Monday, December 8, 2014

The Silicon Jedi

There are many warriors, they are not priests.

There are many priests, they are not warriors.

The Jedi mix these two ancient castes in a powerful combination. Unusual for priests, they are active in the world, serving a vision of the Good through feats of grit, daring, and sacrifice. Unusual for warriors, they are in touch with a deep well of spiritual energy. This gives them access to mystical forces that makes each one worth a thousand ordinary soldiers. 

Among the legions of startup infantry battling for success in Silicon Valley the Jedi still live today. 

Steve Jobs was a Jedi - a hippie and a spiritual pilgrim before becoming a businessman. This was key to his power. As a young man he prioritized feeding his soul, thereby awakening a thirst for beauty that drove his professional career. I imagine Steve would be happy that so many people were inspired by him to listen to the inner voice of their souls, but regret that so many others imitate his. Merely copying his business methods won’t lead to his success, that's only a little less silly than copying his method of dress. The spiritual journey is difficult and it is not optional. 

Jobs was a high profile Silicon Jedi but he was neither the first not the last of the kind. There are a few active today (the Jedi never exist in large numbers - quality over quantity is their way). If you have the privilege to encounter one, you will find it a delightful experience, but also a challenging one. They have a way of seeing through the lies we wrap around ourselves to hide from difficult facts. The Jedi way of life is raw, rejecting false comforts.

You can sometimes tell a Jedi by his strangeness. The rich inner life that a Jedi experiences makes him less in need of external social validation. His soul shines through in his style - his way of acting, thinking, and talking. He will read the Tao Te Ching in the office. He will walk barefoot in downtown Mountain View. He will build a user interface that looks like it comes from a more enlightened galaxy far, far away.

Actually, Jedi are not particularly strange compared to normal people. Everybody is strange on the inside compared to the standardized world of mass culture. Fear of the perception of others causes us to hide our inner world. In the startup realm, letting your freak flag fly risks that you will offend a member of the click-hungry tech press, a potential boss, or a future investor. 

Being a real human being seems dangerous. So in the valley of innovation a uniform develops - the uniform of maximum risk aversion. The appearance of the last breakout success is widely counterfeited. But it is folly to clutch for safety in the midst of the risky business of entrepreneurship. It is not really safe - like driving half speed on a busy highway. And it isn't fun.

The majority of startups die before they get off the ground. It is probably better to have a distinct taste that some people love and some people hate than to blend in. It is probably more profitable and fulfilling to have a great time and let the haters hate. Yes, when you find yourself CEO of a billion-dollar company your risk-averse corporate board might fire you. But life is not a one act play. 

The best place to look for modern Jedi is Burning Man. US coastal professionals are spiritually starved. Burning Man feeds that hunger. At Burning Man, CEOs and engineers mingle with artists and shamans - sometimes all four are found in one body. It’s a bridge from the default world to the spirit realm, a necessary source of inspiration, connection, and catharsis.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Favorite things

If you would like to be in love with being alive, then this post is for you.

A friend turned me on to the On Being podcast, which has since become my constant companion as I work through the backlog. If you're going to listen to one show, check out this magical conversation with former Irish priest John O'Donohue. His gratitude for the beauty of the human experience is contagious. The piece of traditional Irish music embedded above is linked from the On Being website as a companion to the conversation.

Other powerful episodes include interviews with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and French priest Jean Varnier. Conversations with Paulo Coelho and Ekhart Tolle are also worth your time.

Over Thanksgiving I read G.K. Chesterton's novel Manalive, about a remarkable man who goes to great lengths to stay in love with life, confounding everybody else around him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hay there

While I defragment my life/mind enough to get back to writing, enjoy some of the things that I have enjoyed lately (source at Szabo's blog):

"The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York."
- Freeman Dyson 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Aphorisms 2

A worry is a wasted thought

A man is remembered, not for the pleasures he enjoyed, but for the responsibilities he carried

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Aphorism 1

The present lasts for a moment. The future is forever. So build with an eye on eternity.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Semper Fidelis

Fidelity is a virtue that is not much heard of in these days - it means faithfulness, or loyalty.

The word popped into my head when I attended a Catholic mass, recited in Latin. In midst of the ceremony, it is easy to imagine people gathering together to perform it for almost two thousand years, a chain unbroken from Roman times. Candles have been lit in front of the cross, the Lord’s prayer recited, and the Eucharist taken by a community of the faithful from generation to generation, during good times and during times of persecution. Semper fidelis.

Faith belongs to the kind of objects that you keep, like a promise - "keep the faith". It is not a single extraordinary act, but a constant duty. Keeping a faith is a responsibility that changes the bearer. It requires you to look ahead, seeing with the eyes of eternity in order to plan for events long after your own death. The charge must be guarded and passed from one generation to the next, like a torch-flame. Each generation must be imprinted with the gravity of it so that they can instill the motivation to keep it into their own children and grandchildren.

As the responsibility of raising a child changes a parent, so too does the practice of faith-keeping transform its bearer into something grander. (The transformative power of long-term thinking is the raisson d'ĂȘtre of the secular Long Now Foundation)

It is remarkable that the mass, a practice originating in Roman Civilization, comes down to us still alive, constantly living, over all these years. “Keep doing this in remembrance of me”, a man once said. And so it has been. It is in my nature to love a thing that lasts.

