Archive for May, 2009

Categorizing Mysticism

May 31, 2009

So, my thoughts on mysticism have led in the direction of trying to describe some sort of model for dividing/specifying the functions of mysticism into modular parts. I’m not really familiar with any attempts to do this sort of things, so I’m just going to make up the terminology whole cloth using my general guideline for labeling: use nifty words.

By describing individual mystical functions, I hope to be able to pursue each of the functions independently, and work with them interrelated later, in the ultimate hope of being able to make a wholly artificial mystic experience (presumably, using some artistic medium as trigger, as I lack the ability to directly cause divine experience).

I’ve identified four different categories of mystical functionality based on what kinds of actions they encourage individuals to take. I have named the categories as follows: Anima, Ki, Logos, and Glamour.

Anima:

In spiritual terms, Anima is the interaction with the ‘spirit’ of a thing. It’s what you do when you worship an ancestral spirit, or pray to the god of math tests that you pass that final exam, or even when you threaten your computer to start working or else you’ll scrap it (it also describes my relationship with a specific traffic light I pass through on the way to work – that light’s a bastard, I tell you what).

In practical terms, Anima is anthropomorphism. Humans are social creatures, and our social capabilities do not simply turn off when we interact with things that aren’t humans (or even alive) – thus, our brains insist on trying to treat everything we interact with as if it were a person like us.

Ki:

In mystical terms, Ki is the manipulation of internal energies and emotions, sometimes with the intent of directly affecting the outside world. It’s something that can be invoked in emotion-controlling meditation, and it’s what triggers our fervent belief that we really can kill someone by just hating them hard enough, or a sudden second wind in an athletic event when we know people are cheering for us.

In practical terms, Ki is the logical extention of our empathic functions as people. It represents both an expectation that our emotions affect the world around us, and that the emotions we percieve of the world around us affect us. This function is similar to Anima in that it too exists because our social capability is ‘on’ all the time, in all situations – it causes us to get emotional impressions from things that do not actively express emotions, and it causes us to subconsciously expect objects to react to our own emotional expression as if those objects were human like us.

Logos:

In mystical terms, Logos is the sensation of ‘getting it’ – something which we feel when we learn and contemplate correct things (I imagine Colbert would sue me if I tried to call it “Truthyness”, but that wouldn’t be a bad word to use either).  Logos is what gives us confidence that what we know is correct, allowing us to trust in the world that we perceive.

In practical terms, Logos is a feedback loop caused by contemplating a series of thoughts that feature recursion (Example: A leads to B, B leads to C, C leads back to A). It’s arguably the foundation of modern learning systems, and it’s also the foundation of self-reinforcing systems of ‘facts’ which can cause cognitive dissonance by causing an individual to view all new information exclusively in the self-reinforcing context.

Glamour:

In mystical terms, Glamour is an indescribable, ineffable experience, frequently attributed as divine in nature.

In practical terms, Glamour is the effect of an extremely strong behavioral reinforcement function – neurologically, it’s probably a form of temporal lobe epilepsy – of course, knowing how it works doesn’t make such an experience any less intense. Understanding the precise triggers and functions of Glamour will probably prove harder than the other forces, despite our culture’s greater neurological understanding of it.

The next step, I imagine, would be to try to learn how to activate these functions at will in some way. Perhaps we can utilize the Logos that leads people to memorize and think in terms of intricate conspiracy theories, and turn it towards improving memory capacity? Or perhaps we can gain insights from wise use of our anthropic mystic functions, Anima and Ki, on inanimate objects or even abstract ideas? Maybe I could get the God of Mathematics (Checked Wikipedia, apparently there’s no patron saint) to help me on my trigonometry.

I’m pretty bad at trig.

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The Cognitive Power of Belief

May 29, 2009

There are people who believe in very, very many things out there. That medicine can become more powerful the less of it you take, that Atlantis was a super-advanced civilization that interacted with aliens, that the universe is six thousand and change years old, that the leader of a group is in fact a god come to earth, that everything, including abstract objects like rivers and mountains, have souls, that our government is secretly working against us all, that our government isn’t working against us all… and so on. The gamut of human belief is absurdly wide, and the depth of human belief is similarly stunning.

