Thursday, April 17, 2014

How Philosophy Makes Progress

Gregarious creatures that we are, our framework of making ourselves coherent to ourselves commits us to making ourselves coherent to others. Having reasons means being prepared to share them—though not necessarily with everyone. The progress in our moral reasoning has worked to widen both the kinds of reasons we offer and the group to whom we offer them. There can’t be a widening of the reasons we give in justifying our actions without a corresponding widening of the audience to which we’re prepared to give our reasons. Plato gave arguments for why Greeks, under the pressures of war, couldn’t treat other Greeks in abominable ways, pillaging and razing their cities and taking the vanquished as slaves. But his reasons didn’t, in principle, generalize to non-Greeks, which is tantamount to denying that non-Greeks were owed any reasons. Every increase in our moral coherence—recognizing the rights of the enslaved, the colonialized, the impoverished, the imprisoned, women, children, LGBTs, the handicapped ...—is simultaneously an expansion of those to whom we are prepared to offer reasons accounting for our behavior. The reasons by which we make our behavior coherent to ourselves changes together with our view of who has reasons coming to them.

And this is progress, progress in increasing our coherence, which is philosophy’s special domain. In the case of manumission, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, criminals’ rights, animal rights, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, the conduct of war—in fact, almost every progressive movement one can name—it was reasoned argument that first laid out the incoherence, demonstrating that the same logic underlying reasons to which we were already committed applied in a wider context. The project of rendering ourselves less inconsistent, initiated by the ancient Greeks, has left those ancient Greeks, even the best and brightest of them, far behind, just as our science has left their scientists far behind.

This kind of progress, unlike scientific progress, tends to erase its own tracks as it is integrated into our manifest image and so becomes subsumed in the framework by which we conceive of ourselves. We no longer see the argumentative work it took for this advance in morality to be achieved. Its invisibility takes the measure of the achievement.

- More Here

What Gets in the Way of Listening

  • Ignore your inner critic - Shift your focus from “getting a good grade” to the presentation’s greater purpose. What excites you about the topic or audience?
  • Expand how you see your role - Consider if you’ve boxed yourself in by role definition.  Do you believe your primary job is to provide direction only?
  • Put aside your fear and anticipation - Notice if your listening shuts down when you’re emotionally uncomfortable.  Are you aware of your triggers?
  • Be open to having your mind changed - Are you trying too hard to convey confidence and missing others’ perspectives in the process?
While tactically there are many ways to strengthen your listening skills, you must focus on the deeper, internal issues at stake to really improve. Listening is a skill that enables you to align people, decisions, and agendas. You cannot have leadership presence without hearing what others have to say.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing ; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.

- Michel de Montaigne

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What I've Been Reading

The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen. If you are not into books or an avid reader or want to be one then read this book.

Books without knowledge of life are useless, for what books teach but art of living.

- Samuel Johnson

On Developing your List of Candidates:
It is more helpful to consider the books you place on your list as candidates for your attention rather than obligations. Creating a list of candidates engenders an open-ended, exploratory process rather than a closed, prescriptive solution.

What are your categories? Fill them with books you'd like to read and start gaining the satisfaction of knowing you have a pantry full of good food for mind and spirit.

As your list and library of candidates grow, they will give you food for thought each time you turn to them. And as you begin to read these books, they will, preface, lead to other books and other interests. Interests are like candles, each one capable of lighting more without diminishing itself.

Mortimer Adler on writing our thoughts on the pages of books:
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake - not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written... Third, writing your reaction down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author... Marking a book is literally an expression of your difference or your agreements with author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. 

What counts in the long run is not what you read; it is what you shift through your mind; it is the ideas and impressions that are aroused in you by your reading.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

On Audio Books:
While commute times stretch out across America, an increasing number of people are listening to books and loving it. Those who study traffic congestion refer to these lengthening commutes as lost time. From an audiobook perspective it's not lost time, it's found time.