Is it not possible to love Christmas, for the same reason? I know of people that treat Christmas with disdain - bright intellectuals that view it as an ignorant and outmoded ritual. But is it not worthwhile to keep an ancient flame alight for its own sake? Like an endangered animal species, when it becomes extinct we will not again see its kind. And while we now take it for granted, we may burn with regret when it is gone.

Can we start new traditions, more suited to our present values? It can be done. But not every age has the same capacity for laying foundations. It requires the strength of will not only to bind your own life to the task, but also to bind all future generations. It can only be done in the spirit of the greatest solemnity. The characteristic emotion of our time - irony - is poorly suited to the task.

So I choose to keep the Christmas traditions for their own delight and as a reminder that mankind can build things that endure. I am grateful to those who passed it down to me. I do my own small part to keep the flame alive, and will pass it to my own children someday.

Someday the will to continue may be lost. Mankind may shrink in moral stature and lose the capacity for fidelity, and all of this may be forgotten in the depths of time. But as long as a single member of the faithful draws breath, that day is not yet.

Anno Domini 2013

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Player of Games", a review. Sort of.

Affiliate link here. This review is spoiler-free.

When science fiction author Iain Banks announced his terminal cancer a month ago the internet responded with an outpouring of concern and praise. I'd never read his books, or even heard of the man, so I belatedly picked up "The Player of Games" while travelling.

I study history to learn about human society. I often think about the essential or optional characteristics of a sustainable society where most people can live a good life. My gold-standard test for all political philosophy consists of two questions: 1) can a society built on these principles last? And, 2) does it allow for human flourishing?

For the modern liberal American consensus, I lean towards a "no" for the first question and a qualified "yes" for the second. This makes me a partial politico-cultural dissident and drives my interest in exploring alternative forms of society.

For the same reason that I enjoy history I also enjoy fiction that provides a culture shock. Science Fiction is a rich genre for cultural experimentation as authors are given the freedom to imagine ways of life far outside the normal boundaries. However, sociological evidence from fictional cultures must be treated more cautiously than evidence from historical ones. The apparent desirability of fictional societies are left in the hands of the author who always has an ideological axe to grind. Fiction can give us hypotheses about new ways to live, enriching our social palette, but it cannot give us evidence about the desirability of a particular way of life due to the author's inherent conflict of interest.

Iain Banks delivers a provocative vision of a future society in "The Player of Games". It is one of several books that take place in "The Culture", an advanced human society. The Culture is a place of great wealth where production is automated by technology including artificial intelligence. There is no need for work so instead people pursue their recreational and artistic interests. The Culture novels offer relevant food for thought in an America currently experiencing high unemployment rates and anxiety about automation technology displacing workers.

The theme is common in science fiction - what would life be like if we lived forever and had no need for work? Would life be enjoyable, meaningful, and fulfilling? The Culture books answer with a resounding "yes!", with just enough nuance to add believability without much weakening the conclusion.

And indeed the Culture is a pleasant place to live. Everybody is genetically engineered to be intelligent, beautiful, and healthy so they make good use of their wealth of leisure (we also have regions in our world where few people work, but they are not pleasant places to live). The political order is a kind of anarcho-communism. There is no property since there is no want. The abundance of friendly robot drones makes it near impossible to be killed or to harm another human, eliminating the need for a justice system. The culture has few rules and no politics. Rules are most often enforced by social sanction and norms of politeness. In the worst cases robotic drones prevent humans from repeatedly bothering others.

If communism is ever to work, if it is ever to be the paradise Marx promised instead of the bloody butchery it became, then it will exist in a society that is already extremely wealthy like the Culture. It differs significantly from the theoretical communism where workers control the means of production, instead it is a society where production is too plentiful to worry about control.

Banks explores some of the potential flaws in his vision, but only briefly. One character upon returning home after several years worries that someone else will be using the house that he lived in for decades. Since there is no property rights in the Culture he does not have claim to the home he is not using and the Culture's norms of politeness allow someone else to make use of it. I suspect Banks underestimates people's attachment to things and places, and I suspect that concepts of property will always arise in a society that tries to get rid of it.

I respect Banks as an author with a sharp and honest mind. He never tries to sell us on a utopian vision without pointing out its flaws and dependencies. He's clever enough to see that his novel political order depends on novel technology and he avoids the mistake of selling a social order which would be falsified, or even falsifiable, by historical evidence.

The main character is the eponymous player of games named Gurgeh, the best game-player in all the Culture. People gather to watch his games and children study his strategies in school. In a world where medicine grants infinite life, could one be consumed by studying games for all eternity? Maybe. It is  Gurgeh's boredom with his life as the Culture's biggest gamer celebrity is the catalyst that kicks off the plot.

During the course of the novel we come into contact with a hierarchical, traditional alien empire that is compared unfavorably to the Culture. In terms of the Star Trek universe, think of it as the Federation vs. the Klingons or the Romulans. The book preaches the moral superiority of the Culture too much for my taste.

But Banks briefly points out some of the ways that life in the Empire is preferable to the Culture. The citizens of the empire feel more purpose in life. They are emotionally tougher than the decadent Culture and there is much to admire about them. It is a competent though biased meditation on the costs and benefits of a restrictive tradition versus an individualistic worldview that offers greater freedom and equality but that often leaves people feeling lost and adrift.

"The Player of Games" is worth your time. Banks' Culture is an appealing ideal form of the "enlightened" liberal worldview. Since I so often find myself in opposition to that worldview in present day politics, I enjoy being challenged with the best it has to offer. The Culture would indeed be a pleasant place to live if it were possible.