Wisdom from the land of ice and snow

The few readers I have may have noticed that I have fallen off the blogging wagon again.  My goal to post every day turned into every week and now I’m back to having no goal.  There are two underlying reasons for this “failure.”

This:

Zeno_of_Citium_pushkin

And this:

moleskine

The first is a picture of a bust of Zeno, the nominal father of Stoicism, a philosophy that I have been reading a lot about and trying some of the principles on for size.  I’m finding they fit quite well and actually do lead to a more enjoyable life (what almost all philosophers agree on is the point of it all – they all just argue on the path to get there).  Stoicism has lead to less blogging is I just don’t get as worked up about things and there’s nothing that gets the blogging juices flowing like trying to work out something that you know deep down inside you just can’t do anything about.

One outgrowth of my explorations of stoicism is represented by the second image, that being the practice of journaling.    I’ve not been able to keep up the daily pace I planned, but I am do find it relaxing to be able to journal and not worry at all about how well composed my thoughts or ideas are.  As much as I claimed to write here without filters (and I do think I’ve said what I wanted to say), I also tried to always take an extreme amount of care that I expressed my ideas correctly.  That extra step has always been a form of self censorship that is now removed in the pages of my pocket Moleskine (which I do write in with a fountain pen….quite the hipster I know!).  However, its not the case that everything that ends up in my journal will never make it here.  This post is a perfect example.

One of the things I have been trying to work out in my head is the apparent cognitive dissonance between the stoic idea of focusing energy on things you can change and ignoring the rest and my fascination with history.  Of the 20 or so books I have read in the last 6 months, at least 10 have been history in one form or another.  I also consume many podcasts, but by far my favorite is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.  The question taking up a few pages in my journal are all attempts at reconciling my interest in history with focusing energy on the things I can change.

I had to go to the land of ice and snow to borrow an idea that has (for now) made these two ideas fit together.  Most everyone reading this probably has the same basic concept of time as I did: Past, Present and Future.  As you dig into models and theories about how time actually works, things become a bit fuzzier.  Some propose that time doesn’t even exist while others say that everything happens “all at once” (seems to me maybe they are saying the same thing? Remember I’m not a physicist nor a mathematician, just a fan of physics and math).  With that basis it should come as no surprise that even the widely accepted temporal concept of past, present and future has a challenger.

The Norse concept of time breaks things up into only two periods: “That which is” and “That which is becoming”.  “That which is” is a combination of the the past and some of the present while “That which is becoming” is the other part of the present (the active part) as well as a part of the very near future.  This view of time makes it perfectly clear why historical context jives with being present moment focused: because the present moment is not only what’s happening now, its all the things that happened before now to make now the way it is.  If you want to take effective action now, you have to have some idea of the cause of where you are starting. Without history we’re just guessing about what to do to shape “What is becoming”.  With history we’re at least making an educated guess.

Tick, tock: A mini review of “A Clockwork Universe”

I had the pleasure of international air travel this past week, so among other things that meant lots of time for reading.  The selection for this past trip was “A Clockwork Universe” by Edward Dolnick.  The book includes a number of vert interesting anecdotes, which all add up to a number of different points. The book is organized into many, short chapters (53 in 320 pages) which generally hang together.  The opening is a description of the transition from the “middle ages” to the “renaissance” (I have to recall what Dan Carlin always says about the naming of historical epochs: the people living them didn’t know that they were in the renaissance).  It was a strange time with a simultaneous embrace of what modern minds see as an extreme religious belief and the emerging scientific approach to reasoning.  The middle section sets up the ideas the laid the foundation for Newton and Leibniz to invent calculus from great thinkers like Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.  The final section focuses on the invention of calculus itself and the feud the erupted after its somewhat simultaneous and independent invention by both Newton and Leibniz.