I can’t help but think there’s something to that.

It seems clear from these beliefs that human beings are not rational creatures, that we function using some other fundamental thought method that only incidentally supports rationalism. But what method could that be?

I’m of the personal opinion that what we describe as ‘spiritualism’, ‘mysticism’, ‘religiousity’, and so on (henceforth to be called ‘mysticism’ ’cause I think the word sounds cool) functions as a kind of emotional interface to our conscious, cognitive and linguistic abilities, by functioning as a system of triggers that when activated cause us to learn associated ideas and behaviors quickly and persistently. So persistently, in fact, that we could have difficulty overcoming them consciously even if on a rational level we know they are incorrect.

The existence of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in regards to mysticism, in particular, fascinates me. What I imagine, is that what someone learns with strong facilitation by such a ‘mystical’ drive is something well-learned indeed, and unlikely to be overridden except through use of a comparably powerful cognitive tool.

All in all, it seems that mysticism, long used by hucksters and cult leaders to mislead and confuse people, could be used as a tool for good – and considering its’ power, used very potently indeed.

The first question would regard what we could use mysticism for – to that end, I would posit that the collective functions of mysticism serve two purposes for the human mind: To describe the world around us in an intricate and emotionally engaging way (descriptive mysticism), and to proscribe to us correct behaviors on a largely emotional level (proscriptive mysticism).

It seems to me the bigger question, though, is to precisely how to go about using mysticism constructively, a task which additionally entails coming to understand mystical functions in the human mind in greater depth.

I’m musing (pun appreciated, but not intended) on that one.

Thinking About Thinking: Relational Databases and You (You being anybody)

May 25, 2009

Okay, first a bit of background information.

A relational database is a method computers use to organize information (based on the relational model). Information is organized into ‘Tables’ based on their content (each Table represents a single subject of information), and generally each piece of unique information is given a corresponding identifier called a ‘Primary Key’.

A quick example, number of days in a month:
Month        #Days
January        31
February    28 (29)
March        31
April        30
May        31
June        30
July        31
August        31
September    30
October        31
November    30
December    31

This table organizes the months and contains how many days are in each month.

Relational data is awesome. Its’ neat organizational structure allows for quick recall of detailed facts and sophisticated examinations of massive amounts of data – even when the data has to be calculated from scratch*.

Humans don’t naturally think in relational terms (well, not efficiently, and not usually by default, anyway) – but we can learn to do so, either by ourselves or by picking it up from other people.

It’s all about internally organizing the way you think in a couple different ways.

First, group up things you know into specific subjects in which each bit of information has a unique identifier.

To extend the earlier example, the subject there would be “Months of the (modern gregorian calendar) year”. Note all the implied information there is in “Months of the Year” – if you were to learn a different calendar than the modern gregorian calendar, you would have to specify that into two different subjects. Expect to reevaluate how you divide what you know into categories as you learn more about things, and thus you have to draw more distinctions between subjects in order to keep them well-organized in your head.

Now, for this, we need a unique identifier – in the case of our months, the names of the months should do just fine – each month has a different name from all the others (Another unique identifier for months could be the order in which each appears on the calendar). That unique identifier is the subject’s “Key”.

Note that the identifier doesn’t have to be the same as the subject: If you were to memorize each month based on their order rather than their names, the subject would still be months, even though you would think more like, “The first month in the year is named January” instead of “January is the first month in the year.” You could even use both as unique identifiers at the same time (and if you have to deal with the months of the year frequently enough, you probably do).

Second, group up as much information as you can into those subjects.

To extend the months example, you don’t have to just keep track of the months’ names and how many days there are in there. You could make it look more like:

Month        Order in Year    #Days    Season
January        1        31    Spring
February    2        28 (29)    Spring
March        3        31    Spring
April        4        30    Summmer
May        5        31    Summmer
June        6        30    Summmer
July        7        31    Fall
August        8        31    Fall
September    9        30    Fall
October        10        31    Winter
November    11        30    Winter
December    12        31    Winter

Third, well, from there it’s all a matter of how you think.

When you learn new information, restate it to yourself in a matter consistent with how you’re storing information (“January is a Month. January is the first month of the year. January has 31 days. January is in Spring.”)

