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Posts tagged as “Philosophy”

The Future Will Work

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I've seen and heard a lot of craziness lately. It's making smart people say very stupid things. Look, I know these are trying times. Depression. Layoffs. Earthquakes. A Republican elected to Ted Kennedy's seat (just kidding). A Kenyan in the White House (even more kidding). Global warming hysteria / denialism. Cats and dogs living together: mass hysteria.

But be not afraid.

Humanity and the Earth have been through this before. Depression? We survived the Dark Ages. Layoffs? We've survived the collapse of industries and even civilizations. Earthquakes? We survived Pompeii and Krakatoa. Political shifts? God save the queen, we don't need her any more, and we even survived Communism. And global warming? Once the entire ocean became an algal bloom and almost everything alive died - and we're still here.

We can fix the atmosphere by taking measures that won't ruin the economy in case global warming is wrong and will start us on the path in case global warming is right. We can live with political changes and shifts and learn from the battle. And we can build a better world by recognizing that there are things wrong here and now that need fixing, and fixing them - while remembering human nature will always be with us.

Stop scaring yourself with imagined fears born from the latest crisis. Take a deep breath and look back through time. Look at all we've been through. Look at all the disasters that, too, have passed. And look at all we've accomplished. Sometimes it took great vision and immense amounts of hard work, but, praise God, he really does help those who help themselves.

The future will work. You can count on it. If you're willing to make it happen.

-the Centaur

The easiest way to ruin a poem

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The easiest way to ruin a poem
is to read it like a poem
with stilted voice and stately oration
designed to show the poet's construction
- poetry, as read by "poets"
who learned in English class that
"poetry is the highest form of language."

I do not agree.

Poetry is distilled emotion,
concentrated essence of the darlings a novelist must murder,
packaged up with that punch that took Emily Dickinsons' head off.

Poems should be read
as if by Robert Frost's neighbor,
with sinewy hands moving rocks through the darkness,
springing forth to hurl them through our defensive walls:
the poet as savage.

Poetry should be many things:
inspiring, depressing,
comforting, enlightening,
homespun, heartwrenching.
It should never be safe.

Just a little bit harder…

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Earlier I blogged about how to succeed at work or life you need to work just a little bit more than you want to. I mean that 'little bit' literally: not working yourself to death more, not a whole lot more, just that little bit more that can turn your day from one of frustration and failure into one with a concrete achievement.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me the point when I really want to give up is frequently just before I am about to reach one of my goals. All I need to do is hang on just a little bit longer, keep working just a little bit harder, and very frequently I'm rewarded by more than I could have expected.

Today this was once again confirmed. I got in late today and decided to work until 7, which was coincidentally what I felt was a good solid workday and about the time I would need to leave to make sure I can get some dinner and writing done.

But work was slow going: I'd recently switched to a new project but was stuck with some old tasks, and the mental gear switching, combined with some syrupy new software on my workstation, kept dragging me down. On top of that, one of my collaborators dropped in with a request for assistance putting together an evaluation, and since I owe him a few I worked on a scripting job for him while I was between compiles of the unit tests of my main task for the day.

7 rolls around, and I'm just about spent. I decide to call it a day, start to pack things up, and begin thinking of where I can go for dinner and what I need to be working on: my new novel, an illustration for my last novel, my web site.

And then I remember that blog post, and decide to push just a little bit harder.

In just 23 minutes, I got both the unit tests to pass on my main task AND finished a first trial run of the scripting job, complete with an automatically generated HTML page. With that, I was able to find a 'problem' with my script, spent about 20 more minutes debugging it, verified it wasn't really my script's problem, and fired off an email to my colleague telling him where to find the HTML for his evaluation, and asking him had he ever seen an error like that and did he happen to know how to fix it?

By 7:45, I'd closed up, walked out, and headed for Panera Bread. By the time I was done with my sandwich, I'd gotten an email back from my collaborator suggesting an easy workaround for the problem that I can implement with a one line change. I might even be able to start it up tonight to run overnight - meaning that, God willing, I will have completed by Tuesday morning a task I told my collaborator I couldn't even start until maybe Wednesday.

YES! By working just a little bit harder, I turned a frustrating day into a complete success - and freed my mind this evening to work on more creative tasks. I recommend it to all of you.

-the Centaur

The Weird Way I Think

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Recently I found out the way I think seems damn peculiar to most people.  One friend blogs about my "amazingly weird way of looking at life", another said the same thing at dinner, and my wife is amused that in "in the centaur universe, everything catches on fire, then has to be banned" - referring to a thought experiment I frequently use to think about public policy.

It's hard to see how you think, so it's hard to know what makes my thinking weird.  William James said that thinking about thinking is like trying to turn up the lights in a room to see the darkness.  But maybe I can look at the way other people think and try to see how I'm different from normal people - or similar to "weird" people, like "geeks".

