Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Missing Pieces

I’ve noticed I keep hitting a wall when trying to finish articles (I’ve several still in the works, some nearly done).  Recently, I figured out why.  

All this time, I’ve been trying to write self-contained articles that would stand on their own.  I’ve been aiming for a clinical and detached approach, with all the context necessary for a person to see all sides of a situation or all aspects of a concept.  Each article was to be a crystal of robust information that anyone could absorb and apply without misunderstanding. 

Pictured: Visual metaphor for a robust information crystal that avoids misunderstanding.  (Clarification: This is actually an image of a rock.  Do not try to physically absorb rocks like this one into your body through any means.)

Unfortunately, while that’s a good way to write reference material, it’s not a very efficient way to reach people in order to build and maintain a community.  I don’t know how well my existing articles have succeeded at what I meant them to be, but I can’t make all my articles like that, because I can’t do it fast enough or consistently enough for it to be relevant.  

As such, going forward more the articles on this blog will have more of my own perspective in them.  I’ll trust you to recognize that although I try to see and acknowledge as many perspectives as possible, I can’t collect all the information to do them all justice, and to recognize that I recognize that.  

My articles are incomplete.  If it’s even possible to make a complete, authoritative article on anything, it’s not the best use of my time.  

Neither is getting a bunch of stopwatches in different colors and starting them all at the same time to see if the red ones really do go faster.  But I digress. 

Right now, I want to be able to write a quick perspective on an issue and trust that all my readers know there are other important perspectives out there that deserve attention as well.  I’ll aim to spell out this expectation in each article, but stating it here will allow me to proceed with confidence.  

I may write about a basic concept, but I can’t know all the manifestations of that concept, or all the ways you can apply it.  I may even be overlooking some fundamental aspects of the concept.  It’s happened before, and I still have to go back and update some articles accordingly.  

I may write about my perspective on a situation, but I’ll always be missing some experiences and values from the people involved, and some information about the factors in play.  

I may write about my approach to solving a problem, but I’ll very probably lack some of the skills and expertise involved to implement that solution, or deal with the inevitable unexpected obstacles that come up.  

I may even change my mind and retract something that I said earlier. After all, I have biases informed by the way I think and the experiences I’ve had, so I actively question things I feel certain about as much as I can.  It is fairly easy to prompt me to update my perspective on a situation, if you ever feel the need.  The kinder you are, the easier it is, though I can’t guarantee that my perspective will exactly match yours after I update it.  

But if I’m just going to change my mind, what’s the point in publishing my perspective?  If I don’t have all the answers already, why am I writing at all?  

I can see that you, dear reader, like to ask the key questions, like, “What does this key go to?”

So what’s the point of this blog, then?

If the articles on this blog aren’t going to be comprehensive takes on the concepts and situations they deal with, what makes them worth your time or mine? 

Simple: They’re insufficient, but still necessary.  Each of my articles is food for thought, but it’s only part of a complete breakfast.  

Along with—apparently—dish soap, two dimensional bananas and avocados, and a bowl that violates the laws of visual perspective.  No wonder it’s spilling!

I write because I think that my perspective and approach is a critical element that people are missing.  I don’t have the completed puzzle, but I found some pieces that fell under the table while everyone else was fighting over which of their puzzle pieces was the full picture.  All I want is for people to use the pieces I’ve got to join together the pieces they already have.  

Why do I think my approaches are missing pieces that you should read about?

It’s a bold claim to say that I have some important pieces.  What makes me so certain I’ve got anything the world needs?  

Well, for a start, I can tell there’s something missing.  Time and time again I see that people who are trying to change the world fail to express what they’re doing in terms of fundamental values that other people can understand.  Instead, they use superficial phrases or unnecessarily complex technical explanations, valid or not.  

These would-be world-changers focus on many different aspects of the world, and they usually define the scope of their goals narrowly enough that they don’t see the point in collaborating with each other.  However, if they saw the underlying problems and overarching goals that they have in common, they could pool some resources to deal with those and advance all of their causes more effectively.  They’d also have more luck with maintaining the integrity of their institutions: humans usually have trouble connecting the abstract with the concrete, so lofty ideals tend to evaporate where the rubber meets the road.  

Furthermore, the way we define our goals can make it difficult to explain to other people what the goals are and why they are important.  A tremendous source of fear and mistrust between modern humans is that a human can’t count on being able to explain their values to another human so that the other human can empathize and appreciate those values.  There’s a pervasive fatalistic sense of “either they understand or they don’t,” with the implicit dread of having to violently defend your values from belligerent parties who don’t share those values.  

Finally, the methods we use can also be hard to describe simply, which means that unless you are familiar with a particular field of expertise, it can be almost impossible to tell which methods are trustworthy and which are not.  In turn, it becomes almost impossible to hold experts from mechanics to medical specialists to the media accountable for speaking in good faith about what they see and do.  People end up trusting those who signal they’re part of the same team, which is why “fake news” exists (or doesn’t, depending on who you believe) and why people forget to distrust journalistic interpretations of experts. 

Fun bit of trivia: Recognizing that the media gets your own area of expertise wrong but forgetting about that when you read something else is called Gell-Mann amnesia, coined by Michael Crichton. 

All these unnecessary problems arise from the inability to communicate clearly about goals and methods.  Instead of working together, people fear and mistrust each other.  

That’s why I feel confident in stating that human society is missing a vocabulary necessary to define and communicate these ideas.  

As for why I think I have these missing pieces, I’ll just present some perspectives and approaches to various situations and let you be the judge of whether the pieces I offer can help us work together to build a world we can all be proud of. 

So we can turn our jumble of pieces…
…into a cohesive and integrated world. 
…And maybe eventually into a portal to wherever we want to go. Who knows?

