Category Archives: Essays

Goalless endeavors

My friend Carl and I recently had a short conversation about zen meditation. He brought up some points that all basically referred to the end goal of meditation: health and mindfulness benefits, etc. To which I replied that meditation is necessarily a goalless endeavor. Yes, meditating will make you think clearer and harmonize your body with your mind and all that, but if you go into meditation trying to do these things, then you will not achieve these things. That’s the paradox of meditation. And here’s a quick psychoanalytical explanation of why I think that is from a paper:

The “self” and the “ego” must not be confused to be the same. Instead we must understand the ego to be an element within the self, a device for the self’s cognition. The self creates a cognitive framework in which the ego may recognize (re-cognize) self from non-self, in which the ego may create its home, thereby completing the individual’s identity in what Levinas calls the “I.” The ego moves outward toward the world in understanding, adequating the world around it and reducing other to same: thus the ego is the totalizing element within the self. In order to totalize, the ego must be self-referential, it must return to itself in its process of adequation; thus the ego assumes a teleological structure.

This teleological structure is exactly the same as any goal-oriented task. You say “I want to accomplish X, and I will do Y to get it.” After doing Y, you have X. This posits the end, X, before acting out Y, thus it is teleological. This structure is absolutely related to the totalizing movement of the ego, so it could be called an egoism, for better or for worse.

Our society largely follows this general teleological trend, which may have been why Carl wasn’t used to the idea of a goalless endeavor (which he admitted to). Now, I’ve been doing zazen meditation for 4 years, and I’ve studied the Japanese Kyoto School of philosophy, so I should have a good understanding of this idea. Today I meditated for the first time in about 6 or 8 weeks, and I noticed that my mind was racing, all over the place. You’re supposed to let go of your thoughts, but I couldn’t – they just kept racing, it was terrible. Reflecting on that later, I realized what happened: I had been so entrenched in goal-oriented thinking (eg. programming, problem solving, generally trying to figure out life) over the past few weeks that my mind had conditioned itself to work teleologically: I was constraining my thinking to a known end goal. As soon as I removed that end goal by meditating, my mind unleashed it’s pent-up creative chaos and went every which way.

This release is a great thing! Since this morning, I’ve had a few good ideas relating to a paper I’m writing, and I’ve been super productive. But I have two important points to make:

  1. Even if we have an intellectual understanding of this goal-oriened framework and the downsides that come with it, the natural tendency of our ego is to revert back to it. The ego is a powerful structure in the psyche, it’s quite overbearing at times, and it takes continual practice to let it go. This is something that meditation accomplishes. Regression is possible: if you stop meditating, you may go back to egoism. And, because it is so powerful, it tends to manifest itself in multiple layers of our society, from the way we structure businesses (greed and power) to the way we approach relationships (why are you really friends with/dating this person? for the things you get out of it?).
  2. The mind is decidedly not consumed by the ego. It can release the ego when necessary, such as during meditation, or during the pop-psychology state of “flow.” And, when the mind is not consumed by the ego, it is allowed to freely produce. It can be creative to its fullest capacity. The immense ability for creativity is one of humanity’s greatest assets and something that should be sought after. Ay, this egoless, creative state, achievable and practicable via meditation, certainly should be valued.

I’m not saying meditation is the only way to go about egolessness, but it is a quite effective one, with little barrier to entry. Martial arts, painting and drawing, practicing mathematics, reading literature, playing sports; these can all be goalless endeavors.

Takeaway from the Thiel Under20 Summit: Incredible things can quite certainly be done

If there’s one thing to take away from last weekend’s Under20 Summit, it’s that incredible things can quite certainly be done. While working on a creative project, you undoubtedly come to a point where you don’t know whether or not what you’re working on will succeed. Panic, mild depression, and whole-days spent in bed ensue. However, when you meet people that have already worked through those blocks and met with success, you realize that… they’re just people. If they’ve done it, then so can you.

The interesting thing is that reality is negotiable. There is a certain way that the world works, and that’s great. But it’s not ideal—there’s always room for improvement. Being an entrepreneur and a creator means to envision a grand improvement, and then work your ass off to find a way to bring reality closer to your vision. It’s a battle, for sure, but worth the wounds in the end.

My two favorite talks: Matt Scholz and Josh Whiton

I’ll be honest, those were the only two talks I went to. But I selected those talks for very specific reasons.