Sometimes "geek" is a dirty word.  There's a whole overlapping set - "nerds" are socially awkward, "geeks" are obsessivley interested in the technical details of a subject, "fans" let that thing take over their whole lives.  But while few people I know are comfortable being called "nerds", many are comfortable being called "fans" or "geeks".

You don't have to be a nerd or geek to be a fan: there are plenty of football fans who wouldn't miss their favorite team, and plenty of baseball fans who wouldn't miss a game no matter who was playing.  And you don't have to be interested in sports or scifi to be a geek: there are plenty of sound system geeks, though they prefer to be called audiophiles.

But a lot of people who self-identify as geeks mean something more than being obsessed with a subject; instead they mean people who think about things other people don't think about.  A couple of uber-geeks I know put it best when they said a true geek is someone who doesn't filter thoughts out.

My friend Henry best epitomizes this: when I toss out some safe-sounding generalization, he works hard to find a specific example that breaks it.  For example, in arguing about the tax code, I said "there's nothing wrong with just being rich" - to which Henry said, "there's some dollar value one man could have, say one hundred trillion, that you would see as a threat."

This led me to my current thinking about public policy.  My first instinct is that the government should not regulate anything - but my favorite counterexample to my own argument is "if something sets people on fire, we might have to ban it."  Some things can cause so much harm that we may have to be pre-emptive; most things don't, so we should let them alone.

As another example, virtually every law is enforced at the point of a gun, so every law passed is an evil, and must be balanced by a some greater good.  Most people don't want to think about that, and get evasive or even angry when you remind them.  In their minds the laws they like must be good, and therefore can't be associated with any kind of bad.

I don't want to go down the rabbit hole of politics right now because it's a charged topic.  More importantly, I'm not a perfect "geek" - there are probably a lot of things that I don't like to think about that are my own blind spots.  So I could be wrong about the above - and finding out how you are wrong is something I've noticed a lot of people don't like to do.

I started paying attention to this when I began digging into science more deeply - not just the history and philosophy of science, but the writings of practicing scientists, particularly Richard Feynman.  Then I started to see that the bulk of the history of human thought was people clinging to ideas that are almost certainly wrong.

In my view, this applies to everyone - Christians, atheists, physicists, astrologers, New Agers, reductionists.  People don't hold ideas because they think they're wrong; they hold them because they seem to work.  The more convinced you are, the more likely you have fooled yourself; the more aware you are of how your thinking can fail, the safer you are.

It's hard, and often painful, to think of the ways in which you can be wrong.  I can irritate people who are complaining about some horrid event during their day when I ask, "why do you think the cashier acted that way towards you"?  Rather than getting angry, seek first to understand why the other person is doing what they're doing, and how you contributed to it.

This really offends a few friends of mine who are "conservatives".  They get angry when I ask questions about how our policies contribute towards people's attitudes towards us.  But to me they're living in a fantasy world in which actions have no consequences - a fantasy no better than the "liberal" one in which there are no real villains with irreconciable differences.

Another thing I reject is reasoning from appearances.  There's a huge swath of common sense thinking we can't do without.  But there's also a huge swath where the appearance of things around us is just wrong.  Appearances tell us the passage of time is fixed, the Earth is flat, and the sun goes around it - but none of those things are true.

It's important to understand the models behind the appearances - even though we know the models can be wrong, they're better than trying to reason from the illusion. When you go deep down this path, a lot of what happens in the world seems obvious - and the light of the Earth shining on the darkened face of the Moon takes on new meaning.

This can lead you into traps.  To me it is seemed obvious that Meteor Crater in Arizona was caused by an impact: the sedimentary rock layers have been tilted onto their sides.  How could anyone have thought this was a volcano?  But then I went to Hawaii, and saw the side of a volcano eroded away, with the same pattern, this time deposited by multiple eruptions.

But if you are on guard, this model-based way of thinking can be very rewarding.  Feynman claimed that anyone who didn't find quantum mechanics weird didn't understand it; but if you understand it really deeply you start to see it has to be that way.  Many other issues, from free will to consciousness to relativity, also start to seem clear once you dig into them.

I still don't know what the weird way I think is.  I'm sure many people think the same way I do, while others don't.  I'm sure much of what I think about how I think is wrong, just like much of the rest of what I know could also be wrong.  But those few odd comments made by my friends were certainly a good source of inspiration for thinking about thinking.

Hopefully this let some light into a darkened room, but not so much it catches on fire.

-the Centaur

Not enough hours in the day…

centaur 1 do all the things that need to be done.

I'm not sure what that phrase means, "not enough hours in the day". I say it from time to time, but what would we do with more hours in the day? If each day was thirty-six hours, wouldn't we just work longer, play longer, expect to get twelve hours of work done instead of eight? It seems like what we really want is a secret stash of hours in the day, twelve free hours we could stick in anywhere we needed.

