Ender’s Game

I saw the trailer for the up-coming movie version of the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (OSC). I had some travel on my calendar so I downloaded and started burning through the book again.

In my opinion, Ender’s Game is one of the supreme works of human genius. I know, I know. I am one of those. But, you have to remember that I am smack-dab in the middle of the baby-boom generation. So I was pretty much raw meat for the Ender’s Game thing.

Although I was a bit too old, really. Ender’s Game really appeals to young boys around the age of 10 – 12. The way it unflinchingly describes bullying and hazing, with all of the ugliness revealed. And Ender’s Game especially appeals to the technically oriented, math/science crowd. Well, that part was certainly me, only like I said a bit late.

Ender’s Game was first written as a short story way back in 1977, so the root of what OSC wrote is pretty old. But the book version appeared first in 1985, at the so-called dawn of the computer age. I was 31 at the time I first read Ender’s Game, and I had just touched my first computer, in my case an early RISC-based UNIX system. In that context, what OSC described was this:

  • A world-wide (planetary system-wide?) networked computer system which enabled communication in real time across vast distances among virtually all of mankind
  • Entire political movements arising and transforming human culture, as a result of this computer network
  • A three-dimensional virtual reality game with numerous players in which Ender interacts with avatars (either computer generated, or representing another player) in solving interesting problems (including battle) within the virtual landscape
  • A threaded written communications system in which you post messages in a forum, and others interested in that subject are free to read what you read
  • Another mode of the communication system in which individuals or groups can engage in private interaction, using either a real-time (like text) or store-and-forward (like email) method

To name just a few of the things OSC foresaw. I am sure you could argue that others had written similar things by the time OSC wrote what he did. And I would certainly not disagree. But that does not matter. Because of the period in history when OSC was writing, and was so hugely popular, he influenced the work of thousands upon thousands of technical professionals who worked in IT during the 80s, including myself. It would not be overstating the case to say that we built the environment that we did (on which I am typing as I write this) because OSC told us to do so. This very social networking environment is hauntingly familiar to me when I read the description of the world in which Ender lived.

Oddly, this slightly disadvantages OSC in the current era: Because he so perfectly describes the technologies that we use everyday, the tendency is to assume that OSC wrote the book after he had access to the internet. Not true, though. OSC did not have access to any of the technologies that he describes. He made it all up. It just looks so much like home to us now.

But even that is not the supreme genius that I mention at the beginning of my blog post. The one idea that affected me the most was the way he describes Ender’s unique insight. What Ender saw, what Ender understood when no one else did, was the power of individual initiative. Other armies in the Battle School practiced memorized drills. Ender would have none of that. Instead he created a group of individuals who were capable of exercising individual initiative in interestingly unpredictable ways, while still maintain coordination with each other. This became the team which was able to finally defeat the buggers.

I liken this to being in a jazz band. I have played many kinds of music. Classical music requires that you follow the notes on the page, and add value through your phrasing, intonation, dynamics, etc. Anything else is a mistake.

Jazz is not like that. When you are playing with a jazz band, even if you are not soloing at the moment, you are nonetheless expected to improvise a little. Otherwise, you sound too robotic. And of course, when you are soloing, then the sky’s the limit. You want to do a key change? No problem, and others playing along with you had better be able to follow.

Thus, a member of a jazz band, like a member of Ender’s army, is expected to intelligently exercise individual initiative in the context of being part of a team. And the level of individual contribution is much higher with a jazz band than it is with, say, a string quartet. But nonetheless, what matters most is still the performance of the entire group, not the contribution of the individual member.

And that resonates with me. I very much want to be in a team like that, even if it means I have to create it myself. But I am not delusional: I am not Ender. I have yet to get a large group of people to follow me like he did. Perhaps someday, though.

Ekman

In my previous post entitled Lie to Me, I briefly discussed the show Lie to Me with Tim Roth. I have discovered that this show is not entirely fictional: There actually is a literal character who is similar to the Cal Lightman character from the show. That is, he co-discovered human micro-expressions and teaches others in the art and science of deception detection. This person is Dr. Paul Ekman.