Personal Codes of Behavior: Steady Steps Towards Changing the Course of Your Life

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Do you lose willpower when you feel you haven’t been fulfilling the goals or values that are most important to you? When that happens to me, I find I’m more likely to seek entertainment as a distraction, which in turn prevents me from doing what I would be proud of. This process creates a vicious cycle of depression. 

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“I see that your soul is full of pain. I can remove it for you.” “The pain?” “That, too.”

To stop this downward spiral for myself, I’ve found some very small things I can do every day to contribute to the world around me in ways that fulfill my identity. These I compiled into what I call a personal code of behavior. I’m not hidebound by these daily rituals, though. Each one is based on a grander purpose, and if I see a more ambitious goal that fulfills one of those purposes, I can put the daily habit on hold and feel even better about myself for tackling something larger. 

(Credit goes to Stephen Guise’s work on Mini-Habits for inspiring me to start small, and start now. He also has a new book out recently called Elastic Habits which deals with basing a habit on an underlying principle with multiple options for fulfilling it, in case one doesn’t work at the moment. I found out about the Elastic Habits shortly after I’d designed my habits to serve overarching values. It seems great minds do think alike, after all.) 

My unique contribution to the field of habit architecture is a toolbox of concepts that can help people identify what larger values they most want to advance with their efforts, and what habits they can work on to get them going in a useful direction. Of course, as people accumulate experience, what we most value may change over time, and that’s to be expected. We can always update our chosen roles. 

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When all you have is a toolbox full of tools, everything looks like… roughly how it is.

As we get more confident in our ability to bring value to the world on our own terms, we will be less easily controlled by the entertainment we’re led to consume. When accomplishing a goal or helping someone else do so requires some sacrifice of comfort, that won’t defeat us. We will develop agency, responsibility, and skills beyond those we need to follow the instructions for earning our food. 

From there, our capabilities and self-respect will allow us to more effectively team up to launch constructive projects and maintain worthwhile living environments. To create vibrant communities based on evolving wisdom and understanding instead of ossified dogma, we will identify the roles any given group needs to stay healthy and how to equip people to fill those roles.

At least, that is my ultimate vision for this idea. For now, we can focus on empowering the individual. The first step is to start consistently spending time doing things that make you stronger. Even small activities make a surprisingly large difference versus more passive recreation. They give you something to build on. 

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A snail that knows where its going moves faster than a human sitting on a couch.

I designed my own personal code to have a self level (“What do I want to do for myself?”), a community level (“What do I want to do for people I know?”), and a society-wide level (“What do I want to do for the whole world?”). The current version is below—the phrases in bold are concepts from my toolbox, so each has a functional definition to clarify how it works and when it is relevant. 

  1. Code of Authenticity (self level): For the purpose of improving my self-image by fulfilling my major strength of sharing good ideas using perception mindset, I will find on average one good idea every day from my present or past. At least once a week, I will make a post explaining at least one of these ideas that I found in the past week. 
  2. Code of Relevance (self level): For the purpose of preventing my own stagnation and reducing my mindless consumption of trivial entertainment, I will read five pages of an educational book or an educational article (or video or podcast) on every day I have off from work. 
  3. Code of Bonds (community level): For the purpose of contributing something to my relationships with people, and being someone worth knowing, I wish to bring people new ideas and perspectives using education mindset, whether they be my own or not. Therefore I will pick one topic every week and in every social context (if appropriate) I will mention that I am reading about it. I may keep a journal of topics to keep track. 
  4. Code of Legacy (society-wide level): For the purpose of contributing something to the world with my life, and for the betterment of society: I will keep fulfilling the above codes for now using responsibility mindset, which will lead to future opportunities and increase my ability to take advantage of them. I may fill in this code with something more substantial later when it becomes a limiting factor.

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5. El Codo Secreto: That’s Spanish for “The Secret Elbow.” *Nudge nudge. Wink wink.*

The more I keep my code, the less anxious I feel and the more confident I am that I can take on larger goals at a steady pace. 

My personal code is just one example of how baseline habits that fulfill our values can help us keep moving forward. With the toolbox of concepts mentioned earlier, we can more easily identify the various roles we most want to play for the world, the diverse ways in which a role can manifest, and the subtle opportunities that exist for each one. Part of my role is to help you design (and redesign) your own. What do you want your life to mean? To the world, or even just to yourself? 

Who do you want to become? 

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What do you want to see in your bathroom mirror? What do you want to see in your rearview mirror?

An Introduction to Developing Powerful Skills

Hello. If you’re reading this article, you are probably interested in acquiring abilities which will improve your life. You may even be interested in making the world a better place in a major way. I’m here to help with that.

First, let’s take a look at the status quo. Do you ever find yourself despairing that you can’t do something that you want to do, maybe something that everyone else seems to be able to do? Do you ask yourself, “why can’t I plan ahead?” “Why can’t I use computers?” “Why can’t I save money?” “Why can’t I keep up with my peers?” “Why can’t I handle stress?” “Why can’t I understand people, or get them to like me?”

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Do you feel like this?

 

Do you want to accomplish something that only a few others have? If you’re particularly globally-minded, maybe you’ve asked yourself, “why hasn’t this problem been solved yet? Why does poverty still exist? What about war? Corruption? Oppression? Are these problems impossible? Are humans just too stupid or too flawed to solve them?”

I’ve got good news for you.

…Well, it’s not really news, actually. The knowledge and wisdom to help you build the life and world you want have already been discovered and articulated, in many cases decades or centuries ago.

The reason these issues still exist isn’t anything inherently wrong with you or humanity in general. The problem is we’ve all been forced to learn how to be people almost from scratch.

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The keys you need to succeed are somewhere in here. Good luck!

With the exception (if you’re lucky) of some basic guidance from family, friends, fiction, and mentors, most people grow up with only the skills they’ve picked up from dealing with their childhood environment.