I'd use my stash just after midnight, in those hours leading up to two where I seem to get so much done, then get on a roll that lasts to the wee hours in the morning. If I yield to that impulse, I don't go to bed until near dawn - wouldn't it be nice to work hours and hours till you're tired, and still go to bed at midnight?

Or maybe I'd just stick them in the morning, a couple extra hours in the lull of the snooze button between eight and eight-oh-seven in the morning. But some days I have to get up earlier or later, so maybe it would be better to slip the extra hours in right on cue when you hit snooze, so when you wake up seven minutes later, you're refreshed and ready for the day.

Or perhaps in midafternoon, right when food coma hits, and you need to recharge. For me, if I push on through I get a second wind, which lasts till seven or eight o'clock at night; wouldn't it be nice to get the second wind, put in all those extra hours, and still leave by five?

Time travel. Must start working on time travel.
-the Centaur

Just a little bit more than you want to…

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In my life, I've often found it necessary to work hard to get what I want.  (Whether this is the right thing to do is another matter).  But how much is too much, and how much is enough?

Sometimes I've been in startup and crunch mode where I had to work weeks or months on end, sometimes to good end, sometimes not.  Once I even worked thirty-six hours straight when a surprise bug forced a rearchitecture of a key software component - but the work was clear to do, the results easy to test, and the deadline ultimately easy to meet.  But you can't do that all the time, and from time to time I've had to look at what I'm doing and dial it back.  I find if you're not working so you spend most of the time ready and refreshed, you don't have the jazz to go to crunch mode if you have to.

Other times I've had so much going on - recuperation from illness, moves, life issues - that I've had to look at my work and say: hey, buddy, you need to do more.  I've never had a boss tell me that that I can recall; I try hard to figure out when to tell that to myself.  In the end, I want my employer to feel like they're getting their dollar's worth, so they keep on giving me the dollars; and I don't want or need supervision in order to do that, I want my employer to get that level of performance for free.

But if you feel like you need to get more done, how do you do it?  Go to crunch mode?  And if you're in perpetual crunch mode, are you trapped there?  Is there really no way out?

No, and no.  In my experience, when things are going well at work --- when it's not an actual emergency --- you need to put out just a little more effort than you want to to really get things done  That's it.  Not a huge amount; not crunch mode, not ten hours a day.  Actually not much at all.  It might take you an hour - even just a few minutes - to:

  • Drop in on your boss and give him a status update, or get one on something pending

  • Take the time to compose that email to your co-worker summarizing the meeting he coudn't make

  • Re-run the unit tests, and identify the bug you're going to start on tomorrow morning

  • Package up that small changelist and send it to your coworker for review

  • Go visit that collaborator you haven't heard from in a while and find out how he's doing

  • Write your Monday morning report ... Friday afternoon

If I take on a big task at the end of the day, I end up tired and drained and go home late, often defeated.  You can actually create for yourself a perpetual crunch by wearing yourself out so much you make mistakes!  If on the other hand --- right when I'm tired and worn out and want to call an early end to my day --- I instead hunt around for the small tasks, the little things I need to do but have been putting off, I find I can do two or three of them.  Or maybe one, small, self-contained programming task.  It usually takes between an hour or two to nail all of these things that I can.

The result? I feel energized, rejuvenated.  Instead of leaving tired after seven hours feeling like a slacker, or defeated after ten hours feeling like a loser, I go out on a high note after eight to nine hours feeling like a winner.  When you do this, you realize that no, there really isn't anything more you can do in the day, and that all the little grease-the-wheel tasks you just did just made your tomorrow clearer, cleaner and brighter.  In fact, often those little tasks are much more useful to your work and everyone else's  than if you started some "big task" that you wore yourself out on not making progress that you'd have to practically restart, exhausted in the morning.  You become more responsive, more effective, and get more done.

All it takes is to realize:

I don't want to work any more today, but if I do just a little bit more, I won't have to work any more today.

Or maybe this should be phrased, do some more of the little bits.  This strategy works far better than when I'd club myself in the head at the end of the day with big tasks so I could feel like I was "getting things done".  Now, I am getting things done - leaving work today, for example, with eight former "Next Actions" now tossed over the cube wall to co-workers and comfortably sitting in the "Wait For" state, and two more sitting even more comfortably in "Done" --- and knowing I can come in to work Monday morning not worrying about my weekly report, all those emails or anything else; just the two or three big tasks on my plate, the way for which I cleared before I left today.

This isn't how Dad did it, but it has been working out pretty well so far.  I'll keep you posted on how it goes in the future.

