Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria

Okay, well, as is obvious, I haven’t yet put into practice my proposal to stop using Tuesdays for writing IoZ posts; there are just too many subjects I want to address.  Skimming through my notes on those subjects this morning, as I considered writing something, I found so many of the ideas grabbing my attention that I had a hard time choosing what not to write.  Given that passion, I’ve succumbed to temptation and just picked a post.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Today I’ll address an issue of which the most irritating example (to me) occurs in a speech by Agent Smith in The Matrix.  In the film, Morpheus has been captured by the machines, and Agent Smith speaks to him while “interrogating” him to obtain the access codes for the Zion mainframe.  During that interaction, Agent Smith expresses a sentiment—shared by many environmentalists, and I suspect by many ordinary people who haven’t thought very deeply about the situation—that humans are like a virus, a disease of the ecosystem.  Whether or not it might be useful to characterize the global effects of humanity as such, one statement Smith makes during this speech is so fundamentally erroneous, and it represents such a common but uselessly misanthropic notion, that I absolutely must address it. Continue reading “Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria”

I need to circle the zero from a different angle

I must rethink my schedule for writing Iterations of Zero.

The reason I need to do this is that writing IoZ is interfering with the speed of my fiction writing, and fiction is my primary utility function.  Unfortunately, since I write my fiction in the mornings, and do my original blog on Thursday mornings, writing this blog on Tuesday mornings (as I am now) further interrupts my weekly fiction flow.  I have one day on, then one day off, then one day on, then one day off, then one day on for fiction during the working week.  When I go into the office on Saturday mornings, I also write fiction then, and that’s good as far as it goes, but skipping days during the week slows me down and breaks my flow.

Of course, I’ve said to myself, and to you, my readers, that I could write at least a page of fiction on Sundays, as well.  I said that writing fiction on Sundays would be easier than producing an IoZ post on Sundays, and I still think that’s true.  Unfortunately, “easier” is apparently not easy enough, and I’m not getting much writing done on Sundays, if any.  I aspire to the Stephen King/Ray Bradbury ideal of literally writing every day, of course, but when one writes in one’s spare time while also working full time, with a long commute…well, the time takes its toll on one’s will, and on Sunday mornings I tend just to want—perhaps need—to vegetate.

If I were writing full time, and only writing, then I think I could swing it, but unless and until I achieve that blessed state, I need to adjust.  “Know thyself and act accordingly,” great Socrates exhorts us, and I try to comply when I’m able.  Obviously, I don’t quite know myself as well as I should, because if I did, I wouldn’t have to keep reassessing and changing things, but hopefully I’m getting to know myself a little bit better all the time.

So, if I must prioritize, I will choose my fiction over my nonfiction, heartrending though that can be.  I need to maximize the continuity in my fiction writing, with as few instances of “day off/day on” as I can.  Therefore, at least tentatively, I’m going to switch away from writing IoZ every Tuesday morning.  That way, I’ll at least get in a good four to five days of fiction writing a week instead of three to four, even without Sundays.

There are, however, still numerous topics on which I want to express my thoughts, from politics to philosophy, to science, to math, to mental health and the lack thereof, and every random, walk-in topic in between.  Though the list of my stories waiting to be written is long, the list of potential Iterations of Zero posts is even longer (though the total volume of work will no doubt be much shorter).  I need to work out some method of getting it done without impinging on my fiction.

The inspirations for IoZ posts can strike me nearly any time, (though, amusingly, they often occur when I’ve had large doses of caffeine—I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing overall, but it at least gives me useful knowledge of one possible trigger that I can squeeze when needed).  In the past, I’ve jotted these thoughts down in the notes section of my smartphone—the list has lasted through three successive phones, growing as it’s gone along—and I need to get back into that habit.  Writing down article ideas both stores them and makes them concrete.  Then, when I review these ideas frequently, with new thoughts occurring as I do, the articles compose themselves in my head as I go along, usually making the eventual writing much smoother.

All of this would be easier to accomplish if I could just master the art of getting enough sleep.  I’ve always tended to be an early riser, even when I was a teenager, but waking up at one or one-thirty in the morning—after going to sleep at perhaps eleven, and sometimes later—is just ridiculous.  It’s clearly not the case that I’ve simply had all the sleep I need; if that were so, I’d feel rejuvenated and enthusiastic when I wake up at those times, whereas normally I groan inwardly and curse my perverse sleep cycle.  I’m usually able to sneak in at least a little more sleep before morning, in fits and snatches, but it almost never feels like enough.


Oh, well.  No one ever promised that this “life” stuff would be easy, did they?  At least, no one ever promised me such a thing, and I suspect that if someone promised you such thing, they were trying to sell you something, tangible or otherwise.

