Serenity prayer stoic style

A thought for the day:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.

I’ve always thought this quote from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be a more ancient form of the more modern serenity prayer.  Secular or religious, true wisdom always rings true.

Police body cameras…a real solution?

Your tax money at work:

The Obama administration is spending $20 million on police body cameras, amid rising tension over police violence.The announcement from the Justice Department on Friday would create a new pilot program to equip police in dozens of cities with the devices, as the first step in a $75 million three-year effort that President Obama requested from Congress in December.

Source: Feds roll out $20M police body camera ‘pilot program’ | TheHill

I’ve wondered for a while whether these are actually a step in the direction of increased transparency or they are just a red herring.  First off,  there was last summer’s example of someone being killed on camera that resulted in no charges being filed.  But what worries me more about these body cameras is how easy it would be to manipulate the videos they capture.  What keeps people from editing the videos to remove key frames or in more advanced cases even add things that weren’t there?  Anyone who’s seen a movie made in the last 15 years knows that just because you see it on a screen didn’t mean it happened. It would seem to me that some sort of hash could be calculated based on a combination of key frames and the audio track and stored along with the video itself.  When the video is replayed, another hash is calculated and compared to the original and any differences flash an alarm.  Maybe they have these already, but if not I think there might be a market opportunity there.  “Video hash” won’t solve everything, but at least future juries could be sure that what they are seeing is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Immoral Means != Moral Ends

My daughter had to write a paper on Shakespeare’s play Julius Casear which focused on the impossibility of reaching moral ends through immoral means.  The term moral as its used here is not referring to some sort of religious dogma, but rather the classic greek concept of ἀρετή (areté): that which enriches life.  There are so many examples of people today and throughout history that forget this basic fact of life that they could fill a Library of Babel on their own (yes, I know that is impossible by definition).

A perfect example comes from a speech given at UC Berkley by Aldous Huxley in 1962, where he describe a new means of social control which, in the mind of those who would use it, could be used to deliver us to a peaceful utopia (HT to Brett at the School Sucks podcast for playing a snippet of the speech at the start of his most recent episode).  Rather than that dreamed of peaceful utopia however, where we have ended up is more aptly described by the second quote from George Bernanos: a society of “men” who are too docile to stand up for what is right.  (HT to Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg for the Bernanos quote.)

The Means:

In the past we can say that all revolutions have essentially aimed at changing the environment in order to change the individual. I mean there’s been the political revolution, the economic revolution, in the time of the reformation, the religious revolution. All these aimed, not directly at the human being, but at his surroundings. So that by modifying the surroundings you did achieve, did one remove the effect of the human being.

Today we are faced, I think, with the approach of what may be called the ultimate revolution, the final revolution, where man can act directly on the mind-body of his fellows. Well needless to say some kind of direct action on human mind-bodies has been going on since the beginning of time. But this has generally been of a violent nature. The Techniques of terrorism have been known from time immemorial and people have employed them with more or less ingenuity sometimes with the utmost cruelty, sometimes with a good deal of skill acquired by a process of trial and error finding out what the best ways of using torture, imprisonment, constraints of various kinds.

But, as, I think it was (sounds like Mettenicht) said many years ago, you can do everything with {garbled} except sit on them. If you are going to control any population for any length of time, you must have some measure of consent, it’s exceedingly difficult to see how pure terrorism can function indefinitely. It can function for a fairly long time, but I think sooner or later you have to bring in an element of persuasion an element of getting people to consent to what is happening to them.

It seems to me that the nature of the ultimate revolution with which we are now faced is precisely this: That we are in process of developing a whole series of techniques which will enable the controlling oligarchy who have always existed and presumably will always exist to get people to love their servitude. This is the, it seems to me, the ultimate in malevolent revolutions shall we say, and this is a problem which has interested me many years and about which I wrote thirty years ago, a fable, Brave New World, which is an account of society making use of all the devices available and some of the devices which I imagined to be possible making use of them in order to, first of all, to standardize the population, to iron out inconvenient human differences, to create, to say, mass produced models of human beings arranged in some sort of scientific caste system. Since then, I have continued to be extremely interested in this problem and I have noticed with increasing dismay a number of the predictions which were purely fantastic when I made them thirty years ago have come true or seem in process of coming true.

A number of techniques about which I talked seem to be here already. And there seems to be a general movement in the direction of this kind of ultimate revolution, a method of control by which a people can be made to enjoy a state of affairs by which any decent standard they ought not to enjoy. This, the enjoyment of servitude, Well this process is, as I say, has gone on for over the years, and I have become more and more interested in what is happening.

