Five in one

Here are four five pretty unrelated things that have been on my mind:

Entrepreneurs: sell vs befriend

I, like I am sure millions of other people, keep getting followed by all sorts of dealers who promise to “help small business” and lead to “explosive growth” on social media. Why do these people exist? How have they not been banned by everyone? Or will selling hope always be big business?

It would be nice to have a community of entrepreneurs. But what do entrepreneurs do? They sell and they compete. Trying to have a community of entrepreneurs is like trying to farm spiders. They will eat each other.

A community of this nature could only form based on prior friendship, where social bonds are stronger than the need to sell. But most of these communities offer to put you into a network for a small fee: this doesn’t exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. The circular nature of their business is also worrying. Conferences, seminars, mindset trainings, honestly…

I have, on the other hand, made many friends online, who happen to be entrepreneurs, but never directly in connection with their entrepreneurship. (You know who you are. Perhaps, some of you would like to meet my recently acquired Buddhist friend.)

Nietzsche: is it all lies?

I am quite worried about how things are unfolding in the US.

Nietzsche keeps getting brought up. He has to be the most misunderstood philosopher. Did his relatives doctor his writings too much after he died? Or is he just forever contradicting himself?

Any Nietzsche scholars very welcome to comment on this article of Nietzsche and the alt-right.

Curate or censor?

In other news, Google recently stopped Gab, apparently a sort of Twitter for people who get banned from Twitter, from being able to be downloaded from their Playstore. Apple stopped them a little earlier this year. Also, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom wants to curate the Internet.

Taleb is in a new battle with the establishment.

Vaccinate or die

France is tightening vaccination requirements. I support vaccines, of course. As a society though, are we better off having people die from preventable diseases or limiting their freedoms?

Diabetes is a preventable disease, but I don’t see anyone being confined to a gym by law. Though the herd immunity argument makes vaccines different. In addition, the fact that it is children who are affected makes vaccines different, but then again we can’t stop some people overfeeding their children with junk. I’ve taken enough trips on routes that serve hospitals to know that you don’t have to be above one year of age to be served Coke in your bottle.

Control

There is a philosophy that suggests that taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is the best way to live (e.g. William James).

I think that the world is one giant furnace of entropy and within that we each have a small island we call the self, where we can affect things. I cannot force someone to ask me to come to their party, but there is a myriad of things I can do to try to gently weasel my way into it.

The single most damaging thing I do, my worst bad habit, is fretting about things I cannot control. In other words, I feel responsible for things that are beyond my reach. I sit there and feel like a failure if I am not invited to the metaphorical party.

The question is: does this fretting push me to look for solutions that I wouldn’t have found if I just rested within my boundaries? Or are parts of William James and his followers’ philosophy just soothingly empowering wishful thinking? Or am I even doing damage by fretting and preventing myself from seeing ways to get into the party? Please share your thoughts on this last thing.

P.S. I couldn’t find a picture of a weasel, so here is a nice chilled out otter. I must take some of my own pictures soon.

Can we have both equality and diversity?

About the infamous Google Memo… Here is a review of reactions to the controversial piece.

Facts:

  • A Google engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo entitled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. [Read original]
  • It went viral via internal communication means within Google.
  • He got fired because of it.
  • (A less relevant, but curious fact: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, offered him a job and accused Google of censorship.)

Here are some interesting articles from both sides:

The Economist (sits on the fence)

“This isn’t a question of legality or policy. This is a question of virtue-signalling” [Read]

Bloomberg (argues it was wrong for Google to foreclose the debate so crudely)

“An employee trying to grapple with these problems — clumsily but earnestly — has now been shown the door, thanks mostly to performative online outrage.” [Read]

The Financial Times (denounces the author)

“Responding to the memo is somewhat challenging because it is almost pure drivel, offering up a mix of fallacies, mindless reductions of popular social science and hand-waving at ‘research.'” [Read]

The Atlantic (addressing the error-full coverage of the matter)

“To object to a means of achieving x is not to be anti-x.” [Read]

The Atlantic, again (agrees memo is discriminatory)

“The memo… seemed to dash hopes that much progress has been made in unraveling the systemic conditions that produce and perpetuate inequity in the technology industry. “[Read]

Slate (is pretty enraged)

“The manifesto suggests a culture that is inviting enough for someone who views some of his fellow employees as lesser to share his opinions and be cheered on” [Read]

Business Insider (highlights authors vulnerable legal position in the context of free speech)

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents the government from restricting your speech. It doesn’t restrict your employer from controlling your speech when you are at work, citing a Google manager: “freedom of speech is the right to freely express an opinion. It is most assuredly not the right to express an opinion with freedom from the consequences.”

Quillette (has four psychologists sustain points made my memo author)

“Psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.” [Read]

Right-wing Twitter is rallying to support the author of the memo:

Google memo right wing twitter commentary

A Linked influencer, Adam Grant (argues that differences between men and women are exaggerated)

“Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent.” [Read]

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (refutes Grant’s points)

“Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”.”

Something that occurred to me that I haven’t seen anywhere – and this neither disproves not confirms the memo author’s argument, but it’s something that I feel is important.

Assuming that average men and average women are different in their precise cognitive and emotional strengths, this bears very little significance when it comes to outliers. For its tech roles Google hires from the very top, i.e. from the extreme “end” of the right tail. Outlier men and outlier women don’t behave the same way as average men and women. In fact, outliers are virtually impossible to study with the same confidence that we study average people.