Scholz talked about his experience going from computer science to biotech as he started his company, Immusoft. What struck me most was his genuine personality. I loved sitting outside in the grass, talking with him about everything from recent biotech research to his adventures partying in Ibiza, Spain. I envy his ability to switch in a moment from esoteric talk about protein decoupling to laughing and joking with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. People that can do that sort of thing are the type of people you should strive to be like.

Whiton’s talk was recommended to me my John Marbach. He spoke about his experience bootstrapping his bus location-tracking company by funding his technology with early sales. Since I’m only 19 years old, it’s not easy to conjure up venture capital for a biotech company. So, I plan to bootstrap my venture with sales, thereby validating and learning my business as I go. Whiton is a soft-spoken guy with a rational sense about him, which I highly respect. He also eats paleo, which is cool.

Great youngins to watch out for

I didn’t get a chance to meet everyone I wanted to meet, but these are the few that made a strong impression on me, and the ones that I think you should watch out for because they’ll be doing great things soon:

Rebecca Kantar – Rebecca’s got a phenomenally vivid sense of life that comes out in the way she talks about and runs her projects. She’s the CEO of the Minga Group and BrightCo, and has a pretty cool TED talk, linked above.

Max Lamb – Max and my startup team got to hang out for a while and walk around Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. He’s a chill kid with some good ideas and a strong sense for what he really wants as opposed to the bullshit society throws at you. He’s working at a biotech startup right now. Check out his recap of biotech at the Under20 Summit.

Dune Harman – This guy was the social arbiter of the whole thing. He knew almost everyone. On top of that, he knew who I should meet and why (he spoke highly of and introduced me to Emily Peck, another very smart attendee). Watch out for when he puts on his own events, because they will of course be incredible events with incredible attendees.

Carl Shan – I met up with Carl at the Udemy offices, where he’s working on their growth team. Carl’s got a great sense of who he is and what he wants working for Udemy and elsewhere. I can see any project he leads becoming successful, just because of how helpful and personable he is

Of course, there were a few people that slipped under my radar, probably because I didn’t get a chance to talk with them for too long. If you’re one of those kids, shoot me an email, I’d love to hear from you.

Occupy Wall Street: Fallacies and Misconceptions

Occupy Wall Street October 1st

You’d have to be living in a cave if you still haven’t heard of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. After numerous conversations with friends about the protests, I’ve decided to write this article. I’ll cover the origin of the protests, what the protesters stand for and want (as hard as that is to discern), the logic of their claims, and considerations for whether or not you should join their movement.

I’ll do my best to present the logic in clear terms. Remember, I’m a skeptical empiricist, and that should come out in my writing and analysis. Don’t confuse skepticism for a bias. After the logic is laid bare, I would implore you to use your full capacity for reason to come to your own, well-informed conclusion. At that point, it’s up to you to decide whether to accept or reject reason. Continue reading

Pride and Cosmopolitanism

Colourful army

Around 170 A.D., Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.” Even in religion, “pride” is listed as the most detrimental of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride is the insidious parasite that sidles into your consciousness when, as Marcus said, you believe too strongly that the work you do is all-important. Examples from history abound: Maximilien Robespierre, after spearheading the French Revolution and sending the royal family to the guillotine, tried to push his deistic beliefs—“the Cult of the Supreme Being”—on the French citizenry, and was promptly sent to the guillotine himself; Cyrus the Younger, in an attempt to usurp the title King of Persia from his brother, Ataxerxes II, was slain by his own blood in a civil war; Louis Borders, co-founder of Borders Bookstores, had all the money, investors, and connections needed to create a successful online grocery delivery service, but Webvan nonetheless failed in plain view, in fact voted the largest dot-com flop in history by CNET.

“Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.”
Marcus Aurelius

The common thread among all of the above examples is the extreme sense of pride that one’s ambitions could not possibly go awry. Every failure believes that they are meant to be doing the work they’re consumed by; and if they fail—no, when they fail—they fail in grandiose fashion.

This is the thought that occupies the back of my mind as people talk of “American Pride.” I’m sure al-Qaeda had pride in the job they did on September 11th. Who’s to say that their pride is wrong and ours is right? Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals obviously comes to mind: “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself.’” This “slave morality”—Is it not the same morality that says No to those races that are different from ours? Is it not the same morality that condemned “colored people” for centuries? Is it not the same morality that manifests in the typical portrayal of “pride in one’s country”?

