90 second book review: The End of Faith

I’ve been stuck on this review for a while, but we are leaving tomorrow for a mini vacation to New Hampshire, so I decided to just get down what’s in my head and check it off the list.  It’s not going to get any better with time – at least for now.  One the plus side I am actually completing this review before I have completed the book I picked up after i (Sapiens…although I do only have 17 pages left, which I intend to get through as soon as I hit publish on this post ;-)).  And I did actually read another book after it which I am not going to do a review of since it was for fun.  I am getting closer to getting these done as I finish the books and before I start the next one.  But still not quite there.  Maybe they’re better with a little time?  I heard somewhere that the real reading happens when the eyes are off the page anyway,

The subject of this review is End of Faith by Sam Harris.  I first heard of Sam Harris on an interview he did on the Joe Rogan podcast.  I put him in the same mental bucket as I had Daniel Siegel in: scientists who have a thing or two to say about the reality behind mindfulness and meditation.  Mr. Harris (had to look up whether it was Dr…couldn’t find anything that said so in a quick search, so my apologies if I missed it) certainly does have some interesting things to say about those topics, but he has a lot more to say about a few other topics.   After subscribing to his (fairly recent) podcast and listening / watching a few of his youtube videos, I discovered that Mr. Harris is considered to be one of the leading voices of the modern atheist movement.  While not an atheist myself, I must admit I was captivated by someone who had such interesting things to say about the mind, present moment awareness and even spirituality, yet was also an atheist.

So it was that when on a trip to Half Price Books that I saw End of Faith in the Philosophy section, I had to buy it.  I was done in about 10 days, but that was more than 3 weeks ago.  I’m still not quite sure what I think about what he had to say in this book.  I picked it up with the idea (he would say intention) that I would disagree with most of what he had to say.  And there are some wide disagreements.  But there is also a lot that he has to say that I can’t find any holes in.

That being said, I’m still not sure that it was a book that I enjoyed.  I am not the most well read person with the largest vocabulary.  But I would consider myself in the top 25% or so.  Inflated self image or not, I found it a struggle to decrypt some of his sentences.  The phrasing and vocabulary was so complex, verging on obtuse, that I wasn’t quite sure what he meant sometimes.  This is more likely a commentary on my own mental abilities rather than his, but it did get in the way of my complete understanding of what he was trying to say.

One of the most surprising outcomes from reading The End of Faith is the amount of sympathy I developed for Mr. Harris.  I can imagine that he must find it difficult to fit in with most mainstream labels (left/right, conservative/liberal) based on his viewpoints on things like religion, immigration, the role of the state and even gun control.  I may be projecting, but I have some of the same issues – having to pick and choose what topics are OK and which are out of bounds depending on who I am talking to.  I am even more sensitive to this after reading Haidt’s book.

He covers a variety of different topics in the book, but one that has gained it (and perhaps him) the most notoriety is the screed against Islam.  I agree with one of his main points here: the intersection of relatively easily available planet destroying weapons and a faith that is OK with destroying the planet (at least a portion of it…the faith…not the planet) is unprecedented and calls us to do more than live and let live when it comes to matters of belief.  After that we part ways on the topic of Islam.

One point he tries to make a few times is that Islam today is just like Christianity was in the 14th century.  However, for some unstated reason, he claims that Islam will not be able to go through a similar moderation / transformation as Christianity.  It could be that he believes that some radical Islamist will prove that Sagan’s idea about Fermi paradox was right, but I didn’t see this plainly presented.

Even more egregious is his overwhelming….faith….in the the state.  For a man that claims to be an atheist, he seems to exhibit many of the behaviors of a state worshiper.  His solution to the Islamist problem seems to be to bomb them out of existence.  This flys counter to his self described rationalism since that’s exactly what we have been doing in the past few decades and to what effect?  ISIS is far worse in simple terms of human suffering than Saddam’s Royal Guard ever was.  My understanding of the rationalist approach is to take in real data now and again to update your rational model of the way the world should work, but perhaps that is reserved to the empiricist subset of the rationalists?  Mr. Harris goes so far as to not only call for increased violence to end the threat of future violence, but also denies that past violence has done anything to escalate the present violence.  It boggles the mind.  My mind anyway.

If not by violence, what will “save” us from the threat represented (in Mr. Harris’ mind anyway) by Islam?  It has to be the through better ideas.  If Islam is to moderate and follow the same path that 14th century Christianity did, it has to be through the marketplace of ideas.  This will not be a fast or an easy process, but its the only one that will work.

One claim that I have heard Mr. Harris make in a few different venues is that intentions matter.  I agree with this whole heartedly.  Setting an intention and making it real matters.  But the results of your intentions matter as much if not more.  This isn’t to say that you can’t make mistakes when trying to make your intentions real in the world.  Making mistakes is part of learning.  Making the same mistakes over and over again is incompetence or malice.  Perhaps he’s never heard that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  On second thought, he probably has…he just doesn’t think there is such a place.