– Aldous Huxley, Speech to UC Berkley

(watch full video here, full transcript here)


I have thought for a long time now that if, some day, the increasing efficiency for the technique of destruction finally causes our species to disappear from the earth, it will not be cruelty that will be responsible for our extinction and still less, of course, the indignation that cruelty awakens and the reprisals and vengeance that it brings upon itself…but the docility, the lack of responsibility of the modern man, his base subservient acceptance of every common decree. The horrors that we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untamable men are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase in the number of obedient, docile men.

—George Bernanos

30 sec book review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I recently received a copy of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg as a birthday gift from my parents (no they don’t think I have terrible habits – it was on my Amazon wish list).  I finished it this morning and recommend it if you are looking for something to help you understand the latest on what habits are, how they are formed and what we can do to change them that actually works.  If you want to be cheap, just pickup a copy in a bookstore and read the 11 page appendix and you’ll get the gist.  At first I was worried that the book’s concept was simply modernized behaviorism, but as I read more and got deeper in I realized that while the habit mechanism is the same, there are two important differences in what Duhigg prescribes:

  1. He acknowledges free will and the idea that there is something going on inside of us that is a higher order than just our habits.
  2. Rather than changing the reward (or punishment) as behaviorism does, Duhigg’s model focuses on changing the routine that is stimulated from the cue (stimulus).  This obviously requires both consciousness and thinking to recognize the routine and come up with alternatives.

When you realize how much of your life you live habitually, it makes some sense to spend a little time understanding how those habits get formed and what you can do to hack them a bit.  Think of it lifestyle automation.

Synthesis of a self destructing premise

My part time love affair with Half Price Books continues, although my collection of Tsundoku books may be growing beyond my comfort level.  Perhaps a reading sabbatical is in order?  I just finished The Death of Discourse, the was a chance discovery from my last trip.  It was an interesting read but it did ask far more questions than it answered, which is not always a bad thing.

I do admit that I bought the book thinking it would be a more general discussion about the decline if real, deep conversation in society.  Rather it was very focused on the question of whether the first amendment to the US Constitution is sustainable in the face of modern commercial culture.  Despite the more specific focus than I originally thought (and personally not being all that interested in the Constitution or the amendments….for sheep, by sheep, on sheep), it was still a worthwhile read that included a number of interesting rhetorical approaches, including the use of dialogs as a way to frame the ideas in a different way at the end of each section, which I found to be especially valuable.

The authors’ basic points are well summarized on page 202:

1 – The difference between the old principles of political speech (rational decision making, civic participation, and meaningful dissent) and the new practices of an electronic entertainment culture (trivialization, passivity and pleasure);

2 – the difference between the informational principles of commercial speech (marketplace of economic ideas) and the imagistic practices of a mass commercial advertising culture (marketing of items); and

3 – the difference between the loft principles of artistic expression (self-realization) and the low practices of a pornographic culture (self-gratification).*

The authors build a case that because of these differences the Madisonian ideas embodied in the 1st amendment are, in fact, self destructive.  In other words, the 1st amendment in an ouroboros. If the government enforces a strict conservative view of the first amendment by banning speech that doesn’t live up to Madisonian ideals, it will necessarily over reach and thereby destroy the intent of the first amendment by banning some speech that should be allowed.  If however, the government interprets the first amendment liberally, then human nature as exhibited by both sellers (profit motive) and buyers (entertainment motive) will destroy the intent of the first amendment by flooding the market with speech generates heat, leaving no room for speech that generates light.  If you go with the spirit of the law, the law is destroyed – if you go with the letter of the law, the law is destroyed.  Rock, meet hard place.

I have to give the authors a lot of credit as they argued both the conservative as well as the liberal arguments very even handedly.  Both lines of argument are presented in an unbiased fashion with obvious strengths and weaknesses.  That being said, I will admit that I “argued” with the authors quite a bit while reading some of their conservative arguments.  These arguments generally took the form of: “but, people are smarter than that”.  Specifically, people are smart enough to see through the attempted manipulations of marketers which means that the hazard the conservative approach claims to be guarding against is false.

As I thought about it more, I started to doubt my own argument – are people really smart enough?  Again, more specifically, can they ever grow to be smart enough if they are bombarded with commercial messages from the moment they exit the play-dough fun factory or pop out like toast?  The hazard posed by seemingly overpowering commercial image-based advertising can be resisted by an adult with a reasonable sense of self and of the world, but how can a child ever become that adult when their concept of self and reality is formed by commercial speech from the start?

On the other hand, if you try to protect a child from commercial speech so they can develop self esteem and a good model of how the world works, when should that protection stop – when do you expose them to the full stream of commercial messages and let them decide for themselves?  In other words, if a conservative interpretation of the first amendment is right for children and a liberal is right for adults, when do you transition from one to the other?  Is it gradual or all at once? And perhaps most importantly: who decides and “enforces” the decision?

