POEM: The Sum of All Ignorance

Oh, take me on a learning spree.

Explain the nature of reality.

Am I living in a simulation?

Perhaps, dumb luck is the world’s foundation.

Does life have meaning, or must I make one?

Should I live for love, or live for fun?

Should I consecrate or desecrate?

Do I live by chance or live by fate?

The answers, they grow no nearer.

Am I the heard or the hearer?

&

If I received such a knowledge bearer,

would I awake in bliss or in terror?

5 Bits of Wisdom from The Matrix Movies

5.) Wisdom: Choice is not as it seems.

Quote: No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.
Said by the Oracle to Neo in “The Matrix Reloaded” as they discuss a dream in which he sees Trinity falling.

Interpretation: Studies in neuroscience have repeatedly validated the notion that by the time we think we’re making a decision at a conscious level, we’ve already made it on a subconscious level. While many suggest this means that the verdict is in and free will is completely illusory, another way of looking at it is that one must understand one’s decisions in order to begin to regain the rudder on one’s life.



4.) Wisdom: Courage elevates: or, if you don’t run, he won’t chase you.

Quote: He’s beginning to believe.
Said by Morpheus to Trinity in explanation of why Neo isn’t running from Agent Smith in the subway.

Interpretation: My mother used to say, “If you don’t run, he won’t chase you” with respect to being chased by my older brother. It seemed like insane advice at the time; the alternative to being chased being beaten down. However, now I can see that even taking a butt-whooping elevates one’s spirit over engaging in prey behavior.



3.) Wisdom: Rationality is a thin veneer.

Quotes: Beneath our poised appearance we are completely out of control. & It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Said by the Merovingian to Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo.

Interpretation: While one might like to dismiss the Merovingian’s comments as the cynicism of a hedonist, the undeniable fact is that we have animal biology and it influences us more than we pretend.



2.) Wisdom: The world contains more Cyphers than not.

Quote: Ignorance is bliss.
Said by Cypher to Agent Smith as he plots his subversion in order to be put back into the Matrix.

Interpretation: Most people are happy with their illusions, rely on them as coping mechanisms, and will respond unfavorably to attempts to strip them way. The illusion in question may not be so much that the world is completely fake as much as biases such as the self-serving bias (i.e. people attribute successes to their inherent awesomeness but blame failures on external sources.)




1.) Wisdom: There are limits to being cerebral.

Quotes: Don’t think you are, know you are. & There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
Both are said by Morpheus to Neo. The former quote is delivered in the sparring program when Neo isn’t performing up to his potential. The latter is said after Neo & Trinity rescue Morpheus and Neo tries to tell Morpheus what the Oracle revealed, but Morpheus quiets him with said words.

Interpretation: I hope I haven’t muddled this bit of wisdom by choosing quotes in which Morpheus uses the word “know” in two different ways. In the first quote, Morpheus contrasts knowing with thinking, and he means that Neo must not treat it as an intellectual exercise, but rather feel its inherent truth deep down. In the second quote, he contrasts knowing with doing, and in this case “knowing” is the cerebral / thinking activity in comparison to doing (i.e. “walking the path.”) However, the gist is the same, you must approach some things–to use the Oracle’s words–balls to bones.

POEM: Stone

someday someone will stumble on the stone

a stone outlasting skin and bone

a stone surface pocked and mossy

though once it shone polished glossy

brushing off letters worn shallow

on a stone face bleak and sallow

rendered so by nature and time

twins spoiling all not in its prime

they’ll read a name with bookend dates

and be shown they hold a common fate

should one become legend and myth

you’ll still not outlive your monolith

5 Works of Fiction That Teach Life Lessons

Every novel or short story has lessons to teach. After all, stories are nothing more than problems resolved. Sometimes fiction teaches one how to do it right, and in other instances how to do it wrong–but there’s always a lesson.

But some works of fiction teach more than others (and more effectively.) It’s a great challenge to merge entertaining and thought-provoking story lines into one piece. Below are five books that I found both illuminating and engrossing.

[The hyperlinks in the titles go to my book review.]

 

1.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: Ishmael asks one to reevaluate what one thinks one knows about the world based on a lifetime of viewing it through the lenses of culture and anthropocentrism.

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2.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The “Socrates” in question is Millman’s [probably fictional and / or composite] teacher from the “Peaceful Warrior” books–not the Greek philosopher. This book shows us how a person whose life has been scarred by tragedy can attain peace of mind.

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3.) The Little Prince by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince teaches one to reevaluate what one thinks is important, and encourages one to see the world through a more child-like lens.