I have looked at some of Dr. Ekman’s stuff. I have not taken any of his online classes, though. (They are quite pricey.) But I think I understand the science fairly well. What Dr. Ekman discovered was the following:

  • Dr. Ekman categorized and classified all human emotions, which are apparently completely universal.
  • Each human emotion has a corresponding facial expression. We are not taught this set of facial expressions, as humans know them regardless of whether they have had human contact. Thus, we have these expressions from birth. They are instinctive.

The conclusion is inescapable: In the area of emotions, at least, we are running a complex piece of software. We use our visual and auditory senses to observe others. This causes us to experience emotions, which are reflected on our faces. Others respond to those emotions, and so forth.

Each emotion is hardwired to a specific human expression. Thus, we are effectively born with a fairly complex system of communication.

I find this incredibly cool, actually.

AND??????

One of my dear old friends submitted a comment to my blog post I Am Not A Sinner which ended with:

AND???

In other words, what happened next? Good question. That’s the purpose of this blog post, to talk about the aftermath of my spiritual tsunami. I described the event itself in my earlier blog post (also annoyingly entitled I am not a Sinner, go figure).

Anyway, as I described earlier, I eventually came to the conclusion that the entire concept of religion is rather preposterous. The idea that the Creator of the universe with all of its wonder has an intimate relationship with me, in which He (She? It?) monitors my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. I mean, really.

After all, every spiritual experience I have ever had has been completely subjective. Can I really trust my own experience? I knew all too well how thoroughly I am capable of deceiving myself. I therefore decided to chuck the entire question of God as a meaningless, silly question with ultimately no answer at all.

Fundamentally, I finally understood that I am alone in the universe. That life actually has no purpose, meaning or significance. That I am, as the old song says, merely Dust in the Wind.

Now, that sounds depressing. Let me tell you: For me it was incredibly liberating.

An interesting side effect: I became much more humble. I know what you are thinking: There you go bragging about being humble.

No, not really.

You see, I now understand how truly broken I am. And how fundamentally I really know nothing. Nothing at all.

That’s the thing about doubt: Once I understood, I mean really understood at a gut level, that I really don’t know anything for sure, then my faith collapsed, and I became humbled.

Interestingly, faith made me kind of an asshole. I heard a piece on NPR once about a woman who wrote a novel in which the main character was someone she described as:

A white, wealthy, middle aged, conservative, Christian man who thinks he’s good but he’s not.

And why was he not good:

Because he had empathy for people like him, but no one else. People of his gender, race, religion, culture, social status, sexual orientation and political views. God forbid that he would ever talk to or treat a homosexual, feminist, Democrat, or such like a human being.

That was me. For me, faith was a form of hubris: I was completely and totally convinced that I was right, that there was an ultimate truth, and that I could know it. That I had the line on the truth, straight from the mouth of God.

That hubris has collapsed. In the process, I began to do things very differently.

Like a couple of weeks ago, when I was in San Francisco, I found myself sitting down on a park bench with homeless guys, and hanging with them for a while. I had some incredibly sweet conversations with really decent men, who were simply homeless. I have been homeless too. My momentary success, and apparent financial wealth, have simply served as a barrier between me and the homeless. Once I remembered how much we struggled when we were living in Texas during the 80s, I knew: I am not different from them. I am the same. Only our circumstances are different.

The barriers fell away. I became open to people I have never even considered talking to. Like a young, black, homosexual hairdresser from Vallejo who I met on the Muni. We became fast friends, exchanged emails and are still communicating. Before my tsunami, there is no way that I would ever become friends with someone that different from me. No problem now.

And of course there is my most important relationship: My marriage. At first, my wife resisted my spiritual journey. She wanted me to remain a Christian! However, I persisted. Now she constantly tells me that I am, by far, more loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, and sensitive than I have ever been. She would not go back to the old Jeff, that’s for sure!

The key, at least for me, was understanding that there actually is no purpose. That life has no ultimate meaning. That the quest for understanding and significance is another form of delusion. That all we have is this present moment, the very breath that I am taking as I write this.

This moment. Now. There is nothing else.