Furthermore, one person may live decades without developing the skill to handle a situation they deal with every day, while another person learns the skill immediately from the experience. Why the difference?

The answer is paradigms.

(Pronounced “para-dimes”, because it was decided that a word should be spelled according to how it was pronounced in the original Latin.)

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You k’now, this mi’gh’t be a good time to ta’l’k about silent letters.

A paradigm is how you see the world. It’s what you notice and what you assume. It’s what you care about and how you fit everything together into a model that makes sense. You may have many different paradigms, each one for a different situation. Though you may not have words to describe it, a paradigm is how you think a situation works.

Why are paradigms so important? Imagine that at the beginning of your life you have a hammer. Maybe you’re born with it, or maybe your parents gave it to you, because they were given hammers by their parents. You go through life being good at pounding in nails and being terrible at driving screws. No matter how many screws you encounter, you’re not going to get better at it. Nails are all you can deal with.

You may not even recognize a screw or a screwdriver when you see one, until someone else points it out. After all, as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. People with screwdrivers might look like magicians to you, except when they try to drive a nail, at which point you show them the superiority of a good, old-fashioned hammer.

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Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can turn nails or screws with a wrench. That’s nuts.

What if someone handed you a screwdriver and showed you how to use it, though? You’d still be bad at driving screws, at least for a little while. However, you would get better with practice. You’d become at least competent, if perhaps not a master. Importantly, you would also be able to understand and judge the skills of other screwdriver users, instead of being limited to saying, “that one is more powerful”.

As a more concrete example, imagine a little boy has fallen off his bicycle and skinned his knee, and the bike chain has come loose.

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Not pictured: Actual bicycle accident.

Someone with a person-oriented paradigm might notice the child’s emotions and comfort him. Someone with a health-related paradigm might notice the injury, inspect it, and want to apply disinfectant. Someone with a mechanical-based paradigm might look at the bike and know how to fix it. Someone with a social order paradigm might see that the boy was riding in a forbidden area and move to scold him. All these are valid approaches to dealing with different aspects of the same situation. These people are starting from different premises about what is important or relevant and different knowledge of how things work.

What happens when a paradigm meets a situation it doesn’t know about, though? Would the medic know how to fix the bike? Would the mechanic know how to comfort the child? Would the comforter know how to discipline him?

No, they wouldn’t.

But could they learn?

They say people learn from experience, but that’s not completely true. Watching television in another language or living in another country helps you learn the language, but mere exposure doesn’t work for just anyone. Being allowed to play around with a piano doesn’t mean that a person will automatically learn how to play music, but you won’t be able to play music if you don’t practice. Experience is necessary for learning, but it is not sufficient on its own. Paradigms are necessary as well.

If a person doesn’t have a paradigm to help them gather what is important about their experience, then experience won’t do them much good. That’s why people who are decades older than you aren’t necessarily any wiser about things you’d expect them to pay attention to. They never had access to the paradigms that would have allowed them to learn from their experiences, or they considered the paradigms unimportant.

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If that describes you, it’s never too late to start learning. Or to stop being so obnoxiously arrogant.

The paradigms exist, though. There are people out there who know how to interact with people, how to build good habits, how to learn technical skills, how to take smart risks and avoid stupid ones. Their paradigms even guide them in seeking out new experiences to learn from. There are a few reasons why other people haven’t been able to find useful paradigms, though:

  • They don’t know what they need to know.
  • They don’t know the paradigm exists or could help them.
  • There are just too many paradigms to sift through to find what they need.
  • They don’t know how to recognize a useful paradigm from a flawed one.
  • They think mere knowledge is the same as a paradigm. (Knowledge becomes obsolete, but a paradigm helps you keep up-to-date.)
  • They don’t know how to generalize a paradigm to solve multiple similar problems.

Often, people give up on looking for the paradigms they need and try to brute-force their way through life with the paradigms they already have. They are resigned to the idea that they’ve either got it or they haven’t. It may be true that some people take to a paradigm easily while others need more help, but there’s no reason to limit your learning to the paradigms that come naturally to you. Doing so cripples your learning in every direction, including what you do best—a paradigm can only take you so far without support from other key paradigms.

What does this all mean for our world, and for you in particular?

All the hard work in the world won’t help if you don’t have the right tools, but if you do have the right tools, you have a decent chance at almost anything. You can do things you can be proud of, and even change your world. Furthermore, you’re not stuck with the tools you already have.

Where can you find more tools? That’s where I come in.

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Useful for plying your trade.

I’ve identified and cataloged all the fundamental tools (more or less), and I can point you to some good places to pick them up and learn to use them. Many articles in this blog are and will be about what these tools are, how they work, what they can do, and how to obtain them. Once you have them, using them is up to you.

Take care, and have fun.

How Not to Be a Bigot

Or…

Species-Agnostic Ethics

 

On some imaginary distant planet called Izzot, you can judge people by appearances. The green people are the strongest and fastest, and can fly. The blue people are best at math, and are prone to emotional outbursts. The males of the purple people are actually not much smarter than young human children, but the females are of adult-human-level intelligence, while the neuters have even more powerful brains. This means that if you know a few demographic details about a person from Izzot, you can make some assumptions about their physical or mental characteristics, personalities, and skills, and you will most likely be correct. In other words, technically, on Izzot, race-based and sex-based stereotypes are supported by hard science. Does that sound like a horrible place to live?

Why?

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Actually, Izzot society is a lot nicer than most societies on Earth. This may come as a surprise, because of Earth’s longstanding problem wherein people try to use stereotypes to inform how they value and interact with other people, which hurts their feelings and makes effective communication difficult. The problem continues even though information about an individual Earthling’s race and sex has been scientifically debunked as a way of reliably predicting their aptitudes and personality traits. If stereotypes on Izzot are supported by science, more people would use them, which would surely mean more hurt feelings and more harm to society due to poor communication, right? What makes Izzot so pleasant?