“…slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself.’”
—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

I’ve always observed that the overwhelming majority of people don’t know why they do or think what they do or think, and this is obviously the case in how Muslims are portrayed in the media. Maybe this is just the macro manifestation of a mob mentality gone completely apeshit crazy over a threat to their precious pride: the reporters need a story, and the American Pride is always a good headline, so even now, ten years after the threat, we rejoice over the loss of a life, we celebrate over the murder of a man of our own species. Or perhaps this is the kind of anti-cosmopolitan world we live in: whenever there is an inter-race conflict, the media will serve as cheerleaders to our cause, as a rallying point for our narcissistic, head-phone-wearing, screen-staring, detached generation that won’t dare to step outside its cultural vacuum.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can find a thought leader that has actually studied the classical philosophies and histories—not simply trained to smile in front of audiences and preach hope—and appreciates, no, affirms and embraces the cultural diversity that will collide with our generation like a plane into a building.

Let’s instead take a step back and learn from the man that wrote the book on cultural synergy, Cosmopolitanism. In the following clip from Examined Life, Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about how to reconcile clashing cultural customs with ever-growing globalization. I beg of you, watch the video, and then read the book.

Watch on YouTube.

Tyranny—It’s not just for breakfast anymore!

Revolution Wallpaper by Jeevay on Deviantart

Seven o’clock de la mañana. Tuesday, November 5th.

Susan slips out of bed, into her day clothes, and makes for the polls. Today would be the first day she voted. Finally! After all this time! She had been waiting her whole life—she was too nervous to even eat breakfast.

A few months later, many people would ask her why she voted. She would answer—and did answer to all twenty-nine of the towns and villages of Monroe county, and twenty-one towns in Ontario county—

“For however destructive in their happiness this government might become, a disfranchised class could neither alter nor abolish it, nor institute a new one, except by the old brute force method of insurrection and rebellion.”1

Indeed, Susan voted. Thoreau would be proud: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”2

Lysander Spooner says that “a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave.”3 Wow! Now that is a statement I can agree with! Spooner and Thoreau were contemporaries and certainly we can see parallels in their ideas and philosophy. Perhaps Susan enjoyed Walden as well—she was an intelligent Female of the Species.

But she was still female! “And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him / Must command but may not govern—shall enthrall but not enslave him.”4 Is voting not governing—participating in government? What’s going on here?

Back to Spooner: “And there is no difference, in principle—but only in degree—between political and chattel slavery.” So Susan is not a contradiction, she is a noble, in the Nietzschian sense. She overcame the imposed regime within her own writ as a human being, as the owner of herself. She enjoyed the vivid sense of life that few experience.

Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ CANCELLED, Essex St, Chinatown, Boston

Susan B. Anthony ate tyranny for breakfast. She swallowed it whole, rejecting the notion that any inherited supremacy could crush her intrinsic rights: “for if a [wo]man has never consented or agreed to support a government, [s]he breaks no faith in refusing to support it.”3 A leader she was, infamously on the run. Maybe not in the John Brown-sense, but she inspired perhaps scores of women to cast the illegal ballot.

And so it is—What makes a leader?—the audacity to break the norms. The will to overcome that which does not make sense in the subjective valuation of the leader. When the leader necessitates overcoming an imposed regime, they are not acting tyrannical, but in fact they are an open and diplomatic enemy. That is the American way, after all—diplomacy, politics, compromise. And audacity.

(Photo 1 — Jeevay)

(Photo 2 — Banksy)


Footnotes:

1. Quoted from: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/anthony/anthonyaddress.html

2. Quoted from: Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

3. Lysander Spooner, “No Treason 1”

4. Rudyard Kipling, my emphasis

Rant: Teaching Styles in Medical and Philosophy Classes

image

As a student of both philosophy and medicine, I see two very different teaching strategies on a daily basis.

My philosophy classes are almost always approached in the same manner: through the readings, I am exposed to a multitude of different perspectives on a single issue. I must then synthesize the arguments and write an original paper that discusses everything I’ve learned and concludes with my own philosophical thoughts, all filtered through a critical lens. These classes stress original, critical thinking, and I don’t think you can argue against the virtue of that.