So, how shall I then live? Optimize the moment. Which for me is simple: Be as loving, empathetic, sensitive, and such as humanly possible. Allow my feelings to express themselves. If I am sad, allow the sadness to wash over me. Understand that it is simply a feeling. Like the weather, it will pass. And then there will be another feeling in that moment. And so on and so forth in a constant progression of moments.

Will I survive in some way when I die? I have no idea. The issue does not bother me though. I suspect that the software just stops running. That won’t be so bad. I certainly won’t be there to care about it.

Ultimately, in a few thousand years at most, I will be utterly forgotten. And then a few billion years after that, the Earth will be destroyed (by the Sun if nothing gets it first). If our species has not escaped from this rock by then, every single thing that every human being has ever known will be lost forever. And that includes me.

Shall I then by any action of mine affect the lifespan of the universe? Shall I somehow change the fate of all mankind? Doubtful.

I can then be free. I am free of religious delusions. I understand now at last who I am and what this life is all about. And that pleases me.

More later.

Empathy

Empathy is an interesting thing. It causes me to behave in a way that seems at first glance to be against my own self interest. But it is?

I have been pondering this. Empathy is at the core of what makes us human. We are so social, as social as any creature on the planet. And we are fairly unique in having empathy.

One guy I love to listen to is Jeremy Rifkin, who talks about empathy a lot. As Rifkin points out, empathy is something we are quite selective about. We tend to have more empathy for some folks than others. In the beginning, humans really only had empathy for their own family group, and regarded all other humans as hostile. (Paleolithic humans still live in pretty much this same way today.) These humans had tremendous empathy for their own family members. But for others, not so much.

Enter religion. As Rifkin points out, religion gave humans a way to expand their empathy set: By identifying another creature as being part of my religious group, I get to have more empathy for that person. I have seen this play out in my own life and the life of my family. For example, there was recently a flood in our area, and some folks we knew lost everything. My wife and I know these people because of religious affiliations from the past. As a result, we gave them clothes, food, etc. Another family down the street who was not in our religious group, we did not even care to look in on them.

So, this family is inside our empathy set, which is defined, at least in part, by religion.

Given that empathy causes me to give away things I need and make other sacrifices, the question is: How did empathy arise in human consciousness? I think I have an answer for that one.

Assume a proto-humanoid male is in the rain forest in some ancient time. He has an interesting mutation: He has developed what Rifkin calls “mirror neurons”. That is, when he sees another creature who he identifies as being like him who is having some kind of experience (say intense pain), his neurons light up in exactly the same manner as the creature who is suffering. In this way, this individual experiences (to a certain extent) the suffering of the other creature.

This causes our male humanoid (we will call him Lim) to suffer more than other humans around him. But he is also able to relate to the experiences of other humans better.

One day he comes upon a female. She is badly hurt! Her ankle is seriously twisted and bruised. She cannot walk at all. Worse, she has been stranded here for some time. She is very hungry, thirsty, and tired.

He finds that he feels some of her distress as well. He ponders what he has done when he has been in a similar situation. Suddenly, he has a remarkable idea. He will bring her food! So he goes to a place where he knows there are some ripe berries, and uses a large leaf to carry a bunch of these back to the female. She hungrily devours them with great joy.

Then he goes to the river and after some fumbling finds a hollow gourd that he fills with water. Again, she receives the water gratefully.

Finally, he lies down beside her and cuddles with her for warmth. In this manner, they fall asleep together.

The next day, she is feeling much better. She finds that she likes him, so they have sex. She continues to enjoy his company, so she stays with him, and they have several children, which inherit this odd mutation. Because these young children are able to exercise this new-found ability to form empathetic bonds, they make exceptionally good mates, and they easily find a partner, and in turn reproduce again.

And so on and so forth, until the entire human race runs on empathy.

Remember this, please: Evolution encourages one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Whatever improves the chances of reproduction (including the rearing of competent, viable adult offspring who can in turn reproduce) will be selected by evolution. Thus, although empathy seems to be against my best interests (in the sense of material belongings, time, etc.) it dramatically improves my chances of reproducing. In this way, the development of empathy is fairly obvious.

More later.