It’s not because the people are predictable. Far from it, actually. Even though many of their abilities are easily predicted, people on Izzot don’t have any assigned stations in society. Just because a purple or green person may not be as good at math as a blue person doesn’t mean they can’t love math and want to get a job using it. Just because a purple or blue person isn’t as strong as a green person doesn’t mean they can’t want a job that involves manual labor. Everyone on Izzot is free to pursue whatever career they choose. If Izzot doesn’t enforce conformity and social stations in order to stifle conflict between different types of people, what’s preventing the conflict?

As it happens, society on Izzot flourishes because the people there follow these rules for treating everyone with respect:

Anti-Bigotry Instructions

  1. Always give people a chance to prove you wrong about them, except where you have good reason to believe doing so would pose a serious risk.
    • Even if you think you know someone, people change. If you don’t allow yourself to update your beliefs based on new information, your obsolete picture of the world will cause problems.
  2. Show everyone respect, especially when it’s difficult. To show respect to a person means going to reasonable lengths to demonstrate that you care about the person’s feelings and to interact with them in a way that they find comfortable.
    • Showing respect to a person does not mean you must agree with them or help them with their goals. Indeed, showing respect usually makes it easier to oppose a person’s efforts.
    • Situations in which showing respect will harm rather than help are extremely rare.
    • The best way to show respect varies between people, but the etiquette of a society supplies good general principles with which to start.
  3. If you have reasonable confidence that you can predict something about someone, even if it’s only based on their appearance, by all means use that to improve your ability to put them at ease, show them respect, and keep them safe. Don’t go overboard trying to anticipate them, though. That doesn’t put anyone at ease—it just makes them self-conscious. This rule does not supersede rule 1.
    • Example: If someone’s name or attire indicates they probably have religious dietary restrictions, and they order a dish that contains a taboo ingredient, and you think it might have been a mistake and that they would want to know about it, you might casually mention the ingredient to them in the process of making small talk about the dish.
  4. Try to adapt your activities and systems to include others who might otherwise be excluded because of physical form, health, or language or cultural barriers.
    • Empathy mindset can help you establish bonds with people who are different, by individualizing interactions.
    • Tactics mindset can also help by cleverly repurposing twisting paths to open possibilities that weren’t obviously available.
  5. Don’t expect rule 4 to always be feasible. It’s based on empathy, tactics, and other chaos-aligned mindsets, and as such doesn’t lend itself well to rules or systematization at all. Focus on what people can do, entice others to help, but don’t try to restructure everything based on an inconvenience, and don’t force people to experience the same outcomes in all things.
  6. No matter how many people have done something, nor for how long, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s important to learn about cultural context and sociological factors before making judgment calls on whether a practice is harmful to people, but ethical principles are the same for everyone. The hard part is learning enough about people to know how best to apply them.

If you follow these rules and practice using empathy and related mindsets, you can avoid being a bigot anywhere, even on a planet where you can judge by appearances and be right more often than not. The rules apply to how you treat everyone, even if you think you already know them, and even if you’re assessing their choices and ethical character rather than their more superficial qualities.

Neither rules nor empathy alone can make a society a good one. But semantics (rules) and empathy together, as communication, give interactions at all levels the chance to be the best they can be.

Nuanced Situations

It’s possible that some activity which has a population composed almost entirely of a particular type of person will develop a culture derived from other traits correlated with that person. For example, on Earth, a male-dominated activity may develop rituals or slang derived from male experiences or physiology. On Izzot, greenball is a sport mostly played by green people, and it has developed a culture that references wings and uses them for communication (having “good wings” refers to speed and initiative; touching wings is the equivalent of a high-five; the victory dance usually involves flying), even though playing the sport itself doesn’t involve wings. It’s a bit inane and obnoxious, but then again, much of what we call “culture” is inane and obnoxious. It doesn’t always cause problems, but when it does, things get complicated.

When a person of a different demographic shows up to participate in an activity hitherto dominated by a single demographic, there will inevitably be awkwardness because they will have trouble participating in the culture, even if they are able and willing to participate in the activity. An unusually athletic blue person might be capable of playing greenball, but will be unable to touch wings or participate in a classical victory dance.

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What do you do when a blue person has qualities most people associate with green?

Sometimes this awkwardness dissuades the newcomer from joining, or the culture from accepting them. This is a suboptimal outcome from a societal standpoint, because it results in stagnation and lost opportunities. The activity’s culture doesn’t get fresh perspective, and any newcomers who don’t immediately fit in will not get the experience of the activity. Ideally, however, those involved will have some form of empathy, and some combination of the following will happen:

  1. The newcomer learns to participate in the culture they’re entering as best they can, and is comfortable with it.
    • The blue greenball player can participate in wing-touching with their arms.
    • References to them “having wings” will be taken with no offense, as the figurative language that it is.
  2. The existing culture treats the newcomer with respect, adapts variations on etiquette and rituals where necessary, and is comfortable with it.
    • The greenball team’s victory dance is adapted to account for a participant who cannot fly.
  3. The existing culture gradually changes to become less centered on the majority demographic, making it easier for other (qualified) newcomers from other demographics to participate, or to develop and adapt their own variant activities. It tends to be beneficial for society that cultures intermingle and mix through shared activities because of the opportunities such mixing creates for cross-cultural learning and for innovation within the activity.
    • Greenball players start referring to speed and initiative as “feet”, “legs”, or just as speed and initiative, especially where blue players are involved.
    • They start using high-fives (well, high-fours) with hands, instead of using wing-touches, though wing-touches are still used between green players on occasion.
    • Some more blue people start to play greenball, and learn enough to start a league for less athletically gifted blue people. They don’t care to change the name of the game.
    • Purple people can’t play greenball because they don’t have the necessary limbs for running, jumping, kicking, throwing, and catching. This mildly frustrates some of them, but ultimately they have other desires to pursue.

