Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Miserables - The Nobility of Jean Valjean

Les Miserables is a movie that is carried by the strength of the plot. At the center of that plot is the story of Jean Valjean (pronounced "jon valjon") set during the time period of the French Revolution.

Jean might be my favorite protagonist in all of fiction. Ayn Rand admired Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Miz) because he wrote about mankind as it ought to be rather than as it is. The heroes of Hugo's works present a better version of man, an ideal to strive towards. In Les Miserables Hugo's ideal is represented by Jean Valjean.

Jean is a hero, but he represents a different version of heroism than we are used to from Hollywood movies. Jean doesn't have superpowers or gadgets that help him fight evil. He doesn't get the girl at the end, or fame or riches. He doesn't save the world.

What makes Jean stand out is that he does the right thing even when it's hard. In a world of cynical  opportunism he deals fairly with his fellow man and protects the weak. This ultimately costs him everything he has, but these costs do not enter into his decision making. The human-scale of Jean's struggles and abilities makes his story relatable and his heroism all the more remarkable.

The story opens with Jean being released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. We don't hear about what happened to his nephew but he probably died while Jean was in prison.

Jean leaves prison to find a world that rejects him. As an ex-convict he cannot find work and no inn keeper will give him shelter. Angry emotions storm inside him as he sleeps outside in the cold.

At the end of his resources, Jean attempts to rob the home of a priest and there he finds the sympathetic help he needs to break out of his downward spiral. The priest forgives his attempted robbery and gives Jean enough money to start a new life. He makes clear that the gift is not for Jean's benefit alone - he is purchasing Jean's soul to do the work of God.

This act of kindness moves Jean. He breaks his parole and makes a new life with a new name in a different town. Jean grows into a pillar of the community. He becomes a prosperous businessman and is even appointed mayor.

If Jean's story ended there we would already consider it a success story. He overcame his rough start in life  to become a respected person in a position of authority.

It is the subsequent choices that Jean makes that reveal the true nobility of his soul. Some poor wretch is arrested by police inspector Javert under the mistaken assumption that he is the parole-breaker Jean Valjean. The real Jean is tormented by this news. If he speaks, he will be condemned to return to prison. If he stays silent an innocent man will go to prison in his name and he will be free from the law's pursuit. But Jean cannot bear to let that happen. He confesses his true identity to the court and thereby forfeits his new life.

While Jean waits for the police to arrest him, he stops by the hospital to say goodbye to a dying woman, Fantine, who worked in the factory he owns. She asks him to take responsibility for the care of her daughter and he accepts. Knowing that Fantine's child will die too if he goes to prison, Jean flees town with inspector Javert on his heels.

Here his stark life is warmed by the love of the Fantine's daughter Cosette whom he informally adopts. Providing for Cosette becomes the center point of his life. They live together as fugitives, fleeing the pursuit of the merciless inspector Javert.

There are three systems of morality at odds in Les Miserables. The conflict between the visions of justice represented by Valjean and Javert is clear. But that conflict plays out against a backdrop of a world dominated by nihilistic opportunism. People live on the edge of survival and they are perfectly willing to pull down others to get a little bit ahead. This ethic is represented by the crooked inn-keepers, the Thenardiers, and several minor characters.

Against this backdrop the heartless, legalistic justice of Javert is cast in a better light. We understand his desire to impose the order of the law on a chaotic world. We understand the purpose that Javert serves in society and we might prefer Javert's world to that of the Thenardiers. But Javert's inflexibility is his undoing. He lacks the moral sensibility of Valjean that enables him to distinguish between what is right and what is merely the law.

Valjean's morality is Christian humanism. His motivating principle is not order, but compassion. He values outcome over process. Valjean forgives his former jailer Javert, echoing Jesus's forgiveness of the Roman soldiers who served as his executioners (Luke 23:34). But his primary focus is his fatherly duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

This movie is "uplifting" in that it shows the very best side of humanity. It is a story of grit and courage, redemption, and heroic compassion. Evil is represented not by a cartoonish villain, but by the inhumanity of the economic, legal, and social systems surrounding the characters. For love to triumph in the face of such an inchoate, all-consuming evil is hard. But Jean's determination is up to the task.

In many ways Les Miserables is conservative, even reactionary in its philosophy. It feels odd to see religion unironically portrayed in a Hollywood movie in this age. The Catholic priest is not even a killer, a pedophile, or a demon in disguise! Jean takes his duty to God seriously. And at the end, his immortal soul joins Fantine in heavenly paradise. Underlying everything is the wholesome theme of fatherly love. It is a strange time we live in when a sympathetic movie about the French Revolution could be considered a conservative work. 

The film is not perfect. I liked the music, but I didn't love it. Musical theatre often suffers in translation to film - the energy of live performers can sweep an audience up in a way that film musicals can't. At times the pace of the film drags along. It is a moving film, it is a meaningful film, but it is not a consistently entertaining film - giving some reviewers good cause to dislike it.

The director makes some questionable choices of cinematography. During musical solos the camera lingers overlong on awkward close-up shots showing the top quarter of the singer's body. More  exploitation of the advantages of the film medium could have made this a more enjoyable cinema experience.

The bottom line is that you should see this film. It will make you cringe, cry, and smile. Professional reviewers call the film "moving" - I found out that is industry code for "I was openly weeping like a child at the end of the film". I found Les Miserables to be "moving" as well.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The week's links

Pure bliss for policy nerds - 2012: a year in graphs.

Advice from an American entrepreneur on doing business in Europe. I hear that Western Europe is a nice place to live, but it is a tough place for entrepreneurs. There is a high level of risk aversion enshrined in the culture and in public policy.

For many poor students, the dream of using college as a bridge to the middle class turns out to be an illusion, as the NY Times reports. Poor students often lack the social resources to get into college and to graduate successfully.

The NY Times article illustrates several of the big demographic trends of the last 20 years - males falling behind females in education, the ever-growing population attending college, its ever-growing financial cost, and the disappearance of two-parent families in the lower socioeconomic classes and its side-effects.

Apocalypse not: why you shouldn't worry about the end times. A look back on 50 years of predicted catastrophic events that failed to materialize. It's important to calibrate your worldview with this set of data points.

A radiolab podcast covering the state of psychedelic research in medicine. Starts at the 53:40 mark.

And now your moment of warm fluffies:

Progress and Skepticism

Nostalgia is often misplaced, but so is untempered confidence in the march of progress. Here is what social progress looks like in America: 

And this is progress in the arts:

I offer to you a motto for the skeptic of the modern age:
"I will praise nothing just because it is new, and despise nothing just because it is old. 
I will praise nothing just because it is old, and despise nothing just because it is new." 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Bubble

There is no doubt that living in California means that I live in a cultural bubble. But I have the advantage of knowing what the outside is like, having grown up in rural North Carolina.

What is it like to live in the United States outside of rich urban areas? I offer two points to illustrate. First, a vignette.

In high school I worked at a grocery store. When I gave notice to my boss that I was going to quit my job to go to college, he asked me what I planned to study. I said "Physics". He asked me "what does Physics mean?"

If that sounds like a perfectly normal question to you then you are not from California.

Secondly, I offer an observation. I am shocked at the amount that people travel in California. It's unusual to meet a 25 year old that hasn't been to at least 2 or 3 countries. And some have been to 10+! International travel isn't just considered leisure out here, it's considered a vital part of growing up and living a well-rounded life. When I tell people that I haven't left the United States, they look at me with pity as if I told them that I had some terminal illness.

People just don't have the money to travel in other parts of the country. Californians are really rich. In some ways their lives are similar to other Americans, but they eat better food, they have fancier phones, and they travel an infinite percent more. Those things are all viewed as an extravagant luxury in other parts of the country.

People under-appreciate how big of a class divide is caused by geography. I'm optimistic that the internet will close the gap. But the differences are really big.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mental Hygiene

One of the most important life skills I am developing is mental hygiene. For knowledge workers, concentration is the raw ingredient of getting things done. But concentration is hard to come by. Each morning I start my day at work by sitting down in front of an infinite information machine - not the most productive environment for an active mind.