Very curious what you think.

And let’s keep the mood light 🙂

UPD: somebody invited me to Google image “white man and white woman” and “European people history”. What Google shows is below.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.28Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.46

One more point of information: Duck Duck Go search results are virtually the same. Make of it what you will.

UPD 2: Jordan Peterson, who himself was nearly kicked out of Google’s YouTube recently, interviews James Damore [Video]

Are we living at the end of an empire?

A thought experiment.

There is a nuclear war in morning. The capitals and major cities are all gone. You happened to have been visiting your aunt in Castle’elsewhere, a cute provincial town, and remained alive and well.

In the wake of the war, you realise that life will never be the same. There is an army barracks that remained unharmed down the road from your aunt’s house. The commanding officer is used to taking orders and is awaiting them. They aren’t coming. Your cousin just returned from the neighbouring Castle’nowhere and said that people have started looting the local shopping centre. Someone has to take charge and you’re not in the habit of relying on others. You win the trust of the commanding officer and now have an army at your disposal – although not much else.

What is the first thing that you do?

thought experiment philosophy

I would find food for the army. My particular Castle’elswhere happens to be in Ireland. We have milk and beef galore, and even some barley and rapeseed oil. Some artisanal cheese. Guinness and Jameson. But the ports are all in tatters and it will be a while until we will manage to import food. Scurvy is a real threat: there is no vitamin C on this island.

I am now Commanderina-in-Chief Martina and I have an army of malnourished men whose teeth will soon start falling out and their clothes are wearing thin. A man who used to grow a few carrots for himself arrives at my doorstep and explains that he can provide a steady supply of carrots, rich in Vitamin C. Let’s call him Captain Orange. Captain Orange is the only man in the country who had the foresight/luck/interest in growing carrots – and the ports are still closed, so he has no competitors. Captain Orange soon becomes a very rich and powerful man as he has something I need to retain my power. I make a deal with him that we should only supply a certain amount of carrots, enough to keep the army healthy and as for the general population we need to supply just over the scurvy-threshold because if we supply more that, it will weaken our power and if we supply less, there will be riots. Power, eh.

how does power work thought experiment

Back to the real world.

This got me thinking of the Googles and Facebooks – the multinationals in Ireland. The lads here aren’t the programmers/engineers that would be able to solve ubercomplex problems (I imagine they are mostly in California). They are human resources, corporate social responsibility, account managers, etc. In the event of such a near apocalyptic event, of what use are the official skills of the majority of these people?

During my short stint in a multinational, I used to always wonder how come there are so many people literally busy doing nothing, or something I simply didn’t understand. Making slides about making slides and trackers about other trackers.

The multinational is Captain Orange. They come to the government and tell them that they have what the government so needs to keep the population just over the (first world) poverty line: jobs. Not just in Ireland, but in lots of places. By moving to Ireland and paying let’s say 10,000 people wages to do nothing  corporate back/middle office jobs, they still save money on tax. By coming to other countries they will gain something else: the points isn’t that Ireland is a tax haven. The point is about solving problems. As Arthur Schopenhauer used to say, talent hits a target no one else can hit and genius hits a target no one else can see. Yes, we all know their product is phenomenal. But the real problem they solve, and the reason they have so much clout, isn’t what it seems. Genius, not just talented. The more enduring the problem and the more efficacious the solution, the more leverage you get.

The next thing I wondered about were our first world problems. Are we living in an age that’s analogous to the end of the Roman empire?

  • Tremendous centralisation and its cousin globalisation.
  • Society is tearing itself apart: different camps of Westerners seem to have more in common with other “tribes” than with each other (just think Clinton supporters vs Trump supporters). Diversity of thought is good, but this is diversity of non-thought. Most of these people aren’t pro x, y, z, they are anti a, b, c.
  • Research is mass produced for the sake of being published and isn’t really coming up with anything hugely new or even worthwhile.
  • The buildings of today look worse than the buildings of 100 years ago, even accounting for survivorship bias. Same with music. Same with art.
  • Lack of innovation. True monopolies: the two main credit card companies, call them V and M, are basically the same entity in their business practices, they interchange staff and outsource to each other in different countries. And they are also indispensable as far as the state is concerned. They aren’t the only example, of course. We neither incentivise innovation, nor do we have as burning a need for it. And then we wonder where the inequality comes from.
  • Changes in sexual behaviour: described pretty well by Gary Wilson

I am by no means saying that things are worse today than they were 100 years ago. But it is a different environment: where do we go from here?

UPD:

On a recent walk, I took these two pictures from the same place:

decline of the western civilisation

The above pier was built in 1821. Look dreamy.

western civilisation coming to an end

The structure closest to us was built in the 1980s. Looks dystopian.

When they dig up our stuff in 5,000 years, what will they say?

Mindfulness is pointless – and that’s the point

It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.

The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.

psychology of mindfulness

While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…

At the root of all suffering is attachment.

Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.

mindfulness philosophy psychology

Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.

Google, having a finger in virtually every pie, have a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. It’s mission is stated as:

Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.

Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.

mindfulness isn't a positive psychology hack

Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.

Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.

His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.

The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.

Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.

As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.

That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,

For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.

Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.

The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?

We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.

It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.

philosophy behind mindfulness
Observing the clouds pass by without chasing them

In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.

In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.

Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.

mindfulness non attachment

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