Sometimes physical equipment may only be designed for one type of person. That’s when it’s inconveniently necessary for pioneers to come in with expensive customized equipment and break ground. We’ve all heard the stories. The very first blue player had to get step-stools to reach their locker, and had to have expensive custom uniforms made for them.

A newcomer’s influence on the activity may go beyond mere equipment. If a blue player made it onto an otherwise all-green team, that probably means they’re not only athletically gifted, but also that the coach is confident they can develop strategies and tactics to take advantage of the blue player’s much smaller size. It’s easy to predict that some rival coaches will complain about having to develop entire new strategies to account for just one rival team. If they want to continue being able to use the same types of strategies they’ve always used, that’s lazy of them, but they can advocate for the stagnation of their sport if they want.

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Greenball is all about challenge!

On the other hand, if the blue player is actually a huge advantage that guarantees victory and makes the game much less fun as a result, those rival coaches might have a good point. In that situation, we start getting away from ethical questions and into true politics. With politics mindset, it’s just a matter of how many people want to play or watch each type of gameplay, and how much they want it. Advocates for and against mixed green/blue teams will try to persuade other people to ally with them and negotiate with each other to get more of what they want. Maybe there will be one league for green people, one league for blue people, and one mixed league, but sometimes such easy compromises aren’t always possible. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong direction to go in, either. Ultimately, it’s just a game, and no matter what the final decision is, there are other things to enjoy. As long as people are equipped to ask intelligent questions about the issue, advocate respectfully for their preferred solutions, and recognize when a question is ethical and when it’s political, my job is done.

In sum, the parable of Izzotian greenball shows there are ways of breaking down the walls put up by the cultures of exclusivity that humanity has developed, but it will take a commitment to understanding the individual perspectives involved, as close an understanding to objective reality as we can get, the willingness to be compassionate and help people even though we don’t have to, and the courage to accept that sometimes one’s preference is not the only way.

Existential Ethics

Izzot gets its name from the “is-ought” problem. As just about any existentialist philosopher will tell you, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. Descriptive statements do not imply normative statements. In other words, you can observe facts, but those observations alone can’t provide you an answer to the question of what you “should” do. Any such answer has to be based on knowledge of what you already want.

If you thought at first that Izzot must be a terrible place, it is probably because you’re used to the idea of people using stereotypes to try to justify their mistreatment of others, as if the knowledge that they claim to have about other people requires disrespecting those people, or nullifies the ethical principles that call for respecting them.

Ethical principles, at least in the system I use, are derived from the assumed goal of creating a society where it is more feasible for everyone to achieve their desires, with the constraints that the society must be sustainable and capable of adapting and improving. Without people who are mature, respectful, and responsible, such a society cannot exist. That’s why these rules are so important.

The Enemies of Wisdom are Not People

Now, before anyone stops reading in disgust, or becomes rabid with agreement, the title does not mean that some people are not people because they oppose certain ideas. The title means that the origins of the forces that oppose wisdom are not people, but states of being. People are merely victims, thralls of those conditions. If you are reading this looking for an excuse to do violence against other members of society, you are part of the problem, and will find nothing here to vindicate you. If you dare to continue reading, however, you may learn how to fight for a better world in a constructive way.

In the course of your life, you have probably at some point read, heard, derived, or otherwise discovered some grand idea which could better the whole world if it were widely practiced and implemented in our culture and institutions. Perhaps a new form of government, an economic system, or even a simple cultural custom. You then most likely wondered why it hasn’t already been implemented, if it has been around for so long, or if it was so obvious that you or I could figure it out with a token effort. Having studied many such ideas and observed society for some years with this question in mind, I have a few decent answers and a proposal to offer for your consideration.

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Brilliant ideas do not languish merely because they are obscure. On the contrary, many of the most edifying ideas on self-improvement and building healthy cultures were written down by famous people, and are read and studied by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of other people. For simpler fare, if you’ve seen motivational posters, uplifting Facebook posts, or most any children’s television show, you will see some excellent basic principles (mixed in with useless platitudes). Following the principles well will better your life, yet it is obvious that many people have never learned them or simply ignore them. If the entire world were to successfully adopt these ways, though, the majority of our problems would vanish, leaving only the problems to be solved with science and technology. Imagine if the people of this world stopped interfering with each other through war and exploitation and started supporting each other against common enemies like natural disasters and disease. Why isn’t everyone living like that?

The first enemy of wisdom is a lack of nuance. Any given idea or principle generally doesn’t do any good if it is followed in all circumstances. The more specific it is, the fewer situations it is fit to address. Inversely, the more general and widely applicable it is, the harder it is to know when a different approach is better. Most useful ideas need to be balanced against opposite or complementary ideas, and none alone are good or bad. It’s the balance that makes it possible for us to succeed and construct a better world.

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Consciousness is a tightrope: in order to move forward, you cannot fall to either side. You have to be a walking contradiction. Be determined to succeed, but make peace with the possibility of failure. Maintain focus but don’t get tunnel vision. Avoid having to apologize, but don’t hesitate to apologize when you have to. Use specifics and generalities. Fit in with others but but assert yourself. Be generous, but make people take responsibility for themselves. Don’t get distracted by doubt, but prepare for the worst. Hold people accountable, but forgive them. Be like silk hiding steel. Trust but verify. Speak softly and carry a big stick. Say “nice doggy” while looking for a rock. Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet. Be obedient and freethinking, circumspect and forthright, humorous and serious, strict and kind, confident and humble. It’s enough to dizzy the mind.