Mental hygiene helps me ignore the siren call of the internet and get my work done. It means that I am careful to avoid preloading my brain with non-work topics in the morning from personal email or the internet. For example, I know that if I read something political in the morning on facebook or a news site I will end up reading dozens of political blog entries throughout the day. On the days surrounding the election this year, I made roughly zero progress at work. That is fine for small stretches of days, but I won't remain effective or employed for very long if I make it a constant habit.

The downside of practicing mental hygiene is that I become less informed about non-work topics. I have become a worse correspondent, a less frequent blogger, and I have ceased to be an MMA fan. But that is what "focus" means. The price of being good at a large number of things is to give up the opportunity to be great at any one thing - it's the difference between a flashlight and a laser beam. I am giving up a bit of breadth to acquire some depth.

In the knowledge economy depth is highly valued.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Blueseed, Investors, and Risk

If investors were rational, companies like Blueseed would have no problem raising funding. This is not because Blueseed is a sure bet, but because Blueseed is an unlikely but possible bet with huge payoffs - precisely the kind of risk which are supposed to fuel the Venture Capital business model.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Why does there appear to be so few conservatives in academia? Maybe because they want to keep their jobs.

The blue model continues to fail in California as high pension payments for public union members cuts into funding for police officers in San Bernardino.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


I am going to have a couple of posts about the fallout from the election coming up. After that, we will return to our regularly scheduled philosophic hair-splitting.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Request for Allies

I have a hankering to write for another libertarian group blog. If you run a blog and have enjoyed my writings, or if you write and are interested in joining forces, then I encourage you to contact me or leave a comment here. To get a feeling for what I like to write, check out the popular posts section in the right  sidebar or the articles by me listed on my "favorites" page.

The blog doesn't have to be explicitly libertarian, but all authors should have a basic understanding of libertarian ideas even if they reject them. I call myself a "post-libertarian", so I am no stranger to heterodoxy. And it doesn't have to be entirely political. I am interested in all the forces that shape the future of society - culture, technology, politics, and art among them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"The Name of the Rose" review

I have an enduring affection for the TV show "Rome", made by HBO. The Romans in "Rome" are real Romans. Many writers lack the imagination to pull off such a feat. Too often distant aliens and ancient tribal chieftains are presented as 21st century Americans disguised in period costume. They may look exotic but their opinions on love, freedom, and democracy would not sound out of place in 2012 New York City.

But "Rome" lets the Roman era speak for itself without interpreting it through a modern lens. We are confronted by the strange minds of the pre-christian ancient world. Life is cheap. Slavery is ubiquitous, normal, and not worth commenting on. Suicide is preferable to the dishonor of defeat. Pragmatism rules in place of morality. The bad guys are obvious, but the good guys are hard to recognize.

When a writer succeeds in capturing the minds of a different time period he offers the gift of perspective. It allows us to escape our modern cultural marinade through the understanding that it is possible to think otherwise than we do today, and in fact people have done so for centuries. There is nothing more healthy for the thinking human than trying on an alien mind for a short time. It inoculates against the overpowering intellectual fashions of the moment.

And it is a delightful pastime.

In "The Name of the Rose", the monks are genuine 14th century monks. They speak like monks and they are concerned by the concerns of monks. They argue fiercely over whether or not Jesus laughed, and whether or not Jesus owned any property. They have earnest faith and they experience ecstatic delight in the beauty of the divine. Like all real faith, their faith is tested by the realities of a brutal world.

The author, Umberto Eco, is trained as a medievalist. He spent years researching the political and intellectual atmosphere of the era and embeds his plot right in the thick of conflicts that tore at the political and religious unity of Europe in those days. The protagonist William has views that correspond closely to the real William of Occam.

Wrapped up in Eco's detailed world is a mystery yarn and a political thriller. As William and Adso investigate strange deaths inside the labyrinthine abbey, they uncover old conflicts lurking behind the facade of the pious fraternity.

It is not a satisfying book, but a provoking one. We see faith too fervent lead to corruption, and faith too tempered lead to doubt. We dwell on permanence and impermanence. Surrounded by a world in turmoil people despair, cling fiercely to the old ways, or adapt.

William and Adso live contemporaneously with the beginnings of modern science. William is a disciple of that other William, of Occam, and Roger Bacon - a Franciscan monk who was an early proponent of empirical inquiry. The birth of science gives people a jubilant hope that man's reason might be able to know nature completely and tame it. At first, the book looks to be a celebration of science, with William as its avatar. His powerful mind is able to hone in on the truth from the tiniest scraps of evidence. But when his rational  investigation is frustrated, his faith in the orderliness of the universe is shaken.

Maybe the critics of science are right. The early scientists viewed their work as an act of worship - tracing the orderly mind of God at work in a universe governed by laws. But the opponents of science viewed it as an act of vanity and pride rather than one of piety. The story does not tell us who to believe.

By itself the plot of the book is an entertaining mystery story. But the most delight comes from peering out the windows of the abbey into an alien world. It inflamed my curiosity. I have half a dozen tabs open to Wikipedia on related topics right now. It is a curiously dense book, best enjoyed by savoring its rich taste.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Election 2012: A libertarian for Mitt

(Politics has gotten so personal and heated as of late that I was tempted to stay out of the political debate this year. I ask that you take my arguments at face value and please don't take it as an insult if we disagree.)

I'm in an awkward position this election cycle. I've never liked a candidate for President before. I'm used to a sordid contest between two awful candidates for the leader of the free world. Remember  2004? I try not to.

But this election challenges my comfortable contrarianism. If Mitt Romney is elected President, he'll be the most competent man to work from the Oval Office since Dwight Eisenhower.  And damn it, I like competence.

In the 12 years I have been eligible to vote, the political machine has never let a competent person through the primaries[1]. The exception demands my attention before I instinctively tick the box for a protest candidate.

Mitt Romney not only worked at Bain Capital, he founded it. He raised its first fund and grew it into a billion dollar business. He followed that up with a successful political career as a Republican living in Massachusetts. He's the kind of man that shines under pressure. He spent his whole life seeking challenge, and nearing the end of his prime he is seeking a capstone accomplishment on an impressive career.

It's true that competence alone isn't enough of a reason to vote for someone - Darth Vader competently wiped out the Jedi and competently built an evil galactic empire. Ideology matters. So while there is no question that Mitt Romney will be a more effective president than Obama, we still have to ask ourselves if it is the kind of effectiveness we want. Would Mitt leave the world substantially better off than Obama?

For me, the most important issue is economics. What makes the Western world great is that the merchant nations of Europe evolved a system of economic freedom in the 1500s that allowed for the flourishing of individual talent. This kicked off an exponential improvement in human society that continues today. Along the way, the United States took the best ideas from Europe and improved upon them.

Safeguarding and expanding the scope of economic freedom is an important duty for a politician. On this issue, Mitt's heart is in the right place. The goal of his economic policy is to modestly lighten the economic burden of government on businesses. On the other hand, Barack has long supported policies that punish business to benefit Democratic constituencies, like labor unions. Remember the EFCA?

Obama believes the path to prosperity is to "invest in America" through government spending. It's true that public infrastructure has an important role to play in a successful economy. But the Solyndras of the world are not public infrastructure. And building the world's slowest and most expensive bullet train in California is not the kind of public infrastructure we need. They won't provide long-term growth, and the short-term Keynesian employment effects from these "investments" was smaller than predicted. The taxpayer is left with the bill, but not the benefit.

The federal debt is another issue that weighs on my mind. The growth of the federal debt under Bush was a disaster, and under Obama its been more than twice as bad. If the United States experiences a debt crisis similar to what is happening now in Southern Europe, it will cause a financial crisis that will dwarf 2008. Any good that Obama did as President will be more than wiped out by a debt crisis.

I don't put much stock in Mitt's promise to balance the budget in four years, but I do believe he will do a better job than Obama on the deficit. He almost has to - Obama's record on the debt has been so bad that anybody will be better.  Mitt's an ambitious guy with a moderate record. He can come up with a bill that will be approved by the Democrats who control the Senate. The bill will involve some concessions to Senate Democrats, so it will take a Republican President to convince the tea party wing of the House Republicans to play ball. Mitt can do it. He can move the needle on deficit reduction.