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4.) Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo: How can the average Joe reshape the way he [or she] views life so as to live a happier one?

 

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5.) Veronika Decides to Die by  Paulo Coelho: A young woman who attempts suicide is told by her doctor that she damaged her heart and has only five days to live.

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Happy reading.

 

POEM: Worse Ways

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Every few days a villager steps from his hut

only to be killed by a falling coconut.

It’s a death with the taint of the inglorious.

Dying should somehow be more laborious.

But what’s more the mark of courage and grace,

than causing people to smile at Death in its face?

A life punctuated by one misstep is not to be bemoaned.

It beats a life whose living has been indefinitely postponed.

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BOOK REVIEW: Astrobiology by David C. Catling

Astrobiology: A Very Short IntroductionAstrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David C. Catling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book explains how life came about on Earth and what that might mean for life elsewhere in the universe. It may seem odd that life’s origins on Earth is relevant to this otherwise extraterrestrial sub-discipline, but that bit of biology offers insight into what is necessary for life—at least life as we know it. There is also the question of whether life originated entirely within Earth’s primordial soup, or whether there was an extraterrestrial ingredient necessary.” [Note: we aren’t talking about an advanced civilization placing creatures here so much as raw materials frozen in space dust or a meteorite. This is the idea of panspermia that once had a substantial following.]

If you’re interested in whether there might be life beyond our planet, this little introduction will give you the basic insights into where it might be found and what it might be like. Though the book deals with a highly technical subject, it’s written with the non-expert in mind.

The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter defines the subject of “astrobiology,” which is important as it’s not exactly a household term—and is arguably an ill-chosen term to boot. However, chapter one also defines life and outlines what are the necessities for the development of life. The second chapter explores what type of celestial body life might reside upon–or in. We tend to think narrowly of other planets like ours, but what about moons or meteorites, or even space dust? More broadly, this chapter gives the reader a primer on cosmology and astronomy as is relevant to the development of life. Chapter three evaluates the conditions which proved conducive to spawning life on Earth. This is followed by a chapter that looks at how the Earth provided an environment in which life could flourish, even allowing for the evolution of intelligent lifeforms. Chapter five explains how genes and the chemistry of life contribute to the perpetuation of life.

Chapters six and seven both answer the question of where we might expect to find extraterrestrial life. The former discusses promising locales for life within our solar system and the latter is about the space beyond. Needless to say, chapter six is a great deal more specific; it actually proposes nine celestial bodies in the solar system that could theoretically harbor life, and expounds upon which are most and least promising and why. Chapter seven is more about what kinds of places we might expect to find life, and where we might direct our investigations. While scientists are finding new planets all the time, it is a relatively new capability and these distant bodies are only discovered through indirect evidence. The last chapter is a brief one that discusses “controversies and prospects.” With respect to controversies the primary contender is the Rare Earth hypothesis that suggests that life may not be so common as we expect by virtue of the massive number of solar systems out there. As for prospects, that is just a couple of pages on the most likely contenders at the time the book was written.

The book has about a dozen illustrations, mostly explanatory diagrams and all in black-and-white. It also has a two-page further reading section. However, that’s it as far as ancillary matter is concerned.

I found this book to be interesting and a good way to get up to speed on the basic concepts necessary to understand the search for extraterrestrial life. I’d recommend it for others who’d like to do the same.

View all my reviews

POEM: Truth From Unlikely Places?

matrix_620

I passed a man on the street,

in the brutal noonday heat.

Blending in, but for his Tee.

It read, “Nothing is as it seems.”

I said, “Ain’t that the truth, brother.”

He walked on, like all the others.


A message sent on the sly?

From some watcher in the sky?

How’d he know it’d draw my eye?

And not be taken for a lie?

Maybe my will is not so free,

and what I “know” isn’t reality.


[Later that day…]


Rev. screamed, “We’re living in a simulation!”

“Friends, this ain’t no pre-apocalyptic nation.”

“Aliens watch us on their reality-TV station.”

“All I can offer is a bargain spaceship vacation.”

I distrust those who shout from a box,

and distrust more the joining of flocks.


But the kook’s words rattled in my mind.

Maybe lunatics get things right sometime.

What if the world is just a simulated grind,

and passersby just figments of my mind?

If this world is fake, should I abstain?

Or try much harder to entertain?