Overall the book was definitely worth the read.  It was an interesting case of synchronicity itself that I decided to read Clockwork Universe right after I had just finished a book for work called “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, which is all about using the scientific method as a way to introduce lean and agile methods to general business.  CU gave me a peek into the modern fathers of that method which draws attention to how revolutionary it was at the time despite the fact that its taken for granted today.  I do wish that there was a bit more about the Royal Society in the book.  I have always been interested in its foundation, accomplishments and impact on how we think today.  But unfortunately its just a bit player in the overall story.

The most interesting aspect of the book is that different readers can take different things from it.  Dolnick does not try to push one particular conclusion or even story line.  You could walk away from CU with a much better understanding of how calculus came to be, an appreciation of the just how different the way that Newton and Leibniz thought about things was in both relation to previous thought and how we think today, or knowledge of how the concepts of time, change, infinity and gravity are all related to one another.

The big take away for me was some new ideas about the relation between reality, mental models and concepts of the divine.  The trivium method taught me that we can use grammar to process reality into our minds, logic to construct a model of what happens in reality then rhetoric to make claims about what will happen. Newton and Leibniz applied this process to create models of how the world worked specifically having to do with change and time.  To do that they had to grapple with the slightly less tangible concepts of infinity and even God.  Dolnick argues. successfully in my view that this new model, Calculus, was the foundation for the next 400+ years of scientific discovery.  What’s not mentioned is the idea that this model can still get better.  Just as Copernicus, and later Kepler, had some things right about the place and motion of the planets and the Sun, they were also missing a few things that Newton made right.

They both certainly made a huge leap forward in knowing the mind of God / understanding how and why things work they way they do (depending on your theology or lack there of), but to suppose that their model is perfect would be a heresy / bold claim (again theology dependent) that they would shy away from.  The next advances will answer the questions that their materialistic model leaves out.  How can we extend our senses through instruments to take in even more of how the universe works and then build models that can make accurate predictions.  It is this process of model refinement that is what can best be described as becoming holy – at least in a mathematical sense.

To make those next leaps we would do wise to keep the words of a thinker that Newton and Leibniz relied heavily on, Galileo:

I say that the testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.

Up next on the reading pile: another “lean” book for work, this time focused on Lean User Experience and then (or maybe simultaneously) “The Scholar Warrior”, a book on Taoism.

Vinyl memories

In 1985, at the age of 12, I left the US for the first time and travelled with my family to Germany and Austria.  I was a member of the Cincinnati BoyChoir (yes, 2nd soprano and everything…) and we were “competing” against the still world famous Vienna Boys Choir on their home turf.  In the end we “sang hard” and won a “superior rating” and a special trophy.  But we were no match for the pros ;-).

I’ve had the album of our performance on my bookshelf for decades (many different bookshelves actually) and never had a way to play or record it.  For what ever reason, my son took a recent interest in LPs and used some of his Christmas money to buy a vinyl disc spinner.  I hooked up my Edirol, set it to max bits and recorded what you’ll hear below.

The first track is the recording from the actual competition.  The B-side tracks are from some other performance – not sure when and it doesn’t say on the back of the album.  Hopefully I’m not breaking any copyrights by posting this here.  Hopefully my blog is popular enough that if I am, I’ll get a takedown notice.
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Should have remembered my HDT…

It may have saved me a little bit (or maybe a lot) of wasted time – the worst thing to waste.  (HT to Hamlet’s Blackberry for bringing these back to me):

As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.



Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

– HDT, Walden

Evolving ourselves out of existence

Still reading quite a bit. Just finished “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (it was OK – not sure I reccomend it though) and then finally started and finished “The Lean Startup” which if you have tough projects to get done is a must read IMHO.

Now I am on to “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” which describes the problem and some solutions to being over connected and/or over stimulated by information. I’m about 1/3rd into it and so far so good. One point the author brings up its the research that shows we get a small “squirt” of dopamine when we get a new text,  email or status update. This is seen by neuro scientists as an evolutionary artifact from when we needed to pay more careful attention to our surroundings, both to watch for something that might be trying to easy is or for something we might be able to eat.

