10,373 DSB

A strange question: what is the square root of reality?

After toying around with the question in my notebook, I came up with a tentative answer: existence. The simplest way for me to explain why this is so–aside from trawling for an array of sources to provide confirmatory evidence–is to make a statement:

Those who exist create reality and inhabit it.

I think this is true and I hope you do, too. However, it gets trickier. Part of my “toying around” involved writing out the sum that supposedly makes reality. Specifically:

existence x existence = reality

What really draws my attention in that sum, though, is the multiplication sign. What exactly does it symbolise, stand for? Personally, I think it symbolises change. And as I was thinking about square roots, I began to think about root causes. This sprouted another strange question:

Why do things change?

Confession: the idea that we don’t know the fundamental cause of change (a.k.a. “time”) was brought to my attention by a Stephen Hawking book. It’s low-key haunted me since then and I don’t really know what to do about it.

Additional confession: I used to think such second-rate (or third, fourth, even fifth-rate) philosophising was pointless. Banal. Useless. A complete waste of my time, and of yours, dear reader. A part of me still feels that way. But a growing part of me opposes that view. A growing part of me thinks that idle thoughts have the same relation to insight as procrastination does to productivity. The two are inextricably linked, co-dependent upon one another.

In a complex world–a world that houses billions of actors and is susceptible to countless contributing, contradictory forces–who am I to say one idea is idle and another is not? Who am I to presume that, given what we know about higher order effects and network dynamics, x will matter more than y?

10,367 DSB

The “move fast and break things” ideology is likely past its apex in Silicon Valley. However, following the diffusion of innovation theory, it is now spreading to other regions of Planet Earth. Like the UK government. (Take a look at what Stewart Brand says in Pace Layering to see why accelerating the mechanisms of governance may not be a good idea…)

Right now, I don’t want to discuss that–although, I will again state that “tinkering” with mission critical systems (healthcare, social services etc) is REALLY FUCKING STUPID AND WILL RESULT IN PAIN, SUFFERING AND DEATH. No, I want to issue a contraindication for adopters of the “move fast and break things” ideology. It looks something like this:

Move too fast and things will break you.

As a teenager in college, I played basketball. A lot. Twenty-plus hours a week. Two things we were taught relate to the above.

1) When it came to attacking a zone defence, our coach told us the true purpose of ball movement: make the zone defence shift. If we moved the ball too fast–zipped it from one side of the court to another and back–the zone couldn’t react. Therefore it wouldn’t shift. The shifts represented the perfect opportunities for attack, so we had to move the ball slow enough to create them. Counter-intuitive but oh-so true.

2) Immediately after receiving the ball, a player on offence is in the “triple threat” position. It’s called that because the ball handler can either dribble, pass or shoot. Further, the defender is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t know which the ball handler is going to do. Enter the fake. Like moving the ball around a zone defence, our coach taught us that a fake is pointless unless it is sold to the defender. If a player shot fakes or jab steps too fast, the defender can’t process the fake and won’t react. In reality, a slower fake has more probability of being sold than a fast fake.

In both cases, doing something too fast inhibits reaction. Speed disqualifies response, feedback and/or adaptation. Let’s enter another domain: fitness.

Dan John, a bonafide, OG strength coach (read his work) is fond of saying that, in fitness, everything works… for about six weeks. The problem, however, is that most of us don’t stick to the program. We move on too fast because we don’t see the desired results immediately.

The same pattern can be found in other areas too:

  • Companies fail because they abandon iteration on a product which is about to penetrate the market.
  • Hitler and co. called off the Blitz during WWII just as British resistance was about to break.
  • Hitler also held back Rommel’s advance just as the jaws of the Blitzkrieg were about to close on the fleeing Allied forces.
  • Individuals write online for six months and stop because they don’t understand the timeline of impact is measured in years not months.
  • Strategists employing the OODA loop can cannibalise themselves by cycling too rapidly.

Another angle: the scientific method. Specifically, experiment design. I’m no scientist but even I understand that a successful experiment requires enough time for changes to become apparent in the studied variables. Change is, to some degree, dependent on the passage of time.

Last one. Promise. (Also, a warning: the following may be rife with basic errors.)

