essay philosophy

Empathy and Equality

The concept of social justice, coupled with widening awareness of the egregious injustice that often exists in the world, occupies our public discourse more and more; the proposition that all of us deserve equity in treatment, opportunity, and rights simply by virtue of being human, and that a fair and just society is laudable and desirable, seems intuitive and natural – after all, you’d find very few people, particularly in democratic societies, who would openly disagree with these sentiments. But far from being “natural”, fairness is radical, and distinctly human.

We are fundamentally creatures of biology, which is to say, our genes are generally a major determinant of the life we end up living. Evolution drives the natural world, which is mercilessly efficient in preserving only the best-adapted genes: survival of the fittest directs life, not morality or justice. In spite of this, one could argue that a trend we see in our millennia-long history is an escape from genetic destiny – humans have flourished because of many non-hereditary factors, including technology and culture, and we have gradually minimized the importance of our genes to survival.

books notes philosophy wellness

7½ Lessons for the Brain, Barrett (2020)

Study notes for this short, pithy book about the brain, our relationship with it, and the nature of reality.

½ Your Brain is Not for Thinking

Your brain’s most important job is not thinking; it is to control your body – to manage allostasis – ie. predicting and preparing to meet the body’s energy needs (prediction beats reaction in nature) before they arise, so you can efficiently make worthwhile movements and survive. Your brain is the command center that supervises, regulates, and protects the systems and subsystems that comprise your entire body.

1. You Have One Brain (not Three)

Paul MacLean’s three-layered brain – neocortex (rational), limbic (emotional), lizard (survival) – is a modern myth that persists in popular culture because of its accessibility and our ego; the conflict between the rational and the emotional is based on this belief. However, this is not borne out by science – the rational/emotional dichotomy is a false one – there is only one brain, and its rational behavior consists of making a good body-budgeting investment in a given situation.

2. Your Brain is a Network

A network (a tree-like structure of neurons, synapses, dendrites, axons, etc.) is the best scientific description of a brain today – a physical structure that is capable of reconfiguring itself (often very quickly) to integrate vast amounts of information efficiently. The brain is considered a complex system, able to configure itself into an enormous number of distinct neural patterns. It is capable of degeneracy – almost like redundancy, instead of the same set of neurons being responsible for a certain action, different sets of neurons are capable of this task. Complex brains remember more, are more creative and adaptable, and are also more resilient to injury. Note that other species on Earth also have brains with high complexity.

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Mistakes Were Made, Tavris, Aronson, 3rd ed. (2020)

Study notes for a favorite read this year, a book on cognitive dissonance theory (the rest of the title: But Not By Me) – something all of us will recognize once explained; applications to past and recent history (mostly omitted below); and more rewarding strategies. We live in a world that often seems chaotic and unordered, particularly when it comes to living and dealing with others; an insight like this helps us see order in the chaos, makes it appear less random, and empowers us to contemplate change.

Cognitive Dissonance

There are two kinds of lies, one conscious, where the liar sees the lie for what it is, a deliberate distortion of truth; and the other, made noble through self-justification, so that the lie ceases to become one. The second kind is the result of cognitive dissonance: when someone holds two contradictory views – usually a self-concept, such as “I am a sensible, competent person”, vs a piece of new information, such as “I just spent a lot of time on something worthless and silly”. Because it hurts so much to change our view of ourselves, we resort to ego-preservation, and change the other view instead, and suddenly, the worthless and silly thing rises in our estimation – we justify it by distorting it in some way – actually, it was meaningful to me and I’m glad I did it. Dissonance theory predicts that we ask ourselves: is the new information consonant with my belief?

essay film social

Violence Culture

Like much of the connected world, this month became an extended media binge for me. The packaging of violence as entertainment is something, once drawn to my attention years ago, I’ve tried to be more conscious of, especially the last few weeks. Fictional violence is escapist and thrilling, inevitable and commonplace, and something I increasingly have mixed feelings about.

Violence is in our DNA, central to our myth: this country was forged in the crucible of conflict, and the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms in a way that few other nations do. It bathes our history with wars won, numerous and major, just and improper, that place us in world preeminence and shape a sense of destiny, but also smaller wars, individual and domestic, chronicled and private, that fracture cohesion and make us more fragile. We fetishize violence by worshiping its tools and trivializing it in culture, depicting it indiscriminately across our screens for entertainment, where nonsensical body counts minimize death and render it inconsequential and irrelevant, demeaning actual tragedy and suffering. While violence in nature is wielded in primal, small scale struggle for survival, whether hunting for prey, defending the group, or competing for a mate, today’s firearms embrace an unnatural, rapacious capacity for destruction and effortless carnage that the founding fathers could never have foreseen. 

