Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A declaration concerning my relationship to human society

I claim the right to be here. I claim the right to participate fully.

I claim these rights by my common humanity. I claim them by the blood of my ancestors, which flowed to America through Europe, and before that through Africa, the birthplace of humanity, and which ultimately originated in the oceans, the womb of the Earth.

It is my duty to be fully me for the good of all beings. It is my duty to dare, to hold nothing back, and to accept the pain of my personal evolution.

From time to time, other people will object to my activity on the basis that it hurts them. I am sorry for their suffering. I am sorry for a world where growth is neither isolated nor painless, and where only collective evolution is possible. I pledge that I will spread more growth and less hurt as my consciousness rises and I become aware of more opportunities to do so.

But despite the costs, I cannot pull back or pretend to be less than I am. For it is my mission to be the blessing to the world that I was born to be. In my fullness and yours, I promise you, we will all rejoice.


Friday, March 4, 2016

A Waldening Retrospective

In January I went waldening for two months - my girlfriend and I packed up our bags and moved out of San Francisco and into a small house in the woods of Gasquet, CA. You can read my original post here and read about my theory behind waldening here.

Our primary goal was to gain some outside perspective on our San Francisco lives. We accomplished this, but it wasn’t easy. At first I looked forward to our time away as an opportunity to be more productive while I was free of social obligations. We read Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” and began to put into practice its suggestions for getting more serious productivity out of ourselves.

But this didn’t work. Cal Newport’s advice is great for someone that knows what they want to accomplish and needs to focus all their effort on it. I am struggling with a very different problem - figuring out what it is that I should be spending my life on. Trying to focus deeply on my writing or anything else didn’t work because I’m not convinced that that is the thing for me to do.

After about a month I shook the mindset of the cult of productivity. I changed my focus to getting to know myself and to pursuing the unique opportunities that Gasquet offered instead. Both my girlfriend and I were surprised by how much there is to do in a small town in the woods. Gasquet wasn’t just not San Francisco - it has its own personality.

It was these local activities that I found the most fulfilling. We started making woodcraft and my girlfriend opened up an etsy store to sell them. We collected thousands of wild mushrooms - yellowfoot Chanterelles and hedgehogs popped up like weeds in the woods behind our house. I invented a new workout routine on the nearby beach that I call “Beachfit” which involves lifting a lot of driftwood logs and stones. And we took advantage of having some space to ourselves to throw art parties for the two of us.

When we got outside the house we encountered a different culture from what we are used to in the city. Everybody knew everybody else, and everybody takes the time to chat. We met a few guys at the local woodcarving shop and would stop in for a conversation each time we walked by. They filled us in with valuable information about the area and helped us out when we needed someone to watch our cat. We even learned a bit of woodworking from one of them. The friendliness reminded me a little bit of Burning Man.

Some of the people we met seemed cheerful with very simple careers, such as our grocery store cashier who had worked the same job for 20 years. Perhaps she was cheerful in part because a person could earn a decent living in that area on a cashier’s wage. And for us, used to rating our self-worth by the ambition of our careers, it was nice to meet people we liked living by another set of values. I think it will help us relax a bit.

I chose to undertake a big personal odyssey at the start of our time in Gasquet by breaking my addiction to caffeine. It’s an incredibly common drug addiction in my SF social circle, but there were two reasons that I wanted to drop it. First, I wasn’t sure if I could - I had been a daily coffee drinker for more than half my life. I picked up the habit 16 years ago in high school.

Second, I didn’t like how I used coffee to manage social perceptions of myself. It made me bright, energetic, interesting and interested but I thought I was none of those things without it. I constantly worried over my caffeine level - if it was too low and the time was too late in the day to drink more coffee, I might skip a social event altogether. My reasoning is that I would rather make no impression than a bad impression.

I want to confront my need to manage others’ perception of me and ultimately live a less strategic life. To do this I need to clear out all the padding and barriers I put between the world and my true self. Caffeine was one of these. It had to go.

I decided to kick the habit cold turkey. My imagination didn’t comprehend how miserable the withdrawal symptoms could be. For 25 days I sat in a stew of lethargy and headache. Little interested me. I reread Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series but my eyes had a hard time focusing on the words. Often I glazed over paragraphs without understanding them and would have to go back to read them again.