I’ve been doing some reading concerning the concept of time. I’ve read about string theory and quantum mechanics and gravitational fields and other things which make my brain flatline. Whilst thinking about the above, I began to wander what happens to particles that move too fast in spacetime.

My impression: if spacetime is a huge but exquisitively fine mesh, then particles moving too fast through it will get shredded. On the atomic scale, move too fast and spacetime will shred you.

/end precautionary sermon.

10,364 DSB

Often, I dream. Sometimes, the result of these dreams is terror. Visceral, paralysing, overwhelming terror. Not for long. It fades in a matter of seconds. But anyone who has felt strong negative emotion (so, everybody) knows that one second is enough.

Last night, I had such dreams. Twice. It meant a somewhat sleepless night, and also a revelation. See, I realised what it is about terror that’s so scary: it’s the perceived absence of agency.

In a state of terror, nothing gets through. No word. No gesture. No reasoning. From what I’ve read, even pain is insufficient. The only thing that gets through is time. Specifically, its passage. As the time spent in a state of terror increases, so does the likelihood of escaping its embrace.

In the aftermath of last night’s episodes, however, I began to wonder about the opposite of terror. Which birthed a spectrum of perceived agency and the states associated with it.

Terror–the absolute absence of perceived agency–is contrasted with the feeling of divinity–agency of the omnipotent kind. In between, there are steps.

In a state of fear, perceived agency is significantly curtailed. In a state of caution, it is affected in a minor way. The state referred to as normalcy is where we are ninety percent of the time: we have agency but we are liable to be influenced, too. In a state of optimism, we feel ourselves to be the captain of our ship, albeit with a willful crew. In a state of audacity, we feel ourselves to be masters of our fate.

Naturally, occupying the respective ends of the spectrum isn’t pleasant. Terror is, well, terrifying. Divinity is intoxicating, but it never lasts for more than a moment. Two, if lucky. Its high is followed by a nonlinear low. A regression to the mean that is the feeling of mortality. Funnily enough, though, time is the device that takes us back to the middle, to normalcy. Mostly.

I say “mostly” because I am aware that, throughout history, there have been outliers, people who died a deity in their own universe. I’m also aware that, throughout history, many people’s last taste of life was terror.

About both of these things, I am unsure how to feel. Surprised? Disgusted? Horrified? Indifferent? I don’t know–I’m not fool enough to think I have complete control over my own thoughts.

10,357 DSB

A significant part of the game of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is “passing the guard“. If my opponent is sat on his butt or lying on his back during sparring, the “guard” is his legs. I want to pass them in order to move to a more dominant position (side control, knee-on-belly, mount, reverse mount etc.) and start hunting for submissions. There are numerous ways to do this but all, fundamentally, involve minimising my opponent’s freedom whilst maximising my own.

However, in order to increase my rate of learning I spent a year or so deliberately entangling myself, sacrificing my freedom. That means that, instead of trying to avoid, sidestep, smash through, or redirect my opponent’s guard, I entered it. I offered a leg, an arm–sometimes both–let myself get bogged down, and then tried to free myself and pass.

My reasoning was simple: I figured that to learn the intricacies of the different guards (there are a lot) I had to entangle myself within them. Sure, I could focus on passing using speed, agility, misdirection and precision? But what if someone was faster, more agile, more wily, and more precise than me? How would I match that? I wouldn’t, couldn’t. Not without experience.

The period of entanglement in my BJJ game is over for now, though. I need to go the other way. I need to learn to be more dynamic and audacious in both my attack and defence. This change has coincided with changes in other areas of my life, and I only noticed this the other night after a BJJ session.

Several years ago, I read a whole lot of self-help, business and productivity books. They changed me and they changed my life. The petals of possibility unfurled within me and I was electrified with what loomed on the horizon. I became impatient for progress, scornful of stability, indifferent to the slow and the steady. If the books I read were Brazilian jiu-jitsu players, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they locked me down, swept me over and led me into submission.

As you can guess, I’m learning the limits of the bold visions I lapped up at a younger age. I’m meeting this thing called Reality and discovering it’s a cunning, unscrupulous negotiator. I have had to revise many things, particularly assumptions and beliefs. Now, I don’t want to turn this into a Dear Diary entry, but these meetings with reality have taught me to think more deeply about entanglement.