And yet, violence between humans has been decreasing; deaths due to armed conflict have been replaced by deaths in civilian hospital beds, with the military death rate falling tenfold in the last fifty years. We’ve decided we want less of its destabilizing and traumatic effects, and more education, economic growth, and higher living standards instead; the intentional homicide rate in the US almost halved in the last twenty years alone, while around the world, literacy rates quadrupled last century. We might feel differently about our virtual reality, but we desire less violence IRL, not more. Yes, humans are designed to survive in the natural world, and aggression is part of our physical and mental make-up, but putative proxies such as sports do exist in modern times (with even the idea of sportsmanship to accommodate civility in competition). Much has been written about these trends and why we should be optimistic about the future, and it seems safe to say much of the world is on a general trajectory towards greater peace, with a bias to broadening justice by lessening inequity and unnecessary suffering: witness the recognition of gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality over the last century, and the growing awareness of animal rights – the untold collateral suffering that our tidy supermarket packaging obscures – within the rise of the plant-based food movement. We’ll see if this continues, but the direction of recent history is difficult to dispute: less is more when it comes to violence.

books essay philosophy

Self as Story

I recently read Conscious (2019) by Annaka Harris, a delightfully short, fascinating overview of the current state of consciousness research, philosophy and science, a field of inquiry relatively new to me. The following (and in all likelihood, quite unoriginal) random ideas came up.

The exact nature of consciousness is a topic for endless discussion; from my simple vantage point, I’ll just equate it to an awareness of being, which some might call the self. My initial, rather straightforward thought leans towards consciousness as an attribute of our brain, a hack or construct used to build a cohesive narrative (possibly including post-fact rationalization) around events – at their most basic level, sensory stimuli – for the evolutionary purpose of helping us remember and learn. “I” is the first building block of memory, letting us bring literal order to randomness through narrative capture. Stories harness space and time (the mnemonic method of loci comes to mind), and subsequent analysis and rumination, whether real-time or deliberate, facilitates “learning” – the generation of ideas and new behavior in the service of actual self-preservation. At a fundamental level, consciousness lets us process information, translate this into action, and create change. 

Over time, the advent of language helped humans shape this vague abstraction, conceptualize a self to construct narratives both individual and collective around, and create culture: inherited behavior. One could argue that language is critical for the very idea of our selves, indeed, for the voice inside our heads to be able to say anything at all. We are predisposed to narratives, convenient templates that wrangle meaning from chaos, a predilection that sometimes gets us in trouble – Tyler Cowen, in fact, cautions us about the unreliability of story – perhaps our propensity to create stories developed as evolutionary advantage and was the original purpose of self. Stories become history and memory, and it’s easy to speculate that beyond learning, memory also grants the self a persistent existence in a reinforcing virtuous cycle of sorts.

All this would imply that physical death is the termination of consciousness, as a property of the physical body. Consciousness as illusion and the role of emotions and our thoughts appear to be orthogonal issues – what matters here is that the presence of consciousness conveys a significant survivability benefit by allowing us to learn from past events.

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Winners Take All , Anand Giridharadas (2018)

Subtitled The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas eloquently explores the belief system and myths the elite class uses to justify the status quo; through reporting, anecdote, surveying what others have written, and personal experience, he argues that the path forward lies in fixing our democracy and strengthening our political institutions. This was a favorite read last year on a topic I hadn’t thought about much before, and it helped crystallize and shape into words the vague unease I’d had about the genre of self-improvement and pop-psych books, TED talks, and other things of a similar nature; brief chapter highlights follow.

A very much-related but broader cultural take is Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap.

But How is the World Changed?

It often seems that the only way to change the world is to become part of the system that the rich and powerful have built, and employ the problem-solving techniques that the system espouses, which drive its worldview: measure, analyze, optimize, solve. Giridharadas calls this MarketWorld, a prized new phrase of mine: the “enlightened” elite that aims to do good while still profiting from the status quo and free market, and includes the network and community of so-called thought leaders, the Goldman Sachs, McKinsey-ites and others of their ilk.

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Right Size: Keyboards

We live in a time where avenues for personal exploration and expression have never been greater: in a similar vein to when I was investigating smaller sizing options for pianos, I recently started looking at another kind of keyboard. Computer keyboards are still the default entry device for the digital world we live in, and chances are, you used one today. The mechanical keyboard space has many hobbyist fans and benefits from an innovative, tech-native community; given my experience with the Steinbuhler piano keyboard, I leaned in the direction of smaller form factors and better efficiency. And keyboards have been shrinking over time: the only keyboard I used when working was on the company-issued laptop, while the last full-sized keyboard I can remember seeing on a desktop was an entire decade ago.