The silliness and energy that I'm known for was gone. After several weeks of caffeine withdrawals, I was scared that they might not come back. The internet will tell you that caffeine withdrawals are supposed to last for only a handful of days, maybe a week at most. My brain had grown around this foreign chemical for 16 years, maybe I would never be normal without it? Many times I doubted myself and seriously considered cheating by having a caffeinated tea.

The first sign that the withdrawals would end and that I would be normal again happened after about 25 days when there was music playing and I felt like dancing. Some peppy energy was moving through my body, and I felt happy. It was the first time that I felt any joy in a month. After that I was able to be interested, excited, and happy without the need of caffeine.

Whatever else happened in Gasquet, I can count on kicking the caffeine habit as a success. The house in the woods was my own little rehab center. I would have never been able to let myself suffer that deeply and that long in San Francisco where I have a life to maintain.

So in addition to a new mindset, I return to San Francisco with a new brain on a biochemical level.

Coming back to the city I felt a mild dread. I miss having space - even unpacking my bathroom items into ample cabinet space in Gasquet felt like luxury. In San Francisco folding my life into a tiny space is a daily source of mild stress.

But I’m also excited about the possibilities that are available now that I’m back. Many of my master plans for how I will eventually make money doing the kinds of things I like can only be supported by a liberal city culture. The woods was a place to get to know myself, the city is a place to connect with other people. If I learned one thing while waldening, it's to enjoy the place where I find myself instead of wishing for the possibilities I would have if I were somewhere else.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Waldening Theory

see the first post explaining the concept of "waldening" here

The motivation behind waldening concerns free will. Humans appear to have the ability to choose how they act. But we understand the world through concepts given to us by culture. So it ends up that we have the freedom to choose between all the paths that our culture allows in pursuit of things that our culture tells us to value. This is a weak kind of freedom. Culture can’t be escaped. There is no such thing as seeing the world how it “really” is, without the interference of culture. Maybe babies do it, but continuing beyond a the age of a few months would require you to go full Romulus and get raised by wolves. After all, language itself is a cultural artifact. Perfect freedom isn’t possible or desirable. But more freedom is possible. Living in a new culture for a time can give us perspective on our home culture. We realize that things could be otherwise and no longer take things for granted. The more perspectives we gather, the more alternatives we can imagine. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


If you go looking for me in the San Francisco Bay Area you won’t find me. At least not until March. I left the Bay for a long but temporary vacation to the woods of the northernmost part of California, in the Smith River area. Each morning I look out my window to the sight of tree covered hills haunted with ghosts made of fog. The world is cold, wet, and green.

My girlfriend and cat are with me. When there is a break in the rain, my girlfriend and I are discovering the joy of local activities such as foraging for wild mushrooms, mostly yellowfoot chanterelles.

I told a friend in San Francisco about this trip and she said it reminded her of Walden. I guess it is like Walden, if Walden had wifi, electricity, and a cat. But relative to San Francisco it is Walden. We even have a little pond in the front yard.

The point of this trip was to get some perspective on our hectic Silicon Valley lives. That place thrives on discontent. The millionaires want to be billionaires - and the billionaires want to fly to Mars.

That discontent drives plenty of invention. New founders dream of ways to make things better than they are. But it’s also the source of a lot of psychological and physical sickness.

I can’t say I’m rebelling against those values. Rather, I took them to heart too well. I’m discontent with the Silicon Valley way of life. I’d like to find something better.

I want to hear my own thoughts again. It's hard to know what I want when so many other people around me have strong ideas about what I should want. I want to challenge the feeling that I have that nothing I do is enough unless I'm giving every waking moment to some moonshot project.

Every place has its own set of values that it teaches. Rural areas teach a way of life that’s slow and easy. The cortisol drains from the system and the attention span starts to grow. I need that.