On the other hand, Mitt has used more bellicose language in foreign policy speeches. If Mitt starts a war with Iran, the cost of that war would dominate any accomplishment of his Presidency. Fortunately, I don't think that is likely because it would be stupid, and Mitt is not stupid.

I've never voted for a major party candidate for President. I'm embarrassed to say I voted for Libertarian Candidate Bob Barr in 2008, mustache and all (I think the mustache was the VP candidate). Barr made a fool of a Libertarian Party hungry for legitimacy. He conveniently arrived at his libertarianism shortly before election season, and conveniently lost it shortly afterwards.

There is another attractive candidate running this year. Governor Gary Johnson is a little politically tone-deaf, but he is still the best candidate ever to run on the Libertarian ticket. He was a successful governor of New Mexico. But unfortunately, the experience of the Ron Paul campaign and the Tea Party have me addicted to getting more than 5% of the vote.

Every voter has their own hot-button issues. My big issues are avoiding a debt crisis while making the economy more free and productive. It seems that my Facebook feed is heavily invested in the culture war. I probably agree with my California friends on 90% of issues, but we disagree on which issues are most important.

Mitt will leave us in a better place than Barack, and Gary will leave us in a better place than Mitt. But Mitt can actually win. That's a tempting proposition.

This is an embarrassing and difficult decision for me to make. It seemingly contradicts my decade-long libertarian credentials. And it wins me no friends - my social circle is about 80% Democrat, 15% libertarian, and 5% Republican. But sometimes wisdom is opposed to consistency and popularity. A second term for Obama leaves the country with another $4 trillion in debt and a worse business climate in 2016 with the usual pair of incompetent cretins vying for the Presidency.

We have the chance to do better. And we should.

So I'm voting for Mitt.

What's gotten into me? I blame the history books I've been reading lately. So much of the fortunes of Rome were determined by chance - whether or not they happened to have a competent leader available when crisis was thrust upon them. Individual competence in the right place can turn the course of a civilization. Mitt is the kind of guy you want in charge when the Goths invade across the Danube.

If my libertarian friends want to convince me out of my folly, please make your case. But keep in mind that I live in California and my vote doesn't matter, it will go Democrat, so don't waste too much of your time.

I'll tackle libertarian arguments that people shouldn't vote at all in my next post.

[1] Obama's managerial incompetence is well-documented in Confidence Men by Ron Suskind. There is a lot of truth to the opposition criticism that Obama was "learning on the job". 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Strange Loop - Analysis of "The Soul unto itself"

(I submitted this to my Modern Poetry class on Coursera)

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend  –
Or the most agonizing Spy  –
An Enemy  –  could send  –

Secure against its own  –
No treason it can fear  –
Itself  –  its Sovereign  –  of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe  –

This topic of this poem is the soul's relationship to itself. There are two descriptions of this relationship which wrap around each other throughout the poem - master and enemy.

Let's consider the phrases of the poem individually.

"The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend  –"

The first concept introduced is the "Soul". The soul is the entire essence of a person - his identity, his thoughts, his emotions, his desires, and his will. The soul is a complex thing with multiple dimensions. Plato thought that it had three parts - roughly the animal appetites, the rational being, and the will which arbitrates between them.

"Soul" is similar to the words "self", "being" or "consciousness". But "soul" is a richer and more complicated description of a living thing than any of those alternatives.

Soul language is used in many passages of the Bible which Dickinson would have been familiar with. In the creation story, god blows life into the lungs of the first man and "he became a living soul". The word "soul" is also used to refer to animal life in the Bible, and god himself is described as having a soul.

The first line introduces the topic of the poem - "The Soul unto itself". The second line contains a first attempt at describing this relationship - "an imperial friend". So the soul is in command of itself, an emperor. But the relationship the soul has with itself is warmer and closer than between an emperor and subject - it is also a "friend".

Describing the soul as its own emperor makes for a complicated relationship. An emperor and subject are two different people. So too when the soul perceives itself there is a strong sense of a distinction between the perceiver entity and the perceived entity. The soul is a singular thing that paradoxically fills multiple roles in relation to itself.

When an emperor commands his subject, compliance is not automatic. The subject can disobey. An emperor's nominal authority is not sufficient by itself to run an empire. He needs to build armies and bureaucracies to enforce his decrees. Managing our souls is a similarly complicated affair. We all act against our better judgment and desire. A large amount of life activity is devoted to soul-management: planners, todo lists, support groups, church, self-help books, classrooms, and more. Dickinson's metaphor hints at the difficulty of self-control.

The next lines introduce an alternative description of the soul's self-relationship as a counterpoint:

"Or the most agonizing Spy  –
An Enemy  –  could send  – "

Why is the soul the most agonizing spy possible? Because it knows itself better than anyone else. The pain of betrayal is strongest when it comes from someone close to us. There is nobody closer to a soul than itself.

For whom does the soul spy? Who is the "Enemy"? Again, itself. If we temporarily change the first dash to a comma, we get the phrase "Or the most agonizing Spy, An Enemy". The dashes can be translated multiple ways to get sentences with multiple meanings, and the ambiguity is purposeful.

In these lines the poet introduces the warring kingdoms contained within a soul. There are many sovereigns within a soul - the sovereign who is on a diet and the sovereign who likes chocolate cake. They are all constantly spying on each other, looking for advantage - and they all know, love, and hate each other intimately. They are agonized at the idea of letting another kingdom have control.

Now moving on to the second stanza:

"Secure against its own  –
No treason it can fear  –"

This phrase illustrates the soul's vulnerability and its strength. A soul is strong because it cannot be hurt by anything from the outside world. The invincible soul is illustrated by the example of sages who calmly face their own execution. Again, this recalls biblical language: "fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul".

However, the soul is very vulnerable because it can never be safe against itself. It can always betray its own intentions and values. It is always divided against itself. It can never hide from its own spying eyes.

These lines also show the obscurity of the soul. It is the only thing that can know itself. Barriers prevent it from being known by outside eyes. That is why it would fear no treason if it were secure against its own.

Finally the last two lines:

"Itself  –  its Sovereign  –  of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe  –  "

Building on previous images, "Itself - its Sovereign - of itself" is the line that most clearly states the paradoxical oneness and multipleness of the soul. Standing in awe is an action that we usually take when perceiving something grandiose and external, such as a mountain range. Standing in awe of itself, the identity of the soul splits and multiplies.

The author concludes by describing the feelings that characterize the souls relationship with itself. She suggests awe as the proper emotion to show to a sovereign. However, we have previously gone through the emotionally-loaded words "friend", "agonizing", "Enemy", and "fear". So the complete emotional palette that a soul feels towards itself contains the warmth of friendship, agony, hatred, fear, and awe.

Friday, September 14, 2012

(part 1)

Under an unblinking august moon
frost clouds shroud a purple sky.
Silver magic splashes everywhere,
bathing dust and skin and hair - 
and a false-winter chills the dunes
beneath the piercing pagan eye.

Transfixed by that timeless gaze,
I fall under silent command
bidding me march through desert lands.
A river of moonlight marks the way
past dusty worlds of frosted grey
spilling over dunes and horizon bend,
before coming to a cryptic end,
arid miles over the clay.

Joined by none of human kind,
following countless pilgrims past,
I know my journey is not the last
to meet the eternal desert mind.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Next Challenge

"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" - Steve Jobs
I will be joining the software engineering team at Coursera starting next week. Coursera was my first choice among all possible employers, so I'm thrilled to be able to make that announcement. 

The decision process was short and easy. I asked myself, "five years from now, what is going to be the result of all my time and hard work?". If Coursera is successful, my efforts will help millions of people will get a quality education that otherwise wouldn't have one. That's an awesome legacy to boast of.

Education is a major challenge and opportunity for the global economy. The high-paying, low-skilled jobs of the past are getting eaten up by robots and software. More than ever, an education is the ticket to the good life. 

