Mental Travel Prepping

I wrote the below to myself back in January as I was mentally preparing for a solo trip to Australia.

If my mind is right and my actions are focused, I will be ok. Walk the line between action and inaction. Know when to speak up and when to be quiet. Adapt. Interpret carefully and be easy. Smile. Listen as much as possible. Try to understand the people you are unfamiliar with. Don’t endanger yourself. Be cautious. Be slow. Don’t get too drunk. Try to relax. Get cozy in a strange land. Don’t expect too much of yourself. Don’t expect too much of others. Realize you’re human. Don’t expect too much of yourself. Have fun. Remember the universe is all one being, and all of our problems are each other’s problems. We should always try to help. We are all connected to each other. The self is an illusion, we’re all only as good as each other. Laugh a little bit but not too much. Be light on stories unless someone asks you. Try to find your true nature, whatever that is. Be yourself. Learn to surf and ride the fucking wave.

Notes from A Talk By Malcolm Gladwell

Today I attended Malcolm Gladwell‘s talk on May 4th, 2017 in Chicago, IL at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Here are my notes from his talk:

Gladwell begins by mentioning the talk was inspired by “The Whole United States is Southern” by Charles Payne, Professor at the University of Chicago.

Hypothesis: Is how psychology sees the world inherently flawed? Do we sometimes misattribute psychology and use a tool of psychology to solve a problem that isn’t psychological in nature?

  1. Gladwell cites Brown Vs. Topeka Board of Education (Segregated schools case during Civil Rights Movement)
  2. Mention of theory of self-hatred. Study: Students in segregated schools had lower levels of self-hatred vs. integrated? (Misattribution of cause example.)
  3. Brown made a sociological argument against segregation, while the Board of Education made a psychological argument against it. The reasoning for ruling against segregation is made for psychological causes (white southerner view), Gladwell argues it should be for sociological (African Americans seizing control over the institutions that have power over them.)
    • Sociological = systemic
    • Psychological = feelings of the affected people
  4. Gladwell argues the court shifted a their attention from sociological “power” to psychological “feelings”, a strategy/perspective of white southerners on African Americans, civil rights, etc.
  5. Gladwell remarks on the importance of teachers in education, they are rarely considered of in Brown vs. TBOE
  6. He mentions a (Vanderbilt?) study in which high achievement was linked to having a teacher of the same race. They were also less likely to be suspended.
    • Teachers preferentially treat people more like themselves better?
    • “Lincoln 11” Teacher Case. 11 Black teachers were fired after two schools were desegregated and combined. (I couldn’t find the case by Googling, I may have misheard?)
    • From 1954 – 1965: # of African American teachers decreased from 82,000 to 36,000 due to de-segregation of schools.
  7. Gladwell mentions Smith Vs. Allwright case and notes this may have been more of a landmark case for Civil Rights than Brown Vs. TBOE
  8. Overall shifting of discussion from power (sociological view) to  internal view (psychology) prevailed in Brown vs. TBOE and persists today in America (white southerner view)
    • “We’ve abandoned the sociological mindset”…
  9. Correct response to this: “Stop with introspection and hire black teachers.”
  10. Gladwell: Media prefers psychological narratives
    • Media feedback loop: more attention attracted by psychological perspective
  11. Paraphrase: Gladwell in a roundabout way proposes we randomize school choice for students and remove parental choice from schools
  12. Q: How should African American students proceed given these ideas? A: Solution is somewhere between extremes (interpersonal dynamics vs. structures.) Here Gladwell steps back from his main view in the talk and gives some acknowledgement to the importance of psychological experience vs. sociological, systemic environment.

I do not adopt nor disagree with the views expressed in these notes but will definitely contemplate further as the ideas expressed deal with highly sensitive, relevant issues in our society today. I tried to present these notes without bias or error. I have always enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s books and it was fun to listen to him speak. He is the author of Blink, Outliers, The Tipping Point, and David and Goliath, each of which I have read.

10 Minute Poem

Can’t have a rise without a fall.
Can’t have a fall without a spring.
Can’t have a spring without a rest.
Can’t have a rest without a note.
Can’t have a note without a human.
Can’t have a human without love.
Can’t have love without loss.
Can’t have loss without gain.
Can’t have again without having before.
Can’t have before without desire.
Can’t have desire unless we are not attached.
If we are not attached, then we don’t need to “have” anything.

Is Life Pointless?

My first thought is… no. It has meaning in the feelings, emotions and connections we experience with other living things. I believe meaning is dependent on the perception of the other living things outside of ourselves. In other words, nothing exists without someone or something else to perceive it.

