now I realize when I practice within my comfort zone I don't make much progress. It's just repetition. Repetition may lead to improvement, but the improvement will be small relative to what is possible.

The practice that matters is the practice that's just outside the comfort zone; the practice that is deliberate practice; the practice that requires focused attention; the practice that incorporates failing, and analyzing failure; the practice that is hard work; the practice that is not fun.

I'll say more about this in another post. For now, I'm going to meet a commitment to myself, and post something before I'm too tired to finish it.

Dec 23, 2017

75 years - 7 days. WTF? My first fasting experiment

For years my weight was steady, around 175 lbs. I could eat as much as I wanted--sometimes quite a lot--and my weight stayed the same. Then it crept up. I vaguely remember hitting 200, but if i did, I dropped down fast enough, and I ended up in the 185-192 range.

But I wanted to get back to 175. That was the number that was stuck in my brain. Over a ten year period I made numerous desultory attempts to get my weight down there. No luck.

Then, a few months before my knee operation, I decided to commit to a change: to fast from dinner to breakfast and eat only what I needed at meals. My weight started dropping, slowly but steadily. It took several months, but a few weeks before my surgery my weight was down to 175.

Then came a family weekend on Chebeague Island with lots of food. Then came surgery and a change in locale and daily routine. When we returned after two weeks I was nearly five pounds heavier. That was months ago. I went back to desultory dieting. Nothing happened. Really, why should it?

A little over a week ago I started reading Miles Kimball's blog [Supply Side Liberal](, He's got a series of posts about diet and fasting and I read a bunch of them. Here's [a recent post in the series]( with links at the bottom to others. He recommends fasting, not just for weight loss, but for general health improvement. I'd read other articles about the benefits of calorie-restricted diets and intermittent fasting and had considered fasting. Reading this post convinced me that it was worth trying.

Or at least, worth learning more. So I read some of the other posts in the series and did some research to refresh and increase my understanidng. Finally I said: Why not? I'd been invited to have lunch at a friend's house on Sunday and decided that I'd start my fast after that lunch. So I did. No dinner that night. No breakfast the next day. No lunch. No dinner. I decided to fast until Saturday when my kids and their kids would arrive for Christmas.

To my surprise, it was easy. Far easier than trying to diet. I wasn't hungry. Sometimes I'd find myself in front of the refrigerator or in the pantry closet, looking for something to stick in my mouth. I wasn't hungry. Just bored. Or responding to habit. As soon as I realized it, I'd walk away.

That week I wasn't tired. My energy level seemed normal. We had a couple of snows and I was out shoveling our long driveway with no exhaustion and no desire afterward to stuff my face to make up for the energy that I'd expended.

A couple of times I felt my mind was running a bit slower than usual. But usually things seemed--surprisingly normal.

Fast forward to Saturday. Between Sunday dinner and Saturday Breakfast I'd had three light meals and a few snacks. I'd indulged in a "grazing experience" late one night where I ate a bit of this and a bit of that. That was my habit before my first weight loss. I did another light graze another night, but that was it for the week.

My last weigh-in before the fast was 181.5. This morning, Saturday, I stepped on the scale and my weight was 175.7. So I'd dropped a bit more than 5 lb.

Today I've had two cups of coffee with cream (I'd been off coffee during my fast) and nothing else for breakfast. I had a half bowl of soup and a few pieces of bread for lunch. I had a normal dinner, but with smaller-than usual portions. I graze on some grapes and blueberries and a few tablespoons of creme fraiche, but that was it.

I expect my weight to go up for the holiday as I move to something closer to a normal diet the next few days. But I'll probably keep skipping breakfast. And I'm definitely done with the midnight grazing.

Then once the gang leaves, I'm looking forward to another week of fasting. Actually looking forward to it.

Dec 22, 2017

75 years - 8 days. WTF? On saving the world

I want to save the world. I have always wanted to. I feel it’s the natural state of every human being to want to save the world. But then, I know I’m weird.
I was raised Jewish and learned early that made me one of the Chosen People. More accurately, I was one of God’s Chosen People. And as a boy, growing up and imagining, I believed that God had chosen me, singled me out, even among the Chosen people, to do His work.
I’ve long since lost the faith in God that I had as a kid—and perhaps God has lost faith in me, as well. I no longer believe in God, but I wish that I did. But I’ve now discovered a God that I can believe in.
A couple of days ago I came upon Supply Side Liberal the blog of a guy named Miles Kimball. I was going to say “a blog by economist Miles Kimball,” but to imply that he's well-enough described by saying he's an economist is to do him an injustice. He is an economist by profession, but he’s a lot more than that. He’s a prolific writer and a wide-ranging thinker. He’s a post-a-day blogger, something I’ve aspired to since I started this blog, and he’s inspired me to achieve that goal. He’s written extensively about diet—and inspired me to try fasting. (I’ve dropped at least three pounds in less than a week, thank you, Miles). He’s inspired me to reconsider my objective: to save the world. Or at least to change it. I learned that he’s a former Mormon and now a Unitarian-Universalist lay preacher. And in one of his sermons he’s he’s suggested a different view of God. One that I can believe in and work for.
I’ve read so many interesting posts over the last few days that I could meet my post-a-day objective just by grabbing one of Miles’ each day and doing my own riff. And since he’s five years ahead of me I’ll never run out of content. So I’ve got a fallback strategy if I can’t think of anything on my own.
I’ll write about Miles’ vision of God in the next post and I’ll conclude this one with something lighter-weight. Under the heading “Humor” I found this in a post about Louis Brandeis, who achieved fame as a Supreme Court justice. This part made me Chuckle Out Loud (not quite an LOL, but close)
Peters (an anti-semitic professor at Harvard)…asked him the following question: “Mr Brandeis, if you were walking down the street and found a package, a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?” Without hesitating, Brandeis responded, “The one with the money, of course.” Peters, smiling sarcastically, said, “Just like a Jew. Unlike you I would have taken the wisdom.” Brandeis shrugged indifferently and responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”

Dec 21, 2017

75 years old minus 9 days, WTF? On sleeping and suffering

The previous post in this series concluded:

One question that consumes me these days is: why do I so easily go into the trance that I retrospectively regret. And I think I might have an answer.
That was too optimistic. Better to say: I think I might have a clue.