When you recall information, try to access it by asking yourself questions that access data based on however you stored it. So if someone asks, “What’s the month after March?” and you don’t have that bit of information memorized, you can break it down into: “Which month is March? (Third)” followed by “What’s the fourth month? (April)”

Of course, this might not work for everyone. This is just something I do to organize information I learn, and it doesn’t work out badly. On the other hand, you might already do this sort of thing subconsciously.

Mind also that there are tons of other ways to store and recall information, some of which work better than this sometimes (like a catchy rhyme for learning a one-off fact, for instance). It’s one of the awesome features of the brain that we can employ multiple different setups to be able to store and recall information.

*-Describing in-depth the power of the relational data structure is well beyond the scope of this article – this article’s just about touching upon the ideas involved, not going into full depth on them.

Thinking About Thinking: Why you should talk to yourself (or keep it up if you do already)

May 21, 2009

It’s actually really simple: We remember things we perceive. We also remember things we think.

When you say something to yourself, you’re simultaneously thinking it and perceiving it – so you’re more likely to remember it. Ditto with writing it down or typing it out on something, even if you never happen to read whatever you wrote again.

And it doesn’t have to be socially awkward, either – if you’re in a place where it would be inappropriate to talk to yourself, you can (and probably do) resort to imagining that you are talking to yourself. Of course, you generally don’t have to resort to imagining you’re writing something down, as generally writing something down doesn’t seem as creepy as someone just mumbling to nobody, so that can work too.

Now,  if you find you need to talk to yourself to remember things on a regular basis, that might be a problem – one with your memory. It might merit talking to a professional about it (frankly, though, memory isn’t all too well-understood, so you might not be able to get anything from it). It might also be worth a diary.

World Depression 2: This Time, it’s Personal.

May 21, 2009

The world is in a depression.

No, it’s not a recession, except in the inane, technical sense that, say, the Vietnam War was a “police action”. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is, at best, comically wrong.

We have an exceedingly high measured unemployment rate despite years of attrition to the workforce leading people to simply give up on trying to get jobs, and very many of those in the workforce currently have jobs paying less than they did before, or need to work two jobs, just to make ends meet.

We didn’t even collapse into this depression from a “Boom” or “Economic Expansion” or whatever the news would have you call it.  Our economy has limped from one near-recession to the next for getting close to a decade before it all fell down – oh, but during those years, well, if you were rich and invested you could make lots of money, so people pretended like the economy wasn’t in any trouble, when in fact quite the opposite was going on. The only “Boom” we’ve had over the past few years has been a boom of self-deception.

Homebuyers deceived themselves into believing that lenders could be blindly trusted. Bankers and investors deceived themselves into believing they could get a free lunch. Consumers deceived themselves into thinking that they could keep up their debtor’s living forever. Americans as a whole deceived themselves into thinking our culture and economy was healthy and even thriving – plus, we thought it was a good idea to elect Bush, twice!

We need to get over lying to ourselves, and lying to each other. We’re in a god-damned Great Depression: Great Depression Two.

No, wait, better idea. We’re in World Depression Two. WWI used to be called “The Great War”. Well, we used to only have one Great Depression – now we have two. So we should take a page from our own history books and retcon the Great Depression into “World Depression One”, while what we’re in now becomes “World Depression Two”.

It should work out well to our advantage – WWI, followed by WWII, presents a simple series with a logical next step: World War Three. It’s a terminology that helped, no doubt along with many facets of the cold war, to bring the understanding of the possibility of another global military conflict within our grasp. We couldn’t lie to ourselves when the prospect of another World War is as easy to understand as counting to three.

Similarly, we can benefit from calling this spade what it is (preferably before we start digging our next hole with it, please). World Depression One could have been a unique event – but now it’s happened twice. We should do our part to ensure that the peoples of Earth can never forget this fact. We need to warn ourselves (because we’re stupid and we forget hella fast) and future generations that this shit can all happen again. We need to make it as easy as counting to three.

Would World Depression Three be the same as WDII? Of course not.  WWI and WWII were each quite different (and in fact, one of the reasons we were blindsided with WDII was our naive assumption that it would be the same as WDI, leading us all to sit pretty in our 80-year-old, neglect-decayed Maginot Line of protections convincing ourselves it could never happen again).