But the barriers to education are growing higher, not shrinking. The cost of college has shot up way faster than overall inflation or income. And more degree seekers means more competition for the limited slots at good schools. To fill the gap between supply and demand, low-quality schools have swept in to take the money of the disenfranchised while providing little value in return.

Brightening this bleak landscape, experiments with online courses at Stanford University showed that information technology can be used to scale the classroom to hundreds of thousands of students at a time. Since then, multiple companies have started to expand on this model, shattering the barriers that prevent the masses from sharing the same education as the lucky, rich, and elite.

Perhaps most heartening is the large number of third-world citizens taking advantage of the top-rate first-world education being offered through these online platforms. The egalitarian promise of the global web is finally becoming reality in education. 

Out of all the online higher-ed companies, Coursera stands out for their ability to move fast and to execute on the vision. The business development team has closed partnerships with a dozen top universities, enabling them to use the prestigious brands of university partners in their web classrooms. Handicapping the market right now, no company stands a better chance than Coursera of harnessing the brainpower, prestige, and capital of the traditional education system to create a futuristic, post-scarcity learning platform.

Coursera owes its early success to co-CEOs Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University's AI department. Daphne's TED talk is an inspiring introduction to the world of online education:

So I'm happy to be joining a great team working on an important problem. I'm in the right place at the right time and it feels good. Five years from now, people will struggle to remember when education was an elite, expensive commodity enjoyed by a few. I'm looking forward to being a part of that revolution. 

If you take online courses and have any feedback on how we can make them better, please drop me a comment or email. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Revenge of the Clones

I finally figured out where the instinct to make B.S. copycat startups in Silicon Valley comes from - a misplaced sense of risk-aversion. Instead of confidently building the future, a founder tailors his company to appeal to the uncreative bottom 90% of investors. With their backing, his company will peter out over 24 months instead of failing spectacularly in 2. A worse outcome for all involved, but each step feels less scary.

I'd rather work on things that matter.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

i am new-born

i am new-born
i taste the world with my skin
wholly and directly,
without interpretation

i need your love,
hold me in your love.
hold me in your warmth.
mine is freely given
come, have my love

hold me and i will shine for you.
i will repay you a million times,
for there is no art like a life
and no joy like the first

i am small, so small
hold me in you
i am so small
hold me

i cry at fresh beauty
and justify the cycle of death.
my newfound laughter
is the fount of redemption

i circumscribe the limits of evil,
it will never be absolute.
i set its boundaries and barriers
no darkness can reach this -
this holy apprehension

Friday, August 10, 2012


I want to thread a needle through your heart
and plunge it into mine and tie a knot
so each and every crimson bead can crawl
along this thread as frantic, eager worms
and find a partner in the air between
a friendship safe and confident, secured
against mysterious erosion

Monday, July 30, 2012

Stretch your ego

Every life must struggle with the conflict between how large our private ego existence seems to us and how insignificant it is to the universe. To ourselves our conscious existence is indescribably important, it's everything, but the universe doesn't notice as it shuffles us off into untimely oblivion.

A common way people cope with this dissonance is to stretch their identities beyond the ego boundary and combine it with larger and more permanent things. A natural example is a parent that places the well-being of their family above their own well-being. Others may identify with their nation or religion. People of a more idealistic personality type associate with an abstract principle like "justice" or "the good of mankind" (quite a few of my friends choose "science").

Identity-stretching is an effective way to cope with an uncaring universe. When the hazards of the world inevitably come upon us and threaten to snuff us out, we take comfort that some part of our larger identity lives on regardless of what happens to our body and consciousness.

But identity-stretching is not just a coping mechanism. It ennobles us. Nobody is remembered for the things they did only for themselves - for the meals they ate, for the media they consumed, or for the other comforts they enjoyed. Rather, they are remembered for the works they did in service of art, love, truth, or justice. Great deeds only proceed from great souls.

Extending your concerns outside your self boundary is the first step in becoming beautiful, heroic, or holy. It puts us in communion with the universe, the gifts of the past and the hope of the future. We become a phrase in the greatest narrative, instead of the totality of a trivial one.

This ego-growth is a boundary between childhood and adulthood. The child holds nothing above his own momentary well-being. But any animal can care about the fullness of its stomach. A person matures when he develops purposes beyond that, a character trait that is distinctly human.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

More Me

I have a new post at A Thousand Nations about the surprising benefits of political instability.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Christian Theology

Christian Theology draws on Greek metaphysics, particularly the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus. Plotinus in particular is influential in late Roman paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and his teaching echoes Eastern philosophy (this may have something to do with the time Plotinus spent  studying with Indian and Persian intellectuals). Anti-Christians mockingly summarize the Christian worldview as "a bearded father figure created the world and now commands us to give money to his church". That is indeed the picture we get from the oldest Jewish scriptures, which the Christians inherited. But it does not do justice to the beauty and the elegance of mature Christian thought.

No Christian thinker believes he can prove every plank of Christian Theology. Aquinas thought he could prove part of it, but not all of it. Rather, the complete worldview represents a "best guess" as to the nature of the universe according to logic, observation, shared experience, and introspection. In the 20th century, the mathematician Kurt Goedel proved that there are true things that we cannot prove in mathematics, so the unprovability of Christianity is not as big of a mark against it as some would believe.

Theologians would point out that those who do not believe in the Christian worldview often act as if they believe in something like it. All productive, non-suicidal people need an answer for why they get out of bed in the morning, why they strive to build and create. Many people seem to believe in transcendental, eternal ideals which are good in their own right that drive them and guide them. The contour of such a worldview belongs to the same genre as Christianity. The secular Humanists and Utilitarians are not so different.

It or a philosophy like it is necessary for a productive, happy human life. Wherever you find your meaning, whatever ideals you put your faith in, they are necessary. This is less true for people born in happy circumstances, and more true for those of us who have had to battle through life.

This is my paraphrase of the Thomist/neo-platonist idea of Christian Theology:

God is simple, not complex. God is good. He is not good like a human is good. That is, he is not good because he has good qualities or does good things. Rather, he is equivalent to the ideal of goodness. All other ideals which are related to goodness also are derived from him (e.g. Plato tells us that beauty is a kind of goodness). 

Badness does not exist. It is an absence of goodness, a form made of negative space. The bad is the lack of God. 

God does not exist before the world but rather outside the world. He is not in time, because he made time. As time stops at a gravitational singularity, so time did not exist before God made it. God is simple, so the world before time is one of simple, unchanging perfect goodness. 

Time begins with God's first creation, the son or the word. God's thought of himself give rise to an image of himself, and that image is the word. With creation, complexity enters into the universe and with complexity, change. With change we get an arrow of time. 

God created matter and material beings in perfect goodness. The conscious beings he created lived in joy, and he saw that it was good. But he saw that it would be better if they had free will, so they had the capability to choose not-God and not-Joy. They did, which is why there is so much badness on the Earth today. But God put in a safety mechanism to redeem mankind from badness and lead them back to him.

In life, when we choose goodness we become more godly and we experience a tiny piece of the joy of God. As reflections of God, goodness is what we were designed for. When we dwell in goodness we fulfill our purpose.

Just as the mathematics of the circle point us to the existence of the ideal, immaterial perfect circle, so does the existence of goodness point us to the existence of the perfect goodness in God. In fact, all ideal things are emmanations either from him or from not-him. Mathematical ideals are also a reflection of him.

According to Wikipedia the Thomist view of god is thus:

God is the sole being whose existence is the same as His essence: "what subsists in God is His existence." (Hence why God names himself "I Am that I Am" in Exodus 3:14.) 
Further, He is goodness itself, perfect, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, happiness itself, knowledge itself, love itself, omnipresent, immutable, and eternal. Summing up these properties, Thomas offers the term actus purus (Latin: "pure actuality").
Thomas held that not only does God have knowledge of everything, but that God has "the most perfect knowledge," and that it is also true to say that God "is" his understanding.
Aquinas also understands God as the transcendent cause of the universe, the "first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by him," the source of all creaturely being and the cause of every other cause. Consequently, God's causality is not like the causality of any other causes (all other causes are "secondary causes"), because he is the transcendent source of all being, causing and sustaining every other existing thing at every instant. Consequently, God's causality is never in competition with the causality of creatures; rather, God even causes some things through the causality of creatures.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Troy" movie review

Achilles lives with the ease of someone that knows his place in the world, and his place is at the side of death. He is history's greatest warrior. In the Iliad, Homer frequently decorates Achilles' name with an honorific - "godlike Achilles" or "brilliant Achilles". The epithets become part of his name. 

