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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Republocrats or Demoblicans?


It’s election season once again in the U. S. of A., and both political parties are hard at work winning the votes of the American public.  So, who do you favor in this election, the Republocrats or the Demoblicans?  Here’s a brief rundown of the stances of each party to help you make up your mind:

The Republocrats:

- Are putting forth a candidate who is a good Christian and family man.
- Will withhold part of your income but promise to let you have more of it back than the Demoblicans will.
- Will see to it that you can get cheaper medicine than under the Demoblicans.
- Say they will fix the financial mess the Demoblicans have made of this country.
- Will use the military to attack the bad guys, but different bad guys than the Demoblicans will attack.
- Promise to protect you from America’s enemies better than the Demoblicans will.
- Will handle the education of your children for you.
- Want you to have a good job so that you can pay your taxes, pay your mortgage, save a little money every month, raise your kids, and send them to a good school so that they can repeat the process.
- Say that we will have a sustainable economy sometime in the future, but in the meantime they will see to it that the economy keeps growing so that everyone can keep their jobs.
- Want you to vote.

The Demoblicans:

- Are putting forth a candidate who is a good Christian and family man.
- Will withhold part of your income but promise to let you have more of it back than the Republocrats will.
- Will see to it that you can get cheaper medicine than under the Republocrats.
- Say they will fix the financial mess the Republocrats have made of this country.
- Will use the military to attack the bad guys, but different bad guys than the Republocrats will attack.
- Promise to protect you from America’s enemies better than the Republocrats.
- Will handle the education of your children for you.
- Want you to have a good job so that you can pay your taxes, pay your mortgage, save a little money every month, raise your kids, and send them to a good school so that they can repeat the process.
- Say that we will have a sustainable economy sometime in the future, but in the meantime they will see to it that the economy keeps growing so that everyone can keep their jobs.
-Want you to vote.

            There are a number of trivial issues, unimportant to the majority of the American public, which are not priorities of either party.  These include:

- The unconstitutionality of the federal income tax.
- The epidemic of obesity and lifestyle diseases.
- The problems inherent in private control of the Federal Reserve System.
- The incompleteness of the 9/11 Commission Report and the existence of thermite residue in the rubble of the World Trade Center (thermite is a type of explosive used in the controlled demolition of skyscrapers).
- The rationale of the global war on terror.
- Promoting alternatives to traditional schooling, such as home based learning and self-directed education.
- Promoting alternatives to traditional employment, such as self-employment, employee ownership, and cooperatives.
- The implications of runaway population growth.
- The limits to economic growth in a finite world.
- Transforming the focus of the political system from centralized administration to local determination.
- Transforming the basis of the economy from centralized control to local sustainability.
- The inherent problems with control of the media by corporate conglomerates.
- The Texas border fence currently under construction.
- The Trans Texas Corridor currently under construction.
- The complementary demographic transitions of urban decay and suburban sprawl.

So, who do you favor this election season?  Remember, your vote counts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Promise of Technology

The promise of technology is: more results for less effort, more leisure for less work.  If the promise of technology were being fulfilled, then as technology advanced people would continually have more, work less, and enjoy more leisure time.  Yet this is demonstrably not the case as a general trend.  Technology is continually advancing, yet the need to “contribute to society” becomes no less demanding, the workday gets no shorter, and those who are “unemployed” (i.e. unused) are considered to be in a state of despair and distress.

My question to you is why is the promise of technology not being fulfilled?  I’d like to know what you think.  Please discuss in the comments.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Logistics of RV Living on any Budget

Money can easily be perceived as an obstacle to almost anything you want to do, including living in an RV, but it isn’t the only one.  If you are considering making the transition to a mobile lifestyle, here are some considerations that can help you minimize the uncertainty.

Chances are that if you can afford to live in a house or an apartment, you can afford to live in an RV.  However, besides setup costs, there are a few other potential expenses to take into account that may offset the savings of a rent-free existence.

I didn’t consider living in an RV for a long time because it didn’t occur to me that I could afford to buy one.  But when someone suggested that I might be able to find one for $500 I began looking, and ended up buying my first RV for $1,000.  Granted, this is definitely the low end of the market, and a lower price upfront inevitably translates to less functionality and greater costs in repairs and deferred maintenance, so my recommendation is to buy the best one you can afford and make maintenance a top priority.  This pays off in lifestyle quality and peace of mind as well as future maintenance costs.

Now that you’re not paying rent you can save a great deal, but you will have to consider how to handle the other necessities of living that landed folk may take for granted.  If your RV is fully functional you will be able to cook, eat, and bathe at home, but if it is not you will have to arrange for other ways to meet these needs.  Eating out consistently can cost almost as much as paying rent, and your food storage may be limited to nonperishable items.  Also, the gas mileage of an RV is much lower than that of a standard vehicle, so fuel costs can be high, especially if regular commuting is a necessity.

Where will you be staying in your RV?  Will you be stationed close to your regular haunts?  Or will you be nomadic and travel widely?  California is an RV-friendly state and for the most part an RV is just another vehicle as far as the laws and public opinion is concerned, but this may not be so in some locales.  Generally speaking, if there are other RVs around then the path is probably well-beaten, but in locations where RVs are sparse you should be aware of local laws and sensitive to the perceptions of others.

How long will you want to lead this lifestyle?  And if temporarily, how will you manage your transition back to a landed existence?  It is much better to plan ahead or at least have some idea of your goals than to let blind fate lead you (unless that is your goal).