This for me wondering. What happens in an evolutionary cycle or two when that response has been weeded out of the gene pool and we are no longer as aware of what’s found on around us after too many tweets, pings and beeps over too many generations…and then for whatever reason we need it again?

IDPA Matches this year

As some of you may know, I am the match director at a local IDPA match that I helped to get started a few years back at the shooting club that is a few miles from home.  It’s something that I really do enjoy doing although it is a lot of work.  Finding stages, working with new shooters and the discipline of going at least once a month to hone my skills are the highlights.  Scoring the matches – meh.

Anyway, if you’ve shot our match before, want to hang out and shoot with me this year, or have just wondered about IDPA, check out the schedule for our matches on the IDPA website (click on the “Events” tab).

To the three old guys arguing in Starbuck’s this morning

muppets-old-guys

I’m on a business trip this week and have made a habit of stopping at the local Starbucks for a coffee each morning before I head into the office.  Every morning the same group of 3 “old guys” (in reality they are probably only a few decades my senior) sets up shop in 3 of the corner chairs and starts to argue. It was hard to catch all the topics since they ranged so rapidly, but in a 15 minute span they touched on income inequality, gun control, taxing 529 plans and the state of the union speech more generally, the war in Iraq, ISIS, free college and the Patriots under inflating their footballs.  The “discussion” was loud, aimless and seemingly without end.

Based on how quickly they got into it, I would say they know each other pretty well and have been at this for a while.  And I have to wonder why?  They weren’t solving anything, they weren’t learning anything, they weren’t constructing any logical arguments.  It was just a stream of non-sequitors and ad-hominems.  Although I found it mildly entertaining, I am still wondering what they got out of it.  It seems to me that they are just practicing recreational bitterness.  While that may feel good at the time, I think it’s doing you more harm than good.

A valuable dialectic

Dialectic is often used in the Hegelian sense to drive people to a pre-determined synthesis.  I heard this on a podcast the other day and thought it was a really good explanation of a valuable form of dialectic.  From Tao Te Ching:

When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
When it knows good as good, evil arises
Thus being and non-being produce each other
Difficult and easy bring about each other
Long and short reveal each other
High and low support each other
Music and voice harmonize each other
Front and back follow each other

I should be finished up with my initial survey of stoicism in a few weeks.  I may order a few books on Taoism to balance that out.

Stoic ponderings

I finished The Guns of August over the weekend (which, BTW, is a great book that actually spans July, August and September of 1914) and so was looking for something to bring with me to read on the plane and in the evenings this week when I was out of town on business.  I ended up grabbing one of the philosophy books I added to Mr library recently: The ancient art of stoic joy.

I’m only about 100 pages in, but so far so good. I was a fan of some of the principles of stoicism, before I had even actually heard of it as a philosphy from my reading of the 7 habits of highly effective people. The concept in that book of circle of influence vs circle of concern seems exactly the same as the stoic notion of only focusing on things you can control and  it wasting energy on things you can’t.

Stoicism has a lot more to offer than just that one idea though which is one reason I had picked up the book. One interesting practice promoted by the stoics is that of negative visualization. The idea is that you should spend a little time every so often imagining what would happen of your worst fears came true.  By doing this, the stoics believe that you will appreciate what you have and not be so affected by grief when you do experience a loss.

It strikes me that there is some value to negative visualization, but one of the illustrations given by the author got me thinking. He uses the example of how children approach the world with constant wonder. One reason for this is that they still haven’t figured out how the world works so everything is somewhat of a suprise and they have no expectations of whatever they are sewing ever happening again. To me, this seems like another example of one of the things that makes us just a little different from all the other animals getting the better of us. Just like our ability to group things that are similar together and different apart lead to great things like language and communication but also terrible things like collectivism and racism, our ability to be rational and build a mental model of how the world works helped us develop math and science, but also  lead us to loose the ability to take in every present moment with wonder.