What are the things that happen if they are not perceived by a living thing? Like the old thought proverb:

“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Part of me thinks existence alone justifies meaning. If something is perceived by something else at any given time, then it exists and it has meaning. So a tree that falls has meaning (or in this case, makes a sound) if someone or something else is there to hear it.

Let’s say a meteor hits Earth, wiping out all living creatures and all traces of life. Life and meaning do not hinge on continual perception. Even after they are gone, Earthly organisms existed with purpose. If a thing is perceived by one, at any time, that thing exists with purpose, in my opinion. This is a rosy view of meaning and life, but to me it beats the alternative: that we are random fluctuations in universal particles that accidentally achieved consciousness. I like the idea that even the mundane aspects of our world have meaning.

I try to remind myself to be happy there are other humans and animals around to see me and share this world. They give our lives meaning, if you believe so.

Edit – came across this quote from Albert Einstein after I wrote this, seemed relevant: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Desire

I believe it is beneficial to desire anything too strongly. (Easier said than done.) Desire is a big part of human life and I am not against it. Desire is healthy. But it needs to be kept in check. Unchecked, strong desires often correlate with expectations: taking actions and expecting certain results. This can be troublesome when we take an un-characteristic action only to achieve an expected result.

I have found, in cases where I’m acting against my own nature in order to gain some expected result, two things happen: 1) It leads to the opposite of what I expected. 2) I’m more upset because I acted outside of my preferred self.

So how can we avoid acting in ways that conflict with the way we want to be? Temper desires and realize them for what they are. Instead of being a slave to your desires, cultivate a mindset that will reflect your values as you try to accomplish your goals. When you do this, the situations you face may become more likely to reflect your desires anyways (call it good karma.) This seems to work for me, although it can be tough. Desire be desire go!

Additional Reading: Wu Wei AKA Trying Not to Try

The Coffee That Never Was

A short story by Erick, inspired by true events 🙂

They didn’t tell her it would be like this. All the years of it took to get here. And now… there she sat, waiting.

It was as if every step of her life made sense right up until that point. But then, nothing happened. Boredom. Doubt. The moment she’d waited for all her life. Where did she go wrong? Maybe she should have stayed with her mother. But she didn’t really have a choice when the creatures removed her.

She just did the best she could. There were times where she thought her life was over. She somehow survived excruciatingly painful flames in that dark, dingy place. Then they kept her for weeks in a tight container with no light or fresh air. She somehow still kept it together when the blades ground her up into a million tiny pieces and even found some pleasure in it. It almost felt like she was becoming who she was supposed to be. And then when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, they forced her into a steaming hot water bath that scolded her inside and out.

After all these tests, she emerged, a beautiful cup of coffee, much in the sense that a precious jewel is forged from years of pressure between rough elements. She felt invincible. And then slowly she began to realize no one was coming. As she cooled off, questions began to enter her mind: “Why am I here? Is it just for the creatures? If so why, have they liquified me? What purpose does it serve if they’re just going to leave me here?” And there she sat, pondering what she had done wrong. No one came. She soon became cold and lonely. She lost track of time. How long had she been here?

She gave up hope. When all seemed lost, the creature picked her up. She had heard a myth that the creatures liked to torture and drink her kind. “Who are you?”, “Why are you doing this to me?!”, she shouted. But the creature couldn’t hear her. Soon she was heading down a small tube. Where she felt herself come into contact with something else. Another liquid substance. Slowly she felt herself drifting apart. She now knew what her purpose was. To do exactly what she had done. And follow the path right to this very moment, where she was no longer coffee, but disintegrating into part of a larger whole. Her molecules spread amongst the molecules of others and she ceased to exist at that moment, her last gasp filled with contentedness.

Occam’s Razor

“The simplest answer is usually the correct one.”

A favorite rule of thumb of mine is Occam’s Razor, which was developed by William of Ockham in the 13th century. To summarize, it means when trying to understand why something occurs, don’t make the answer more complex than necessary. The simplest or most obvious solution is more often the best choice.

This principle is not bulletproof and does not apply to everything. But I think it serves as a reminder not to complicate things for ourselves beyond necessity. You can read examples of Occam’s Razor applied to real life situations here. A favorite story of mine, the Russian/American space pen myth also demonstrates applying it to problem-solving, although it is not true:

When NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C. The Russians used a pencil.

Seeing and understanding the world clearly leads to better decisions and better living. Remembering Occam’s Razor can help us cut away complexity whenever life confuses us.