What will you be doing with yourself?  Will you be taking an extended vacation or mini-retirement or seeking your livelihood?  If you are not already financially free, how will you earn your living?  If you already have a job or are self-employed, how will you continue to meet the needs of your work?  For example, I am self-employed as a freelancer and tutor, which does not require me to have a permanent residence.  I also have a university job, which not only doesn’t require a house, but also gives me access to all the resources of the university, including parking, Internet access, and gym facilities.

Are you vulnerable to social prejudice?  Are you comfortable dealing with the possible disapproval of close friends and family, and are you confident in explaining your alternative lifestyle to other people when necessary?  Would there be a true need to keep any part of your life a secret from anyone, and if so are you prepared to do so?

Can you drive your RV everywhere you need to go?  In California and most other states, an RV can stay parked on the street for 72 hours, just like any other vehicle, but driving long distances or in crowded conditions (i.e. downtown LA) can be challenging.

There is nothing illegal about living in an RV, and the best way to not run afoul of law enforcement is to not break any laws.  If asked, there is nothing wrong with telling the police that you live in your RV, which is protected by the same fourth amendment rights that a house would be, so it cannot be searched without your consent.  And one great thing about living in an RV is that most complaints can be solved by simply moving to a different location.

If you have a functional kitchen and refrigerator then you can prepare meals at home.  If not then you have to plan to eat out and/or subsist on nonperishable food items.

If you have a functional bathroom then your only concern is locating a dump station.  If not then you have to plan to have access to a bathroom most of the time.  My first RV didn’t have a functional bathroom, so I stayed close to coffee shops and other places where I could plug in my laptop and use the bathroom whenever I needed to.  For taking showers and doing laundry, you might get by with a little help from your friends, or you might rely on laundromats and fitness clubs.

Living in an RV is ideally suited to living a minimalist lifestyle, but if you have lots of stuff that you want to keep then you have to figure out how and where to store it, because filling up your precious onboard storage space with stuff you don’t use is a sure way to cramp your style.  When you’re living in an RV you should only keep around things you need and will use.

The world is becoming more and more wired, so if you have a laptop you can get online in coffee shops and other places that have free wifi, which worked for me for a long time.  Nowadays I have a netbook with mobile broadband so I’m always online.

If you are going to have a limited geographical range you can receive mail at a PO box or a mail service station.  If you don’t want to be bound to such a geographical anchor you can receive mail at a virtual mailbox, which will scan your mail and upload it or email it to you, and also forward packages.  This is one of the tricks recommended by Tim Ferris in The Four Hour Workweek.

If you want to have guests, make sure you have space for them to be comfortable.  As long as this condition is met, guests, romantic or otherwise, should enjoy visiting.

The best way to be prepared for emergencies is to have cash on hand, ideally set aside for this purpose.  Essential items include a toolkit, jumper cables, tow rope, spare gas can (kept full), flashlight, and a spare battery or jump starter.  These things will not only be useful for getting yourself out of a bind but also allow you to play the good Samaritan if need be.  Roadside assistance is essential, and should be included with full coverage insurance, which is highly recommended.  Full coverage insurance for an RV will cover not only collisions but will also cover contents, including losses from fire, theft, and other unfortunate occurrences.

If you are curious about other aspects of RV existence, leave a comment below for my take on your question.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything

A few years ago I wrote this piece on neural nets.  It's still good.  Follow the link below for the complete paper, with images; read below for the text only:

bit.ly/neurnet

Answers to Some Common Questions

What is a neural net?
What is life?
What is a meme?
What are people?
What are thoughts?

What is a neural net?

The basic components of a simple neural net are switches, which send and receive messages, and the pathways between them that transmit the messages.  So, a very simple neural net is one composed of two switches and the pathway between them.
Individual switches are very simple.  They are not capable of creating new messages themselves, just passing on what they receive.  That is, when a switch receives a signal, it simply passes it on along any pathways that are connected to it.  Thus if we wiggle switch A in the picture, the wiggle gets passed on to switch B, and then duplicated and passed on to any other switches connected to B, and so on and so forth.
We can see from this that one basic function of a neural net is to transmit a signal from one place to another, or to duplicate information.  The reason I say duplicate is because for a piece of information like a signal or message, duplication and transportation are essentially the same thing.
Now imagine a series of switches and pathways arranged so that a signal goes in, travels through several intermediate switches, and is then returned to its source.  In this case, a signal travels from A to B to C to D to A.  So, what happens if we wiggle switch A is that some time passes as the signal is transmitted internally and then switch A wiggles back in exactly the same way.  From this we can see that another basic function of a neural net is to store information over time.
Next imagine a series of switches and pathways arranged in the following way.  A signal is input at A, travels to B where it is split, one copy being sent to C and one copy being sent to D; C then sends the signal to D.  We presume the signal going by way of C takes slightly longer than the signal going directly from B to D, so what happens with this arrangement is the signal input at A is transmitted to D in a changed form.  At A we input “blip” and some time later “blip blip” comes out at D.  This example shows us that recombining information comes as naturally to a neural net as do duplication and storage.
Another property of neural nets we can infer from these examples is that all information that goes into one must come out eventually.  Like a mosquito flying into an open window, once a signal finds its way into a neural net it doesn’t die, but rather stays inside buzzing around until it finds a way out.
These conclusions are fundamental properties of any neural net, no matter how small or simple, but it is easy to see that as a neural net gets larger, with more switches and pathways, its complexity will increase phenomenally.  So, imagine if you will a vast simple neural net with hundreds or even thousands of switches and pathways between them.  Obviously the functioning of such a contraption would be highly complicated and intricate, but we can see that it would have many interesting capacities.  It would be able to store information about past inputs, which would affect its outputs.  It would be able to calculate and create by recombining information.  What’s more, its outputs would have an innate tendency to mimic its inputs, perhaps resulting in a need to express itself.  If we imagine further that the neural net is not static but is able to grow by adding more switches or pathways then we can imagine that even more astonishing behavior could arise, such as long-term memory, conditioning, and self-directed growth.  The neural net would be capable of being conflicted, developing preferences, and getting ideas stuck in its head.  Perhaps it would have dreams, hallucinations, or seek emotional release.  If this way of imagining a vast, highly connected neural net makes it sound a lot like a person, that’s not a coincidence!