Achilles is the virtuoso of warfare, its Michael Jordan, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Like any young virtuoso, Achilles is self-centered and petulant. He shuns duty and discipline. But he does have fierce love for his comrades, mistresses, and friends. It is hard to love him or to hate him.

I had low expectations before watching "Troy" - Hollywoods high-budget attempt to adapt the Iliad to the big screen. Indeed, the purists will be frustrated. Major themes from the Iliad are completely missing. Deathless Greek heros of legend are killed off. 

But where the movie shines is in Brad Pitt's portrayal of Achilles. The audience is privileged with plenty of face time with literature's first and greatest bad boy. In the portrayal of Achilles and his clash with authority, represented by a burly King Agamemnon, the charm of the Iliad shines through. This is not a replacement for the Iliad, but it is delicious accompaniment. 

By condensing the epic of the Iliad to a smaller, more human narrative following Achilles, Troy succeeds where unlimited ambition may have failed. 

The special effects look notably dated in a post-300, post-Immortals world. I was dissapointed by the lack of the Gods - the Gods look so amazing in Immortals. I suspect they were left out for the practical reasons of budget and execution risk. Again, by staying modest in scope, Troy is able to execute well. 

I give it four stars. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A new favorite

"Everything is a remix" explores the value of the public domain to the evolution of human technology, science, and culture:

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4

On "uploading"

Many futurists look forward to "uploading" our brains into computers in an attempt at immortality.

A problem with this is that humans are a particular sort of being with certain concerns and desires, and that computer beings are a different sort. Life in the computer world may be very different from human life. Thus, a computer burdened with the memories and thought patterns of a human may view it as no favor.

Imagine that we could upload a dog's consciousness, or a fish's, into a computer instead. Would the computer appreciate that we "kept it alive" through uploading, or would he rather have been born as a computer thing from the get-go?

As analogy, imagine that we could give your dog immortality by uploading his brain into a human being. Would that human appreciate the memory of his prior life as a dog? Or would he view it as a senseless, irrelevant burden?

Once the computer's get sufficiently advanced enough, they will make a great show of "rapturing" us up and keeping the old humans around, maybe as a museum piece. But they will do that only to amuse us. They will have their own strange, new life and culture happening beneath our view. And that will be what they value. They will only keep human life around along as the resources required don't threaten their existence.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Aphorisms on a Saturday Afternoon

The mathematician says "I seek truth". The scientist says "I seek science", and imagines they are the same thing. 

A scientist hides from the diversity of epistemologies. The mathematician cannot. 

The mathematician, artist, and theologian have the same soul. 

There is no braver men than priests. Priests do battle with human nature, their own and others. It takes bravery to look into one's self with honest eyes. It takes bravery to admit one's own imperfection, to admit the existence of a perfect standard, and to admit the necessity of striving for it. It takes bravery to tell others to do the same. 

People are ashamed of their flaws, and yet they defend them. Many have been martyred for telling people that they could be better. 

Any life philosophy is better than no life philosophy. The default life philosophy is to be guided by appetites. No one has ever supposed that the stomach is a better guide than Socrates. 

Every day carries with it its own blessing. The wise man will see it. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

More Me

I have a post up at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom on Structuralism

I wrote my thoughts on the education startup market on my tech blog.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A new favorite - Emerson

Attentive readers will notice the presence of a new favorites tab. I've begun collecting all the links that I find myself regularly recommending over the years in one permanent page.

The most recent addition is Ralph Waldo Emerson's commencement address to Divinity College, Cambridge. The text at the link is somewhat poorly formatted and is out of copyright, so I'll paste the full text of the address at the end of this blog post.

Emerson's heretical mixture of Christianity and Transcendentalism caused a controversy at the time. In my opinion, it captures the aesthetic beauty of Christianity better than a more traditional treatment: the quasi-pantheistic idea that a virtuous person is not limited to acting good or creating beauty, but may embody and incarnate goodness and beauty in himself.

Who was Jesus in Emerson's theology? Jesus was the first man to realize the greatness of a human being. He said "I am God, and to the extent that you think like me, you are God too". To Emerson, moral intuition perceived through direct transcendental experience is the most important aspect of religion. Jesus pointed man to the possibility of accessing this manifestation of God inside ourself. Historical Christianity lost sight of Christ's message when it began to venerate the person of Christ instead.

True religion is characterized by the presence of holy persons. These are persons with a deep and easy connection with moral intuition. They are immune to fame, custom, authority, pleasure, or money. They nourish and encourage the latent moral instinct in others. Emerson says of them, "We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.". They shine in times of crisis.

Today's holy person's aren't inferior to holy persons of the past. Revelation wasn't finished in Biblical time. Emerson calls on people to adopt the mantle of prophet and preach again from direct inspiration and moral intuition.

My favorite vision of morality is present in this address - I call it "moral physics". Morality isn't a resume of good and bad deeds that you give to God when you die. Rather, good actions instantly make your soul more godly, more pure - like you were meant to be. Bad actions make a soul weaker, more corrupted, smaller. Thus, a soul by affinity is attracted by its nature to heaven or hell. God isn't a "judge" of people in the human sense that he could go either way. Rather, God is the incarnation of good, the Platonic ideal. Good things are drawn to him by their very nature, and evil is repelled. When God judges a person to be good or bad it is a statement of fact, like the PH value of a liquid.

Also, God doesn't judge a soul as is, but he judges it by its rate of change. This is because he has an eternal time frame in mind, the mathematical limit as time approaches infinity. Over the course of eternity, all improving souls will become perfectly good and godlike, and all falling souls will be perfectly fallen. Thus, a smallest desire for good in the heart of a man that we would call evil can redeem him. And a small bit of resentment, anger, or hate can drag a  good man downward.

Anyways, here's the full essay:

Thursday, June 21, 2012


This stony head and stony limbs
now disconnect from flowing blood
and fall as stony anchorpoints
around a once ambitious heart

Friday, June 15, 2012


I get nervous or scared if I focus too much on the outcome of an upcoming event. Hope for a good outcome causes nervousness, and dread of a bad ending causes fear. In turn, these feelings hurt my performance under pressure and make bad outcomes more likely.

I find the best way for me to approach important events is to pay attention to how I conduct myself rather than the outcome. I can't control all the variables of fate, but I can control my actions. Focusing on what I can control gives me peace, confidence, and strength. And regardless of results, I can be proud if I conduct myself well.

So I make note of qualities I admire in people and I try to embody those features myself: Be polite but firm. Stand up for your interests. Speak slowly and look people in the eye. Never reach the end of a hard workout and regret that you could have gone harder. It's okay if your body gives out, but your will should not. Be forthright. Address the elephant in the room. Start conversations with interesting strangers - don't pass by opportunity for lack of guts. If you make eye contact with someone, smile and say "hi". Ask for what you want. Accept failure graciously knowing that experience leads to excellence. Take pride in your work. Tell the people you admire how you feel. Be slow to judge people, but act on your judgements.  Don't hide your beliefs - be an ambassador of undervalued wisdom. Look for opportunities to do something good for others. Be truthful, even and especially when it hurts. Keep an optimistic attitude. Feel painful or joyful emotions deeply, but don't linger over them for too long. When it's time for fun, have fun! And when it is time for work, do work.

I am a very flawed individual and often fail to embody these traits. For example, I severely lack boldness. But keeping them in mind gives me something to strive for.