We need to start thinking about what WDIII could be. We need to get paranoid about it. We need to make the understanding of our global interreliance on each other, to the point where greed and carelessness on the part of one of us can spill over to affect all of us, we need to make this understanding ubiquitous to the human condition. We need to start making stirring personal stories about how people’s lives are getting jacked up by WDII that get turned into award-winning movies (preferably before computers drive the industry bankrupt). I’d make a call for movies about post-apocalyptic WDIII aftermaths too, but Mad Max was made some time back, that market’s clearly been there for a while.

Anyway, we should all do our part to stop lying to ourselves and to each other.

We’re in a depression. Don’t let people tell you otherwise.

Universal Commonalities in Competitive Systems and A Call for Lateral Thinking

May 21, 2009

What’s the difference between military strategy, plotting a con game, and business planning?

To a large degree, scale.

That is to say, each of these systems all follow a similar functional model, as each is built around analysis of complex systems predominantly featuring humans and their behavior, with an aim towards the analyst gaining an advantage.

That model is, roughly, as follows:

  • Acquire a target.
  • Analyze the target for vulnerabilities.
  • Exploit vulnerabilities as appropriate (to your advantage and/or the target’s disadvantage)
  • Analyze the actions you took to improve your approach.
  • Repeat.

There are ultimately deep commonalities when it comes to any system primarily characterized by individuals’ attempts to exploit each other and avoid exploitation in turn. And yet, working from the same fundamental dynamic, each of my examples developed in wildly different ways.

In the military world, this dynamic is analyzed to a great degree, and there’s an understanding that this is, in essence, a science dedicated to such dynamics in the context of war – and it’s a science of interest to many sophisticated militaries around the world.

In regards to con games, where the average person finds himself on the defensive end of the model, we find ourselves woefully unprepared. Despite having a wealth of understanding of analysis of such systems in general, we continue to find ourselves nearly defenseless before individuals who take people for hundreds or thousands of dollars, if not even more. We seem impotent to fight the “war” against systemic, illegal exploitation, which in my mind begs the question as to why this is the case – I might explore this in greater depth in the future.

And yet, the most lopsided of the three systems I noted, in terms of preparedness to work within and understand a system of competitive exploitation, is the corporate world. I find this the most fascinating example of the model out of the three, as in our society we find ourselves both the aggressors and the defenders, and yet in so many industries we find the aggressors with an unsurmountable, systemic advantage over their consumers.

How can we, as a people, understand so much about human nature and yet find ourselves so utterly powerless to prevent people from taking advantage of us with it? Is there some form of Marxist-like class structure at work, with the strategists of professional economic exploitation having removed themselves from the populace at large, which remains vulnerable to well-coreographed advertisements and litanies of fine print? Do we simply not realize that we are the targets of our own corporate voraciousness, that the organizations taking our money with military-like precision and effectiveness do so not out of any desire to provide a service, but to take as much of our money as they can while providing as little as they can get away with?

Is, perhaps, our very collective inability to identify and work against individuals who have targeted us for exploitation, itself some form of vulnerability, exploited willfully or accidentally against us?

But to get to the point – I can’t help but wonder if and how we can apply lessons from any one of these exploitation systems to others of its’ ilk. I envision the greatest obstacle there to be one of applicability – how can you apply, say, the lessons of asymmetrical warfare and apply them in the context of spam mailing campaigns of credit card offers? How do we get inside the OODA loop of a corporation that spends millions of dollars trying to preemptively predict, say, our eating behaviors to get us to purchase more of their food?

It’s not an easy problem by any means – but that just means it’s all the more worthwhile to think about it.

Thinking About Thinking: How to know what’s worth knowing?

May 17, 2009

Knowledge is power. But it’s power that you need knowledge in order to use – being able to evaluate information sources without bias and being able to select sources to obtain further information from are both learned skills.

That’s a really hard skill to learn – it’s time-consuming and chancy, but ultimately, it’s really important. Being able to trust what you know, and being able to learn more things effectively, is vital to be able to do things and get what you want out of life, no matter what that may be (after all, we make all our decisions based on what we know, and if you don’t know what’s going on, well, your decisions could easily be wrong).