So I’m going to let my brain marinate in the forest life for awhile - filled with friendly neighbors, green smells, and wild mushrooms.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Girl and the Flamingo

For Pamela

Once upon a time there lived a little girl who loved to dance. She lived in a village beside a tropical rain forest. Each morning just after the sunrise and before it was time to do her chores, she walked into the deep green forest. She walked until she came to a big circle field shimmering in the golden rays of the early morning sun.

In the middle of the field she stood silently with her eyes closed and her arms above her head. For a minute all was still. And then she began to dance.

First she danced slowly, her arms swaying like tree branches in a gentle breeze. Her movements grew bigger and soon she was swirling and shuffling around the circle. She moved with freedom and playfulness, with beauty and grace. She danced all the ways she had learned from the forest. She twisted like a river, she splashed like the rain. She flapped like a bird and slithered like a snake.

The animals of the forest loved to watch her dance. The mouse lived closest to the field and he noticed first when she began to dance. The mouse told the toucan, the toucan told the jaguar, the jaguar told the snake, and the snake told the monkey. Soon all the animals of the forest were gathered around the edge of the circle to watch the girl. When she danced fast the animals would clap and hoot and stomp to make a rhythm for her dance. When she danced slow they would sway side-to-side in a silent trance.

But there was one animal that never came to the dance. The flamingo. He stood on one leg  in the shallow part of a river not far away, feeling lonely and covering his head with his bright pink wing.

In days gone bye, all the animals used to watch him dance on his long, elegant orange legs. But since the girl started dancing nobody came to watch him dance anymore. He became increasingly unhappy while dancing on his own with never more than a few passing insects to appreciate his performance. Soon he stopped dancing at all.

One morning he was brooding over his unlucky fate when he decided to take action. He came up with a plan to win back the love of the forest animals that he felt he deserved.

That day while the girl was still in the forest, the flamingo crept silently into the village. He climbed through the window to the girl’s bedroom and stole one of her dresses. Then he found a broom standing against a wall and he stole all the fibers from the end to make a wig.

Early the next morning, while the sun was still sleeping, he went back to the village and hung up a blanket over the girl’s bedroom window. He knew that she woke with the sun. If a blanket blocked the sunrise then she would sleep late, right past her normal dance time.

The flamingo put on his disguise to impersonate the little girl - the dress he had taken from the girl and the wig he had made from the fibers of a broom. He walked into the forest along the girl’s normal path to the circle field. And there, in the middle of the field, he began to dance.

Following their normal routine, all the animals came to watch the morning dance. But soon they realized something was wrong. The little girl’s legs were skinnier than normal. And her beak was bigger than normal. And the way she moved was all wrong. The monkey broke the silence, shouting “That’s not the girl! It’s the flamingo. Look at how funny he looks in that disguise.” All the animals saw it and began to laugh.

The flamingo was so embarrassed that he turned redder than normal. He stumbled out of the clearing and ran and ran. Eventually he got tired of running and hid himself beneath a bush. There he cried.

The girl missed her dancing that morning because she slept an hour later and had to do her chores as soon as she woke. She was puzzled that she had woken so late and that there was a blanket over her bedroom window. She wondered about her missing dress and the missing fibers of her broom.

Later that day she decided to skip lunch and go dance in the forest to make up for the dance she missed. She knew that the animals might not come watch her at this unusual time of day, but she loved to dance even without an audience.

On her way through the forest she heard a loud sobbing sound. She stopped and saw the flamingo crying under a bush. There were her missing dress and her missing broom, torn and tattered and worn by the flamingo. The strange sight startled her for a second. But soon all other thoughts were pushed aside by concern for the crying bird.

“Dear flamingo, why are you crying”? she said.

The flamingo looked up and saw the very girl that was the source of his problems. When he heard her concern for him he started crying even harder.

“Since you started dancing,” he said with heaving breaths, “nobody comes to watch me dance anymore.”

The girl picked a leaf to mop up his tears and then handed it to him so he could wipe his runny nose.

“So I made a disguise to look like you so the animals would come watch me dance again. But my costume didn’t fool them and everybody just laughed at me. Buuaaaa Haaaa Haaaa…” he bellowed.

Seeing the flamingo’s tears, her own eyes began to fill with water. She put her hand on top of the flamingos ridiculous wig.