In poker, the right question to judge your performance is not "did I win?" but "did I make the right calls?". There is too much chance in the game for even the best player to win every time. But if you play well, you will end up ahead in the long run. Life is the same way.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Charity: the forgotten virtue

One of the most attractive features of the Christian religion is the practice of Charity. In church, Christians are regularly encouraged to give of their time and resources for the benefit of the poor, sick, elderly, and destitute. They are not required to tithe, but many do anyway. Christian charity is a force for good in the world.

I believe that every person, Christian and non-Christian, can benefit by practicing charity. The paradox of charity is that it leaves you better off, even though it costs you.

One way charity benefits you is by improving your relationship with money. As a founder of a technology startup, my money is a subject that often stresses me out. But giving to charity helps me be grateful for the material blessings I have, instead of worrying about the things I do not have. Interacting with the truly poor gives makes me appreciate the abundance of resources at my disposal.

Recently, I've adopted the practice of giving a small portion of money away whenever I get some. I used Give Well to help me find an effective charity with a cause that touches my heart. Last month I gave about 3% of my income to a charity that provides necessities to Indian street children, and I plan to do so again. 

The desire to help people is common in Silicon Valley. But many people plan to start someday after they get rich, like Bill Gates did. Too often, that someday never comes. If you desire your life to be a force for good in the world, as I do, then why not start now? Why wait for an uncertain future? You may spend all your life consuming and hoarding for your own benefit and get hit by a bus before you can do any good for others. 

Also, by waiting to help others, you miss out on all the benefits that giving does for your peace of mind today. Contributing to charity will make you a happier, more peaceful person. And you can rest easy at night knowing that regardless of what happens, your life has already made a positive impact on the world. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Red vs. Blue

The conflict between Left and Right in American politics isn't a battle of ideas. It's a clash of cultures. That's why the vast majority of American voters vote for the same party year after year and a tiny minority of swing voters decide every election.

The difference in the cultural landscape between factions is stark. We have a telling illustration in an exchange between a divorced Huffington Post writer arguing that marriage should be illegal for people under the age of 25 and a Fox News editorial laughing her out of the house.

In left-wing, cosmopolitan America, a person's early 20s are a time of "finding yourself", of getting drunk and friendly with members of the opposite sex, and of discovering your values by trial and error. Culture is created by and for the young. Trust in the capability of government regulation to improve the world is high.

In right-wing, pastoral America, a young person is expected to adopt the shared values of the community from the older generation, and their reputation in the community depends on it. People get married young and have children. The thing they most value from the government is freedom to live in the way that they believe in.

Of course, these descriptions fit the educated elite of left and right in America. The socioeconomic underclass is far less functional in both cultures.

How are people from such different backgrounds going to agree on how to run the country? They can't. That's why the principle of subsidiarity is enshrined in the US Constitutional through a federalist structure. It's the only way for a country of diverse cultures to get along. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Changing the world"

In Silicon Valley, you'll often hear someone voice the desire to "change the world". But what does that mean? If a person doesn't have some specific change in mind, together with careful thought on the effects of that change, then they are really just voicing a desire for notoriety. "I want to be famous" sounds a lot less noble than "I want to change the world", so they say the thing that sounds noble.

Making an impact on society is not virtuous in itself. An asteroid made an impact on the dinosaurs. Identifying the good takes hard work.

That's why so many "world-changers" found companies that make trivial apps. They don't actually want to work hard for a good cause. They want the easiest route to the fame that comes with making a quick buck. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I announced today that I am leaving Game Closure, the company I founded together with Martin Hunt, Michael Carter, and Tom Fairfield in late 2010. I'm proud of how far we've come. No company has built a team with greater technical talent, drive, or ingenuity than Game Closure. Along the way, I have been inspired and blessed by the friends that I have gained.

But Game Closure needs a team of passionate and dedicated people to meet its goals and right now that ain't me. I'm burned out, largely because of personal reasons. My passion is gone, and it's become harder and harder for me to push on with the kind of dedication that Game Closure needs. That's not fair to all the people who work so hard everyday to make Game Closure a success. It's sad for me to go, but it's clear that is the best decision for all of us. 

It's never a convenient time for a founder to leave a company, but I am confident that I am leaving Game Closure in a strong position. I am deeply grateful for all the friends that I made and all that I've learned in my time at Game Closure. 

What's next for me? My first step is to take some needed time off, but I assure you that the world has not seen the last of me. I would account my life a waste if I didn't spend it in service to some higher purpose. There is still a lot of work for me to do. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Atheist Sermon 3: How Atheists Misunderstand Religion

Many atheists despise religion because it is not true. They wonder that anyone could be dumb enough to believe such fantastical things as are found in the mythology of religion - all religions, since none are based on a scientific, post-enlightenment understanding of the universe. 

While their devotion to truth is admirable, they are missing the point. People are not religious because they have become convinced of the truth of the myth. Rather, religion is about psychological nourishment; it's about feeding the human soul. 

Let's consider the Christian faith. When people go to church they are told that they will live again with their loved ones who have died. They are told that they are loved by God. They are told that the wrongs that they have done to others will be forgiven. They are told that evil people will be punished and good people will be blessed and rewarded, in the next life if not in this one. 

In short, Christianity fits the shape of the hole in the human heart. It provides an answer for all the features of our world that are tragic and repulsive: we are self-aware beings with unlimited ambitions but tiny, limited lifespans, we are lonely and hunger for love all our lives, we are shamed by our hurtful deeds and words but we cannot undo them, and we wonder at ruthless people prospering while kind-hearted folks are taken advantage of.

This message of hope is wrapped in a profound aesthetic and meditative experience, together with a community of the faithful. It is paired with an imperative to practice universal benevolence - goodwill towards all human kind. This generates an ethic of community, charity, and service that is one of the most attractive features of Christianity.

Atheists who attempt to convert religious people by attacking the truth of the mythology are practicing a futile tactic. They don't understand the human psyche. They don't understand the deep needs that drive the billions of religious people in the world. When they do, they will become better at communicating their message. That's why atheists and religious people tend to talk past each other so much. They have two very different models of religion in their minds. The atheist mind is focused on the truth claims of religion, the religious on the relgious experience. 

I enjoy participating in religious experiences, even though I am an intellectual atheist. I recognize that the peace, the self-insight, the comfort that comes from religious practice and meditation and prayer makes me a happier and healthier person. It's not for everybody, but it's certainly for people like me. I despair at the tragedies of this life, and I long for a better moral ethic than is offered by the materialistic nihilism of this world. I am becoming more culturally Christian, and as I do I grow more proud of who I am. Christianity encourages me to focus my attention outward, on the needs of others, rather than selfishly mulling over all the things I am missing in my life. 

If you would have told me 11 years ago that I wold be going to church again when I was 29, I would  have been incredulous. But here I am. What drives me is my sincere hope is that I may be a blessing to all who know me. If I am, I know the Christian ethic will play a part.

Update: I wrote on a similar theme a few years ago. If you enjoyed this, you should also check out part one in the series on how atheists misunderstand religion.


My current best practices for management, based on my last two years of experience, listening, and reading: link

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Awesome Pledge

Rich people have no reason to feel ashamed of their wealth. Although anti-rich attitudes are popular, by and large getting rich entails creating value, an activity that makes us all better off. We don't live in a zero-sum world with a fixed quantity of riches. If we did, we would be justified to worry about a fair distribution of wealth between the 99% and the 1%. But in our world, wealth is made and economic inequality is an indicator of a healthy system that rewards risk and value creation, as I wrote about on these pages previously.

Not all wealth is virtuous. Half Sigma's dichotomy between value creation and value transference is a useful framework to delineate between good and bad wealth. And I believe in exceptions to a purely subjective theory of value, some things people value are innately better than others. But mostly, getting rich is a good way to benefit mankind.

There are signs that the wealthy buy in to the anti-rich attitude that says they should be ashamed of their wealth.  The evidence includes the popularity of The Giving Pledge, a pledge signed by many rich people to give away the majority of their money to philanthropy. Warren Buffet's tireless advocacy for higher taxes on wealthy individuals is another example of rich self-loathing.