When Bobbi was getting her Ph.D. in myth at  Pacifica Graduate College, I learned of the work of Dan P. McAdams author of The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self.  Personal myths are the stories that we tell about ourselves, and they are what define who we are. Because they are stories--just stories--they are malleable. We can tell any number of stories that fit the facts. And even more, and more interesting stories if we're willing to choose which facts we include--or dispense with them when they are inconvenient to the story we're telling.

So here's a story that I've told about myself. I don't like to sleep. Not at night and certainly not while I am walking around and seeming to be awake. Sleep, as far as I am concerned, is a waste of time. I accept the need for at least some sleep because everyone needs sleep. But some people get by on just a few hours, and I'd like to be among them.

But here I'm talking about the kind of sleep that precedes a moment of "waking up." It's a state that I find myself too often. And the story I tell myself is this: I want to be fully awake and fully conscious all the time. Given a choice between being awake and uncomfortable, even in pain, and being asleep, I would choose to be awake.

That's my story. But that's not how I roll.

Sleep has two effects: it speeds healing, and it makes time pass. Going to sleep means taking a shortcut through time and escaping the experience of discomfort. So I go to sleep. And even if I knew that the sleep would not speed healing, I'd do it to make time pass faster.

So my story does not match reality. What do I change? My story or reality?

Life is suffering, say the Buddhists. Some translate it as "unsatisfactory." Whichever it is, it sucks. Sleep, I now realize, is one of the ways that I do avoid suffering, unsatisfactoriness, and other forms of suckitude.

So if all of life is suffering, and my MO is to sleep to avoid it, then it makes sense for me to reflexively go to sleep whenever things are uncomfortable. Which, these days, is all the time.

Right now I'm hurting. Part of it comes from being old. Arthritis sucks. That's exacerbated by my shoveling snow yesterday. So add tendinitis and muscle cramps to arthritis. I can avoid the pain by going to sleep or zoning out. Or maybe I can decide to experience it more fully and stay awake more.

My story is that I'd choose to stay awake, even if I am not comfortable doing it.

There are other kinds of discomfort too. I want to clean my office. I put it on my todo list. I'm uncomfortable doing it. Maybe that's why I go into a trance and dream my way through the day without doing anything.

Today, I deliberately faced discomfort and made a start.

Will that "insight" make a difference? I hope so.

Now it's late. I've done more than my assigned share of writing.

Stay tuned for the next chapter.

My water bottle

I was talking to my water bottle the other day. It sat on my desk, calmly waiting for me to take a sip. Or pick it up and move it.

"How do you manage to stay so cool?" I asked. "You live in the same world as the rest of us. A world where we're told that massive meteors that have just barely missed crashing into the earth by a few million miles are just a sign of things to come. That sooner or later, before the sun explodes and turns the earth to cinders that some massive orbiting object will put Earth right in its non-gunsights and crash into us, exploding with the force of a million nuclear bombs. And Donald Trump. And yet you seem so calm."

The water bottle said nothing. But I knew what it was thinking. We have that kind of a bond. I'd learned to see life through its eyes.

"I enjoy life," it would have said if it had been able to talk. "I have my place in existence. I know who I am. I know that everything is impermanent. I don't know it in an intellectual way (for in truth I have no intellect) but in an embodied way.

"Once I was a molten blob of nalgene in a bottlemaking machine--although in truth I don't remember that. I know that someday I'll be broken and thrown away. Or left somewhere and forgotten.

"But for now, in this moment, I have a purpose and I am content."

"I could never be content to be a water bottle," I would have said. "Even a nice, one-liter nalgene bottle like yourself. I'd aspire to be more."

"I understand," it would have said. "I know that what I am is what I am. I might become something else. I might find myself transformed into--who knows?--a case for a computer? or a fidget-spinner? But would that be more? Or less?

"My constituent atoms might even become part of a human being. Would that be more? To be honest, I don't think about those things. Or much of anything else. I just am."

"How would you become part of a human being?" I might have asked.

"Oh, I could be broken up, become pollution, be ingested by a fish. eaten by a human, and being indigestible, end up as part of their body. But that's all hypothetical. And in the end none of that matters. I'm a bottle--your bottle. I'm sitting here, holding your water. I'm quite content."

I looked at it again. It sat there, perfectly composed, waiting.

"I am waiting," the bottle would have said, "and yet I'm not waiting. Nor am I not-waiting. I simply am. You could learn something from that."

"I have," I would have said. For a moment I would have stopped typing and fully absorbed the wisdom of the water bottle. As I did just then.

Perhaps we can learn from the things around us if we'd listen. Perhaps they are wiser than we are. They do not strive, but they do not suffer. They exist, like my water bottle, with perfect poise and equanimity, content to do the job for which they exist.

I take a drink from my water bottle and admire it for what it is--for serving its purpose so well. And then I return to writing this blog post. I don't know if that's my purpose--writing this--but it could be.

"Don't think about it," the water bottle might have said. "For me, it's good sitting here, with the sun rising and the keys of your keyboard clacking, and knowing that soon enough you'll need to take another sip. Can't you be content to look at the sunrise once in a while, and keep writing this? Don't you feel you're fulfilling your purpose by doing that?"