Evolving Culture

I have been kicking around the question of how culture evolved. Near as I can tell, this is the mechanism, but please let me know if you have another view.

Basically, human beings are general purpose computing machines. I have pointed this out previously. That distinguishes us from other species on the planet, for sure. No other species is even remotely close to us in terms of demonstrated abilities to solve problems.

We refer to this as human consciousness. Our ability to think, reason, debate, justify, rationalize and so forth. I call this the Human Consciousness Program (HCP), which I liken to a piece of software.

Turns out other organisms on this planet are running bits of genetic software too. Take for example the worms that infect the brains of ants. These nasty little buggers manipulate the ants’ thinking patterns, and basically force them to imitate a berry. This in the hope that birds will eat these poor ants, become infected with the worms themselves, and allow the worms to complete the next phase of their life cycle.

While all this is incredibly bizarre, it points out that the ant is simply running a piece of software, which the worm has cleverly learned to hack. (I say cleverly in slight jest, because calling these particular organisms worms is rather charitable: They don’t even have a brain.)

So, assume for the moment that all of the various organisms on this planet (especially the ones that tend to move around and do stuff) are simply running bits and pieces of software of varying levels of complexity and sophistication. Thus, a lobster has (likely) a bit less in terms of software than a dog. Each of these bits of software lets the organism do what it needs to survive and reproduce. Otherwise, of course, that software wouldn’t be there. Because, again, evolution only promotes one thing: Reproduction. Thus, the lobster is very good at doing all of the things a lobster needs to do in order to eat, excrete, rest, defend itself, and find a mate. It has all of the software it needs to do so, and so does the dog.

Now, with humans, the organism took an interesting direction. We have the ability to find food, and adapt our eating patterns to exploit that food, in virtually every single environment on this planet. Thus, the Inuit are a paleolithic hunter/gatherer culture that exists to this day in places like the Alaska North Slope, deep into the Arctic. The Inuit survive almost entirely on things like whale blubber. Likewise, the Khoisan live in places like the Kalahari Desert in Sub-Saharan Africa. These two environments are as different as is possible on this planet while still being above the ocean’s surface, and yet human life has managed to thrive in both of these locations.

How is this possible? No other species has achieved even remotely so great a penetration of this planet. The answer, I believe, is that human consciousness allowed us as an organism to problem solve in each potential location. To figure out through a process of intelligence how to take the organisms that live in that space, exploit them, make them edible, and survive in that place.

This is what we call cuisine: The use of locally-appropriate ingredients to make food that humans can enjoy and thrive on. We have many regional cuisines, and they are each appropriate and adapted to the local conditions of that area (assuming they have not been wildly distorted by modern processed foods).

Thus a form of culture (cuisine) is what we have used to become the dominant species on this planet, at least in terms of dietary choices. Culture is the key: Through the use of culture (and that includes things like modern technology), we have managed to exploit the resources of this world.

Now, follow me here. Assume there is a general purpose organism loose on this world. This organism has the ability to exploit pretty much any environment on the planet. It simply figures out how to live in that area, using locally available resources. In this way, this organism spreads and thrives everywhere. Would this not become the dominant species on the planet?

More later.

Transformational Thinking

The Human Consciousness Programm perhaps could be compared to the personality, but the HCP also includes all of the autonomic stuff, like sensory processing. I was playing with this a bit today while walking. I do a 2 mile loop most days with my dog, Diogee. While we were walking, I was playing with my sensory perception functions. Like switching awareness to the visual: Focus on that for a while, and notice how I can focus on different things, and how other things fade into the background when I do so. Similarly, switch my awareness to my hearing, and notice how I can focus my attention on a bird. Or there! That’s Diogee walking beside me. Or the sounds of my own footsteps. Or the sounds of my own breathing. And now switch to the emotional state. Ahhh! I have some anxiety going on. What is that about? OK, I need to pay some bills.

Again, thinking about thinking, as broadly as possible, and especially if I include things like emotions and sensory awareness in the generic term “thinking”. All while engaging the “Watcher”, or unbiased, nonjudgmental observer, as the yoga crowd likes to call it. The part of me that can observe myself.