The authors of The Death of Discourse don’t provide a packaged answer to the first amendment paradox  and I admit that I also don’t have one for how to have both freedom and adults that know how to live freely without damaging themselves or others.  I strongly believe in the philosophy of liberty, but this one has me scratching my head (in a good way). It seems that in its attempt to be completely consistent, the philosophy of liberty is incomplete – it doesn’t exactly describe how to deal with the very young.  On the flip side, if you try to make it complete to cover the young and adults, its not very consistent.  Which reminds me of another book I am reading.

In a good example of accidental synoptical reading, I found what one might call an explanation of this in another book on my stack: Godel, Escher and Bach.  I’m only 200 pages in (about 1/4 of the way through) so I won’t claim that I understand the author’s ideas completely (and based on what I’ve read so far, I’m not sure that even when I am done with it – and read it again – that I will understand the ideas completely), but the conclusion of Godel’s incompleteness theorem (which is what the author seems to be trying to help people understand the proof of, but for now lets just accept it as axiomatic – or proven by people smarter than me) is pretty simple: any formal system can either be complete or consistent, but not both.

The philosophy of liberty certainly fits the bill of being a formal system (it has axioms and rules to generate new axioms) so if Godel is right (I hope to be convinced of that in the next 600 pages or so) then by its nature it is either inconsistent and complete or consistent and incomplete.  While this is troubling to me since I was first drawn to it due to its seeming consistency, I have hope since GEB’s author has hinted at the idea that there is a way to reconcile formal systems, but only by the introduction of what he call’s a “strange loop”, which he points at Escher’s drawings or Bach’s fugues / canons as examples of in the art and musical realms.  Something tells me I’ll be trying to figure out this whole “strange loop” concept to reconcilethe philosophy of liberty for a while.  Then again, maybe next time I head to HPB, I should stay out of the philosophy section and just buy a science fiction novel or two 😉

*Side note: on first read, the third section being entirely devoted to pornography seemed a rather odd choice, in that its a very specific form of speech. I suppose they authors were trying to draw out a point about art vs. pornography that was similar to the point they made in the previous section on the difference between informational commercial speech vs. image based motivational commercial speech, but it seemed an odd tangent as it started.  Maybe pornography was just too distracting to me 😉



Engineering and small circles

In a classic example of podcast virality (or is it network effect?), I added the Tim Ferriss podcast to my pod catcher a few months back based on a recommendation on another podcast I listen to.  I have really enjoyed the shows I have listened to (especially the conversation with Matt Mullenweg).  The most recent episode mostly consists of an extract of audio book read by Joshua Waitzkin, the real life “chess prodigy” that the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.

A Chess Master on Martial Arts, Chess, and Life: Downloadable MP3:

Posted by Tim Ferriss on Saturday, April 25, 2015

I have added his book to the top of my “read next” list (as soon as I finish  The Power of Habit, another book I picked up from listening to Tim’s podcast – quick review coming soon) mainly because the idea of learning through the “smaller circles” technique that he discusses in this excerpt resonates with me.

As Joshua lays out how he approached Tai Chi Chuan (he’s way more that just a chess geek) using the idea of smaller circles, it reminded me of the way that I have described the basic value of the engineering process to non-engineers.  Both approaches break things down to   their fundamental elements, before building back up to a whole.  To master the whole, you have to master the pieces.  But when you reassemble the pieces they have the potential to become more than just the sum of the parts.  I don’t do much “real” engineering any more (at least for work – the farm is a completely different story), but I still use the process every day.  Meaning emerges from patterns, and I think its meaningful when there is a common pattern to learning how to win at chess, perform Tai Chi or solve engineering problems.  Learning how to learn is at the core.

The great experiment

The great experiment in home schooling home educating autodidaction is coming to and end.  Qualitatively, I think it has been a success.  We more or less fell into the “unschooling” approach the year went on and it has paid dividends in the form of greater personal responsibility and renewed curiosity that is at the root of all real learning.

The greatest contrast to unschooling, perhaps, is the helicopter parenting method, in which children adhere to a very strict curricular and extra-curricular regimen. This sort of learning can take place in public or private school, or even occasionally in homeschooling households. Such families usually have at least the outline of a college plan in mind for their children, and their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits will align with this overarching trajectory. Many parents encourage this “track” in hopes that their children will be successful in their future adult lives. However, these “guaranteed” methods for career success have fallen into disarray as of late. With crippling student loans and shaky job prospects confronting college graduates at every turn, many are reconsidering their demanding trajectories, wondering whether the work is truly worth it.

From: Unschooling, the Future of Education?

The next few months will pose some interesting decisions.  The audition seemed to go well, but getting into SCPA from out of state is always going to be hard.  There is a spot waiting at SHDHS if he wants it.  And there there is always continuing on the path he is on.  I don’t think there is a bad choice in the bunch.