“Flamingo”, she said with a shaky voice, “I’m sorry I hurt you. When I was a little girl I saw you dance and it was so beautiful. You are the one that introduced me to dancing. Without you, I would have never have discovered how much I love to dance!”

The flamingo heard this and his tears stopped. He felt warm inside and proud. “Really?”, he said.

“Yes”, she said, “Would you like to come dance with me?”.

He nodded his head and got up from under the bush. He removed his costume and followed her to the circle field.

And there they danced together. At first she copied the slow graceful movements of the flamingo. Then he chased her swirling and shuffling around the circle. They took turns leading and following. They danced all the dances of the forest, and some new ones that had never been danced before.

Nobody came to watch them. But when they finished, breathless, they hugged each other and agreed that it was the most fun that they ever had.

Each morning afterwards the girl and the flamingo met outside her village. They walked together to the circle field and stood in the middle. Slowly at first, they began to dance. The mouse always noticed first. The mouse told the toucan, the toucan told the jaguar, the jaguar told the snake, and the snake told the monkey. All the animals of the forest came to watch them.
And together the girl and the flamingo made the most beautiful dances that the forest had ever seen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Optimize for Meaning

The world offers many simple formulas for leading a good life - from the ever popular commencement speech advice "do what makes you happy" to the hippie/Disney incantation that "it's all about love". But no simple formula can capture all the nuance that makes up a good life. Behind the scenes the successful followers of these formulas cheat at the edges, making exceptions in difficult circumstances. It's not clear how a philosophy about the primacy of happiness or love offers guidance in hard times when a person must sacrifice short term well-being for long term gain.

Bending a slogan through enough curlicues of argumentation can apply it to all cases. But if any principle can be universalized with enough argumentation, then none stands out. Each serves as a reasonable map for people lacking any life direction but grows hazy in the details.

Undaunted by the failure of simple life philosophies, I recently made an attempt to fashion my own. Perhaps it is no more useful than the others. But it is mine, so I am allowed to adore it. It is:

Optimize for meaning

It is vague (what is meaning?), but I hope that its very vagueness helps it bridge the distance between the clean world of ideas and the messy world of existence. It seems a better description of the method of obtaining the Good Life than optimizing for happiness, or power, or global average utility.

My philosophy is derived through introspection. I perceive my life to be better when I create and participate in meaningful events. I am also heartened by the fact that it doesn't seem to be obviously unrealistic. A meaningful life still has all the facets of life we are used to - boredom, frustration, you name it. It is not utopia. The only thing it seems to lack is the burden of meaninglessness.

As a advocate of meaning, I'm faced with the question: how is meaning created? I recognize that my life today is far more meaningful than when I was a bored teenager growing up in rural suburbs. How did that change happen? I have no general philosophy of meaning, but I have discovered a few ways that it comes into existence.

The effort of creation - If you are so brusque as to ask a young artist why they bothered to hang one of their own paintings when they could buy better ones at the store, they will answer "because it is mine". It is the same reason why parents love their children, even if their children are not the best children in the world. Effort creates meaning.

A strategy for creating meaningful living environments is to surround yourself with physical artifacts created by you and your loved ones.

The esteem of the esteemed -  Meaning is found in the things loved by the ones we love. The favorite song of a friend can create a strong emotional response even if you don't otherwise like it. It feels important (which may be a synonym for meaningful) in a way which other songs do not.

Time - On my birthday I gave my girlfriend and I matching necklaces featuring black onyx pendants. We have not taken them off since, and each day they are infused with progressively more meaning. Keeping an object close to the body or otherwise giving it part of your scarce space and attention imbues it with significance. So does performing some ritual of care to an object over time. These objects of power can be used to elevate the emotional content of ritual, performance, and gift.

On a larger scale, old religious buildings or natural structures such as trees which are older than any living human are especially powerful things. The destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban caused an outcry even from non-Buddhists. But this outcry wouldn't have happened if the stone Buddhas were only 17 years old instead of 1,700.