On Book Groups:
Reading confirms your aliveness. It's very validating. That's what book groups ultimately are; you get validated in the human condition - the condition and puzzles, the good stuff and bad stuff, the aspirations and hopes and despairs. You're not alone out there. 

The great secret of reading consist in this, that it does not matter so much what we read, or how we read it, as what we think and how we think it.

- Charles F. Richardson, Book-Lover

Quote of the Day

Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.

- Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge

Sam Harris interviews Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story:

Sam: Can you say something about what it was like to go on retreat for the first time? What sort of resistance did you have? And what was it like to punch through it?
Dan: I blame the entire experience on you. It was largely your idea, and you got me into the retreat—which, to my surprise, was hard to get into. I had no idea that so many people wanted to sign up for ten days of no talking, vegetarian food, and 12 hours a day of meditation, which sounded like a perfect description of one of the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno to me.
As you can gather from the previous sentences, I did not look forward to the experience at all. However, I knew as a budding meditator that this was the next step to take. When we met backstage at the debate you and Michael Shermer did with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, which I moderated for Nightline, I realized for the first time that you were a meditator. You recommended that I go on this retreat, and it was almost as if I’d received a dare from a cool kid I admired. I felt like I really needed to do this. It was as horrible as I’d thought it would be for a couple of days. On day four or five I thought I might quit, but then I had a breakthrough.

Sam: Describe that breakthrough. What shifted?
Dan: As I say in the book, it felt as if I had been dragged by my head by a motorboat for a few days, and then, all of the sudden, I got up on water skis. When you’re hauled kicking and screaming into the present moment, you arrive at an experience of the mind that is, at least for me, totally new. I could see very clearly the ferocious rapidity of the mind—how fast we’re hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, wanting—and that this is our life. We are on the receiving end of this fire hose of mental noise. That glimpse ushered in the happiest 36 hours of my life. But, as the Buddha liked to point out, nothing lasts—and that did not last.

Calculus vs Probabilitistic and Statistical Thinking

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

- Peter Thiel (via FS)

Quote of the Day

It seems, in fact, that the more advanced a society is, the greater will be its interest in ruined things, for it will see in them a redemptively sobering reminder of the fragility of its own achievements. Ruins pose a direct challenge to our concern with power and rank, with bustle and fame. They puncture the inflated folly of our exhaustive and frenetic pursuit of wealth.

- Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: t/c

Monday, April 14, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind by Biz Stone. It's been a while since I laughed so much reading a book. It feels good when a humble person like Biz succeeds. He is now working on a new venture called "Jelly" - good luck Biz !!

I’m not a genius, but I’ve always had faith in myself and, more important, in humanity. The greatest skill I possessed and developed over the years was the ability to listen to people: the nerds of Google, the disgruntled users of Twitter, my respected colleagues, and, always, my lovely wife. What that taught me, in the course of helping to found and lead Twitter for over five years, and during my time at startups before then, was that the technology that appears to change our lives is, at its core, not a miracle of invention or engineering. No matter how many machines we added to the network or how sophisticated the algorithms got, what I worked on and witnessed at Twitter was and continues to be a triumph not of technology but of humanity.

On Rags to Riches:
To me, all my friends were rich. It seemed that they assumed I came from a wealthy family, too, but at various times, we were on welfare. I remember the gigantic slabs of government-issued cheese. I was on a school lunch program for low-income families, which was good because it meant I didn’t need lunch money, but it was bad because of the way it worked.

At Google, when word got around that I was sleeping on the floor, some colleagues passed around a coffee can and raised eight hundred dollars for me to buy a bed. It was an amazingly kind gesture, and I was touched and grateful. However, I had no choice but to misallocate the funds and put them all toward my obscene car payments, which were several months overdue. As for the rest of our furniture, I brought home two garish, multicolor Google beanbag chairs. We sat in those beanbags and slept on the carpet for over a year— until I finally got some dough from Google.

At the time, we ourselves were caring for two rescue dogs, two rescue cats, and a rescue tortoise. At various times we also had foster bunnies, crows, and rodents of varying sizes and shapes. So we took all the money we’d saved and used it as a down payment. We bought a little eight-hundred-square-foot house that had been built as the maid’s quarters to a bigger house. Half that square footage was the garage.