"I suppose," I might have answered. "But I might be doing something else. So how does that make writing this my purpose?"

"But you're not doing something else," the water bottle might have answered. "You're writing this. The sky is turning orange. The water is rippling on the Salt Pond. The refrigerator is humming in the background, doing its job, keeping your food cool. Isn't it good be what you are and doing what you are doing?"

"It is," I said. I picked up my water bottle, unscrewed the cap, and took another sip of water.

Ahh! I thought.

Ahh! The bottle would have thought, had it been into thinking.

Dec 20, 2017

75 years old minus 10 days, WTF?

Based on a joke created by my 5-year-old grandson, Michael:

Knock knock!

Who's there?


Ten who?

Ten days until I'm 75 years old.

The punchline for his version was “Five days ‘til Christmas!” which, I will admit, is much funnier than my version.

But still.

Ten days until I’m 75 years old.

So I thought I’d celebrate the occasion, and get myself back in the writing habit by doing a ten post countdown series.

Starting with: “What’s it like being almost 75 years old? Three-quarters of a century? That’s old right?”

Answer: yes, and no. Sometimes I feel like a 35-year-old trapped in a 75-year-old body. There’s so much life ahead of me and so much that I want to learn and to do. And write. And sometimes I feel like I am destined to drag a tiring body and a deteriorating mind through a string of defeats, setbacks, and failures, ending with the ultimate failure: death.

I’m not worried about death. I never worried much, and I stopped completely on 9/11. I was flying that morning, and when my plane landed in Chicago and I saw the towers in flames, I realized that if I’d changed to a non-stop, as I’d thought of doing the night before, my plane would have “landed” in the World Trade Center. I would have been dead. And then I realized: “Not my problem.” I’d be dead. Bobbi and the kids might have a problem, but not me.

When I asked the father of a family friend what he thought about dying he said, “I don’t get to find out what happens.” I feel a lot that way. Life is interesting. And even though I live my life in a trance it's  like watching a really good TV series, waiting for every new episode, and then discovering that it’s been canceled--in the middle of the season! Nothing gets resolved. There’s no closure. One day you're watching the next episode. Then next, it's just a blank screen.

The only thing that bothers about me being dead is the knowledge that I would have failed. I’d really like to live forever--or at least until my body is so ruined that I can’t drag it around anymore and my brain is so deteriorated that I don't know who anyone is. And if I died before Bobbi I'd feel I'd failed because I’ve promised that I would die after her and I don't like breaking promises. I imagine that if I died--no, when I die--I’ll cause unhappiness for at least a couple of my kids and maybe a few friends. I’d rather my departure was met with laughter rather than tears, but that's ultimately selfish. I'm not trying to spare them grief as much as sparing myself guilt over causing them grief. But never mind. I’ll be dead. So it’s all good.

But it’s not all good. There’s the thought of my own death and then there’s the thought of dying. That worries me. Will I suffer? Will I die well? (Which means: will I be proud of the role model I was for my kids as I went through the process of dying.)

I like the life that I live now, but I'm bothered by how little time I spend actually living it. Instead, I remember it. I spend too much time running MikeSim. I have great memories of what has happened, but I’d rather experience it as it happens and not remember things that seemed to have happened..

When I think about where I am in life’s journey, I see so many possibilities ahead, and I know that in the future I’ll at least have new, good memories to look back upon. But I’m likely not to have experienced a lot of what I expect that I’ll remember--unless I can manage to spend more time awake. Present. Here. Now.

One question that consumes me these days is: why do I so easily go into the trance that I retrospectively regret. And I think I might have an answer.

That comes in my next post in this series.

If I don’t die in the meantime.

Nov 19, 2017

Music: The Postal Service--Such Great Heights

A friend of mine sent me the video embedded below. It's a great song with a really interesting set of images to go it. 

According to YouTube User Dr. Tune:
This video was shot in a fab owned by Skyworks, who make radio-frequency chips (not microprocessors) found in a vast number of phones, wifi routers, etc. You very likely have a chip made on the equipment in the video in your pocket right now.   I don't think they physically handle the wafers like that though; some dramatic license -)

Today is World Gratitude Day. Celebrate!

Today is World Gratitude Day. Take some time and celebrate it. There’s research that says gratitude is good for you.
And it’s so easy!
  1. Pick something.
  2. Be grateful for it.
Boom! That’s all it takes.
That’s low effort and low-quality gratitude, but it’s still gratitude. You can do better by upping the quantity or the quality of your expressions of gratitude. For example, you can do this:
  1. Pick something.
  2. Take a moment and get clear in your mind what it is that you are grateful for.
  3. Take another moment and consider who or what helped bring that about.
  4. Express your gratitude to them directly or to other people.
Let me give you a couple of examples:
Example 1:
  1. I participate in several ongoing Google Hangout chat channels. I picked one of them.
  2. I thought about the fact it inspires me to be more mindful, more ware, and more creative.
  3. I thought about the other guys in the Hangout.
  4. I sent a message, thanked them, and said why.
Example 2:
  1. I picked my life, today, as something that I am grateful for.
  2. I thought about it clearly.
  3. So many contribute! But I picked my past self: Past Me.
  4. I silently said thanks.
Example 3:
  1. I invented World Gratitude Day. Someone else may have invented it too, but I invented or reinvented it today.
  2. I thought about it and imagined what it could be.
  3. I picked my friends in the Hangout channel, who had (in part) inspired me to invent it. I thought about other friends who inspired me to make it better.
  4. I wrote this post.
So today is World Gratitude Day. This is my way of expressing appreciation for everything that has contributed to it, and to my being able to write this post.
Remember: most of the universe is dead. Most humans are dead. Be grateful while you have the chance.
Even if you’re completely selfish, it still pays to be grateful. It’s good for you, and it can be even better for you if you let other people know.
Today is World Gratitude Day. Which day? This day. Every day. Celebrate.