What is life?

Life is bits of self-replicating matter.  Starting from scratch a bit of self-replicating matter may be hard to come by, but once there is some it is almost inevitable that at a later time there will be more.  The reason is fairly obvious, and gives rise to the principles of variation, selection, and heredity.  If some bit of matter makes copies of itself, even if it is not very good at it, at least some of those copies will also have the ability to make copies of themselves and thus over time there will come to be more copies of that original bit.  If not all of the copies are perfect then there will be some variation in the resulting population.  With variation it follows that some of the copies will make more copies of themselves, and some of them will make fewer.  Over time we can expect to see more copies of the former and fewer of the latter.  If it is also the case that the characteristics of a particular bit have some influence on the number of copies it is likely to make, then a selection criteria is in effect.  That is, the copies are being selected for the traits that make them better copiers.  Since the traits of a copy are based on the traits of the original (isn’t this what we really mean by a “copy”?), we have heredity as well, and the three conditions of heredity, variation, and selection are the necessary and sufficient conditions to give rise to an evolutionary process.
So what are the characteristics of an evolutionary process?  Once there are little bits of self-replicating stuff what can we expect to see happen?  One property of such a process is constant change.  Just like a story will change each time it is passed on, as copies are made of copies of copies of copies on and on, the population, when taken at a later time, will generally look different than at an earlier time.  Hence variation never runs out, regardless of environmental influences.
A further characteristic of an evolutionary process is that this change will express a detectable progression in two ways.  One is a tendency for there to be more replicators at a later time than at an earlier time, which results in a tendency for a population of replicators to come to utilize all available space or materials.
The second detectable progression will be the tendency for the replicators in existence at a given time to be more proficient at making copies of themselves than the replicators in existence at an earlier time.  Thus, as a natural result of selection pressure we can expect over time to see the replicators become better at what they do.  But what defines a “good” replicator?  There are three qualities that measure fitness in this context.  One is fecundity, or the number of copies made.  This is because if two replicators, A and B, are in direct competition and A makes more copies, on average, than B does, then, all other variables being equal, A will eventually dominate.  Another is fidelity, or how accurate the copies are.  Similarly to before, if A and B are two replicators in direct competition and all variables are equal except A copies itself more accurately, on average, than B does, then at a later time we will see more true copies of A than true copies of B, so A will eventually dominate.  The third is longevity, or how long the copies last.  This is because if A and B are equal in every respect except that A lasts longer, on average, than B does, then at any time there will be more copies of A extant than copies of B, so A will eventually dominate.  Hence selection pressure favors replicators that make more copies, more accurately, that last longer.
Another characteristic of an evolutionary process is that it constantly makes minor variations and changes to what has already been established.  This makes it possible for it to give rise to highly intricate designs and systems.  Such systems will display elements of specialization and intentional design.
And finally, another remarkable feature of an evolutionary process is that the environment in which it takes place will tend to be altered, by whatever means the replicators can find, to favor the existence of more replicators.  Put another way, an evolutionary process allows for replicators to alter their environment so as to enhance their replication.
Applying these concepts to life allows us to see how an evolutionary process is able to give rise to the living world we find around us.  It accounts for the existence of the ultimate bit of self-replicating matter, DNA.  It accounts for why the replicators synthesize complicated, specialized vehicles for their transportation and transmission, and why some of these vehicles enter into beneficial alliances while others compete with one another.  It accounts for the observation that the surface of the Earth, at some time in the past a molten sea of lava, and later a cooled, rocky, abiotic crust is now a bustling haven of DNA where nary a carbon atom or molecule of water has not participated countless upon countless times in the metabolism of a living organism.
So we can see that the concepts of heredity, variation, and selection as applied to replicators can wield far-reaching explanatory power for the nature of life.  But these concepts apply to any self-replicating entities, not just DNA.

What is a meme?