So I thought to write down a quick starter’s guide about ‘knowing knowledge’, as it were, something that wouldn’t require too much time and energy but can still get fairly good results.

Anyway:

First, acknowledge the problem: There’s a lot of information out there and you can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t.

Now, you could investigate and analyze each and every bit of information you get, like some sort of scientist (frankly, not even scientists do that). But let’s be honest, here: Nobody has that sort of time to spend just on going over information. So the trick is to save time and energy while still being able to trust what you know.

Ultimately, it’s all about trust. All information comes from somewhere, and you need to be able to get information from places you can trust. That makes your decisions about who and what you place your trust in, who and what you believe, vital to understanding the world around you.

Because you’re trusting information based on where you get it, you need to remember that all information comes from somewhere. If you have a good friend who relates to you something they heard from someone you don’t trust, should you trust the information just because your friend is saying it?

This ties into something else you should remember: no matter how much you trust someone, they may not be right. This is of importance since you will encounter information that contradicts information you already have, and sometimes this will merit closer inspection.

This inspection is important, since it helps to give strong support behind your decisions to trust or not trust someone or something for information. So ultimately, even though you try to avoid needing to do it all the time, sometimes you have to really research something.

How you research something is important. I recommend something like the scientific method (it can’t be the same, ultimately, since you’re probably already starting with a ‘hypothesis’):

  • Start with the information you have.
  • Forget where the information came from – while you’re testing information, your trust of its’ source doesn’t matter.
  • Ask yourself, “Is this information disagreeing with information from other sources, or from information that I’m creating?” All information comes from somewhere, after all, and you’re just about the most trustworthy source you have of it.
  • See if you can set up a test for the information – something that can allow you to see for yourself if something is true or false. Mind that sometimes tests are only conclusive in one way, and that sometimes multiple tests, each testing the information in a different way, are best.
  • And remember these two things: An argument might mean someone is wrong, but it doesn’t always mean anyone is right. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”, judging that you lack the information to say if something is true or false.

If you find that something you learned was wrong, don’t just stop trusting that information source outright. For instance, the information you gained might have been second-hand, and your source conveyed to you the information out of trust for their source. When you find our something you heard was wrong, look into why it was wrong, and how that information made it to you.

When you do find something wrong with information you got directly from a source, it might be a good idea to look into other information from that source as well. Remember, it’s all about evaluating how much trust your information sources deserve.

Now, something to keep in mind: Try to have multiple different sources of information. And remember, all information comes from somewhere – having two sources of information that both come from the same place does not count!

The reason you need multiple sources of information is because you can only tell what information needs to be double-checked when it disagrees with something else. So you might have to go looking for information that disagrees with what you know.

And a last bit of actual, practical advice: Don’t make decisions based on information you only got from one source, unless you really trust it.

That’s it. I’d consider that a ‘beta’ version, there’s no doubt extensive improvement capability in readability and probably the method itself. I just wanted to get down what I thought up at the time.

What’s the opposite of a P-zombie?

May 16, 2009

If it is possible for a thing to have all the physical trappings of consciousness, and yet lack consciousness (the definition of a P-zombie), then it seems to me that something can have none of those trappings and yet still possess consciousness.

Thusly, I postulate the possibility of the sentient inanimate object:

-Given that there exists a nonphysical state for objects unrelated to its’ physical state,

-Thus that an object’s physical state is irrelevant to its’ nonphysical state,

-And that ‘consciousness’ is to be considered such a nonphysical attribute,

-Thus that an object’s physical state is irrelevant to the fact of its’ consciousness,

Thus, any concievable object may be conscious.

-Furthermore, that since physical states can give no indication of nonphysical states (as the nonphysical state is unrelated),

Thus, any concievable object is as likely to be conscious as any other concievable object.

I dub an inanimate, yet still conscious, object to be a “P-spirit” (EDIT: For religious compatibility, “Little God” is also acceptable).

So, non-physicalists, next time you cook your food, be sure to thank the oven. Methinks it’d be rude to do otherwise.