There is no magic ratio for these contradictory traits. You need to have both ideals actively running in your head, watching the world and pushing for one path or another. Experiment with each of them in turn, without being reckless (yet another balancing act). Find a mentor, but take their words with a grain of salt (and another one). Get feedback from your environment, though it may be delayed, on how an ideal will work and how it won’t. Calibrate yourself. Learn to observe a situation and determine what combination is most likely to be most harmonious. Finally, develop the skill to make these opposites work together to create something greater than either alone. A full explanation of how to calibrate ideas will take at least a short book and still be incomplete. The point is that nuance is difficult. Many people fall off the tightrope. Most of the rest have no idea how they’re staying on, and can’t explain it even though they may try. Sometimes they accidentally talk other people into falling off their own tightropes, because the other person’s rope is pointed in a different direction; many popular works claim to contain wisdom, but are actually sloppy, and serve to distract people from learning true nuance. 

The second reason society interferes with itself is a lack of available willpower. Knowing good and doing good are not the same thing, no matter what Socrates says. Instant and certain gratification is much more alluring than delayed and uncertain gratification, as Bill Watterson’s Calvin realizes. We frequently choose immediate pleasure in spite of negative long-term consequences, rather than choosing positive long-term consequences in spite of immediate discomfort. We are well aware of these consequences. Knowledge is not the problem. We made the choice despite knowledge, not because of ignorance. Why did we do that? 

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There are two aspects of our minds that come into play here. One aspect is made of emotion and motivation, and assigns a relative value to every situation. (In the book of wisdom called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath refer to this aspect as the Elephant.) This aspect doesn’t have any concept of future consequences; it only knows what you want and what you don’t. The emotional side is very important, because without it you would have no reason to do anything. No action would be better or worse than any other. You would act on autopilot, without initiative. On its own, this emotional aspect of you goes for instant gratification, on the rational basis that experiencing pleasure is better than not. For cost-benefit analysis we need to play the long game, and for that, we need another aspect of ourselves. 

The skilled aspect of you makes no value judgments. It simply uses your mental abilities to explore the world, make observations, and carry out your will better than you could without it. (In Switch, it is referred to as the Rider, which steers the Elephant.) To use a popular example, if you express a wish to be very physically fit, the skilled part of you will hand you a plan for becoming so, probably involving exercise. If you express a wish to sit and watch television instead of exercising, it will allow you to do so, but if it is working properly, it will inform you that you are compromising the desire you already gave it. You may be admonished that you that you can’t eat your cake and have it, too. Your skilled side doesn’t, however, care what you choose. It will do whatever is asked of it. The problem comes when it is asked to resolve too many conflicts between competing desires, declaring a winner and telling the loser to be silent. The skilled aspect can only handle so much decisiveness in one day before it tires and stops being able to give voice to long-term desires. The short-term desires win by default. 

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In order for the desire for physical fitness to win, one of two things needs to happen. One possibility is that the fitness desire would need to have a much stronger voice in your decision process (despite the lack of short-term reward) than the desire for television, so that even a very fatigued skilled aspect can hear its voice and rule in its favor. That strong voice takes time to develop. When you figure out what is most important to you, practice and discipline will allow you consistently choose that goal over any conflicting desires. When your skilled aspect works with your emotional aspect to figure out what you want most, you can more easily forgo desires that interfere with your highest priority. You can also gradually shape your motivated side to be less impressed with instant gratification in general, and to take satisfaction from long-term efforts. 

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The above is a good long-term approach, but it takes a while to settle into. To make the transition easier, there is an alternative approach based on conserving willpower: you can set up your environment and personal schedule so that your skilled aspect does not have to make so many tough decisions and tire itself out so quickly, so it will be fresh and able to perceive the merits of long-term desires when it is most important. By doing all the preparation for working out ahead of time, such as arranging your clothes and shoes the day before, there is less mental effort required to begin exercising, so it will seem less intimidating. By putting a screen or time restriction on the television, television becomes a less competitive option because it has lost a major advantage: easy availability. Alternatively, you can put a television in your workout area so you don’t have to choose, preserving more of your willpower. This approach will work in the short term and the long term. Be forewarned, though: even when you restructure your environment, you can expect there to remain temptations of instant gratification which can distract you from the long-term goals of living in accordance with the concepts of wisdom that you learn or develop.

(As an aside, for more information on helping your highest priority win, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work is both an excellent resource and another of Chip and Dan Heath’s books, not coincidentally. Wait But Why, an inspiring blog by Tim Urban, has some fun articles illustrating what happens in your head when you procrastinate, using characters like the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster that personify familiar concepts. Intentional Insights, a nonprofit organization founded by Gleb Tsipursky and Agnes Vishnevkin for the purpose of spreading knowledge to empower people to build the lives they truly want, has an article about how to boost willpower. These are only a few examples of the wisdom that is already available, but implementing it is up to you.)

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The final reason for the current state of the world is fear. It is the fear that any attempts to master nuance are futile, that there are no answers to be found, that running on pure instinct and unmodulated passion is the best you can do. It is the fear that developing willpower is a wasted effort, or worse, that it is not: either that your long-term goals will not be worth leaving the surety of immediate gratification, or that they are well worth it, but you are too weak. Perhaps the most tragic, it is the fear that there are too many forces opposing those who would use nuance and willpower to change their own lives, let alone the world. People are afraid that they will not get what they want because they will waste their effort doing something that cannot be done, and if they do not fear it at the outset, a prolonged absence of positive feedback from our pursuit of nuance and willpower will usually send us retreating back into the land of easy labels, easy pleasure, and (in the words of Thoreau) “quiet desperation”, often leading into depression. Fear is no distraction, but a deterrent.