People are consummate imitators.  We frequently exercise our ability to imitate, not only other people but also other things in our environment.  It is this ability to imitate that enables us to maintain social cohesion in groups and to learn all sorts of skills.  It also means that certain bits of information in the form of actions, behaviors, preferences, symbols, ideas, and stories will be copied from person to person and have the opportunity to spread.  These bits of information that get copied from person to person are called memes.  If we focus not on the people doing the imitating but instead on the memes themselves being copied we can identify an entity that acts as a replicator.  Consider a population of people.  Because of their nature they tend to copy and learn from each other and thus pass on stories, ideas, and other pieces of information.  When an idea arises with an individual there is some chance that it will be transmitted to other people and thus replicate itself.  There are, of course, many different possible ideas to be had, and some, once they begin, are more likely to be copied than others.  The difference results both from the characteristics of the ideas themselves and from the characteristics of the environment, which is the minds of the people in which the memes spread.  Over time, we can expect to see more of the good replicators and fewer of the less good replicators.  Thus we can see a selection process in effect, one that selects for the ability of the memes to be transmitted.  Variation is ensured since copying is not perfect and heredity is ensured by the nature of the copying process.  The existence of variation, heredity, and selection means that memes themselves undergo an evolutionary process.
This evolutionary process displays the same general characteristics as genetic evolution.  The body of memes is ever changing as copies are made of copies ad infinitum.  Memes tend to proliferate as there are ever more ideas created and passed on between people.  They display elements of specialization for specific purposes and intentional design.  As time passes memes get better at copying themselves, both by adapting to the existing environment as well as by using whatever means they can find to alter it in their favor so that there are ever in existence more memes making more copies more accurately that last longer and longer.

What are people?

The unique characteristics of people can only be understood clearly as being a result of both genetic and memetic evolution.  Certain of our characteristics are obviously the products of genetic selection: we have urges to eat and drink, protect ourselves and our offspring, and have sex.  But explanations based on genetic selection alone are lacking when it comes to accounting for such human traits as our constant yammering to each other, our ability to invent mathematical equations and translate the image of a sunset into a work on canvas, our generalized altruism, or the fact that we have such disproportionately huge brains instead of better hearing, smell, tree-climbing ability, or thick body hair.  Our ability to mimic other people and learn by imitation must have had some small genetic advantage at least, otherwise we wouldn’t have it.  But could the genetic advantage have been enough to outweigh the genetic costs of having a large brain, such as an increased likelihood of dying during childbirth?  It is difficult to say based on genetic selection alone, but memetic selection adds a new dimension to the question.
Once even a rudimentary imitation ability came to be developed it gave rise to memes.  Memes undergo their own evolutionary process that tends to change the environment so as to favor the existence of more memes.  Obviously an environment with more, larger, and more complex brains is a favorable one to the proliferation of memes.  This means that memetic evolution can account for the existence of large brains quite aside from any pure genetic advantage they might have had.  In essence, our bodies and minds are the combined product of two separate evolutionary processes, the genetic and the memetic.  What this implies about our functionality is that we are not only designed by genetic evolution to be very proficient at spreading genes, but that we are also designed by memetic evolution to be very good at spreading memes.
So how does this idea account for us having huge brains?  A brain is a biological neural net, designed for the purpose of processing information that is pertinent to the survival of the organism.  Recall that the fundamental functions of a neural net are to store, duplicate, recombine, and eventually transmit all the information that it receives.  A neural net therefore provides the ideal vehicle for the replication and spread of memes.  But not all animals have huge brains capable of giving rise to memetic evolution.  This is because a bigger brain doesn’t generally help out much unless the skill of imitation has already been accomplished, just as it doesn’t help much to have flatter arms and lighter bones until rudimentary flight has already been accomplished.  But once the threshold of flight has been crossed, selection pressure will favor greater and greater flying ability.  In a similar way, once the rudimentary skill of imitation has arisen, selection pressure, partly influenced by the memes themselves, will favor greater and greater imitation ability, which requires a larger and larger neural net.
Another human trait I mentioned is generalized altruism.  The difficulty that genetic selection has in explaining altruism is that, except in limited cases, altruistic behavior is detrimental to the genes of the individual who practices it, giving them slightly decreased chances of being passed on.  So genes that code for or allow generalized altruistic behavior seem to be at a disadvantage relative to genes that do not.  However, generalized altruistic behavior is favorable to the memes of someone who practices it, since other people are more likely to imitate those they like and they are more likely to like those who are kind and generous.  Hence the altruism meme, the idea that it is good to be altruistic, tends to spread, despite the genetic disadvantage.
So how do memes drive our biological evolution?  By changing the environment in which our genes are selected, and hence affecting the selection pressures.  For example, the prevalence or absence of certain behaviors within a group, attributable to memes, may influence the overall reproductive success of that group, resulting in a kind of group selection.  Or in an environment where certain memes are prevalent, such as the behavior of using the skins of animals for clothing, selection pressure on the genes may be altered enough that previous adaptations, such as thick body hair, become less adaptive.  But whatever the mechanisms it finds, the overall effect of memetic selection is apparent: to make us highly specialized imitators with the souped-up neural nets to show for it, and all of the remarkable informational dexterity that such a remarkable adaptation confers.

What are thoughts?

