“In general, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective. What distinguishes fact from opinion is that facts are verifiable, i.e. can be objectively proven to have occurred.” (Wikipedia)

So here’s my question: Do you choose your opinions? Do you have control over your judgments and viewpoints? If, for example, you are of the opinion that the Green Bay Packers are the best NFL team, could you choose to have a different opinion on the matter?

If you answered YES, I have a follow-up question. Can you choose to have NO opinion on a topic? That sounds much harder. If I sit down next to you and say: “Abortion,” you probably have an opinion on that topic almost instantaneously. How would it be possible for you to decide NOT to have an opinion on that topic? When might such a decision have been made? To me it feels like opinions happen to us, rather than something we do.

At this point some of you A students are thinking: “Sure, my opinions are emergent, but they’re the result of all the reading and thinking and information gathering I’ve done throughout my life.”

Granted. But it sounds to me like we don’t have any control over our opinions. At least not in the moment. So choosing not to have an opinion… any opinion… is out of the question. An opinion happens to you like Psoriasis. And yet, our opinions play a huge role in our identity. “I’m who I am because I believe these things.” But you didn’t decide to believe those things and you couldn’t decide to believe something else if I put a gun to your head.

The more I think about it, the more worthless opinions — yours and mine — seem. Could I go all day without expressing an opinion? For one hour?

“Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” — Seng-ts’an

One rock at a time


I recently had our propane provider move our tank from where it had been sitting for the past 30 years to a less visible (from the house) location. I noticed that the rocks that once covered the slope down from our driveway had rolled/washed/worn away and decided replace them. No shortage of rocks on our property. The red line shows my progress to date. This task turned out to be much harder than I expected. I have a wheelbarrow but quickly discovered that it’s easier to move one rock at at time, by hand. Doesn’t look like I have much hill left but that might take five or six hours. Searching for Zen? Here it is.

Update: May 6, 2015. Task completed.


Let’s make them better than human

ex-machina-movieGolly. I don’t know where to begin. I really enjoyed the film Ex Machina but that tells you next to nothing. Certainly the best treatment of AI I’ve seen on screen. There were a few moments reminiscent of Blade Runner. When Rachael realized her childhood memories were implanted; when Roy went to see his creator, Dr. Tyrell. But I found this a fresh and thought-provoking story.

If you’re that guy that kept pointing out why the flux capacitor was just a made up thing and couldn’t be used for time travel, yeah, you’ll probably find lots of _flaws_ in the tech of this movie. And now you know why it took you sooo long to get laid. Given half a chance, I’m quite willing to suspend my disbelief and did so for this movie.

What does it mean to be almost but not quite human? When we have the technology, will we be able to scrape enough ‘goodness’ to create beings better than ourselves?

When I’m really absorbed in a story I sometimes forget to breath for a few seconds. I was a little light headed by the end of Ex Machina.

Invisible Atheists

“In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it.”

“Religion is a form of surveillance. It’s not about God; it’s about the power wielded by those who act in his name.” Habib, Willoughby, and many others have switched to atheism as an act of rebellion. But their rebellion is less against Islam than against the abuses committed by religiously powered individuals and political systems.”

“Despite the risks and the social and political challenges they’re facing, all the atheist activists I interviewed said they were confident that the future of the Arab world belongs to secularism. Willoughby told me that “atheism is spreading like wildfire” in the Middle East. Brian Whitaker views it as “the symptom of a much bigger thing, which is the battle against oppression.”

From an article in New Republic »

How to make bad days okay

“A human life is too vast, too rich and varied in content, for any given day’s events to be critical to the whole thing. Therefore, our willingness to be calm in the face of day-to-day unsettledness is much more important than the specifics of what is so unsettling about right now.”

“This is true even of the big, permanent events: deaths, losses, diagnoses and breakups. A death, for example, is clearly permanent, but it is your relationship to that event that gives it meaning, and that relationship is not at all permanent. It will change fairly rapidly, in fact. It will be quite different a week later, and very different a year later. And by then, it will be someone slightly (or greatly) different who is experiencing it. You don’t have to bear the weight of the entire catastrophe today. Other days, and other Yous, will split the burden, in ways you perhaps can’t see from here.”

From an essay by David Cain »

The Simulation Game

“Each individual believes that he or she is living in a world that really exists. The point of SG is to provide clues to the pieces that this is not so and see when they realize they are in a simulation. We considered inserting some obvious clues into their stream of experience, such as sky writing that says “This all a simulation—you are being fooled”, but that was deemed a bit too obvious, even taking into account the limited intelligence of the pieces. To make the game more interesting, and to net the greatest gambling revenues, we decided to make the clues subtler, though of course any of our species would recognize them immediately. We have therefore arranged it so that the world they experience is incoherent and unintelligible—quite literally impossible. This is not so clear on the surface, but in the game it is meant to be gradually revealed, as they apply their limited intelligence to the appearances.”

More about The Simulation Game »

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

sapiens-book-coverAmazon: “Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.”

You can scan my favorite nuggets after the jump: Continue reading

A different level of consciousness

“Today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens . If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The illusion of free will

Years of reading (and introspection) has led me to believe “free will” is an illusion. Scott Adams makes the most compelling case for free-will-is-an-illusion that I’ve come across:

“I could ignore any advice coming from my technology, but why would I? My human-made plans work out great about 75% of the time. But a computer-made plan that knows all of my preferences, and everyone else’s too, could make decisions that pay off for me more like 90% of the time.”

“As the trend toward machine-made decisions accelerates, your sensation of free will is going to erode to zero. You will have no sense of making decisions in your life. All you will be doing is agreeing with the excellent decisions made by machines. A baby born today will probably never drive a car or make navigation decisions because cars will handle that on their own. We will come to trust the machines more than we trust our friends or our own bad judgement.”

The idea that we are not completely “in control” of our lives is very frightening to most people. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the notion I’ve found it liberating.

Silicon Valley is more important than the Middle East

I’m a few chapters into Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a really interesting book by Yuval Noah Harari. He’s an Oxford Ph.D. whose current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

Today I found a link to a conversation between Harari and Daniel Kahneman that was packed with interesting ideas. Here’s one:

“In terms of history, the events in Middle East, of ISIS and all of that, is just a speed bump on history’s highway. The Middle East is not very important. Silicon Valley is much more important. It’s the world of the 21st century … I’m not speaking only about technology. In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions. These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria.”