BOOK REVIEW: What is Life? by Addy Pross

What Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes BiologyWhat Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Dr. Pross’s book shares a title (but not a subtitle) with the seminal work by the renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger from 1944. While Schrödinger addresses a wide range of topics on how life might be explained in terms of physics and chemistry, Pross’s focus is narrower. Pross asks—and proposes an answer for—the straightforward (but thorny) question of how abiogenesis could occur. Abiogenesis is life from the non-living. Darwin did an excellent job of explaining how we could get from single-celled organisms to the great complexity we see in our own bodies, but Darwin didn’t touch the question of how that very first ancestor became animated.

The subtitle of this work, “How Chemistry Becomes Biology,” gives one insight into how Pross proceeds. There’ve been many ideas about how life came to be on planet Earth over the years. For a time, the idea of panspermia—life arriving from an extraterrestrial source—was popular. Of course, the most popular belief has been that there was a force of life (i.e. an “élan vital”) breathed into non-living matter by a, presumably, supernatural force / entity. While the awe-inspiring nature of life made this idea appealing / believable, it took a hit from the Urey-Miller experiments. Said experiment exposed the four materials believed to have been the most common in our pre-biologic atmosphere (hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water vapor) to lightning, and the result included a range of organic materials—including amino acids–the building blocks of… well, us, among the other life forms of the planet. Of course, Urey-Miller didn’t make abiogenesis a foregone conclusion, but the production of ever more complex self-replicating molecules under laboratory conditions has made it easier to digest the notion that life developed without any intelligent or supernatural push.

While Pross’s ideas are at the stage of hypothesis, he develops a compelling explanation that revolves around the idea of dynamic kinetic stability. “Dynamic Kinetic Stability” is a mouthful, and so it’s necessary to break it down. The best place to start is with the “stability” part. This is because the biggest problem for an abiogenetical theory of life is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law tells us that entropy increases. There are many ways of restating this, such as that chemical reactions move to states that are of lower free energy. However, the most intuitive way is to say that a beer mugs break but do not spontaneously pop into existence. So if everything is getting simpler by deteriorating, breaking, and decomposing, how does one get / maintain a stable state of complexity? First and foremost, the answer involves adding a lot of energy and resources, but there’s more to it than that–as the author explains. “Dynamic” can also be explained in complex terms, but it’s most easily thought of as being like a river in that the river’s existence is stable, but it’s always a different river—ever changing water molecules arranged differently. (Critically, our bodies are the same way. Except for neurons, our cells are constantly being replaced.) The term “kinetic” speaks to how said replacement takes place; replication must be fast and decay slow.

The appeal of the ideas put forth by Pross is that they’re conceptually consistent with Darwinian Evolution. That is, an entirely new set of principles isn’t necessary to make sense of the origins of life. Pross argues that the self-replicating molecules that can most effectively put resources to use succeed in doing so, and—in the process–they drive others into extinction.

I found this book interesting and readable. The author uses good analogies to make his points (which often deal in complex matter) as clearly as possible. I can’t disagree with the other reviewers who’ve pointed out that the book is a bit repetitive and drags out a relatively simple statement of the argument. It’s not so egregious that I could say that it’s necessarily the result of a desire to pad the book out to a length necessary to sell in hard-copy form. (But it might have been.) The understanding of this topic is in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean this book isn’t a valuable contribution to popular understanding of abiogenesis.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in reflecting on from whence we came in a fashion that is open-minded to explanations that eschew the supernatural.

View all my reviews

2015 Top 10: Highlights From the Year That Was

These aren’t necessarily in any order.

 

1.) Trekking the Great Himalayan National Park [June]:

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2.) Teaching kids at KAMMS and Socare [September & October]: I finished my RCYT course in April and have been teaching kids when I have a chance:

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3.) Completing Level I Examination at the Muay Thai Institute [September]:

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4.) Riding camels at Pushkar and Jaipur [November]:

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5.) Boating on the Ganges in Varanasi [October]:

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6.) Wandering around a coffee plantation near Chikmaglur [April]:

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7.) Completing the Level III and IV reviews in Kalaripayattu [February & August]:

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8.) Touring the Glenloch tea factory in Sri Lanka [May]:

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9.) 108 Surya Namaskara Against Child Trafficking [March]:

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10.) Junk boat tour of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam [December]: This may be jinxing us to put it on the list,  before we’ve been (we leave tomorrow) but I’m optimistic that our three weeks in Vietnam will be awesome, and I’m told Ha Long

 

 

What to expect in 2016? Lilla and I will be moving back to the States around mid-year. (To where, exactly, remains a mystery.) In January and February I’ll be doing an RYT-300 course to round out my 500 hour yoga teacher certification. I plan to make at least one more trip to Thailand to MTI for Level II. I’d also like to complete the 10-day Vipassana meditation course before returning. Lilla and I are thinking about another Himalaya trek for the summer.