On Creativity:
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to the greatest work.

Starting over is one of the hardest leaps to make in life. Security, stability, safety— it’s scary, if not downright irresponsible, to leave these behind. I was at Google in 2003 and I might still be there now. But I had faith in my future self. (After all, my once-future self had finally managed to pay off the Toyota Matrix.) I could help build something new.

Embrace your constraints, whether they are creative, physical, economic, or self-imposed. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.

What I’m suggesting is that you embrace the upside of fantastic, epic, earth-shattering, life-changing failure. It’s totally worth it if you succeed. And if you fail, you’ve got a great story to tell— and some experience that gives you a serious edge the next time you go for it. This is a good lesson for startups in general, and for otherwise going for what you truly want. It’s like there’s a natural force of equality at play. If you really want to succeed big, you have to be willing to risk crazy failure.

On Officially Becoming Rich:
Nothing really changed, except that I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I’d grown up poor, and I’d spent almost my entire adult life in debt. Livy’s parents were freelance artists living from hand to mouth. Neither of us had been on the streets, but we were never financially secure. We had grown somewhat comfortable being uncomfortable. It seemed like only yesterday that Livy and I were pouring coins from a coffee can into a Coinstar machine and Livy was clapping because we hit one hundred dollars. The best thing I can say about having enough money after being in debt is that money is an immune system. When you’re in debt— and you have to pick which bills to pay and which to default on every month, for years— you’re always at the edge. Every little expense is bone on bone. Every choice can easily become an argument between you and your spouse.

If you have enough money— you don’t have to be rich, but if you have enough to meet your needs, pay your bills, and put a little in savings— the constant anxiety of just getting by disappears. The persistent worry you were carrying fades. The biggest effect money has had on me is that now, every day, I’m grateful for the relief from that anxiety.

The other thing I’ll say about money is that having a lot of it amplifies who you are. I have found this to be almost universally true. If you’re a nice person, and then you get money, you become a wonderful philanthropist. But if you’re an asshole, with lots of money you can afford to be more of an asshole: “Why isn’t my soda at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit?” You choose who you are no matter what, but I have to say that the anxiety of making ends meet gives you a bit of a pass. When you’re rich, you have no excuse.

On Twitter:
We didn’t set out to build a tool to help people make decisions about earthquakes. This would be our next lesson, the biggest that Twitter had to offer: even the simplest tools can empower people to do great things.

Twitter taught me that our behavior, as humans, is infinitely expandable. The technology of Twitter didn’t teach humans to flock. It exposed our latent ability to do so. Mind-blowing!

Flocking is a triumph of humanity. It can make things happen. Imagine if humanity could cooperate like an emergent life form— we could get things done in a single year that would otherwise take one hundred years to do. Imagine if all the world’s astrophysicists put their egos aside and collaborated on a Mars mission? Or all the environmental scientists worked as one on global warming? Or the world’s best oncologists took on cancer together, one type at a time? Only 114,000 people in the world have thirty million dollars or more in assets. What if they were in a Google group and decided to invest in one thing to change the course of history? Then there’s all of us, and together we are more powerful than any one thing. Can you imagine what we could get done?

On Twitter "HR":
We should always seek knowledge, even in the face of fear. And so I gave the Twitter employees a set of assumptions that I hoped would replace their fears, reminding them to keep their minds open, pursue knowledge, and see the bigger picture. When new employees joined Twitter, Evan and I met with them. We took the time to tell the story of how the company got started, and we shared and discussed the following six assumptions. Assumptions for Twitter Employees:
  • We don’t always know what’s going to happen. 
  • There are more smart people out there than in here. 
  • We will win if we do the right thing for our users. 
  • The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal. 
  • Our coworkers are smart and they have good intentions. 
  • We can build a business, change the world, and have fun.

Quote of the Day

It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.

- Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (He would have been 65 yesterday)