When a one-bit signal enters a simple neural net it gets multiplied many times over as it is repeatedly duplicated and transmitted by successive switches.  Thus we can see that at the most basic level the information processing capability of a simple neural net is tied in with a copying process.  This is because the fundamental function of a switch is to duplicate and retransmit any message it receives, and a simple neural net is simply any number of such switches connected by pathways along which they are able to communicate.
Imagine what happens to a signal of more than one bit when it enters a simple neural net.  The individual bits in the signal will each be duplicated and retransmitted many times over, so the effect is that the multi-bit signal gets scrambled as it is chopped up into bits and recombined over and over again.  Obviously most multi-bit signals that enter will soon be hopelessly lost, but we can see that any signal which has some propensity to retain its integrity through such a process will find a simple neural net a fertile breeding ground, for many copies of such a signal could be made and transmitted by the neural net.  If we assume that the likelihood of a signal retaining its integrity through such a process is influenced by the traits of the signal itself as well as by the particular characteristics of the neural net it enters, then a selection criteria is in place which, along with variation and heredity, gives rise to an evolutionary process.  This evolutionary process takes place within the neural net itself.  It stems from the simple process of signals giving rise to more signals, some of which may resemble in some way the original signal.  Variation and heredity are inherent in the copying process, and selection pressure within the neural net favors those signals that give rise to signals that are most like them.  The effect is that over time more stable signals arise as a result of selection pressure favoring those signals with the greatest fidelity, fecundity, and longevity.
So we can see how it is that stable patterns of information, which could be likened to thoughts or ideas, can arise from the basic functioning of a simple neural net: as a result of selection pressure acting on self-replicating signals within the environment of the neural net, giving rise to a process of evolutionary refinement.  The patterns that arise can be expected to display the characteristic traits of objects created by an evolutionary process.  They tend to drift over time, rather than staying completely stable and fixed.  They can cooperate, so that the survival of one becomes dependent on the survival of others, or they can compete for space and resources so that one will force another into extinction.  They can become highly intricate and ordered and show signs of intentional design.  And they will have a tendency to alter their environment to suit their own replication.
If we consider a group of several simple neural nets able to communicate with one another through their various input and output channels, it becomes apparent that the same evolutionary process takes place in the environment created by the linked system of neural nets.  The neural nets are constantly transmitting externally through their output channels, so signals get passed among members of the group just as readily as they get passed from switch to switch within a single neural net.
This last consideration illustrates another fundamental property of neural nets that merits further exploration.  If a simple neural net, which is schematically equivalent to a graph of switches and pathways, is able to communicate with another simple neural net then the result is also a graph of switches and pathways, and hence two simple neural nets communicating form a bigger neural net.  The same principle has to work in reverse too; that is, if we are considering a single neural net then it can be broken down conceptually into a system of smaller communicating neural nets (down to the smallest neural net of one switch, of course).  So in a certain sense simple neural nets behave like computational lumps of clay: stick some together and you get a bigger lump, cut one apart and you have smaller lumps, but lumps of the same stuff with the same intrinsic properties.
Keep in mind that we are discussing here the properties of a simple neural net, made only of switches that send and receive one-bit signals, essentially following very simple rules: a) if one of your neighbors goes “blip” then you go “blip”; otherwise, b) if none of your neighbors goes “blip” then you don’t go “blip”.  So it may be a surprise to see such humanlike behavior arising from such a simple system, especially when we haven’t taken into account any of the physio-chemical details of how a human’s nervous system actually works.  But perhaps it is not so surprising if you tend to think in the order that people have these characteristics, and people are biological neural nets, so simple neural nets should have properties somewhat like us.  Or perhaps it is no different than other examples from the biological world where the characteristics an organism exhibits are seen as being a result of its intrinsic nature.  For example, a bird is able to fly because it is intrinsically light and aerodynamic; it spreads its wings and pumps its muscles and flight just happens.  In the same way, our brains should behave the way they do because of their intrinsic qualities, so if we examine these qualities we should see that they give rise to brain-like behavior.  Or perhaps the results of this analysis seem intuitive to you because of your basic awareness of how your own nervous system works.  For example, anyone who tries to meditate realizes that it is not a trivial thing to hold the mind still and is probably aware of the fluid nature of mental constructions and of the way signals and bits of information seem to be constantly popping up spontaneously within the awareness.  Or perhaps you are aware of how certain actions seem to come about; how there is first a stimulation that sets the thing off, then an inkling comes and gives rise to a notion and finally an action as the intention becomes unanimous.  Maybe you’ve noticed that certain thoughts, if repeated enough, have an influence on your actions, habits, and attitude, and thus on your mental and physical environment, a phenomenon recorded in many religious traditions.  Certainly as I go through the directed creative process of writing this paper I am aware of a wilderness of thoughts and ideas in my head all with the potential to be written down, and a continuous refinement through synthesis and competition as different ideas synthesize to work cooperatively or compete and are weighed against one another, all of which takes place in an environment determined by my personality, my preferences and judgments, and all the existing thoughts and ideas that are already in my head; so I am aware of the selection-driven evolutionary process going on within my brain that is giving rise to the intricate, ordered, intentionally-designed work on the paper.
The question might be asked, if people are neural nets and simple neural nets are like lumps of clay, does that mean that a group of people communicating forms a single neural net?  As it happens people have quite a few more bells and whistles than the simple neural nets we have been considering, and when people communicate they do not always do it through well-defined, bit-by-bit communication pathways.  But humans do behave individually like near-ideal neural nets, and their various communication pathways do create something that we might safely call an extended neural network, consisting of disparate individual neural nets sending multiple-bit signals between one another along an array of pathways.  So perhaps it is also not surprising that groups of communicating people give rise to memes, which are bits of information that behave, in the group, much like the signals that get passed around between communicating simple neural nets.  Or, if we simply define “meme” more generally to mean self-replicating bits of information in whatever context, then we can apply the word meme in both cases.
Another interesting result that becomes apparent when we examine people as neural nets and extended neural networks, is that the selection process that goes on within the extended neural network and gives rise to memetic evolution on a large scale is a reflection of a similar selection process that goes on within each individual neural net, and thus the process of large-scale memetic evolution is itself some kind of reflection of a similar evolutionary process going on within each individual member.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Just Decide, It's Easier

Have you ever spent hours, or worse, days, agonizing over a tough decision?  What a waste of time and energy!  Here's a little trick to break the internal gridlock: just decide!  The trick behind the trick is to give yourself permission beforehand to change your mind.  If you are stuck on a decision today, just make it, one way or another, and see how that feels.  Twenty four hours or so later, check again and see how you feel about having made that decision.  As long as you haven't taken any irreversible actions based on your decision (and if you make the decision right away, "when it shows up instead of when it blows up" in GTD parlance, you should have plenty of time to let the decision incubate), you can change your mind.  You can use this trick to get your time to make any decision, no matter how heavy, down to 24 hours or less, and ultimately the process can become instantaneous.  Once you overcome your resistance to changing your own mind, the process becomes effortless.