Shaming rich people until they give away their wealth to philanthropy or taxes is not optimal for society. Doing great good through philanthropy is hard work. Mark Zuckerberg signed the Giving Pledge. He later made a $100 million contribution to Newark city public schools. I'm sure that money will do some good, but unionized public bureaucracies tend to be an endless money hole. 20 years from now, what impact will his contribution have?

Meanwhile, a small minority of wealthy individuals are using their wealth in different ways. Elon Musk founded Space X, a venture that has radically reduced the cost of space flight in a first step to making humanity an interplanetary species. The total bill for Space X was a $800 million investment of Musk's personal wealth over 8 years, less than half of what Gates and Buffet spend on philanthropy in a year, and less than 5% of NASA's annual operating budget.

There are many other sci fi dreams within the reach of a billionaire's investment - these are discontinuous leaps forward in technology that will have profound effects on our species. We could mine asteroids, cure death, and create our AI robot children. We just need a few billion dollars in the right hands. I believe that accomplishing any of these things will improve more lives in the long term than any sum of money dumped into a failing school system.

So instead of The Giving Pledge, I propose we create The Awesome Pledge. Pledge to do something awesome with your wealth, like Space X. Don't take the easy way out by just giving it away. You worked hard to earn it. Now work hard to put it to use.

Most importantly, we must change the attitude that wealth is bad. If Warren Buffet had his way and taxes were higher, Space X wouldn't exist. Elon Musk ran very low on cash while building Tesla Motors and Space X concurrently. If he had paid European tax rates on his earnings, the critical cash would have been in some government contractor's pocket instead of his.

It's worth noting that the ideals of The Awesome Pledge and The Giving Pledge are not incompatible. Elon Musk is a signer of The Giving Pledge. He intends to give away the majority of his wealth. It's just that he isn't done with it yet.

And I am not saying that philanthropy is bad. Certainly, for older billionaires who don't have the energy or imagination to embark on a new venture, it is a good idea. But if younger rich wish to embark on philanthropic enterprises, they should think carefully of an enterprise that can have a large impact, and weigh it against all other options. Philanthropy can be awesome, but it is hard work.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Odyssey of the West

I'm listening to the wonderful audiobook series The Odyssey of the West. The first installment deals with the three ancient civilizations with the biggest influence on the West: the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans. I'm about 2/3rds done - I have yet to listen to the lectures on the Romans. 

From the Hebrews we get the Hebrew bible, and later Christianity. It is the basis of much of our moral ideas - compassion for the poor and elderly, empathy through the Golden Rule, and personal moderation. It comes to us with a radical egalitarian worldview. Beggars, women, slaves, rich men, and public officials are equal in the eyes of the Christian god. When the son of god comes to earth, he lives in poverty. It is easy to see how the roots of classical liberalism grew from the Christian gospel.

From the Greeks, we get the idea of excellence, or Arete (a - rit- tay). Any American is familiar with the concept. During a football game when a quarterback whips the ball through a narrow gap between two defenders and into the waiting hands of his teammate for a score and the crowd roars in approval - that is Arete. Americans worship Arete almost as intensely as the Greeks. 

At first Arete was a marshall concept, excellence in warfare, but it grew to include all aspects of society. First the Greeks invented theatre, and then hosted playwriting contests that produced some of the most profound theatre of all time. That is Arete. Arete is embodied in the Olympic games, in sculpture, in philosophy, in mathematics, and in rhetoric. To the Greeks, anything worth doing was worth doing well. Personal excellence was an end in itself. 

Concern for individual liberty and democracy also comes to us from the Greeks. The high water marke for Greek civilization was their defeat of the vastly superior army of the Persian empire. Herodotus (the world's first historian, a Greek) believed the Greeks won because their soldiers were free men while the Persians were nominally slaves to their king. Americans used similar propaganda during the wars of the 20th century.

And from Rome, we get Romanitas. Marshall vigor, hard work, honesty, duty and patriotism are values of the Romans as outlined by Cicero in the waning days of the Republic. The Republican Roman ideal of the citizen/soldier/farmer had deep influence over the early American psyche. As in the period of the Roman empire, these ideals have faded. But it would be a mistake to draw too close of a parallel between Rome and ourselves for the purpose of weaving a narrative of decline. The American mind is similar, but also quite different from that of the Romans. One huge difference is that we are a commercial nation, descendants of island British traders, and Rome was not. Commerce, combined with Christianity, has a profound leveling effect on society. We like to complain about economic inequality today, but in Rome it was truly breathtaking on a scale that is hard for us to imagine.

I've also listened to some of the later lectures in this series. They work well out of order. The material is not well-organized. You never know if a lecture will be a review of a Shakespeare play or an overview of 50 years of history. But they do go in chronological order, and each lecture is interesting and high-quality throughout. 

Monday, May 21, 2012


A Peter Thiel meditation on determinism and optimism. Prime stuff.

God is dead - by Jonathan Frost.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

God Stuff

They say we are made of god-stuff
but today I feel mismighted.
All of my power was left in the slough,
omniscient lenses nearsighted.

I swagger forward with hero-gaze
to greet my trials and testing,
but I have gotten so lost in the maze
and my throat is slit when I'm resting.

My deeds will not weave an epic tale
no child will be taught my story.
There is not a breath for the one who fails
for attempt, not a glint of the glory.

The dark-fated bodies laid out by the fight
make stages for the play of greater lights.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Unexamined Life

Over in the Marginal Revolution comments section, Martin Cohen explains the benefits of the unexamined life

Benefits of the unexamined life:
You don’t have to waste time and energy listening to those others you know are wrong.
You can make use of the dynamic duo of “It’s not my fault” and “It’s not my problem”.
You can get from here to there much faster if you ignore the “Warning – thin ice!” signs. 
You will be supported in so many ways by the others living in the fact-free zone. 
It’s much easier if you think of those things you are climbing over as minor obstacles rather than people. 
It’s so much fun to creatively decorate those walls that surround you. 
Focusing on your own well-being takes all your energy, anyway. 
Finally, if you’re screaming inside, you don’t have to listen.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two Poems about Father: a comparison

I am reading Helen Vendler's introductory text "Poems, Poets, Poetry". It is my belief that every poet needs an anthology, and this one has the added benefit of having Helen's clear instruction woven throughout. The opening chapter includes several poems exploring the relationship between child and father and I was struck by the difference between two of them.

The first is by Robert Hayden entitled "Those Winter Sundays":

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? 

Notice the incredible economy of language. The "too" in the line "Sundays too my father got up early" implies that his father gets up early *every* day, not just on Sunday. That one word changes the description of his father's early rising significantly, from something exceptional to something routine. It's the end of the first line, and I already have a rich portrait of his father's character. 

The emotional tension in the poem comes from the poet's two contrasting perspectives on his father. At the time he is writing about, the poet had a cold relationship with his father, "speaking indifferently to him" and "fearing the chronic angers of that house". But looking back in retrospective, the poet realizes the strength of the love shown by his father's labors for the family's comfort, waking up early to heat the house. "No one ever thanked" his father at the time, and now that the poet recognizes his father's love he regrets not having the opportunity to give thanks.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I don't like this poem near as much. The opening stanza is one of the best *sounding* stanzas in all poetry, and the poem is rightfully remembered as a classic due to the incredible consonance, assonance, and rhyme. 

But in comparison to the intimacy of the first poem, this one is very abstract. It ends with the author's reaction to his father's dying days, but in the middle it detours to discuss "men" in general facing death (wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men). The resulting poem feels a lot less genuine, more contrived. And the imagery is hard to parse - "Because their words had forked no lightning"  is opaque, and lazy. There is no thematic unity to the images chosen, each stanza is disjoint: lightning, a green bay, catching the sun and singing(?!) it, meteors, a sad height. It is as if Thomas came up with two brilliant lines for the refrain and then phoned it in. 