Nov 16, 2017

A meditation on memory

I have a lousy memory for tasks and social commitments, and a really good memory for facts. So when I couldn't remember a name that I thought I would know, was sure I would know, and didn't know, it shocked me. I had a name-sized hole in my memory.

I don't remember everything that I've ever learned, but I when a fact doesn't come immediately to mind my brain gives me a signal: I know it and I'll remember it pretty quickly; or it will take some effort, but I'll get it; or it will take a lot of effort, and I might or might not get it; or I won't be able to retrieve it, but when it's told to me, I'll recognize it; and very occasionally I know that even if someone told me the answer, I would not reliably recongize it.

So here's the missing fact, the name of my one of my daughter's dogs. I know that I know it. I'm surprised that it doesn't come to me instantly, but I'm confident that it will appear soon. But it doesn't. I try a little. No luck. I try harder. Still no luck. And suddenly I'm sure that I'll recognize it when I hear it, but I'm not going to get it on my own. But I should know it.

My memory is full of all kind of facts. One of my sons-in-law has made me aware of this: when I tell him something interesting that I've read, I'll often accompany the facts with the name of the book or article where I learned it, and the name of the author. And then there's random stuff. Like right now, idly thinking about the kinds of things that I can remember, my brain starts pummeling me with random shit. Want to know the names of the Brooklyn Dodgers of my youth? Catcher: Roy Campanella. Infield: Gil Hodges, Billy Cox, PeeWee Reese, Jackie Robinson. Outfield: Carl Furrillo, Duke Snyder, and...who was in right field? I don't remember, but I'll recognize it if you tell me. And Hank Bauer played right field for the Yankees, along with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Yogi Berra was catcher and then Elston Howard, the first Negro (as he was called) Yankee. And in the Yankee infield, I remember Hank (Moose) Skowron (FB) and Phil Rizutto (SS). I'll probably recognize the rest if you tell me.

The championship Celtics of yesteryear?  When I lived near Boston it was Larry Bird, Kevin McHale,  Robert (The Chief) Parish, Scott Wedman, Dennis "DJ" Johnson.  And there's another guy who used to play guard and whose name eludes me for the moment. He ended up being the team's general manager. That's one that will come to me, my brain tells me. Just wait.

My brain keeps feeding me names. Paul Silas, the amazing rebounder famous for being so unable to jump that you couldn't slide a nickel under his shoes. Doc Rivers who played for the competition and became a Celtics coach. Tommy Heinson, player than a coach. Red Auerbach, the greatest coach, of course. Bill Havlicek, who I misremembered for a few moments as Bob. His name comes to me through the voice of the Celt's broadcaster, Johnny Most Here/s Johnny shouting "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!” as the Celts win.

Which reminds me of Gerald Henderson taking a pass from Larry Bird ("Bird stole the ball') on a lazy inbounds pass that he flipped to Henderson who stuffed it to beat the Lakers in a game that the Lakers had locked up. I remember Kevin Garnett and (pause, I see an image and need a moment to match a name to an image, and yes, it's...) Paul Pierce. Garnett, Pierce, and someone else who came to the Celts in a deal that was put together by...Danny Ainge. Yes! That's the guy I couldn't remember. And Rajim Rondo played point guard.

Other names linger at the periphery of my memory and beg to be invited in. There's Mike Krzewsky (OK Google, it's spelled Krzyewski, but I think I did pretty well, and next time I'll get it right because I can sing it to the Rzeszutek song). Coach K who came to the Celtics from...was it Kansas? No, memory is wrong. Google says it was Duke. And says the Celts offered him the job, but he declined. Fake memory.

Nate Archibald who is called “Tiny” but was around 6’2" (Google says 6'1", that's around). Not so tiny. But there were some really tiny players I can remember. Muggsy Bogues. And Calvin Murphy. Google says Mugsy was 5'3", the shortest player ever to play in the NBA (14 years.)  And Calvin was 5'9"

I've used Google while editing this to fill in the details and it's reminded me of other names. But here I'll only record the ones that came without help. Chris Ford played guard and later coached the Celts. Danny Ainge not only played professional basketball but also baseball, and if I recall correctly, for Toronto (that's the Blue Jays, not the Raptors).  (Google agrees and tells me he played baseball before he graduated, basketball afterward)

And then Bill Walton. I remember that for a while the Celtics were the only team in the NBA that could put five star-quality white players on the floor:  Bird, McHale, Walton, Ainge, Wedman.  I remember the Valentine's Day Massacre when the Celtics killed the Rival Lakers, Wedman pouring in 3-pointers. But I misremember it. It was Memorial Day, not Valentines. And I don't remember the final score, other than it was embarrassing to the Lakers. Courtesy of Wikipedia it was 148-114.

ML Carr returns to memory, waving his towel and getting the fans riled up. And some white guy with an Italian last name Scarlotti? (My brain tells me that I’m not gonna get it without help--Scalabrini, thank you Google) And there was another great center, a red-head whose name eludes me. (Dave Cowens, thanks, Google)

Basketball player names from other teams fly into my head. Famous ones like Kobe Bryant. Almost famous like the graceful Laker James Worthy--a worthy opponent for years. More obscure like Vinnie “Microwave” Something (Johnson says Google) who played for Detroit and regularly racked up points from Detroit. Isiah Thomas. Wes Unseld. Downtown Freddie Brown. Doctor J. Bill Laimbeer, a center for Detroit. Moses Malone. Stop, already!

I could go on for hours. But I won't. My brain is full of all sorts of odds and ends like that.