I’ll also be continuing to work on press handstand progression, as that’s been a focus for me of late and I still have a ways to go.

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The Science of Wisdom & The Wisdom of Science

Shrine_nearRoppongi_statues

For the purposes of this post, wisdom is neither a collection of trite adages, nor is it an accumulation of arcane or esoteric scripture. Wisdom is:

1.) the ability to quiet the mind

2.) the ability to suppress inclinations to be petty in a healthy way

3.) the ability to override instinct with conscious thought when it’s beneficial to do so

4.) the ability to know when it’s beneficial to do so (see #3)

5.) mastery of (rather than being mastered by) one’s emotions

The objective of these activities is to increase happiness, reduce strife, and exercise better and healthier decision-making.

 

While these are secular objectives, the pursuit of this form of wisdom has to a large extent become entwined with certain breeds of religion or spiritualism. Mystical religious traditions are the style of spiritualism that are most commonly associated with these pursuits. (Here I use mysticism in its scholarly sense, i.e. traditions that believe in a god or gods and who believe that the space in they can interact with said god is to be found inwardly. This is as opposed to the ill-defined colloquial meaning of mysticism that has a negative connotation and is infused with judgement about hippy-dippiness.) One sees the pursuit of this form of wisdom in yogic philosophy, in most branches of Buddhism, in Taoism, etc.

 

I’m not sure why this connection should be so entrenched. Why should agnostics and atheists forfeit the pursuit of such forms of personal improvement? Maybe the scientifically-minded think that they are knowledgeable and knowledge is wisdom, and so they think they are already on the path. I can tell you that knowledge isn’t wisdom. I base this on the experience of knowing intellectually brilliant people who couldn’t get along with anyone, who perpetually said the wrong things, and whose personal lives were a wreck. Skeptics and geeks are as subject to strained relationships, stress, and unhappiness as their pious neighbors.

 

Another possible explanation is that many scientifically-minded people just don’t think that such goals are achievable because the routes to them have too often been couched in supernatural terms.   However, there’s a growing literature on how these objectives can be pursued that is rooted in neuroscience and neuroplasticity, and for which the presence or absence of a deity is irrelevant.  I’ve been reading a book called Zen and the Brain lately that offers an understanding of the effects of meditation that is firmly rooted in the science of the brain. I also recently purchased a book entitled Buddha’s Brain that takes a look at how neuroplasticity allows for a “rewiring” the brain to a healthier state. (Yes, I realize the irony of citing two books that have religious references in their titles in this post. I’d argue that this is how inexorably tangled these pursuits have become with religion. However, both of the scientist/authors of the aforementioned books, James H. Austin and Rick Hanson, have books with more secular titles if you’d prefer.)

BuddhaBrain Zen&Brain

 

I was once eating in a university cafeteria when I heard a religious man make the argument to a fellow he was trying to “educate” that went like this:  “If there’s not a God, why should I be nice to my wife–why shouldn’t I kick the hell out of my dog?” My first thought was that this man desperately needed therapy. If the only reason he wasn’t being a violent asshole is because he feared the wrath of an invisible, omnipotent entity who–by they way–would have to be showing a complete indifference to what people do to each other in real-time, then he’s an accident waiting to happen. If he either: a.) loses his fear of said deity, or b.) begins to think that the deity is telling him to go another way (since whatever the deity is “telling” him is almost certainly just his mind telling him), then his wife and dog are in great peril.

 

My second thought was, “this is the cafeteria in an institution for higher learning, how’d this guy get in without at least the rudimentary training in logic to imagine a basis of moral behavior that’s not rooted in the supernatural smiting ability of a deity [who–I might add–sees a helluva lot of smite-worthy activity on a daily basis.]”

 

If you’re considering an action that seems questionable, you don’t need to ask what Jesus would do? You can start by asking the question: Would my life (or those of my loved ones) be adversely impacted by living in a world in which everybody did what I’m about to do in the manner I intend to do it? (Implied is the idea that, if the action in question involves doing something to someone, you would be subject to being on the receiving end of same action sooner or later.)   If the answer is “yes,” don’t do it. If the answer is “no” there still may be reasons not to do the activity that have to do with what is good for you personally. (We’ll get into that a little further down.)