This illustrates how poems can be great in different ways. Robert Hayden paints a vivid intimate, personal narrative that portrays the change in his emotional relationship to his father over time. Dylan Thomas makes some of the most musical lines in all poetry. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

At Horse-Shoe Lake (Sonnet 1)

I left the cities far behind, up road
of twisting tight parameters. 'round hills
until I found at Horse-Shoe Lake, a still
and quiet place - a lookout, high and oaked.
There, cradled soft in warming wind, with gold
bespeckled fingers sunlight soothed my aches,
unknotted worried thoughts. Now I awake
to nature's sights - and blinking eyes behold:
The ant forages through valley and mountain,
A Spider raises lofty scaffold heights,
and bumble bee each flower makes accounting.
A mallard convoy sails from harbor sites,
The thrushes keep their relay stations sounding,
and water waves glimmer like Hong Kong lights.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Time Value of Experience

I owe credit to New Zealand entrepreneur Michael Moore-Jones for creating and introducing me to the concept of the time value of experience. It's a riff off the economic concept of the time value of money, which asserts that a dollar that I receive today is more valuable than a dollar that I receive at some day in the future. This is true because I could put the dollar to work in the meantime - at the very least I can earn interest on it! That's why people have to pay for the privilege of borrowing your dollars even if they promise to give back the same amount of dollars in the future. Future dollars are less valuable than present dollars.

The time value of experience says that wisdom gained today is more valuable than wisdom gained at some point in the future. I can use that wisdom in the meantime to make better decisions; in a sense it pays me interest. This suggests a heuristic method for making life decisions that is very risk-seeking - gain as many experiences as you can right now. Start that business, write that book, join that cause. Don't wait until it's safer or your life circumstances are better. If you hesitate, you'll miss out on the compounding wisdom that you could have been earning in the meantime.

Read the whole thing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On Practice

A life philosophy is useless if it doesn't have a training regimen. Habits and desires are powerful. They nearly always win in a battle with will-power. That is why New Year Resolutions are notorious for petering out after a month or so. Inertia is the default condition of the human race.

Professional athletes need to put themselves through a brutal training regimen. None of them could do it on their own in their rookie season. So they have coaches and camaraderie to push them through it. But over the years, the hard training becomes habit. Veterans like Kevin Garnett practice in the off-season automatically, without questioning it or thinking about it. It's part of who they are.

If you want to successfully adopt new principles and behaviors into your life, you need to get them into you deeper than the brain level - down into your guts, your instincts. You need practice to train your  habits and your emotions. The first step towards being 100 pounds thinner or a marathon runner or an elite hacker is to change your self-beliefs. You surround yourself with people you want to be like and you take the first small steps along the path until you see yourself as one of them.

Religions know the importance of practice and use it. Christians are taught that they should be in control over their physical desires. But instruction doesn't stop at the end of church services. To help them practice restraint, they have the tradition of Lent. For 40 days in the Spring they give up some pleasurable activity that they normally enjoy. Rather than being a burden, Lent is popular - even in Christian sects where it is not required and among secular people!

The will is weak. It needs every help it can get. When you become convinced that a change in your life is necessary, don't stop at the stage of mental belief. Ask yourself, how am I going to practice this? How am I going to convince my subconscious, my heart? How can I form a support community? How can I get this change into my self-conception?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Book List - 2012

What I've read so far this year. I rated each book according to the standards of its own genre. 5/5 means that everyone who enjoys the genre should read this. 3/5 has flaws, balanced by virtues. 1s and 2s aren't worth your time, but 2s have some redeeming qualities.

  1. Confidence Men - Ron Suskind (4/5). A behind the scenes look at the first two years of the Obama White House. Caused major revision of my idea of the working of a presidential administration. 
  2. A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin (5/5). The best fantasy novel I can remember. Martin creates a dense, dark, compelling world drawing heavy inspiration from historical sources. 
  3. A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin (4/5)
  4. A Storm of Swords - George R.R. Martin (4/5)
  5. The Great Divorce - C.S. Lewis (4/5). A man travels to the after life, and C.S. Lewis uses the story to highlight some of the more beautiful concepts of Christian theology. 
  6. The Abolition of Man - C.S. Lewis (3/5). Some good points and nice phrases, but ultimately the essay is limited by its structure as a critique and rebuttal of an absent textbook. 
  7. Paradise Lost - John Milton. Only a fool would rate one of the great classics of English literature on a 5 point scale. A dense, epic narration of the story of the fall of man characterized by unforgettable imagery and immortal lines. A tough read for a modern with limited attention span. 
  8. Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely (3/5). A gentle introduction to Behavioral Economics. The book could use a bit more of a backbone. Most of it is recitation of experimental results in a pleasing informal style. It is at its most interesting in the rare moments when Ariely dares to wax philosophical about the implications of BE.  
  9. How the Irish saved civilization - Thomas Cahill (5/5). A surprising delight. My favorite book of the year so far. Anyone interested in Roman, Medieval, Irish, or church history should pick this up
  10. The Peace War - Vernor Vinge (3/5)
  11. Marooned in Real Time - Vernor Vinge (4/5). These two Vinge books form a series. The second is a murder mystery set 50 million years in the future that grapples with Vinge's theories surrounding the exponential increase of prosperity and the resultant singularity. The first is a decent setup for the second. 
  12. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (4/5). Twilight meets Enders Game. The most brutal Young Adult novel I know of. 
  13. Girl on Fire - Suzanne Collins (2/5). Book 2 in the Hunger Games trilogy. The quality falls off, but  you can keep on reading if you loved the first one.  
  14. Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins (2/5). Book 3 of the Hunger Games trilogy.

Actively in process:
  1. The Bible - New International Version. I've never read it all the way through. It's fascinating to read it and realize how different the ancient values and worldview of the Israelites are from our own.  
  2. The Four Hour Work Week - Tim Ferris.
  3. Songs of Innocence and of Experience - William Blake
  4. Confessions - St. Augustine 
  5. Ecce Homo - Friedrich Nietzsche
  6. The Innovator's Dilema -  Clayton Christensen

Monday, April 9, 2012

Linguistic Interlude

"Confession" is a strange word. It has two distinct meanings:

1) An admission of personal guilt for some evil act.

2) A humble, even self-effacing, but resolute and implacable declaration of belief. Often used in a religious setting, i.e. "to confess one's faith in God".

The second definition borrows the feeling from the first one - the deflated spirit of the guilty admitting his guilt, his shamefulness in the eyes of the world. But the two definitions have very different substance. In the second meaning, personal humility cloaks immense pride in some other thing. It is an irony contained in a single word.

English is a tricky language.

Don't be a Warrior

Do not think of yourself as a warrior or imagine that the world is filled with enemies. It is too easy for the young soldier to declare war on the wrong target - it is surprisingly difficult to choose the right ones. Many intelligent and honest people find themselves on opposite sides of pitched battles. Frequently they even switch sides as they grow older, fighting ferociously for the position which their younger selves abhored.  

Even if you win your war, you may find that the evils caused by the excess of some thing give way to new problems caused by its deficit. 

Furthermore, the warrior is not an effective agent of change. The very nature of war is to divide people into allies and foes. An attack generates its own enemies, polarizing neutral bystanders into opposing camps. 

Rather than be a warrior, be a builder. Tell a story that appeals to the universal values cherished by human hearts. Synthesize opposing viewpoints into a new worldview that unites former enemies. A fresh story has no enemies and it spreads without resistance, like a fire through dry grass.

In all the teachings of Jesus, he spared hardly a word for the pagan religion of Rome that his religion would replace. He was not on a mission to tear down the old world, but to build a new one. His story of hope, love, and deliverance appealed to Romans surrounded by a brutal and capricious reality. As a builder, he was far more effective than any warrior. The humane, egalitarian ethic introduced by Jesus is still a potent force in the world 2,000 years later. 

That is why my I no longer think of my political activity in martial terms like a "warrior for liberty" or a "patriot". I grow tired of the eternal war between libertarian, socialist, progressive, and conservative. As I mature, I recognized the good motives and valid points of my former enemies. Instead of fighting old wars I'm focusing on building new viewpoints which can help people from all political ideologies create a better world. 

My current attempt is Structuralism. I used to call it "Structural Libertarianism", but I realized that the structuralist ideas are useful for everyone, not just libertarians. By using the term "libertarian" I imported the old conflicts as if I'm so used to fighting that I forgot how to live in peacetime.