I would welcome any advice, recommendations, personal experiences, etc. that might point me in a good direction with respect to writing my IoZ posts on a weekly basis without interfering with my fiction.  Any advice on getting better sleep would also be welcome, but remember:  I don’t really have trouble getting to sleep, just staying asleep.  Maybe I should simply meditate on those occasions when I wake up early…but thinking to do that requires a presence of mind that I often don’t have at such moments.

I’m certainly not giving up.  I mean to solve this problem or die trying, so I expect I’ll figure out something that works.  In the meantime, of course, you could all help by buying and spreading the word about my works and increasing their popularity to the point where I’m an international best-seller and can write full time.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Our public discourse could benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most frustrating facts about the current level and character of our political discourse—as typified by the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings for appointment to the Supreme Court—is the degree to which it amounts to so many gangs of monkeys hurling feces at each other.

And yet, in characterizing the matter this way, I’m indulging in the very thing that I’m decrying (and I didn’t do it just to make a point—that really was my honest reaction, and I only caught myself after the fact).  It seems to me that, more and more over the past few decades, we approach disagreements about policies, economics, and other social concerns with an attitude appropriate to children calling each other names on a playground, or to rabid sports fans supporting their team against bitter rivals, as though that enmity were etched into the very bedrock of existence.

Yet, even among sports fans, and certainly among players, there is traditionally an underlying ethos of good sportsmanship.  Pettiness, vindictiveness, name-calling…these things are not admired among serious athletes, those who love their sport for its own sake.

But the level of “discussion” between those who disagree about political matters simply reeks of the same cognitive biases and distortions that play a role in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and which such techniques as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been designed to counteract.  I long for the application of CBT to our public discourse, especially about matters of deep import that have a serious impact on the lives of many people.  We fall prey to fallacies of absolutist, Us/Them, good/evil, all-or-nothing thinking, of mind-reading, of catastrophizing, and to blind and rabid tribalism in areas where we would do better to engage the highest regions of our brains to make sound judgements.

One of the most refreshing posts I’ve seen regarding the Kavanaugh hearings was by a local, central-Florida-based, “libertarian” politician, who said that while he had mixed feelings about the accusations being made about Kavanaugh regarding past sexual assault, this didn’t really matter—at least with respect to the confirmation hearing—because Kavanaugh’s stance on the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional issues regarding Presidential power and accountability were already bad enough to make him a poor choice for the Supreme Court.  In other words, he wanted to focus on matters of substance relating to the specific qualifications for the job for which Kavanaugh was being considered.

This is not to say that allegations of sexual assault aren’t serious matters—they certainly are.  The fact of these allegations and the varying character of the reactions to them are reminders and examples of important issues that trouble our society, and which require addressing.  It’s not unreasonable to decide that the character of a man who would sexually assault a woman—if he did—makes him unsuitable for one of the most crucial positions in our national government.  But it’s also not entirely unreasonable to be at least a little curious about the timing of the allegations, and to wonder whether that timing ought to have any bearing on whether we judge them to be true or not.  These matters can be soberly considered in evaluating the candidate.

But “sober” is not a word one would be inclined to use to describe the level of discussion on this very serious set of concerns.  Rather, we see a plethora of memes that focus on silly facial expressions of Kavanaugh, or of Lindsey Graham, or of Christine Blasey Ford, as though the transient set of one’s features as captured in single frames of video feeds has any bearing on whether a person is truthful or not, or whether they are of good character.  This is less convincing than phrenology, frankly, and should be beneath the dignity of those who judge these issues to be pivotal.

Important concerns have been and are being raised by this event, and they are worthy of discussion, consideration, and action.  It’s a serious issue to consider the various cultural forces that lead countless women—and men, as well—who have been victims of sexual assault to keep silent, rather than bring out accusations only to have them dismissed or taken lightly.  It’s likewise a real issue whether the timing of these particular accusations, by raising shades of political machination, weakens the gravitas of the “MeToo” movement and harms its broad acceptance.

It’s also of real worry that so many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a confirmation hearing and a criminal trial, and that there are different standards of evidence involved because the purpose of the occasions is very different.

And it is a very real concern just to what degree we wish to allow the potential undermining of checks on Executive power such as might be engendered by giving the lifetime Supreme Court appointment to someone who is soft on that issue.

To deal with any and all of these concerns is worthwhile, perhaps even absolutely necessary.  But we are not actually dealing with them.  Much of the discourse, even at the “highest” levels, about these matters, amounts to sheer rhetoric and attempted manipulation, of others and of ourselves.  Outrage is fun, or at least it’s exciting, and we seem to be growing addicted to it, at the expense of our ability to deal with important matters in a reasonable fashion.  In this, our discourse is reminiscent of our civil and criminal trials, which amount to jousting matches between hired champions, where the one most skilled at emotional chicanery, at engaging and making use of our many inherent cognitive biases, tends to win.