 

I realize that the above standard isn’t perfect, but it’s far less subject to user error than WWJD and it explains why the fellow from above shouldn’t beat his wife or his dog unless he likes rigorous and regular beatings himself. Some people might say that they don’t think they or their loved one’s would be adversely in the slightest if everyone went about walking around naked. Others might believe that they would be stressed out (or overstimulated) in such a world. However, the above approach has already gotten us to the fringe of questionable activity. Yes, some people might be traumatized if their neighbors walked around in the nude. But I suspect if everybody did it (as per the question) it would become not weird (definitely not harmful) in short order. There are those people who are so fragile that they can’t sleep knowing that a couple engaging in intercourse in privacy of a room three doors down are probably not using a missionary-approved posture. Said people need the kind of wisdom I’m talking about more than any because part of it is accepting that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophy. Now that we know how to kill stray asteroids, if humanity ever dies out it will be at the hands of people who can’t bear anyone living by rules not those that they took for themselves.

 

At any rate, I think there are two reasons why the above approach is difficult for homo religiosis (religious human.) First, there are many activities that homo religiosis wants to see universally abolished because their religion considers forbidden, but which don’t adversely impact others. (e.g. Jains are pretty easy-come-easy-go, but imagine you were told you’d have to forgo onions because of that religion’s moral belief that no food should come from a plant that’s killed by harvesting. [FYI: Let me laugh now at the religious people who say “but there’s nothing crazy like that in my religion?” That just means you are so untraveled and uneducated that you can’t fathom how completely wacky some of your “moral” beliefs / practices are. e.g. How about eating salmon on Fridays as a sacrifice in lieu of eating a hamburger? That’s just nutty on all sorts of levels.])

 

Second, many believers really do believe that they have a special place in god’s heart and, therefore, aren’t subject to the same limitations as those poor, god unloved people. The idea that said person shouldn’t commit rape because they wouldn’t like it if someone else raped them or their sister or their mother is non-sense, because their god would never let someone else get away with shit like that with them. (Yes, there are people who’ve lived sheltered enough lives to believe that god punishes others but–at most–“tries” them.)

 

Most of us must accept that when it comes to being a person, we are the same as all the other people. While one may be stronger, faster, smarter, or in some dimension more talented than others, this doesn’t endow one with a different set of rights and responsibilities. On a genetic level there are no chosen people.

 

Earlier I mentioned that the “if everyone else did it” standard might leave one on the horns of a dilemma as to how to behave or what decision to make. Here’s where we’ve got to use our brains because the hard and fast rules go out the window. Evolution has programmed us with some guidelines that were beneficial given the constraints of the world our ancestors lived in. However, this programming of pleasure and pain may or may not be great advice given the ways in which humans have changed our own world.

 

Let me give some examples. Our nervous system suggests we eat foods that are sweet and fatty. We crave chocolate and bacon, and pleasure centers in the brain light up when we consume these foods. In our hunter / gatherer existence, this was excellent guidance because a.) these foods were relatively rare, b.) these foods had dense caloric content, c.) sweet foods are less likely to be poison, and d.) we worked our asses off in physical labor (i.e. high caloric demands.) However, today these high caloric foods are mass-produced, we require almost no caloric expenditure to obtain them (or to do most anything else in our cubicle-dwelling work lives), and in some cases people are literally (I don’t use “literally” lightly) killing themselves with such foods.  So part of the wisdom I’m talking about is developing the capacity to exercise conscious control over decisions about whether to eat such foods, how much of such foods to consume, and what activities to do to counter act the flood of empty calories. Our biology is a harsh mistress, and it can require intense efforts to keep such impulses under control.

 

We are also programmed with love, a trait which has served us well over all. I know some of you are cringing about the idea of “evolutionarily programmed love”–so unromantic. It’s simple. Those who could build connections with others disproportionately survived to pass their genes on. This further fed into our species’ rise because, while we think of ourselves as the planet’s dominant species, we produce the most vulnerable 1 year olds (or 8 year olds for that matter) of any species on the planet. A human three-year-old is good for two things–learning and food. It takes a lot of love to make sure its the former and not the latter. An extremely intense experience of love is essential to our species’ ability to not just wander off and let our pain-in-the-ass children get eaten. This gives us plenty of time to teach kids more than just how to elude a saber-tooth tiger. We have time to teach kids language, social niceties, and trigonometry.

 

We can, therefore, use our gigantic brains to noodle out whether a given action is best for us,  in addition to whether it does no harm to those around us. The complexity of our brains allows us to rewrite our rule book in unprecedented ways. Some of the religious “morality” that seems vacuous (e.g. don’t eat shellfish, but feel free to own as many people as you can afford) probably had a logic in that time (e.g. people were getting sick from eating shellfish because they didn’t yet know how to prepare it.) The problem is that one has to be ready to jettison obsolete advice, and that’s hard to do once it’s entrenched as dogma. This is where being Homo sapiens, the thinking human, comes into play.