-the Centaur

Why I’m not donating to the Myanmar relief effort…

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... even though I really, really want to:
In Myanmar, food aid only at the junta's behest
Wealthy Burmese who want to donate rice or other assistance have in several cases been told that everything must be channeled through the military. This angers local government officials like Tin Win who are trying to rebuild the lives of villagers. He twitched with rage as he described the rice the military gave him. "They gave us four bags," Tin Win said. "The rice is rotten - even the pigs and dogs wouldn't eat it."

The UN high commissioner for refugees delivered good rice to the local military leaders last week, but they kept it for themselves, Tin Win said, and distributed the water-logged, musty rice. "I'm very angry," he said, adding an expletive to describe the military.

For the ruling generals, who have been in power for over four decades in Myanmar, the driving motivation of handing out assistance is to show that they are in control and the benevolent providers for the nation, analysts say.

Everyone, do what you think you have to to help these people. Here's a link to the Red Cross's efforts. But I'm afraid it's not helping. I haven't found out how to help out the victims of the China Earthquake, but obviously that's a lot less people who need help.


-the Centaur

Forces of Evil on the March

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Yet another wacko has popped up with a scheme to control on other people's lives to make himself feel happy:

Chef Wants To Outlaw Out of Season Vegetables

Celebrity British chef Gordon Ramsay said restaurants should be fined if they serve out-of-season fruit and vegetables. "I don't want to see asparagus in the middle of December. I don't want to see strawberries from Kenya in the middle of March. I want to see it home-grown," he said after raising his concerns with Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"Fruit and veg should be seasonal. Chefs should be fined if they don't have ingredients in season on their menu," he told the BBC on Friday.  ... "There should be stringent laws, licensing laws, to make sure produce is only used in season and season only," he added.

I'm not going to bother going on about how this would have killed my hardworking father's business shipping produce had such a law been passed in America.  I'm going to even devil's advocate for a second.  The outcome he wants ... eating foods in season prepared locally ... is actually a good thing.   Eating foods that are in season creates variety.  The "local foods" movement takes this further, reducing the cost to ship vegetables.  For example, the excellent Hopland Inn serves food from only a hundred or so miles away, and Google's Cafe 150 is named after the maximum radius of its ingredients.

But many other things we like to eat are NOT local, are NOT in season, and are NOT Gordon Ramsay's business.  Everything he is complaining about is phrased in terms of what he wants to see, and he wants us to pass a law, enforced by people with guns who will come to take your money, to enforce his whims in the presence of no concrete harm?

Ah-ah-ah.  I don't think so.

Tongue in cheek, what is it about Britain that breeds this kind of totalitarian control mindset?  They don't have a recent history of dictatorship, but everyone from Alan Moore to George Orwell to P.D. James keeps writing stories where England goes to hell in a totalitarian basket.  But I guess if I had the experience of these English writers, with springloaded Gordon Ramsays popping up everywhere calling for stringent regulation of everything from seasonal fruits to the proper time for tea, I could see myself popping out a dystopia.


(ObDisclaimer: I have no evidence that Gordon Ramsay is not a nice, decent, humane person, nor do I know that England is populated by an army of springloaded Gordon Ramsay clones popping up everywhere with random totalitarian proposals.  Those were jokes, in case you were wondering; almost all the people I've met from the British isles have been nice).

What Is?

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These words. This pen, this page. The writer, writing. The reader, reading; or perhaps a speaker and a hearer, or a typer and a computer, a screen and a viewer. Sharing these words.

Information, encoded into substance. Matter, patterned across space. Processes, persisting through time. Agents, taking patterns in, processing them, putting patterns back out: generating, interpreting, recreating information in relationship to its encoding, each sufficient to recreate the other, from the letters to the sounds to the ideas and back again, signs invoking each other in any combination: symbols. These words.

But what of the inspiration behind them? The motivation to write them? The matter that makes them? The patterns behind them? The persistence to hear them? The insight to perceive them? The processes that manipulate them? The rules behind the processes? The laws? The physics? How do they connect, so that I can ask "What is?" and I can answer ... with these words?

-the Centaur

Set Phasers to “Ouch”

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Rayethon has developed the Klingon agonizer!

Run Away, The Ray Gun Is Coming:

In tests, even the most hardened Marines flee after a few seconds of exposure. It just isn't possible to tough it out. This machine has the ability to inflict limitless, unbearable pain. What makes it OK, says Raytheon, is that the pain stops as soon as you are out of the beam or the machine is turned off.

Actually this is better than a Klingon agonizer, which required direct contact:


An agonizer was a small device worn on the belts of Imperial personnel in the mirror universe, used to inflict pain for minor transgressions. [Agonizers] needed physical contact with their victims to be effective. In the primary universe, the Klingons also used a similar device...

Rayethon's "Silent Guardian", in contrast, is a beam of microwaves that penetrates the top layer of skin and stimulates nerve endings up to half a mile away.

Take that, Kang!
-the Centaur