And for the contrarians who want to object that giving yourself permission to change your mind will make you wishy-washy, I say that using this trick actually makes your decisions more stable, the same way a bean bag is harder to knock over than a pole.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

RV Phobia - It Does Exist

At a Halloween party, I met a guy dressed like John Lennon.  He was having a good time and was effusively affectionate.  We particularly hit it off when he asked me what kind of musical instrument I played and I showed him my berimbau.  We took turns jamming and singing, accompanied by a girlfriend.  I promised to give him a ride home at the end of the evening, so we were the last ones to leave the party.  He asked if I thought we could make a good band, and I said yes, I thought we would make an awesome coffeeshop trio.  He asked if I thought he sung well, and I said yes, better than me.

We walked to my RV, and when he saw it he suddenly turned cold and said "I won't be riding with you then", and walked off into the night without another word.

Friends don't let friends have RV phobia.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Two Types of Competition

Competitive competition is between mutual antagonists.  The parties have opposing aims, and they exert their wills in opposition to one another.  Competitive competition expends common resources and diminishes the capacity of both parties.

Cooperative competiton is between mutual protagonists.  The parties have a common aim, namely to improve their skills or capacity, and they cooperate in providing each other with a mutual challenge.  Cooperative competitition expands common resources and increases the capacity of both parties.

When discussing the value of competition, it is important to distinguish between these two types.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Monkey Sensei

True story.  Yesterday I was in a park doing tai chi with a friend and a guy approached.  After watching for a while he said "Hello Mr. Guru".  I said hi back.  He told me his name when I asked, but he wasn't interested in knowing my name.  He said I reminded him of a big monkey and he was going to call me "Monkey Sensei".  He asked me to be his mentor.  I said sure.

I swear to god this actually happened.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm Not Trying to Become a High-Powered Influential Blogger

...but it would be nice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Megaflirting

Seducing students is sumptuous, flirting with faculty is fine, but comingling with colleagues is comforting.  It was with this sentiment in mind that I attended a meeting of the Graduate Student Association, fancying a dip into my own student body.

First impressions can be deceiving.  I walked into a stuffy room with a long table where everyone looked bored and boring.  The ambiguously gay, anal retentive president was the only person talking, reading the minutes from the last meeting.  Even with my sharply honed self-entertainment skills, I started to wonder if my time was being well spent.

That changed when a latecomer to the meeting walked in, a gorgeous Asian girl.  I immediately perked up even more and tried to get her attention.  The only open chair was across the table, but there was a big open space beside me with no chair.  She set her things down next to the chair and then turned to the other table in the room to get some pizza.

I stepped across the table, behind the GSA president, and grabbed her chair.  Picking it up over my head, I stepped back and placed it beside me.  She turned around, saw that her chair had been moved, and sat down next to me.

On the meeting's agenda was the election of officers.  When it came time to choose a secretary, a fat Indian girl across the table (funny, I thought, you don't see too many fat Indians) nominated herself.  Then pretty Asian girl mentioned that she had secretarial experience.  I could tell by her accent that she is from China.  Ambiguously gay president asked if she wanted to nominate herself, but her conditioned defferentiality took over and she couldn't volunteer herself.

I leaned over.  "What's your name?  Celine?"  Straightening up I said, "I nominate Celine".  Since there were two nominees, we had a vote.  Four voted for fat Indian girl, and six voted for Celine, including me and fat Indian girl, who I high-fived.  So Celine became secretary.

After the meeting I told fat Indian girl what she did was very sweet and tried to give her a hug, but she backed away from me.  Then I tried to talk to Celine, but ambiguously gay president called her over, presumably to handle administrative business, and she ran off, and that was the last I saw of her.

The sage retires when the work is done.  That is why it lasts forever.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Best Traffic Stop Ever

On a recent Friday night I was pulled over.

The officer approaches the passenger door and shines his light through. I never do get his name, but I like him.

"Can I see your license? Where are you coming from? Do you know why you were pulled over?"

I was stopped because my taillights were out. No big deal there, just a quick trip to the garage.

"Why are you sweating? It's a cool night."

"I was working out right before I left campus."

"What were you doing?"

"Tai chi, capoeira, different martial arts."

"Where were you working out?"

"In the grass."

"What's that in the seat beside you?"

"It's a musical instrument. It's called a berimbau."

"Would you mind stepping out here onto the curb?"

I get out.

"Have you ever been arrested?"

"No" (to myself, 'not to your knowledge').

"Are you on any medication?"

"No."

"Have you ever taken any drugs?"

"Just alcohol and weed."

"Are your pupils always that small?"

I'm not sure what to say to this, and communicate so through body language.