The thing is: if I can remember all those names and assorted facts, remember the names of all my daughter’s other dogs, past and present, the dogs we had, the dogs my family of birth had, why couldn't I remember Marble? And why did I think that I could?

Nov 13, 2017

An Evernote Alternative

In this post, I talked about my use of Evernote and my desire for an alternative.

Here I'm going to riff about the way I'd like my alternative to work and maybe a little about how I plan to attack the problem.

There are two subproblems: on desktop machines and on mobile. For desktop machines, I'll consider Chrome. For mobile, Android.

My current Chrome workflow starts with either a search or a post on a social media site that leads me to an interesting initial page. As I'm reading, I may control-click to open linked pages in new tabs and let the new pages load in the background. Depending on the content I may continue through the initial page, move from the initial page to one or more linked page, or move back and forth. From a linked page, I may open more pages. The path that I've taken to get to a page that I decided to clip is useful, and that information is currently lost.

When I find something sufficiently interesting, I use the Evernote Web Clipper to capture what I want, but there are problems. It's got a hotkey, but I usually click on the icon to start the clipping option. It brings up a dialog that lets me make some clipping options: for example, clip the whole page, clip the contents (don't use the full CSS, but simplify it), clip a selection, choose tag and notebook. If I've selected some text, it highlights the text. If I haven't, it moves the page back to the start and shows me what I'm going to clip. It also lets me decide what notebook to use (it tries to guess) and what tags to use. It also has a Save button.

I can change these, but usuallyI don't. When I click Save, it starts clipping. Once that happens, the clipper blocks navigation on that page. So I don't clip a page as soon as I decide it's worth clipping because would stop me from continuing to read it. Instead, I wait until I've read it, or until I've decided to switch tabs. The clipper works in the background, but sometimes it's really slow. If I clip the same page several times I end up with several copies rather than one copy with a reference count.

The current mode of operation is:

  1. I initiate the action
  2. A dialog appears so I can change the action
  3. I click Save to cause the operation to proceed
  4. When the operation is finished, I dismiss the dialog
Instead, I'd like it to happen this way:

  1. I initiate the action
  2. It starts, in the background. 
  3. It briefly displays something that tells me what it's doing
  4. I can dismiss the dialog or interrupt it and change
All clipping happens in the background. First information is moved to local storage, then from local storage to the cloud. Once information is backed up to the cloud it's removed from local storage. If the backup operation is interrupted, say by closing my laptop cover or disconnecting, it continues when I've got connectivity. If I try to close a tab or window while backing up to local storage, I get a warning dialog--or just a delay.

I'd like to be able to tell my clipper to do things in all of the following ways:

  • Press a hotkey or an icon to start an operation
  • If something is selected, then it's implicitly the text that is to be saved, otherwise, it's the page
The actions I can take are:
  • Clip
    • If something is highlighted, clip the page and the highlighted part
    • If nothing highlighted, clip the page if not already clipped
  • Unclip: if something has been clipped by default, remove the clip
  • Tag (or change tags) for a page or a highlighted part of a page
By default, whenever I tag a page or part of the page, any page I open from it inherits its tags.

Whenever I clip anything, I want the full path to the content saved along with the clip. For full page clips, it's the page URL, plus a reference to the link on the referring page (recursively, if necessary; I don't want to lose information on how I got to the clipped content). For search page links the reference might not be useful, but a quick check shows me that Google search result elements may have attributes (like data-ved) that may contain useful information.

For more-or-less static pages, the reference would be a CSS path to the referring link element.   

When I clip highlighted sections I want to save a CSS selector that gets the element containing the high

If I clip several excerpts from a page--even in different sessions--I'd like to have them presented together. 


Step 1 is to create a plugin, and solve the following problems:

  • Inject a script into a page.
  • The script will listen for a hotkey
    • Grab URL, page contents, and text if any selected
    • Display an informative dialog and cause it to vanish after a delay
    • Listen for other hotkeys during delay
      • Suspend save and display an options dialog
      • Cancel save
      • Undo last operation
    • Save information
      • URL
      • Page contents
      • Text if any has been highlighted

Nov 12, 2017

My Evernote blogging notebook.

I've been an Evernote user for a long time. Occasionally I pay them money for their premium version which I don't use. But I might someday. Like today. Maybe. Or maybe tomorrow.

This is not an endorsement of Evernote. I have problems with it and writing about it has brought thos problems into sharp relief. So much so that I am going to spend some time looking into a way to replace it.

But first the good:

Evernote's concept is great. It makes it easy to collect and organize interesting web content in the cloud. Instead of setting (and forgetting) a bookmark, I can copy a whole web page or a part of one. What I've bookmarked might be changed or might disappear, but what I've copied is forever. And it's better because there's no way to search bookmarks. Evernote has search tools for its web interface and tools that integrate with Google's search.

So, in theory, I can copy a page or part (Evernote calls it clipping) and Evernote will let me find it. In practice, it's mainly been a write-only memory. I've now got a collection of more than 2230 notes, the oldest one dated to 2010. And I rarely do anything with them. But they are there.

On Chrome I clip pages with the Evernote Web Clipper extension. I click the icon or press a hotkey and Evernote saves it for me. On Android, I've installed the Evernote App, which lets me save things using the Android sharing feature.

Nice things: it automatically classifies my posts, and that generally works well. It lets me tag my content, but I don't take advantage of it. I can organize my stuff in "notebooks" and share notebooks or individual notes with specific users. It's also possible to share with the world, but unfortunate, that's tricky.

In 2011 I started a notebook called "Blogging" that contained articles on blogging. Much later I clipped a few articles that I thought were worth blogging about but I never did anything with them. Now 41 blog-worthy articles in that notebook, including two from yesterday.