The Geek of Zen: Personal productivity system update

One of my unofficial new year’s resolutions (all of them have been unofficial for the last few years…makes it more of a surprise – even to me – when they happen) was to be more intentional about how I spend my time. Perhaps its a bit of “a pirate looks at forty” (a few years too late), but I’d like to think its just a normal part of the self discovery process I’ve been going through.  The biggest benefit of that process has been the discovery and practice of mindfulness (aka present moment awareness or merely presence).  And although it may seem odd at first, having a good system to keep track of everything is a great way to stay present.

Over the past 8 months I have tried and adapted the Getting Things Done method for personal productivity and I really think I have it pretty well tuned at this point.  I first heard of GTD years ago.  I bought and read the book, gave it a try using a combination of franklin planners and US Robotics Digital Organizers (Palm Pilot before it was Palm) and dropped out of regular practice with little thought or fanfare.  I wanted the results of having the system, but wasn’t ready or willing to put the work in to make it work for me.

Flash forward to the start of this year and I decided to give it another go. I reread the book over the Christmas holiday and came up with an updated approach to implement it based on what works for me.  With a few tweaks here and there, this is what I have iterated to (click for full size version):

GTD-2015There’s a lot in the diagram, but the two keys to making it work for me were “Inbox” and “Capture Device” identification.

I spent a lot of time identifying all of my regular “inboxes”.  In GTD speak, “inboxes” are places where work can show up.  Email is of course a big one, but so social is as well increasingly with things like Chatter at work and Slack at home.  After I identified all of my inboxes, I make a special effort to NOT live in them.  I know they are there, accumulating things, and I know (since I have them named) that I won’t “forget” about them and miss something.  I have regularly scheduled time to process what’s there.  The amazing thing is that I actually can get through all of them in an hour or less a day.

Next, I spent some time (and iterations) thinking about the capture devices I wanted to have.  I am currently using a total of 4 (or 6 depending on how you count things.  My capture for time constrained items continue to be Outlook connected to Exchange.  This is not optimal, since its a work system and it means I have both work and personal appointments in there, but its the one I know I can stick with and not be worried about missing anything.  I tried keeping a separate personal calendar on Google and then bring both together on my phone, but it never clicked.

My capture device for single step items and / or next actions for multi-step items (i.e. projects) is a digital task manager that debuted this past year called Swipes.  I originally learned of Swipes through its connection to Evernote, even though I don’t really use that any more.  Its a great to-do list manager, which for me consists of being able to capture new items quickly, complete them or push them forward easily and otherwise just stay out of the way.  Swipes does all of these (on all my platforms – Mac, Web and Android) quite well.

My capture device for projects and for reference is Evernote.  I’ve been an Evernote user for 6+ years although it finally clicked for me this year.  When I was thinking about my system at the start of the year, I came up with the idea to have Evernote notebooks for each project.  Nothing super inventive there.  The stroke of genius was coming up with the idea to then use the Notebook Stack function to group notebooks into Work – Active, Home – Active, Work – Incubate, Home – Incubate, Inbox (for later filing) and Reference groups.  As projects heat up I can move them from Incubate to Active.  As the cool down I can move them to incubate.  Later I realized that sooner or later projects do actually get done, so I created two more stacks: Work – Complete and Home – Complete.  This system has made all the difference.  Count me among the thousands (millions?) of converted Evernote die hard fans.

My fourth (and 5th and 6th….maybe 7th) capture device is a (few) notebook(s).  I am still experimenting with different sizes and purposes, but for now I am carrying a journal sized notebook from Lechtturm which I quite like for meeting and phone call notes.  At the end of each meeting I use my phone to capture the notes into Evernote.  That may sounds like a long way around the barn, but the reality is writing notes in a notebook comes off to the other people I am meeting with as far more respectful and my notebook is far less likely to distract me with a flashing light or buzzing sound.

In addition to that primary notebook, I also carry a pocket sized moleskin  with a bookmark flat ben in it with me almost everywhere I go.  This has been somewhat of a life changer.  David Allen was right when he said that there really is something magical about getting the ideas out of your head and into a trusted capture device.  I always have that notebook with me and really don’t care what’s in it.  So it’s an odd assemblage of notes, phone numbers, ideas, scratched out to do lists, etc.  I move things that are worth keeping to other capture devices daily or at most every other day, but otherwise use this small notebook merely to keep my mind free.  I have two other physical notebooks that I keep as well: a daily journal (severely lacking of entries lately) and a quote journal for capturing quotes that I find interesting or inspirational.  These last two are perhaps outside the scope of a productivity system, but I mention them here mainly since they sit with the others.

So that’s how my system stands as of September 2015.  I’m sure it will change in the coming months.  I just heard about the Bullet Journal method and there are a few things from that approach that I think I am going to steal.  I know it seems like I spent a lot of time worried about a system to help me get things done…when I could have just gone ahead and done them.  But remember, my goal was not just the largest checked off to do list at the end of each day.  Rather it was to be intentional about how I spend my time.  There is not shortage of things to do, but there is a shortage of time to do them in.  This system helps me manage the scarce resource to make sure its applied to the things that matter most to me.