He explains that he is a DAR officer, and he notices that I am sweating and have constricted pupils, so he has to make certain that I am not under the influence of any substances and am safe to drive. I consent to cooperate. Next is being searched and sitting on the curb, a rigamarole that can be highly entertaining if you don't have anything to worry about and aren't in a hurry.

Time passes as more cops show up to make a total of five. While I am sitting on the curb the first cop shines his light over my gold colored pedicure and I see the beam do a double take. "Were you doing tai chi barefoot?" I answer in the affirmative.

A lady cop asks me what I am studying. "Math", I answer.

"Oh, I hate math. I got it right up till calculus, and then I gave up."

"Well, know what? One time, in the fourth grade, I was supposed to learn long division, but my teacher made me solve a problem at the board, and I didn't know how, and she embarassed me in front of the whole class, and ever since then I've never learned how to do long division." That gets a chuckle.

My pulse is taken a number of times, my eye tracking and pupil responses are tested, I estimate 30 seconds while looking at the sky. "Do you live in your RV?"

"Yes."

"Where do you park?"

"On campus, or at a friend's house, or wherever I feel like."

"Do you mind if we look inside?"

"Not at all."

The first cop and the lady cop thoroughly search my house. "You are what we call in the law enforcement world an 'anomaly'."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"You display the textbook signs of being under the influence of meth or heroin. But you seem highly lucid, and what with being in grad school, the organic food, the tai chi, the books on Buddhism, the yoga mat, I can't see you shooting meth into your veins to get high."

Belly laughing, I say "I've never done meth or heroine in my life."

He thanks me for my cooperation, I thank him for doing his job, shake his hand, and drive on, in an elevated mood and still in plenty of time for my first ever open-mic performance at the nearby Egyptian Tea Room.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Coming Out

Often we confine our lives to boxes (aka closets).  What closets are you confining yourself to?  One sure sign of a closet is believing that there is no alternative.  "I don't really want to live this way, but what's the alternative?"  There are always alternatives, and there are always new distinctions you can make that can render your preconceived alternatives obsolete.

If you are considering living in an RV as opposed to a permanent dwelling, then you may be a closet nomad.  If you think about it, you might realize you are a closet musician, a closet athlete, a closet intellectual, or a closet happy, healthy, and successful person.

I recently came out of the closet as an ethical slut of the polyamorist persuasion.  Instead of accepting that there was no alternative to monogamy, I decided that there could be no alternative for me but to live the life I know I want.  By discarding limiting beliefs about what was possible, I didn't immediately change my world, but I changed the way I related to and felt about everything in it.

A closet can be a limiting belief about yourself or the world.  It can be a limiting job, career, relationship, social circle, or geographic location.  It can be a limiting habit, or it can be a habit of not doing something you'd love to do.  Evaluate your life for self imposed limitations and ask yourself, "Is there anything I have always known I really want but have never allowed myself to have?"  Then set new standards for your life to allow you to have that and other similar experiences, or at least to try them out safely.

Here are some helpful words on breaking free from Mr. Johnny Soporno:



Sunday, September 12, 2010

Turns of Fortune

There is an old Chinese story about the turnings of fortune. A farmer who lived on the edge of a great wild plain kept horses. One day the pasture fence broke, and two of his horses escaped. The neighbors lamented on behalf of the farmer, "How unfortunate." The farmer simply said, "We'll see."

The next day the farmer's horses came back, with three wild horses from the plain at their heels. The neighbors congratulated the man's fortune, "How lucky!" Again the farmer said, "We'll see."

The following day the farmer's son was trying to tame one of the wild horses. The horse bucked and threw him off, breaking his leg. The neighbors again lamented, "How unfortunate." The farmer said, "We'll see."

The day after that the army came through, conscripting soldiers. The neighbors' sons were taken, but because of his broken leg, the farmer's son was left behind. The neighbors wailed "How lucky you are!", and again the farmer said, "We'll see."

In life, turnings of fate take place regularly, sometimes in subtle and sometimes in obvious ways. In my life recently, I met a girl I thought was a perfect match, and experienced a nearly ideal beginning to what it seemed would be a nearly ideal relationship. Lucky? We'll see.

I expected this to go on indefinitely until she suddenly broke it off after only three months. While I was struggling with my own shock and heartbreak, I missed many opportunities to flirt with other girls. Unlucky? We'll see.

One of these opportunities I botched particularly badly. I was so wrapped up in my head that I almost didn't realize the cashier was flirting with me when I was purchasing my textbook, and I missed the opportunity to make a connection. Two weeks later, I saw her approaching on the sidewalk, and without a word she walked right into my arms. She nuzzled me and kissed my neck. Late for my teaching assignment, I gave her my card, saying, "I have to go, but will you call me?" She said yes and kissed me on the corner of the mouth. We parted longingly, pulling our eyes and hands apart. Lucky? We'll see.

Absorb the teaching of the masters: when ahead, do not rejoice too much, when behind, do not despair at all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Grab Life by the Balls...and Squeeze

This is what you do when you think you have run out of options, when you have tried everything that you already thought of and none of it seems to be working.  When you think you don't know how to solve an urgent problem, and panic and hopelessness are pounding at the door, but you make a choice not to let them in.  When grabbing the bull by the horns (the bull, of course, being a metaphor for life and its vicissitudes) is out of the question because you are too powerless, too exhausted, too confused, and besides which the bull is trampling you into the ground and you are stumped what to do about it.  You let go of what you can't control and focus on what you can.  You grab life by the balls...and squeeze until your knuckles turn white.