The Rich Get Richer: The supremacy of scale in personal finance

May 15, 2009

There’s an economics term called the ‘economy of scale’. It’s what you describe a phenomenon that increases efficiency rate as operational size increases. A good way to describe it (which I saw on Wikipedia, heh) would be “When the amount of money you put into the operation doubles, the results more than double”.

Similarly, there is also such a thing as a ‘diseconomy of scale’, which is something that, when you put twice as much money into an operation, causes you to get less than double the results.

Economies and diseconomies of scale are concepts meant to be applied to the operations of businesses: An example of an economy of scale could be bureaucratic consolidation or the ability to pay off politicians, an example of a diseconomy of scale could be controlling so much of a market that your products end up competing against each other (Or, alternately, CEO pay). It’s all a very complex interplay of things.

Individual wealth features economies and diseconomies of scale, as well, but it’s not nearly as complex. In short, individual wealth is dominated by economies of scale, with only a single notable diseconomy of scale, the effect of which will be discussed.

An easy way to grasp the concept of the economy of scale when applied to personal finance is to buy in bulk. This allows you more return on your investment than you would have obtained otherwise. Now, for most goods, a bulk purchase might not be an obvious choice – after all, you might not be using everything you buy.

This works together with another fact, however: that an investment ‘uses’ itself. You need pay no attention for an investment to grow, though you can (which is tied to our one diseconomy, which I’ll get to in a bit). This allows you to buy investments, things which will make money for you, ‘in bulk’, allowing you to make money faster (and/or safer, in fact) when you have more money.

So you can use money to make yourself more money, and if you double the amount of money you’re using to make money, you can more than double the amount of money you get from it, thanks to our economies of scale: But wait, there’s still that diseconomy of scale.

The diseconomy of scale in personal finance is simple: Regardless of how rich you are, you’re only one person, and there’s only so much time in the day to research and select investments. There are investments you don’t need to research, but they have lower return rates or commission fees.

And this diseconomy of scale would matter, if everyone actually invested their own money. As it happens, though, people both wealthy and poor tend not to do that (as everyone has something better to do than to tend to something that makes money without needing to be tended), but instead rely on experts to make their investments, allowing them to mitigate some of their gains in exchange for a decrease in risk (admittedly, the existence of a field of expert finance is a gigantic waste of time, but that’s a subject for another post).

So, uh, yeah. In the event you were not sure, wealth begets wealth, and wealth begets wealth exponentially faster based on the wealth you have to start with. There’s the name and description of why the rich get richer.

The economy of scale. Not as economists typically use it, in regards to businesses, but applied on a personal level.

The Sales Tax of Credit.

May 12, 2009

Credit is by its’ nature a risky venture, and it has launched a regular industry built around managing that risk properly.

One of the big solutions the industry has come up with, is to increase the ‘price’ of credit as the risk increases – this means that for any given level of risk, you’re likely to make enough from those who pay you back, to make up for the money you lose from those who don’t.

This means, in essence, that anyone successfully paying off their debt, is also effectively paying off the debt of everyone at their risk level who did not pay off their debt.

It’s essentially a surcharge added to all of your credit transactions – a form of market-imposed sales tax.

But, as sales taxes go, the ‘tax’ on credit is rather unique: Because this surcharge increases as the risk of a credit transaction increases, this surcharge ultimately functions as a recessive sales tax.

This leads to two interesting conclusions:

-Point the First: In political arenas, welfare and other social support networks are often derided due to their costs. Yet, society already publicly bears the cost of the most expansive, market-provided support net (being credit). Moreover, the price of high-risk loans given out to people in dire need is paid by precisely those least fit to pay it: People taking out high-risk loans because they are in dire need. So it turns out we already kind of do have welfare – and it’s already very expensive and very ineffective, both by its’ very nature.

-Subpoint A: I would suspect that high fees and interest rates on loans would increase the default rate of a loan, leading the nominally precautionary measures by credit institutions to make a profit to ultimately function to decrease the rate of individuals successfully paying off their debt. Oops!

-Point the Second: When the government does this, it’s called “Private Profit and Public Risk” – I remember that from when I took my Bailout 101 class from the major media outlets. But apparently, when the market does the same thing, people neither notice nor care.