It shouldn’t be about “winning”.  It should be about the seeking of truth, the attempt to achieve the best possible outcome we can manage as a society.  One of the things I like most about the US Constitution is that it is, in character, a very scientific document.  It arranges a system of government as a starting point, but it ensures peer review in the form of the various checks and balances, and always leaves itself open, in principle and in practice, to the updating of its model, in the form of the amendment process.  I wish we could approach matters of national concern, that bear on the interpretation of that document—and frankly, all important matters—with calm heads worthy of the Constitution’s character.

The fact that someone disagrees with you on some particular point does not mean that they are evil, and the fact that they agree with you on some other emotionally salient issue does not automatically make them good.

The world is complex.  And while it’s true that humans are primates—so it’s not all that surprising that we fall into primate dominance display patterns rather easily, especially when our emotions become aroused—we should recognize that this is almost always a weakness when dealing with issues that couldn’t have been faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors over evolutionary time.  Complicated problems benefit most from careful, rational thought, and calm, reasonable discussion in which everyone recognizes their own fallibility and all are open—at least in principle—to having their minds changed.

We seem to have a societal mood disorder, some population-based depression/anxiety syndrome, that makes us prone to counter-productive thoughts and behaviors.  Given this, we should remind ourselves of some of the cognitive distortions typical of such disorders, such as:  all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; mental filtering; discounting the positives; jumping to conclusions; magnification and minimization; emotional reasoning; overusing “should” statements; labeling; and blame.

It would be nice if we could all be a bit more Stoic in our approach to public issues, especially ones of great import.  It’s precisely because serious concerns are so prone to make us emotional that we should defend ourselves against the distortions of our emotional reactions, and against descending to playground-level invective rather than engaging in serious conversation.  It’s when matters are most consequential that our passions are most likely to be aroused—but this is precisely the time when we should be most on our guard against succumbing to their every dictate.  Serious problems are rarely solved by name-calling and reactionary vilification.

We really need to do better.  We can do better, I have no doubt about that.  And the answer to the question of whether or not we will do better will have serious consequences.

Vote Out the Incumbents!

It’s National Voter Registration Day here in the USA.  I’ll give a little commentary on that subject, since it’s extremely consequential and yet too few people take the time to think much about it.

In America, the approaching election is called a “mid-term” election, because it’s in the middle of the term of the current president.  It doesn’t have any direct effect on the presidential administration (though its indirect effects can be immense).  However, though the president wields tremendous power, more than any other individual in the nation at any given time, the collective power of the Senate and the House of Representatives—the Congress—is greater still, and more far-reaching.  Congress creates and modifies the laws that the Executive Branch is tasked with enforcing.  It is the Legislative Branch (Congress) that confirms the judiciary at the Federal level, that confirms the various other executive appointments, and that codifies the duties and activities of the regulatory agencies brought into existence by law.  And the record of the Legislative Branch—in the eyes of the citizenry they nominally serve—has been appalling for a very long time. Continue reading “Vote Out the Incumbents!”

IS life pain?

I recently bought a tee-shirt bearing one of my favorite quotes from the movie, The Princess Bride.  The shirt reads, “Life is pain.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

This quote got me thinking, specifically about its first sentence.  Obviously, I bought the shirt because its message resonated with me, even if only as an expression of dark humor.  But really, on a deep, objective level, is it accurate?  I concluded that, depending on how one defines “pain,” as well as how generous one is toward poetic hyperbole, the quote expresses a useful insight into the nature of all living beings that are capable of action. Continue reading “IS life pain?”

Don’t text and drive, you moron!

“Don’t text and drive.  Be responsible.”

On I-95 in South Florida (and perhaps elsewhere), there are large LED signs stretching across the roadway that, when not providing traffic estimates, notices of lane closures, and “silver alerts”, display the above message, apparently as their default setting.

This seems entirely too tepid an exhortation given the subject matter.  In character, it’s a bit like a parent or teacher saying to two children engaged in a violent fistfight, “Come on now, guys, can’t we all just get along?”

I think it would be more appropriate if the sign read something along the lines of, “Don’t text and drive!  Don’t be a complete imbecile!”  Or perhaps even, “Don’t text and drive or we’ll kill you!” Continue reading “Don’t text and drive, you moron!”

A cosmic perspective in everyday life

It can be intimidating to consider the size, scale, and scope of the universe in space and time, and to compare it to the size and length of our everyday lives.  It can make many of our daily concerns seem not merely small and trivial, but utterly irrelevant on the scale of all that happens.  If we’re not careful, it can even drive us into nihilism, or something close to it.  On a cosmic scale, nothing we do ever really matters or seems at first glance to have an impact.  This can be daunting and disheartening.

While I think it’s not useful to go so far as to conclude that everything that happens to everyone is truly meaningless, I do think that taking a larger perspective—even a cosmic perspective—can be both illuminating and useful and might even make us approach life more rationally and more productively. Continue reading “A cosmic perspective in everyday life”