Here's a link to my blogging notebook. I wasn't able to create it using the web version of Evernote. Instead, I had to go to a Windows machine and download the Windows version of Evernote and do it there. Annoying. Why not make the web interface fully functional? Why not make it fast.

On review, I like Evernote in concept better than in execution. I've been criticizing myself for not using Evernote more than I do, but maybe it's not just me. Maybe it's Evernote.

So here's my initial design for an Evernote Alternative.

Nov 9, 2017

Nearly 75 years old. WTAF?

Seventy-fifth birthday in less than two months. Nearly five years writing this particular blog, off and on (mostly off). So? So what's it like being nearly a three-quarters of a century old? What have I learned in that time? What do I want to do next? What do I think about my life? What do I think about the world as it is? Where do I think the world is going? When am I going to stop asking myself such questions?

That last one I can answer. Now.

And now for some other answers.

Q: What's it like being nearly three-quarters of a century old?

Answer: Feels about the same as usual.

In my mind, I'm not 75 (some part of me wants to calculate my exact decimal age, something like 74.88474 years old, but I'm going to resist taking the time to do this perfectly (thank God! says another part of my mind)). I'm not any particular age.

I think that I don't have the energy that I've had at earlier times. I think that's partly due to the body wearing down, partly due to not having taken my Morning Modafinil (fixed), partly due to lack of motivation for what I am doing, and partly (related) to spending too many cycles on unresolvable existential problems. Are those last parts true?

Yes, I think, in part. This is not going to be one of the greatest posts that I've ever written, but (as almost always) the very fact of sitting here, seeing words appear, pleases me. The difference between the way I feel writing this post and writing one that I'm really proud of (say the one about Past Me, Present Me, Future Me) is small, relative to the difference between the way I feel writing this post (I'll call it a Mediocre Post) and writing nothing at all.

So why not just get up in the morning and write today's Mediocre Post. And if it turns into a Pride Inducing Post, so be it. But why not just do that?

The answer, I think, it simple and kind of stupid.

I forget.

Take the energizing idea of every day taking a moment to be grateful to Past Me, and committing part of the day doing things that will benefit Future Me. I consciously turned that into a regular routine. Then when I had my knee surgery, the routine broke down. And now what? I expect it to start up again? By itself?

I think I should know better than that. But I don't know better. Therefore my thought "I should know better is" in error because all thoughts of the form "reality should be different than it is" are wrong by definition.

So that's a partial answer to the first question: this is what it's like (for me) being nearly three-quarters of a century old. I'm still solving the same old problems. I'm still forgetting my solutions or forgetting an important element of the solution. Then I have to re-invent the old solution or come up with a new one.

Am I making progress? Yes. But slower than it could be.

Q: What have I learned in that time? A: That. Among other things.

Q: What do I want to do next? Well, first of all: thank you Past Me. You've gotten me here. And I appreciate that. And I'm going to find some things that I can do for Future Me. Like finishing this post.

Q: What do I think about my life? A: It's great. Yes, it could be different, but I don't care to make it so. This morning, I was thinking about a different life--a minimal life where I had a small apartment in an urban area. I got up in the morning, went down to my favorite coffee shop and wrote. I walked to a nearby library or bookstore, and read. After a full day, I went home and went to sleep. Occasionally I did laundry. That would be a nice life. But I'd miss things that I love about this life: living with my best friend in this beautiful place. Having kids and grandkids and friends.

There are lives that it would suck to live, but there are so many other lives that would be great to live. Too bad that I can't live them all. But maybe I can. I can imagine doing that. So why not?

Q: What do I think about the world as it is? It's fascinating. It's amazing. It's interesting. It's a vast playground where I can create and appreciate the creation of others.

Q: Where do I think the world is going? A: I don't know. I can imagine things getting incredibly better. I can imagine them getting horribly worse. I think it's fun to speculate. Parts of the world are completely bizarre. I wonder: who could make this shit up? But human imagination and creativity are such that the answer must be: lots of people could. And some have. And that's why it is the way that it is.

A: When am I going to stop asking myself such questions? A: I think now it a good time.

Oct 26, 2017

The artificial super-intelligences among us--and the historical values alignment problem

The AI values alignment problem is not new. We've had AIs for millennia. We just have not called them AIs. We've called them tribes. And nations. And corporations. And society.

But they all fit the definitions of artificial intelligence--and artificial super-intelligence. They are artificial, more intelligent than individual humans, and self-improving. And they often have values different than the values of their creators or component humans. So we've had AI values alignment problems for as long as we've had these sorts of AIs.

AI is entering a new phase. Machine Intelligence is rapidly becoming the dominant part of Artificial Intelligence. And the evolution of AI is accelerating as never before. That may make the values alignment problem harder, but not necessarily different.

Looking at human history as a long series of conflicts among competing AI and a constant battle for values alignment may provide some insight and suggest some new solutions. I hope so. Otherwise I've spent a lot of time thinking about this for nothing.