I was pondering how similar this approach is to Christianity in many ways. For example, while I utterly reject the idea of sin, listening intently to my own thoughts makes me acutely aware of my own dysfunction. I definitely know that I am far from perfect, which is certainly consistent with the idea of sin. Also, the act of reprogramming is very similar to repentance. After all, the Greek word translated as “repent” in the NT literally means to turn down another path, or to change your mind. Repentance never really worked for me very well, though. I have analyzed why it didn’t, and near as I can tell, due to the cultural issues within Christianity, I was focused on the wrong things. Like sex, once again.

I was immediately told after I got saved about how bad sexual lust is, and how I should never, ever masturbate. This from all of my male Christian single friends. I, like the lemming I am, immediately take a solemn oath with my buddy to never masturbate again, ever. Broke that one within 24 hours, with great condemnation. This thing had me balled up for years, during which I made no real progress spiritually. All this negative energy about masturbation and male heterosexual desire, generally.

Eventually, I figure out that all of my male single Christian friends were masturbating just as much as I was, and were all just as condemned. And the message from the pulpit only made it worse! I was actually invited to seminars where I could be set free from masturbation!

Of course, that’s all bollocks. Masturbation is something I should keep private but certainly not condemn myself for. It is a harmless and healthy release, after all. And sexual desire is a great thing overall. I wouldn’t be here without it! So deciding that a basic autonomic response like sexual desire is somehow “sinful” doesn’t help me at all. Although I have no doubt that my male single Christian friends were well-meaning, they were obviously just as deluded as I was, and the culture was keeping them just as immobilized. This example is one of the most glaring, but there were many others.

In order to help me spot things that are broken inside me, I basically set up a watcher to keep track of my emotions and to tell me if I am feeling anything negative, like resentment, sadness, sullenness, loneliness, or fear. Once I spot that, I go after what’s driving it. Generally, given enough time and thought, I can figure it out. Almost always, there is some form of selfishness or greed behind it. Like insecurity over Ruth leaving me. That’s really my selfish little greedy desire to keep her with me. Fear over the impact on my life if she were to leave me, etc. Not wanting to have to endure the pain, discomfort and stress of a break-up. And so forth.

Solution: Understand and accept that Ruth can leave me if she likes. She is perfectly free to do so, and there is nothing that I can do to directly prevent it. I do not own her, regardless of what the Marriage contract might say. Would it be painful if she left me? Definitely. Would I survive? Very likely. Would it make the slightest difference in the lifespan of the universe? None at all. And, after all, I don’t even know if I am going to take my next breath. So how does creating a stressful emotion like insecurity help either me or Ruth? Am I not simply detracting from both our joy, peace and happiness by surrendering to a parasite emotion like insecurity?

And it’s all about stressing about the future, anyway. Which, again, does not exist. Worrying about the future is meaningless. (Not to say that I do not need to be responsible and make plans: I do. That’s different from fear, worry or stress, though.)

How then shall I live? First, by loving Ruth as unselfishly and purely as possible, I will be a person she wants to be with. My insecurity and persistent need to be constantly reassured sure as *&^# won’t do that! Instead, I will cultivate an attitude of quiet, humble confidence. I will aspire to be a person who will lend to her joy, peace and happiness. I will enjoy the present moment that I am spending right now in her presence, and cherish the journey that brought this amazing creature to me.

So, by carefully and methodically listening to my own thoughts, I am trying to become a better person. Inherent in that process, though, is a sense of humility. The more I get inside my head, the more aware I become of my own imperfections and need to be more empathic. How broken and selfish I am. And, hopefully, I make some progress in the quest to become more selfless and empathic in the process. Again, a similarity to taking on the mind of Christ from the Christian perspective.

Of course, there is no end state. This process will keep going on for the rest of my life.

More later.

Sexual Programming

In my last post, I indicated that I would let my readers in on what happened when I deconstructed the Marriage Module, and made some modifications. I will do that, but, as I have been taking a bit of heat lately, I thought it would help to review, once more, the terms of the experiment.