Obviously this is a picturesque metaphor, but what does it really mean?  It means instead of striving hopelessly for what is out of reach, and draining your scant emotional energy in the process, you focus on what you can do something about, on the high leverage points within your reach where your efforts can make a difference, and put every ounce of strength you can muster, however much it is, into that.  A crisis can bring focus, and focus can lead to clarity, which can be a blessing.  It can precipitate a long-overdue rearrangement of priorities, and prompt decisive action that could not have come about any other way.  It can initiate lasting change in subconscious associations and resulting behavior patterns.  So, when pressure builds and crisis looms, find your root, sink into your center, grab on, and ride it for all it's worth.  This is how you discover and capitalize on your innate strengths.

So you're going to lose your job, your car, your house, your money, your lover.  Let it go and grab onto what matters, what's right in front of you.  You can't save what's already lost, but what can you save?  What can you control?  What can you create with what's at hand?  If all you can do is write, then write.  If all you can do is breathe, then do that.  Can you access the internet?  Can you make phone calls?  Can you pick up an old project you had let fall by the wayside?  Can you learn something from a book?  Can you go somewhere you've never been, talk to someone you've never met?  No matter what your situation, there are always steps you can take to reinvent yourself, and inspiration doesn't come from waiting, it comes from action, from change, from movement.  So does momentum.  And so does opportunity.  Power Living.  This is what it's about.  Embrace it.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's So Great About Living in an RV

The title of this post is a statement, not a question. For me there is no question, but if there were, the answer would be: Everything.
This is, in fact, a hard subject for me to write about due to the “fish-in-water” effect. It's hard to perceive something when it's all around you. It's harder still to identify it, to delineate it, to put it into words.

What is really so amazing for me is that it took me so long to have the realization that I needed to get an RV. It wasn't that I didn't know about the possibility. I might even have given it some consideration from time to time. But there was a mental block in place. Maybe it was that, for me, a guy who at one time lived in a canyon with nothing but a backpack, sleeping bag, and a laptop, having a shelter-on-wheels seemed like cheating. Or maybe it was that I perceived having an RV as a major financial decision to be made at some time in the indefinite future once other more pressing matters had been seen to. Whatever the reason, some part of my psyche was blocking the notion from being given due consideration. Somehow I just didn't see it as being “me”. WARNING: This is a sign of ego rigidity, of identity inflexibility, of a brittle and thus fragile self-image. Passage 76 of the Tao Te Ching reads:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

Thus, a self-identity that is resistant to change for the sake of not changing is a malady. If “that's just me” is your sole reason for doing or not doing something that other reasons are compelling you to not do or to do, then it needs to be examined. Why is that not you? What do you gain from sticking to this position? There are always reasons, conscious or not, that we make decisions (or avoid making them). And if your reasons are unconscious or unexamined, you cannot know whether or not they serve the real you, the you that you consciously decide you want to be and intentionally create. Does this mean that self-identity should be abandoned? (I only ask this question because in every audience there is someone who will.) No. Does the grass become unrooted when the wind blows? A self-identity that is rooted in reality and conscious decision is able to change while still being itself. Once you overcome the fear of changing you realize that the “self” is a concept that is continuously emerging, and that the “you” of one moment is never identical with the “you” of any other moment, and yet at the same time who “you” really are is always the same and can never change.

So I am grateful for the words of a friend who said, “You should get an RV. No really, you should get one.” It turned out that once my unconscious resistance had been overcome (and all it took was a little nudge), the idea moved in and took over like an obnoxious freeloader, and my self-image expanded to accommodate it. And once the process had begun, I realized I never did have any good reasons not to live in an RV in the first place. That is totally me.

What is so great about living in an RV is that you can go anywhere and still be at home. Literally, anywhere: the library, the grocery store, the coffee shop, the beach, your friend's house, another city, another state, another country. And you still have all your stuff with you, including your books, your toys, your kitchen, your home office, your bathroom, everything right down to your comfy bed. Who wouldn't want this? Well, a lot of people, actually, mainly those who value security over freedom, which is really most people (but that's the subject of another post). But what freedom-loving, adventure-seeking, possession-eschewing person wouldn't be thrilled by this concept? A home with a view? How about a home with a different view every couple of days? Don't like the weather? Think the Jetsons, but more horizontal. Curious about what life is like over yonder? Try it out, stay as long as you like, leave when you please. Want to meet new people? They're everywhere, waiting for you to come say hi. Enjoy vacationing and camping? Vacation every day, camp every night.

Sounds good, but impossible for me, you might say. Well, if you would say this then probability would dictate that you most likely value security over freedom and have arranged your life to reflect that, in which case you have yourself strapped down to your little spot on the Earth in any number of ways, in which case that's probably really what you want (or at least think you do). But perhaps you are truly freedom-oriented, and you really do want more freedom than you feel you have, but you are strapped down just the same, out of necessity, you feel. If that is the case, you should stop telling yourself that what you want is impossible. The only limits to freedom are those that you place on your own imagination. That is the nature of freedom. It cannot be contained, only constrained. Constraints are real, but between them and around them there are infinitely many dimensions of freedom. So first, prioritize your true desires, then identify your constraints, and then exercise your freedom to choose. If the prospect seems daunting, but you know that freedom is truly your highest priority, then I suggest subscribing to this blog for some inspiration.