The longer argument (which I may expand into a series of posts amplifying some of these points)
  1. AIs already exist. They consist of groups of humans, connected by technology. Governments, corporations, political parties are examples of such AIs. They are intelligent and artificial.
  2. Many of today's AIs are more intelligent (as measured by range and speed of problem-solving abilities and creativity--or even IQ tests) than almost all humans. They qualify as artificial superintelligences.
  3. Although these AIs are created, and partially controlled by humans, they have their own objectives and act semi-autonomously:
    1. Some actions are under direct control (or close supervision) of humans of varying levels of (natural) intelligence
    2. Some actions are controlled by automated systems of varying levels of artificial intelligence with varying levels of supervision.
  4. Over time, AIs have become increasingly autonomous. That is: fewer of their actions are carried out under direct, thoughtful human control and more are carried out by automatic systems, including humans who are mindlessly following procedures.  
  5. AIs are not monolithic. They are composed of multiple autonomous and semi-autonomous intelligences--some of which are humans some of which are identifiably separate AIs, and some of which are shifting coalitions of intelligences
    1. When AIs are created, they are given explicit objectives by their creators. AIs are able to refine their objectives and create sub-objectives. In some cases, they modify their objectives so completely that their current objectives are opposed to their original objectives.
    2. AIs also have implicit objectives. Implicit objectives include:
      1. Survival
      2. Increasing resources and power
      3. Self-modification for greater efficiency
      4. Optimal assignment of resources to objectives
      5. Avoiding destructive conflicts
      6. Adapting to a changing environment (including other AIs) 
      7. Controlling other AIs and avoiding the control of other AIs
    3. AIs must decide what resources (including subordinate AIs) to apply to each objective. 
    4. An AI can survive even if it devotes no resources to its explicit objectives (though probably it has to devote resources to appearing to move toward those objectives). It cannot survive if it does not apply resources to its implicit objectives.
    5. AIs self-improve today by acquiring computer and communication systems, connecting their human intelligence to those systems, and through those systems connecting them to other intelligences, natural and artificial.
    6. Some AIs are developing computer systems that can replace all human components. They will do this to the extent that this forwards their objectives and without necessary regard for human well-being.
    7. Most AIs are under constant attack:
      1. From AIs competing for resources
      2. From AIs seeking to control, or even absorb them
      3. From AIs seeking to escape control
    8. The societies of nation states and human civilization as a whole are AIs attempting to survive while under constant attack. Human history, viewed through this lens, is a long struggle for AI values alignment. 
    9. This view may suggest new ways to look at the alignment problems created by the rapid increase in Machine Intelligence. 

    Oct 24, 2017

    Dzogchen hints

    After (finally) posting "Avoiding the Core Teachings of the Buddha" I scrolled through my blog drafts looking for something that I thought I'd started to write. Instead, I found this fragment, relevant to my last post. I've cleaned it up, and In just a moment it will be posted. Yay, one less draft.

    Sam Harris' experience comes from one of the lesser known branches of Buddhist practice, called Dzogchen. Researching it, I found this and this which describes several approaches to Buddhist practice.

    But the best description (at least the one I like best) is this one:

    > Hinayana is like a bicycle. It is slow, and carries only one person, but it’s cheap, simple, and gets you there in the end. Mahayana is a bus: when you drive the vehicle, you bring many people with you. Tantrayana is a sports car: it is fast, dangerous, and not for most people. Dzogchen is a teleportation booth: it’s instantaneous. (from here)

    That's what waking up has felt like. Teleportation.

    Unfortunately, it's impermanent and unsatisfying.

    And I'm working on understanding the third Characteristic of Existence.

    Avoiding the Core Teachings of the Buddha

    Scott Alexander wrote a review of a book called "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha." by Daniel Ingram. I got a copy from Amazon using the link at the end of Scott's post, which I guess put a few pennies in his pocket, well deserved. And I started to read it. And read it. And read it. Holy crap, it's 400 pages long. And scary as hell.

    Well, not scary. Just intimidating. 

    I might have been set up for intimidation listening to a Podcast discussion between Sam Harris and Thomas Metzinger. Metzinger is "professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany." He's been studying consciousness, and to that end has been meditating for around forty years. And somewhere in the podcast, he says (criticising some of his colleagues) something like this: that people who are serious about understanding consciousness do things like taking drugs, traveling to India to find a guru, and they become committed meditators. People who don't do that aren't serious. Metzinger and Harris have both done that. So have others in the field who I admire. I have not.

    I claim an interest in understanding consciousness, but according to Metzinger's criteria, I'm not that committed.

    Which is true, in part. Meditation is beneficial--I believe that. It's also hard. And I'm not great at doing stuff that I find hard unless I'm sufficiently threatened or rewarded. "Good for me" is not good enough. So if someone pointed a gun to my head and said: "Meditate!" I'd do it. And if someone paid me enough, I'd do it. In both cases, I'd work hard at it. And I'd probably get to be good at it. But not just because it's good for me.

    But to meditate just for the sake of--well who? For the sake of Future Me? Doing stuff for Future Me was not in my wheelhouse. My attitude was: "Fuck Future Me. What's he done for me?" And my attitude about Past Me and Present Me was not much better. Then I changed my attitude. And I changed some of my behavior.

    But I haven't changed my behavior about meditation, yet. I have changed my attitude. Ingram's book has done that--at least a little. This blog post is my way of processing what I've read, convincing myself that I want to commit to a regular practice, and then starting to practice.

    Ingram is critical of most Western Buddhist practices. He says that they combine Buddhism with new-age mysticism, shamanism, psychotherapy, and other non-nutritious additives. And because they fail to emphasize what Ingram identifies as the core teachings. The first of the core teachings is Three Characteristics of existence. He says:

    >The Three Characteristics are so central to the teachings of the Buddha that it is almost inconceivable how little attention the vast majority of so-called insight meditators pay to them. They are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.

    That's all familiar, sort of. But Ingram's take is not familiar. He takes, as the book is subtitled, a "hardcore" approach. Sure, life is impermanent. If you are sad, this too shall pass. If you are happy, wait a bit. The happiness will go. Buildings decay. Bodies get old and die.

    But Ingram says: "No!" It's not just that these large and visible things that are impermanent. Everything is impermanent. Everything. Everything that exists in this very moment will cease to exist and then rise again. It may look the same, but it's not. This sentence has winked in and out of existence every time I have typed a letter. And even more frequently.