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Right Size: Pianos

There is no one size fits all when it comes to shoes: no one would pay for shoes that don’t fit, and compared with only having to cater for shoes in only one size, creating shoes in a range of sizes costs manufacturers a good deal more. They do this because having one size means only a small group of people is able to enjoy and use the product the way it was intended, and as a result, fewer shoes would be sold.

This doesn’t apply to pianos though – keyboards only come in one size, and if your hand doesn’t happen to fit, you’re out of luck. This state of affairs discriminates against those with smaller hands, and the struggle against ergonomics these pianists persevere through to play the instrument they love is something those with larger hands don’t experience. You were simply out of luck – until relatively recently.

I was grateful to discover David Steinbuhler’s smaller keyboards four years ago – in keeping with his philosophy, he offers not just one, but four alternate sizes with increasingly narrower keys – and when I first received my upright, I never enjoyed playing music so much. Everything was unprecedented: I was doing things on the piano I’d never been able to do before – in particular, playing previously impossible chords cleanly – and doing the things I’d done before felt more effortless and natural.

DS5.5 keyboard on my Walter studio upright – note the large empty blocks on either side, space which would normally be taken up by keys on a bigger, regulation-size keyboard. Steinbuhler partners with Walter to produce upright pianos with his keyboards you can order from his website, which I’m incredibly thankful for, and how I got mine.

Over time, you accept that the world is a certain way, but in the age we’re fortunate to live in, suddenly Lasik comes around and changes your perception of life forever – or a piano that fits your hands arrives, and profoundly transforms your ability to create and enjoy music.

Update: David tells me their company became a non-profit a couple of years ago, and is dedicated to furthering awareness and adoption of alternative keyboards; in addition, the growing movement and community has a website, which is a comprehensive resource for anyone wanting to find out more, including information on piano manufacturers and technicians.

books notes wellness

The Obesity Code (2016), Jason Fung

I read this at the end of 2018, and it galvanized me on a path of personal change and continual learning about health and wellness. That space has exploded in recent years, especially in the age of podcasts and social media we’re in, and there’s been more research since, but this book was my trailblazer, and what follows are some notes – by a non-physician and neophyte to the material, so keep that caveat in mind – I made for myself back then.

Just educating myself a little more about how our bodies – the most important thing we have – function, felt empowering, and it was also surprising, given what I thought I knew already. I still find it somewhat shocking that fasting, something that barely crosses our minds, so simple as to be banal, can be so transformative. The Diabetes Code, by the same author, is similarly excellent.

Obesity as an epidemic is recent, only materializing in the last generation. It began in the 1950’s, as a function of increased life expectancy: the average age of the first heart attack is 66 years, and more people were reaching this age. Cholesterol was thought to cause heart disease, and dietary fat was thought to increase cholesterol, so physicians advocated lower-fat diets, which in turn increased carbohydrate intake. In 1977, a government committee (not a committee of physicians) introduced the Food Pyramid, advocating less fat and more carbohydrates, and the rates of obesity started increasing from that very year. Because refined carbohydrates couldn’t be both good (low in fat) and bad (fattening), it was decided that they weren’t fattening, and instead, excess calories were to blame.

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The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits

I read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All over the holidays, which I enjoyed immensely. This led me to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap in the new year, which delves in the same broad pasture, but adopts a more academic bent and broader brush, surveying history, social science and economics. I’ve tried to summarize what I think the main ideas are, mingling a paraphrasing of the book with a few of my own thoughts, along with some ideas from the first book. Both are well worth your time, imho.

I was recently thinking about why I do what I do, and inevitably, the idea of money crossed my mind. Money incentivizes activity, all kinds of activity – it motivates us collectively and as individuals, to move and then stay in motion. Perhaps much of this activity is not broadly meaningful, but a small percentage probably is, and that is enough to move civilization forward, step by step or large leaps at a time – inventions, ideas, scientific discoveries, processes, systems. As a catalyst for progress at scale, it’s hard to beat. Money is the reason that capitalism, an economic system where production exists to generate profit for the owners of capital, and the basis for the most powerful economy on earth, can exist – it establishes a direct conduit between incentives, action, and reward.

Capitalism in turn, drives the culture of meritocracy that is the foundation for so much of our economy today. My reading of meritocracy: a culture where individuals are explicitly compensated according to actual “value”, or impact on a firm’s bottom line. In a capitalist system based on production, it is contribution to profit and productivity that ultimately accrues the highest rewards, and this explains the extravagant pay of CEOs compared to other employees, made possible by how much technology has amplified the leverage of management within a company. Technology enables scale in many facets of production, and when used with capitalist intent, becomes a key component of today’s meritocracy and an enabler for wealth concentration. In my view, capitalism (money as incentive), technology (and education), and the meritocratic culture amplify and feed each other, a “virtuous” cycle of sorts.