The enemies of wisdom are not people. They are in people, in us. They are ideas, sometimes ones we aren’t aware of. We can’t beat them simply through anger, passion, hope, love, or even knowledge. Those may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. To kill an idea, you cannot fight those who hold it, because that empowers the story of the idea. You have to listen to people, figure out what they want, and replace the idea with a better one, one that gives people what they want better than the original idea did, or introduces something they realize they want more. A constructive solution does the hard work of making peace with opponents instead of sloppily and callously attempting to subjugate them with cheap force.

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I didn’t write this article to drive people to despair, but to offer a practical solution. What I offer (in the article to follow) is a formula for developing constructive solutions, a starting point for counteracting these enemies of wisdom and allowing this world to catch up to the most advanced of its residents. It is a framework for understanding desires and the skills necessary to fulfill them by making sense of and working to change ourselves and the world around us. Where it goes from that beginning is up to you. It may be difficult, requiring nuance, willpower, and courage. I will do my best, however, to make it easy. My question to you, then, is this: How much do you want to truly change your world?

No, seriously. I want to know. Comment below.

 

Economies are Made of People

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No, not like that.

Update 2/22/20: After reading several articles by Nick Hanauer, I have reconsidered my stance on an across-the-board minimum wage. If a minimum wage is raised in one location, there may be some incentive for companies to move to another location, but if it is raised everywhere (accounting for cost of living), then it may have positive secondary effects of revitalizing the economy that outweigh any negative effects, if it does discourage hiring. However, I think that a universal basic income (UBI) would be a better policy because it would allow people to engage in activity that is beneficial to society but difficult to monetize.

Furthermore, I no longer believe that the wages that corporations pay to their workers will reliably reflect the value that the workers provide, even accounting for labor competition and the opportunity cost of paying those wages. The wages seem to reflect the balance (or lack thereof) between the bargaining power of the corporation and that of each individual worker. Unless the workers are unionized, the negotiation is skewed heavily towards the corporation because it has more money, power, authority, time, information, and individuals working in coordination.

Building on this concept, I realized that extremely wealthy people make vastly more money than others not because they make vastly better decisions or provide vastly more useful services, but because they have developed the knack for being the people asked to make those decisions and provide those services. They have cultivated a reputation and permit their employees to borrow that reputation by working for them, under certain standards and conditions. This is all well and good.

The problem is that these reputations are very difficult to compete with or hold accountable for maintaining quality. Instead, money and power accumulates to a few key points of concentration (companies and their reputations) in greater and greater proportions. There seems to be some tendency in large societies for control over resources, and decision-making power in general, to “optimize”, which usually means that a plurality of it ends up in the hands of a tiny minority, which is efficient for the purposes of churning out mass-produced comforts but which denies regular people the ability to choose the terms on which they participate in the economy: what role they want to play in helping the world function. Meanwhile, people are too busy maintaining the market dominance of their chosen points (and fighting for control over them) to bother ensuring that the power they wield is used for good purposes, or reinvested in these regular people.

I’ll eventually co-opt this update for a future article, but just for the record, I have an updated and more nuanced picture of the economy, the problems with the status quo, and what will be necessary to solve them than I had when I wrote this article.

End of update.

One of the most popular economic debates in the modern world is the minimum wage, and I’m very confused as to why. The proposal under discussion is that there be a minimum amount that a person is allowed to pay a full-time employee. Paying a full-time employee a smaller salary is a violation of the law. The proposed alternative is… not to have a such a restriction.

The false dichotomy here is almost palpable. Let’s think like engineers here: What is the problem that we’re actually trying to solve? As far as I can tell, we’re trying to make it more likely that people can support themselves and their families, most likely by getting jobs that pay enough for that. It doesn’t take much thought (but still more than most people bother to spend) to see that a minimum wage will work against that goal, so I’ll only spend one paragraph on that before moving on to better alternatives.

By way of example, if the government decided that ice cream trucks “deserved” to make more money, and so enforced a minimum price they could charge that was more than the usual price, fewer people would think that having ice cream at a moment’s notice was worth it. Some would even stop being able to afford it. It’s like an electrical circuit; for any given voltage (demand), a component (worker) with a tiny resistance (price) will have a very low power output (income) despite having a high current (number of customers). Raising the resistance (price) will raise the power output (income), at the same time lowering the current (customers). But with too high a resistance (price), the power output (income) starts to drop back down because the current (customers) drops too far. There’s an optimum resistance (price) for maximum power (income) for a given voltage (demand). The law can’t know the optimum price for ice cream to maximize income, though, especially when it varies by location. Bottom line: A rule that says, “If people pay you, they must pay you more,” has the gaping loophole of people just deciding to not pay you in the first place, and it is foolish to think that they won’t exercise that right. You don’t have a right to make people buy what you’re selling (unless you’re the government, but that’s another topic).

The reason people try to confabulate that minimum wage is good is because they seem to think it is the only option. Alternatively, they think that by definition anything contributing their ideology must be good, and admitting anything about it is wrong would create cognitive dissonance and lose ground. I do agree that one point in favor of minimum wage versus simple unemployment assistance is the job experience provided by actually working, but it doesn’t make up for the minimum wage putting more people out of work in the first place. There are other ways to get people job experience and keep them paid, such as a mandatory minimum per-person income provided by the government. That may turn out not to be the best option; I haven’t investigated it thoroughly. However, the fact that it hasn’t even entered the national conversation, let alone supplanted the minimum wage in it, despite the latter being self-defeating (in theory and practice) and the former not, reflects badly on human society.

You want to solve poverty? Start off with an intellectual exercise: when talking about the economy, do not mention money. Money is a useful mechanism for keeping the economy efficient, but labeling people and things with prices leads people to overlook their important qualities. People get money by doing favors for other people. They want money because they can trade it for other favors from other people. The other people accept the money in trade because they want to call in favors, too. The power of money is that it acts as a fungible favor: in theory, a favor that anyone can do for anyone else, that you can earn no matter what type of favor you can offer (as long as it’s accepted), and that can likewise be traded for many favors, depending on how much of it you have. Money rewards cooperation and establishes consistency, which generates confidence. In this way, it leads to a more productive economy.