Particularity - Modern consumer capitalism wipes away meaning by eliminating individuality and creating a feeling of anonymity. I felt good about my fine taste in clothes when I bought a slick new jacket from Uniqlo - until I saw multiple people on the street wearing the same thing over the next few weeks. I was just one of many people with the exact same taste.

Particularity is a rebellion against consumer anonymity. Buying handmade goods from Etsy provides a source of meaning to both buyer and seller. A rock that picked up on a particular roadtrip with a particular friend can never be copied by anybody else.

Sacrifice - Sacrificing an object that already has meaning or value can give meaning to a new event or object. The Burning Man festival is built around a sacrificial ritual - the burning of a giant, wooden man. The sacrifice of the man has a passionate intensity because of the week that attendees spend living in its shadow, with it the tallest and most reliable landmark to navigate the festival. When it burns, it is like burning "North" or the sun - a force of nature goes missing.

Gifting, another tradition associated with Burning Man, produces meaning. Something given to us feels more important than the same thing if we buy it ourselves, perhaps out of recognition of the sacrifice that the giver made to get it.

Religious fasting, a temporary sacrifice, gives meaning to the mundane act of eating. It is a very nice and pleasant thing to bring meaning to the boring necessities of life.

Belonging - Our connections to others give meaning to our lives. Existence in relationship to romantic partners, family, and larger organizations is more meaningful than existence as isolated individuals. Social roles are also important. People find meaning in filling the cultural expectations of a husband, wife, mother, father, or child.

Altered consciousness - Episodes of identity malleability are meaningful events. This often takes the form of transcendent connection, often in context of genuine religious experience or political activism. Connecting with something larger than ourselves (god, the universe, a political cause, etc.) gives meaning and provides some protection from the crippling existential fear of death.

Struggle - Feats of strength and endurance are meaningful. A severe injury, such as a broken limb, becomes an important story to tell people for the rest of one's life. People even inflict physical discomfort on themselves - running marathons and participating in triathlons. Perhaps suffering creates meaning mediated through increasing one's self-confidence. Becoming a more robust individual feels important.

I'm sure there are other things which create meaning that I have missed.

A world that optimizes for meaning looks different from a world that optimizes for happiness, global utility, or power. For example, some utilitarian philosophers want to eliminate all suffering, even that of prey animals. Aside from the strangeness of such a life (can we even imagine it?), it seems to eliminate a lot of the sources of meaning in the world. I am not ready to suggest that we keep around sources of suffering that we can eliminate on purpose, but I suggest we start to look at suffering as more than just an enemy.

Perhaps listing the things which are meaningful can help us understand the crisis of meaninglessness in modern life. For example, it seems that a lot of things which create meaning involve scarcity and effort, and the primary focus of the modern economy is to eliminate scarcity and effort. Could that be the source of our collective ennui?

This exercise helps me understand the fanaticism that I and others feel towards Burning Man. Even aside from the sacrificial burning of the man, it is an event engineered to generate large amounts of meaning. The festival is a celebration of eccentric creativity and individuation. It exists amidst a physical struggle - the temperature extremes, mandatory self-sufficiency, and harsh weather create shared suffering. The final event is a somber memorial of loss - the burning of the temple (loss also creates meaning).

How else can we create meaning?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Princess and the Tower

For Pamela

Once upon a time there was a young princess who was locked in a tall stone tower.

Each day she would spend hours gazing out the windows. From her high perch she could see for miles around. She could see the tops of forests on green hills and tiny people leading tiny horses on roads that were a thin ribbon of brown. She imagined running down the green hills and playing with the horses and people on the road. She wanted very badly to visit the land outside her tower.

She didn’t remember how she had gotten there, or why she had been locked up. The truth is that a person of royal blood is a dangerous thing, even if they are small. So people seeking power sometimes lock them in towers.

Her room was large and mostly round, taking up almost the entire top floor of the tower. On one side there was a flat wall with a tall wooden door. It was thick and she knew from trying that it could not be opened from the inside. Next to the door was a wooden slot above a stone shelf. Each morning, she would find a bowl of food and one of water on the shelf. Sometimes she tried to stay up and see who put the bowl through the slot, but it never came until she fell asleep.