All scientific experiments start with a hypothesis. That is a statement which will turn out to be true (and proven) if the experiment is a success. Otherwise, the hypothesis will either be false or unproven. Got it? OK, then, here is the hypothesis:

Although Human Consciousness evolved, it developed in a manner which makes it very similar to a piece of software. Thus, it has the ability to process, store and retrieve data, and perform certain calculations. Essentially, Human Consciousness is a mechanism, a natural phenomenon, with  discrete properties and capabilities, and these can be studied by a careful, meticulous observer, simply by listening to the thoughts in one’s head.

The experimental procedure, then: I will listen, carefully and often, to my own thoughts. In the process of doing this, I will discover some interesting insights about the nature of human consciousness, and record them in this blog.

I have been told that this is pseudo-science. I submit that this is as valid an experiment as any. I do not have access to a large lab like the one that will be used by the Human Connectome Project, which was the beneficiary of a major federal initiative recently. Certainly, the goal of this project is very similar to mine: To understand the nature of human consciousness. In the case of the HCP, they will use neuron mapping technology to fully explore and understand the hardware (wetware?) of the human brain.

My approach is different: I am going after the software. Given that the human brain is effectively a general purpose computer, understanding the hardware is of some value, certainly. But the real intelligence is always in the software. It is possible that the HCP may crack that too. But I submit that it will eventually take an approach like mine where folks sit around and think about what they are thinking (possibly combined with neuron mapping) to get into the nitty gritty of how the software of Human Consciousness really works.

At any rate, the only inner consciousness I have direct access to is mine. And this is something I decided to do, crazy as it seems. Certainly, my recorded impressions of my own brain’s activities is valid experimental data. Completely subjective, to be sure. But recorded by a person who is reasonably careful and meticulous.

At the end of the day, all of this is really about me. That’s why all of my messages in this blog are in the first person. I am journalling here. Understand clearly that I do not necessarily agree with myself all of the time. So here goes.

Now, in terms of what happened when I deconstructed the Marriage Module, like I said last time, that one is interesting. One aspect of my Marriage Module is that it contained an assumption that I had some form of ownership or control over my wife in the area of sex. There is actually support for this in the bible. 1 Cor. 7:4 states:

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.

Now, given that I supposedly have authority over my wife’s body, then I could somehow enforce that authority and force her to have sex with me. Right?

The way this was working out for me was not so good. When I became aroused and my wife did not want to engage, then I would become sullen and resentful. This made me a not nice person. And it caused my wife to be turned off in the area of sex. Not good. I was actually sabotaging myself!

I decided this was bad programming. So I rewrote it. I decided in my own mind (and communicated to my wife) the following new terms for our sexual relationship:

  • I want to empower my wife to enjoy herself sexually to the maximum extent possible for her. As much sexual enjoyment as she wants, and no more.
  • Thus, I completely set my wife free from all sexual expectations from me. If sex is not delightful today, then we will not have sex. (And I am absolutely OK with that.) We will cuddle, hold hands, gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, or whatever. Emotional intimacy, in other words. Most importantly, intimacy which is not linked to sex, which is the type of intimacy that I learned that my wife craves.
  • Also, I had a frenetic sense of anxiety about my own performance. This was because I was effectively impotent for about six years of our relationship, due to some serious complications from a major health problem in my own life. Amazingly, my wife did not leave me during this period, nor was she unfaithful to me. In my mind, that makes her one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Anyway, I decided in my own mind (and communicated to my wife) that I surrender all anxiety about my sexual performance. I don’t care if I respond or not. It’s like worrying about the weather anyway. Whatever happens, happens, and I will enjoy that.

Once I got these ideas across to my wife, the response was absolutely stunning. Our relationship is doing better than it ever has. Wonderful!

This is one of the first modules I tweaked. I discovered a few things along the way on this one. First, the reprogramming only works when I face the truth of whatever dysfunction or delusion I am dealing with at the moment. Also, the change must be sincere on my part. There is no way that I can fake this. Otherwise, it simply doesn’t work.

Also, I am not suggesting this is a panacea for all human ills. It has helped me greatly though, and as I have said before, I would not want to go back to the way I was before. No, thank you!

More later.