Go back to BJJ. Imagine the ability to untangle one’s self from a guard and to entangle one’s self. The combination of the two could be called a “tangle rate”. I don’t want to go overboard and get lost in advancing the intricacies of the tangle rate. There are many different ways to do it, of course. However, what I do want to draw attention to is one’s ability to alter the tangle rate. It is, I believe, critical to learning.

Imagine a vast open world game. The purpose of the game is unknown, as is its lengths. The catch is that as soon as you begin to play, things—animals, plants, the environment, the elements, other players—try to entangle themselves with you. If you stay, things will come to you. If you move, you will meet them. Moving fast will result in shorter but more frequent encounters. If you move slow, the encounters will be less frequent, but longer.

In such a game, what does progress look like? Is it avoiding entanglement? Is it getting so entangled that you become unrecognisable from your past self? Is it notching up as many varieties of entanglement as possible whilst preserving a sense of identity?

What about death in such a game? Is death ultimate entanglement, the complete cessation of motion and the sheer devouring of the self? Or is it coming untangled, voiding one’s contact with any and everything?

Entanglement and its opposite, untangling, are rich concepts. I urge you to look into them, or to join me in thinking more about them. If you want, you can entangle yourself using some of the ideas above. Me? I am off to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu session. There, I’m going to attempt to avoid entanglement and pass the guard.

10,351 DSB

Venkatesh Rao intro’d blogchains and many people (including Warren Ellis and Tom Crichtlow) jumped onboard. In a recent development, he introduced his Captain’s Log and now I am the one claiming asylum.

I’ve been meaning to blog more and find an accessible way to regroove the habit. After reading MJD 58,851, I decided imitating Venkat and starting a “themeless, nameless blogchain” would be a good start.

With regards to naming conventions: I’ve gone for days since birth. Nice and easy. In terms of production, I’ve set up a text file (called “log”) which automatically datestamps when I open it up. This is where I’ll be drafting entries. Each published entry will go under a new section on the site.

That’s all for now. This is merely a proclamation of intent. The next entry will get this thing rolling.

The art of othering

So far, I’ve read A Writer’s Guide to Violence, Meditations on Violence and Principles-Based Instruction for Self-Defence. Each has been profound in a slightly different way but all have affirmed a central point: Violence happens hard, fast, close and with surprise.

There are implications for this truth and I’m not going to list or review them here. (I will, however, claim that everyone—especially females—would benefit from reading a bit of Rory Miller’s work.) Instead, I want to share an extract:

“When a student trains, he is focused, relatively rested, warmed up, sober, emotionally stable, having fun, and on a schedule. If ever attacked, the same student will be distracted, likely tired or injured or drunk. He will be scared or angry. He will be surprised, and will not be having fun. In short, the person that trains will not be the person in the fight.”

The contrast is between a student and a victim, and in the context of violence this contrast is significant. But what about in the context of ideas?

Supposedly, reality is that which doesn’t go away when we stop believing it. This formulation posits reality as a rather benign, passive force. The matter that resides when waves of belief recede. Another formulation of reality is possible—we can liken it to a “predator”, in Rory Miller’s terms. A force which strikes asymmetrically, from a position of irresistible advantage against an undeniable point of vulnerability.

This is, perhaps, what “enlightenment” really is: reality preying upon us. It’s not warm and fuzzy and gooey in its goodness. It is an act of violence against the self. It hits hard, fast, close and with surprise. It is unpleasant, in some cases horrifying. And, predictably, like traditional violence, the reactions to it are varied. Some absorb and fold the strike comfortably into themselves. Others avoid and try not to look at it, as if they can negate it by an act of will. And a few will be shattered by it, broken.

Reading about self-defence, I’ve realised that it’s an almost impossible thing to train for. Outside of putting yourself in the places with a high probability of violence—places with young men consuming mind altering substances, generally, or an violence-facing occupation—there is no chance of adequate preparation. But that is in the realm of the physical. In the mental, conceptual realm, I think it is a good idea to act the fool and expose oneself to violence.