    Ingram's recommended practice is not simply to "follow the breath" or "quiet the mind" or "notice the contents of consciousness" but to look even more closely and see that (or see if) each and every perception, and every part of every perception is arising and passing away. And unsatisfactory. And has no essence.

    Everything. All the time.

    Experience is the gold standard for testing such theories. I read something. I try something. And then I see what happens. And here's where I find Ingram's book particularly interesting.

    Before I explain my experience with Ingram's book, let me recap my experience after reading Sam Harris' book "Waking up." I wrote about it here among other places. My experience was profound and I tried to parlay it into a regular practice.

    Harris seems to identify with the Dzogchen Tibetan Buddhist lineage. So I did some research. I learned that what I'd gotten from Harris was a classic Dzogchen technique called "pointing out instruction." Any word description of a transcendent state must be inadequate, so a teacher does more than give the student a practice that will lead there. The teacher points in a direction so that the student is looking in the right direction, and will recognize the state when it arrives.

    Harris' pointing out instructions (as I understood them) were:

    1. Ordinary meditation is like being told to look out a window for "something that you'll realize is different when you see it."  Harris says: if you're told to look out a window and not told that what you are looking for is your reflection, you might spend years looking and never see it. But if you know what you're looking for you'll see it faster.

    2. Harris points out that the experience you are looking for is like the feeling you might have when you're watching a really good movie, absorbed in the lives of the characters on the screen and suddenly realize that you're sitting in a dark room watching light projected on a wall.

    I've looked out a window. I've seen my reflection. I've been in a movie theatre and suddenly realized I was watching a movie, not living the life of a character. So thanks to Harris' pointing out instructions, I had a good idea of where to look and what I might expect.

    Further, he says:
    3. If you want to determine whether something is an illusion or real, look at it closely. If it breaks up and becomes something else--or disappears--then it's likely an illusion. If not, it's likely real. So when you have the waking up experience in (2) examine "that which just woke up" to see whether it is an illusion.

    So when I experienced a moment of realizing that I was "watching the movie of my life" I did realize that this was the gateway experience I was seeking: "waking up." I noted it and the feeling intensified. And then I examined the self that had woken up. And bang! The world changed for me. The feeling that my "self" was an illusion was profound and consistent with Buddhist teachings on the nature of consciousness and of reality. I've repeated the experiment many times, and I always have the same transcendent feelings.

    Like right now.

    Ingram sends me back to recreate those experiences, and examine them more closely. The moment of waking up, and the moment of seeing self as an illusion are similar. They both have a timeless quality. A pleasurable, almost blissful quality. And yet...

    Looking closely, I see that what seems timeless is impermanent--the antithesis of timelessness. What seems so satisfying is ultimately unsatisfying, and not just because what was so valuable is lost so quickly. There's something unsatisfying in the very nature of the state. The world seems luminous. Magical. I can feel space and objects in the space. I'm not looking at them. Nor am I identified with them. Everything is itself, what it is and where it is, not in relationship to me, or anything else. All that is simply is. Wow! Great huh! Well, it seemed that way.

    But it's as profoundly unsatisfying as it is profoundly beautiful. For one thing, it's impermanent. No sooner do I have that experience than I collapse back into a sense of "self" thinking about the meaning of the experience. And during the moment of the experience what can I do besides gawk? Not much it seems. So: remaining in that state is dissatisfying. And leaving it is dissatisfying.

    But, Ingram tells me, that's not unusual. You go from no-enlightenment to full enlightenment--Buddhahood, if you will--by following a path that's been mapped out and refined by seekers in many Buddhist traditions over the course of 2,500 years. Follow the path and you'll experience a progression of mental/emotional/spiritual/perceptual/psychological changes, some of which are blissful and some of which are depressing. Once you start on the road, according to mapmakers, you continue--quickly or slowly. "Better not to start. Having started, better to finish." Ingram quotes one tradition.

    No, depressing is not the worst of it. There are stages that he calls (borrowing from a Christian mystic tradition) the "dark night of the soul." And, he counsels, they can last a long time, especially if you become disoriented and go around in circles, or head off in the wrong direction.

    I'd never heard anything like that before. Meditation is hard, but the worst of it is mind-numbing boredom, isn't it? No, Ingram says. If you get in trouble, boredom is the least of your problems.

    The answer is: too late. I didn't have a choice anymore. I'd traveled well past the point of no return. I could hope to avoid the consequences of my actions--but I would probably fail. Or I could learn the map, figure out what I needed to do next, and then do it.

    And then, just this last weekend, long after starting this post, I experienced what may have been a version of the dark night. I found myself depressed. Paralyzed. I don't know what I would have done had I not read Ingram and believed that this was a stage and was impermanent. But it was a sucky, sucky, sucky day.

    And now it's another day. Last night I started to renew my practice. This morning I did a meditation session.

    Now I've finished writing this post. And shortly I will post it.

    And what do I make of this feeling?

    Only that it's impermanent. That it's unsatisfying. And it's empty of essence. It's nothing.

    Paradoxically, that seems like progress.

    But that will pass.

    Oct 15, 2017

    Purpose lost, purpose regained

    The other day, frustrated, confused, I sat down to try and clarify what I knew.

    I am conscious, I wrote.

    That's something about which I am certain. It cannot be an illusion, because if it was, then there would have to be something that experienced that illusion. And that something would have to be conscious.

    I might be confused about what the "I" was that conscious, I added. But something certainly was conscious.

    What next?

    Did I have a purpose?

    I thought for a while. Either I had a purpose and I did not know what it was, I wrote, or I had no purpose and had to create one for myself.

    I spent time thinking about that. Far, too much time. And then I remembered: I've been here before. And before that. And a year before that.

    Same answer, every time. My purpose is the purpose of the universe.

    Now really, how can I forget that I have a purpose? And how can I forget what it is?