Time passed and the princess grew older. A bird couple built a nest outside her window. In the springtime their eggs hatched and three baby birds were born. The mother and father took turns watching the nest while the other went to find food for the baby birds.

She gave them all names. She named the daddy and mommy Walter and Sarah, with kids Nathaniel, Jean, and Mary. In the morning she would sing to them and at night she would tell them a bedtime story.

There was a bookshelf on one side of the room. She learned how to read bigger and bigger books as time went on. She ripped out the pages of the ones she didn’t like and drew on them with pieces of charcoal. Some days she spent hours looking at the clouds in the skies and drawing their shapes. Up high, the shape of the clouds in the sky are strange and beautiful because there is nothing to block your view for miles and miles. She could see them make shadows on the ground as they moved across the land.

Other days she folded pages of books into fantastic costumes. She made herself into a sailor, a bird, or a dragon and staged elaborate plays for the family of birds.

Gradually she lost her desire to go down to the ground. She got used to her life of making beautiful drawings, talking to birds, and watching the clouds come and go. If someone were watching her, they would say that she was happy and without a care.

One day she was in middle of drawing a portrait of her bird friends when there was a loud bang on the door. Some of the wood splintered and cracked. A deep voice yelled “Princess, don’t worry, I have come to save you!”. She backed away to the other side of the room, cowering at the noises. There was another bang, loud as thunder, and another. Finally a thick steel battle-axe came through the door, followed by a sweaty man in dented and dirty armor. He had tired eyes and a face full of brown stubble. He kneeled down and offered his hand, saying “Princess, come here, we are to leave”.

“I don’t want to go. Who are you?”, she said.

“Princess, I am sorry for scaring you. I am to take you to your brother, the King.” he said.

The word “brother” caught her interest. She didn’t know she had a brother. She would like to meet him. Anyways, she knew she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t well say “no” to a big man with a sword and battle armor.

“Ok, I will go with you”, she said taking his hand.

“It’s easier if I carry you, it’s a long way down”, he replied.

She nodded her assent and he whisked her onto his big shoulders, piggy-back style. His shoulders were thickly muscled like a horse. She gave one final look back at the nest outside her window. It was empty, the birds were scared off by the noise. She felt a pang of regret that she would not see them one more time.

As they walked through the doorway she gasped and looked back again. She saw her room from the other side for the first time. She kept her eyes on it as they began to climb down a long spiral staircase, and the last sliver of her room disappeared from sight. The princess fell asleep on top of the big soldier.

In the next few days she learned the story of the life she had been living for the past ten years. When her father, the king, had died, her uncle had kidnapped her. His plan was to kill her brother and marry her when she was of age, so the kingdom would pass to his own family. However, one of her uncle’s men were still loyal to her brother, and he had helped hide the young boy and smuggle him out of the country. Her uncle ruled as regent for 10 years while her brother in exile grew into a mighty king. He came back with an army to defeat their uncle and take back the throne.

Life was strange in her brother’s castle. She got a new room with big windows and a fancy bed. She liked it. But everybody thought her very quiet and odd. She thought them noisy and busy. She spent a lot of time drawing in her room.

She enjoyed the beautiful clothes she got to wear. They reminded her of her bird family. She wished she could show them how colorful she was now.

It was a strange experience to meet her brother. She was allowed to eat dinner at his table one day with his advisers. He seemed to care about her well-being and she liked that. But he spent most of the time talking about the affairs of the kingdom with his advisers. He seemed to be a very busy man. After that, she did not see him often. She guessed she admired him, but she did not like him.

He encouraged her to marry and that made her nervous. But one day she met a quiet young Duke who preferred writing poetry to fighting and they became fast friends.

They married and had children. She was a good mother and a wise princess.

Eventually her brother died in a war and her husband became King and she became Queen. The people were happy to have such kindly monarchs. Their wisdom and gentleness was celebrated throughout the land.

She had a good life. But when she had a spare moment from the tasks of running a kingdom and raising a family, she would think back wistfully to her time in the tower. The paintings on the walls of the castle were pretty, but they were never quite as beautiful as the clouds she remembered. And the professional court musicians were very good, but she missed the honest song of the birds.