However, it’s not as simple as consuming contrary viewpoints. That’s like the martial arts student entering a dojo at an agreed time in an ideal state. There needs to be something more immersive. And the thing more immersive than mere contemplation is contact with reality. Unfortunately, this is akin to many truisms and cliches. Travelling, joining groups one otherwise would avoid, going to different places via novel means, talking to holders of opposing ideas, attempting to defend positions one finds indefensible, taking risks instead of seeking comfort and familiarity.

All these things are hard in our abstracted age. And perhaps that is the key? The student of violence examines it as an abstraction. An idea. The victim of violence experiences the inapplicability of these abstractions. Violence reveals itself to the victim as concrete. Perhaps, to gain contact with reality, we need to regress our abstractions?

How the heck do we do that, though? One approach could be revealed by Miller’s comments on PTSD. He says that, in his experience, people with a strong in-group/out-group bias suffer less from things like PTSD.

Othering functions as a self-protection mechanism. If one is a victim of violence from an othered group–or a perpetrator of violence against them–then the act is factored as normal, a regular ol’ part of existence. Scroll through the history books for persecution and what do you find? Violence against certain populations is almost always preceded by propaganda campaigns whose purpose is to other the persecuted group. Before violence comes othering and after the violence the othering offers protection. Conversely, it seems that those with a no-group bias–“we are all humans”–are most likely to succumb to PTSD.

Again, this is in the physical realm. In these examples, people died. In the conceptual realm, can we use othering to help provoke violence against the self and so open the door to enlightenment? Possibly.

One way to do this is to assume masks in a deep and deliberate way. For example, imagine I want to learn more about the ills of capitalism. I can do this by becoming an avid communist. I can adopt a communist identity and seek out justification of the have-not’s vitriol against the haves.

For example, in Rory Miller’s short book, ConCom, he described two types of predators. Resource predators commit asocial violence against an other in order to obtain a valued resource. Process predators commit asocial violence against an other in order to experience pleasure. Miller also says that predators are more likely to exist at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy–they are self-actualised.

So, in line with my new communist identity, I could hypothesise that the have-not’s targeting of the haves is justified and necessary because the haves, existing at the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy, are probabilistically likely to become predators and commit violence against the have-nots.

This is but one brick in the edifice of justification. There are more. But notice how easy it is for me just to throw an idea out there. I can write the above without believing it. This is not identity adoption. It is identity entertainment.

I don’t have children, but I’m aware that part of the development process is the trying-on of identities. Teens will go through phases. They’ll attempt to become different people. Social groups, habits, attire, mannerisms, consumption–it’ll all change. As adults, we scorn this and favour entertainment over adoption. But the teens doing the phase-switching learn a lot. Contrast this with adult learning decline.

I remember Tyler Cowen talking about “quake books”–books that provoke profound worldview shifts. I also remember him saying that the discovery of quake books tails off as we age. Why is that? Surely, the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know? The shoreline of our island of knowledge increases, so surely we should be stumbling upon more beaches, coves and cliffs, not less?

Nope. As we age, identities harden and so do we. Or vice versa. I’m not sure. Regardless, the trousers of the self stay belted and never slip down to reveal the anus of uncertainty. Shame. Perhaps we should reverse that trend? I saw someone on Twitter recently talk about the newest generations ability to inhabit multiple media channels and play numerous characters across all of them. Newer generations are less inclined to other others, but they are adept at othering themselves. Maybe we too should attempt to learn the art of othering?

Play of the decade

My biggest play of the last decade wasn’t implementing a productivity system. It wasn’t beginning to write. It wasn’t having countless different jobs or visiting special places. It wasn’t messing around with meditation and movement and nutrition. It wasn’t the rise and fall of certain friendships. It wasn’t fucking up spectacularly again and again and again.

My biggest play was spending almost three quarters of the decade in a relationship with someone I love. I’ve underestimated the impact of that fact upon my life, and I probably underestimate the impact it has on the life of others too. Don’t be me. Don’t do that. It’s not a good idea.

I intend to enter the new decade with the intent to recognise and take care of that relationship. To protect it. To work on its weaknesses. To nourish its strengths. It’s not a world-shaking approach. The returns will not be as tangible as building a successful company, nor as noticeable as an exponential increase in public renown. But I’m betting it will do more than anything else to encourage a growth in joy and a decrease in pain and suffering in my life.