Latest episode of Mason’s adventure in autodidaction

With the first full week of this year’s run at Mason’s adventure in autodidaction (Executive decison: from hence forth that will be the show name!) in the books, we sat down and did a week in review. If you’re interested in how he spent his days and what he’s picking up take a listen. I’m amazed that I learn almost as much as he does each week. Slow and steady wins the race.

90 Second Book Review: The Righteous Mind

I need to pick up the pace on getting these quick reviews done, with the goal of getting them hammered out pretty much as soon as I finish the book.  I finished this one a week ago and have already picked up and read into a couple of other books.  As a result, this review may not be as sharp (if any of them are ever sharp) since new ideas have started to take the place in my short term memory.  Nonetheless, I wanted to get this review out since I did thoroughly enjoy The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt reveals his motivations for writing the book become clear about midway through: as a self described liberal (in the modern, not classical sense) he was trying to help liberal politicians appeal to a broader audience in order to fare better in popular elections.  He felt that the characterization than conservatives simply triggered fear mechanisms in their constituents was far too simplistic an explanation which caused the left to miss something important.  He set about to answer this question through a combination of moral reasoning, psychology and group level selection as an evolutionary mechanism.  The result is an interesting view into how the human mind actually works, presented in three basic premises.

His first premise is that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”.  The analogy he uses to explain this premise is the elephant and the rider, where the rider is our rational consciousness and the elephant is our intuitions and emotions.  Haidt’s idea is that the elephant is in charge most of the time.  The rider can have influence now and again, but usually the elephant starts to head in a direction and then the rider just has to hold on and try to warn everyone who might be in the elephant’s path.  He argues that most people waste time when trying to influence others by talking to the rider, when they should be talking to the elephant.

His second premise is that “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness”.  This is where the book got really interesting.  The analogy he uses here is that of taste buds.  Just as humans have a distinct set of taste buds for sweet vs salty, etc they also have a distinct set of moral receptors that are sensitive to various moral questions.  Examples of these include the care vs. harm receptor or the fairness vs. cheating receptor.  He outlines a total of six different morality receptors, and even discusses a reformulation of one of his original receptors as he accumulated more data.  In researching this premise he found an answer to his original question.  What he found was that self described liberals are highly sensitive to three of the six moral receptors, where as self described conservatives are equally receptive to all six.

Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much trouble since 1980.  Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats.  Republicans speak more directly to the elephant.  They also have better grasp of the Moral Foundations theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.

His final premise is that “Morality Binds and Blinds”.  There are more fascinating ideas here as well.  The analogy he uses here is that the human mind is 90% money and 10% bee.  He admits to resorting to a somewhat controversial theory to support this idea, namely that of group selection in evolution.  This theory states that the principles of Darwinian evolution can also be applied to groups of individuals as well.  He gives a good example of this principle in action in discussing an experiment conducted on egg laying hens.  When highly productive individual hens were selectively bred to produce the next generation, overall egg production in the flock went down.  It turns out that highly productive hens have some characteristics that make them poor neighbors in a coop.  However, when the most productive coops (i.e the group) was selected as the basis for breeding the next generation, overall production did increase.  After defending the group selection theory, Haidt goes on to show how adaptations arising from group selection have driven us to bind together as a group as well as cause us to hold other groups at a distance.

The most interesting application of this idea are his ponderings on Religion as an outgrowth of this “hiveishness”.  The “Religion is a Team Sport” chapter is worth the price of the book in my opinion.  In this chapter Haidt lays waste to the popular atheist theories about religion (brain parasite model…not actual parasites, but rather conceptual) and suggests an adaptive evolutionary based model that isn’t dependent on supernatural concepts that demand acceptance without proof: groups with religion outcompete groups without.  The explanation of the origin of all religions as overactive agency detection (that being an evolutionary adaptive trait) was also fascinating.

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects.  That’s what religion is all about.  And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.

Overall I have to say I really enjoyed this book.  Haidt’s writing is clear.  He explains his ideas, uses analogies, presents data to support his claims, admits where he has blind spots and biases and summarizes succinctly.  If you have ever wondered why your perfect line of logic has failed to persuade someone, you might want to give it a read.

Weekend review: weeding, canning and podcasting

This was a nice weekend to be outdoors, so I spent a lot of it getting the fence lines cleaned up in eventual preparation for a repainting.  Still have to figure out a way to clear a line through the woods.  A bushog attached to a bobcat is the leading contender.

I also spent some time (with Mason’s help) turning these:


Into these:


And for the second week in a row, Mason and I turned out a podcast looking back on last week and on to next week in our adventures in home education.  We were both a little tired by the time we started recording this since as is mentioned right at the start, we had been trying to record for more than an hour before I figured out how to get the new version of garage band to work with two USB mics.