However, the concept of money also lets you forget that it’s not “getting money” you want—you don’t get use out of money by keeping it. What you want is “the ability to call in favors”: getting people to give you things and do things for you. Money lets you forget that society is a network of interdependent people, that in order for others to want to do you favors, you generally need to do favors for others in turn. People think money can measure the health of an economy, but economic health cannot be represented by an average income; that’s just a number. An economy’s health is reflected by how reliably people get what they want, how much they can do that other people want, and how much they are increasing what they can do. That’s because the economy isn’t made of money. It’s made of people.

You want people to have a higher income? No, you want them to get more of what they want. The best way to accomplish that equip them to do other people favors, so they can get favors in turn. No matter how much money there is in the economy, people who don’t do very good favors won’t get much of it, unless we either set up institutions to provide them with favors anyway (not a bad idea), or twist incentives by fiat to pretend people are more useful than they really are, causing them to be rejected by the system.

What socialists notice about the economy that is disturbing, though I doubt they can articulate it, is that even though only a tiny portion of the population needs to work in the “life-sustaining” sector of the economy, the part that helps people survive and stay safe, in some ways that actually makes things harder. The capitalist system of resource distribution means that you can only call in the favors you need to survive if you can convince people to want the favors you can provide. Much of the “life-affirming” sector of the economy (the part that fulfills desires for mental stimulation and comfort) has become parasitic, designed to lead people to desire things that are harmful (e.g. cigarettes) or gratuitous (e.g. mass-produced collectible toys), simply because the people selling those products fear they can’t provide any other favors. Thus we find ourselves watching the situation of a person who is trying to earn favors in the form of food for their family by designing a commercial that convinces people that a product that causes cancer will make them more attractive. That’s not only sad, that’s ironic, considering that as far as humanity has come from subsistence farming, people are still sabotaging each other to survive. Society has grown, but individuals haven’t, because they don’t realize they can.

People impose limitations on themselves out of ignorance and fear, forming a fixed mentality, a stagnant self-image. The way to break out of that is growth mindset, the mentality of actively looking for opportunities to develop your skills. In order for the economy to become healthier and more prosperous as a whole, we must create institutions that can help people defeat their fear and develop their ability to do favors, by teaching them to apply growth mindset to continue overcoming their limitations. With humans’ current productivity and their even greater potential, there is no reason so many people should be afraid they can’t earn a living.

Beginning from Basics

Welcome.   If you are reading and understanding these words, you must be a conscious entity.  You may have noticed in the course of being a conscious entity that there are things you know and things you don’t.  This observation seems inanely obvious, but what is not obvious is that this dichotomy is the most fundamental aspect of your existence.  It is the most fundamental aspect of conscious existence in general, and effectively of existence itself, because we can only define existence in terms of ourselves.  Everything is defined based on what we know and what we don’t.

What we “know” is an aspect of the fundamental concept of order.  Order is what must happen, or what cannot happen.  It is in patterns, rules, limits, and anything predictable.  If by seeing one thing, you can predict another, that is order.  Order holds things together and connects them.  A system of pure order would be a system where everything is known to you, throughout the system’s past and the future.

Chaos is what you don’t know: ignorance, unpredictability, possibility, maybe-or-maybe-not.  A system of pure chaos would be completely unpredictable and capable of anything, because it has no patterns, limits or rules.  The existence of chaos allows plans to go wrong unexpectedly, but it also allows us to discover how to do things previously thought impossible.

Order and chaos always coexist.  Although it is tempting to describe the universe as one or the other, neither description is useful for making decisions, since our ignorance introduces chaos anyway, and the continuity of our senses introduces order.  In this universe of order and chaos, it is impossible to isolate a part of it that lacks limits or lacks possibility, because it can always affect and be affected by other parts of the universe that have both limits and possibilities.  The boundaries between order and chaos are constantly shifting and twisting.  Conscious entities, like you and I, exist on that boundary, as very complex eddies and gradients.

Causality, the concept of cause and effect, must involve both order and chaos: order describes the fact that a cause is necessary for an effect, and the fact that the effect is limited.  However, for every effect, there are unknown causes, and vice versa, invoking the concept of chaos.

No matter how you look at it, if you go far enough back in history or causality, the world we live in is a huge collection of limits (order) that spontaneously and arbitrarily came into existence (chaos).  It is one of an uncountably infinite collection of possibilities, and inasmuch as we don’t know what all the limits of this world are, uncountably infinite possibilities still exist for us in this world.  The process of discovering and applying both limits and possibilities is part of what makes us conscious.

Consciousness involves a few principles: It requires the ability of a system to create and continuously update a model of reality (including itself) based on its experiences, and it requires some sort of dissatisfaction with the way reality is, a motivation to proactively control aspects of reality (including itself) in order to change them into something else.

Experience is an effect on oneself, and control is the phenomenon by which one becomes a cause.  Mindfulness, a basic skill, is learning to experience oneself and incorporate recursive models of one’s own mind into one’s model of reality.  Willpower, another basic skill, is control over the self, the ability to bring one’s own mind and actions in line with one’s decisions despite any competing mental influences.

We can apply our consciousness in different ways to help us get what we want.  By taking our experiences and the models of reality we construct with them, we can do four basic things: discover more limits, discover more possibilities, extend our model, or focus our model to more immediate.  These fundamental skills, and the many skills derived from them, are required for people to be fully mature and capable individuals.

The purpose of this organization is to help people learn these basic skills and apply them to make this world a better place, or at least avoid making it a worse one.  Read on if you are interested, and contact us if you would like to help write the next chapter in this world’s story.