In my (admittingly rudimentary) medical classes, however, we never read primary sources or discuss the concepts we are learning. The professor shows a powerpoint that basically outlines the textbook for two hours in a 200-person lecture hall. When students are brave enough to speak in class, it’s either a “I once had [insert condition]” woe-is-me story, a useless “Will this be on the test” question, or someone just trying to sound smart. Nobody dares to think critically. Oh god no. That would require too much effort.

It’s a question of epistemology, really

My biggest concern isn’t that my medicine classes don’t provoke me to think critically—I can do that on my own. My qualm is with the way I am evaluated. Continue reading

How not to talk to your kids

Interesting article from the New York mag:

Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. Blackwell split her kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. “Even as I was teaching these ideas,” Blackwell noted, “I would hear the students joking, calling one another ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid.’ ” After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students’ grades to see if it had any effect.

I think teaching kids the incredible plasticity of the brain is immensely important. It gives children a sense of hope and an attitude of action and creation (creativity—they think “I don’t have to wait for this to happen, I can make it happen.”). It also teaches them the adaptability of the human body. After all, if it wasn’t for adaptability and neural plasticity, we wouldn’t have survived. Continue reading

Atheists, On Why They Don’t Believe In God

Our Galactic Neighborhood

A long time ago, I gave up believing in the Catholic man-in-the-sky that I was raised to believe in. I just figured, my life should be up to me, why would I need another entity to steer the course of my life?

If you ever struggle with the belief in a god or religion, then hopefully this post will help you think through some of the logic of your belief. It’s never a bad idea to challenge your own ways of thinking.

The quotes below are from this article, found via Michael Shermer. The whole piece is worth the read, but I quoted below the best parts with my emphasis.

Maryam Namazie, human rights activist

I suppose people can go through an entire lifetime without questioning God and a religion that they were born into…

But when the state sends a “Hezbollah” (the generic term for Islamist) to your school to ensure that you don’t mix with your friends who are boys, stops you from swimming, forces you to be veiled, deems males and females separate and unequal, prescribes different books for you and your girlfriends from those read by boys, denies certain fields of study to you because you are female, and starts killing in­discriminately, then you have no choice but to question, discredit and confront it – all of it.

Continue reading

Case Study: Two Leaders, One Strategy, Centuries Apart

The Colloseum, Rome, Italy

The Colloseum in Rome, Italy. (Photo: jonrawlinson on flickr)

Gods, epic myths, heroes, and damsels in distress. The history of ancient times fascinates me.

Below is one of my favorite stories from Greek history. The story of Xenophon’s mission to return 10,000 Greek mercenaries to their homeland.

And for entertainment’s sake—and to display a fantastic parallel in strategy—I compare Xenophon’s tactics with those of the infamous abolitionist, John Brown.

Enjoy!


Xenophon was not a mercenary. He was a philosopher with a need for adventure. In the spring of 401 B.C., a friend invited him to join Cyrus’ army on a mission to quiet a few rebellious cities within the Persian Empire. Some 10,000 Greek soldiers had signed up for the expedition, and Xenophon decided to join them as a historian. Perhaps he could write a book about the march afterwards.

After traveling deep into Persia, Cyrus told the army his true purpose: to march on Babylon, dethrone his brother Ataxerxes, and take the crown. Continue reading

Arguments in Evaluative Language—Essentially Contestable

Is it cruel to kill cattle in slaughterhouses where live cattle can smell the blood of the dead? Or to spank children in order to teach them how to behave? The point is not that we couldn’t argue our way to one position or the other on these questions; it’s only to say that when we disagree, it won’t always be because one of us just doesn’t understand the value that’s at stake. It’s because applying value terms to new cases requires judgment and discretion. Indeed, it’s often part of our understanding of these terms that their applications are meant to be argued about. They are, to use another piece of philosopher’s jargon, essentially contestable. For many concepts, as W.B. Gallie wrote in introducing the term, “proper use inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper use on the part of users.” Evaluative language, I’ve been insisting, aims to shape not just our acts but our thoughts and our feelings. When we describe past acts with words like “courageous” and “cowardly,” “cruel” and “kind,” we are shaping what people think and feel about what was done—and shaping our understanding of our moral language as well. Because that language is open-textured and essentially contestable, even people who share a moral vocabulary have plenty to fight about.

From Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah, page 59

In this quote, Appiah illustrates the essential bottom-up structure of language. Taleb touches on this when he gives the example of Esperanto. Continue reading