Busy, too busy.

Sometimes I ask myself whether the fact that I’m running a consulting business, writing a thesis, building a product, and learning Sanskrit all at the same time is only my flimsy, doomed attempt to outrun death.

The Kermlin Playbook

I found this fascinating new podcast about the Russian interference in the US Elections and their methods of undermining democracies around the world. It’s from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a bi-partisan American think tank. The first episode was very promising!

In 2016, a rival foreign power, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, launched an attack on the United States of America.   What we now know is that American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia planned and executed a campaign to undermine our democracy and to affect our Presidential election.

For President Trump, Russia is a complicated subject.  But this podcast isn’t about Donald Trump’s complications with Russia, nor is it about Republicans and Democrats.   One of the dangers in the hyper partisan American debate over Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election is that it is blurring the larger picture.  This three part podcast mini-series is about the larger picture.  Episode one will look at why Russia meddled in our election; episode two will examine case studies of past Russian behavior; and episode three will discuss what the US can do to counter Russia’s actions.

Hosted by CSIS’s H. Andrew Schwartz, co-host of “Bob Schieffer’s About the News”

Podcast Website Here –
https://www.csis.org/podcasts/kremlin-playbook
Apple Podcasts Link Here –
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-kremlin-playbook/id1287533700

Self-Organizing Stupidity?

I wonder if many years from now, when the history of the 21st century will be told, they’ll say it was the era in which technology first enabled human ignorance to self-organize on a global scale.

There have been, of course, many institutions that relied on stupidity and ignorance to flourish. Many religions, for instance, may have capitalized on human stupidity, ignorance, and prejudice to flourish. But the organizers themselves tended to be very smart, and religion always needed the support of smart people to stay in power – to keep the institution running. I think the internet has created an infrastructure that allows ignorant people to self-organize without any smart supervision.
Note how all around the world, fringe groups of highly uneducated and ignorant people – people who are largely immune to reason, have gained enormous power on the internet: White supremacists and Neo-nazis, racist Pro-Brexiters, the anti-immigration crowd, the extreme right in Israel who label anyone who wants peace with the Palestinians or dreams about the end of occupation a traitor, but also groups on the left like Occupy Wall Street and Antifa. There are a few interesting commonalities around these groups:
  1. They seem to be grassroots, often starting through a viral post, or an emotional reaction to an event. 
  2. They feature a very strong appeal to emotion, but have an almost total lack of educated or intellectual support.
  3. They tend to be purely destructive – there is often no attempt to create anything new, no clear agenda, no clear and considered plan.
  4. As soon as there is an attempt to form a cohesive agenda, by someone who is a bit more educated or intelligent – the fizzle out.


I’m not necessarily married to the term “stupidity” here – but I do think there is clearly a new phenomenon at play here, that of self-organizing *without* an actual organization, which necessitates thinking, planning, or capable educated people.

Intrepid Radio Interview (18 minutes)

This short and sweet interview on the Intrepid Radio podcast dives into the idea behind the Book of Hard Truths.

Join me for a conversation that will very likely change how you look at your life. Today, joined by author Eran Dror, author of The Book of Hard Truths.

These “hard truths” are widely known and explored in religion & spirituality books, self-help books, psychology books, philosophy books, TED talks, etc. As Dror explains, he simply collected them, wrote them out as clearly as he could, and packaged them together in a new and compelling way. “I tried to create an emotional experience with the illustrations and the text, which will linger, “Dror writes. “My hope was that the book will provide a spark, which will get you thinking on your own about the truths you’ve been avoiding in your life.”

Listen Below:

Knowledge for Men Interview (52 minutes)

My longest interview yet, this interview on the Knowledge for Men Podcast is an exploration of The Book of Hard Truths.

Israeli born journalist, author and designer, Eran Dror has worked at various startups in NYC for nearly 10 years. Eran is the author of “The Book of Hard Truths” a book that brings into the light several hard, uncomfortable and unavoidable facts about life that we must all learn to accept.
Eran has recently taken an interest in Buddhist psychology and the ways we can apply it to our own lives to live with more presence.

Listen Below:

Avoiding Hard Truths = Professional Agida?

Alexandra Levit of Intuit wrote this nice summary of some of the truths in The Book of Hard Truths that is getting tweeted around a bit.

Many tough life lessons are first explained to us in childhood but seem to go in one ear and out the other. Our failure to master these often results in professional agida.

As human beings, we tend to hold on to irrational ideas and fight against the inevitable. Based on Eran Dror’s new book, here are 10 difficult truths we all must recognize and then take steps to get over. Warning: some of this might be hard to hear and even harder to digest.

Check it out!

How to Tell News from Propaganda

(I first wrote this post as a Quora answer a couple of days ago. I’m reposting here for your benefit.)

I’ve never lived in a country without freedom of speech, so I’m used to judging news outlets based on what I assume the owner’s editorial policy and agenda is, and it’s easy to compare different sources to get the full picture.

I have, however, studied the effects of censorship and state-control on speech during my history studies and later for my writing. I think these principles could help people identify when their news is significantly tainted with propaganda, whether state-controlled or otherwise:

    • Too Simple – Truth is always complex and subtle. Any story that is too simple is not complete and therefore suspected propaganda. If you are not given facts that go against the primary narrative, then what you are reading is not reporting but an opinion piece disguised as reporting.

 

    • No Disclosure of Biases – Every person has biases. When the person does not admit and disclose his biases in reporting, and does not acknowledge the possibility that others might disagree with him, that is likely propaganda.

 

    • Single Interpretation – Facts have more than one interpretation. If you are only presented with one interpretation, someone wants you to draw particular conclusions. In which case, you may have to doubt the facts, too.

 

    • Consistent Glamorization or Attacks – Reporting that consistently sucks up or glamorizes people in power is propaganda. The same is true of reporting that attacks certain people consistently and no matter what they do.

 

    • Strong Emotional Tone – When there is a very strong emotional tone to the news, without an attempt at objective detachment, you know that there is at least grave risk of propaganda.

 

    • Drowned Voices – When one side never gets to finish a sentence, when it is clear that interviews have been heavily edited, when one side of a debate is demonized without having a chance to speak for itself, that is very likely propaganda.

 

    • Hypocricy & Contradictions – When obvious contradictions and hypocrisy are ignored: for instance one moment praising candidate X for doing something, the next condemning candidate Y for doing the same thing, this is propaganda.

 

Hope this helps!

What is the meaning of life?

(Originally published on Quora on March 16th, 2012)
I used to think that “What is the meaning of life?” is a misguided question, because it assumed the existence of a creator with an intention or a plan, which I never thought was warranted.
But I’ve come to realize that there’s a different way to think of meaning. I think when we ask “what is the meaning of life?” most of us really mean “How should I interpret life in the grand scheme of things? And what value should I assign it?” I think those are very good questions.As a confirmed Atheist, I nevertheless spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about life, its meaning, and how this meaning should guide us in our everyday lives. It’s almost a personal obsession of mine.

What follows is my best attempt at a universal “meaning”:

You are an intelligent being, and intelligent life is the latest, most awe inspiring stage in universal evolution. Its birth was the moment in which the universe has evolved the sufficient complexity  to be able to perceive, direct, and re-imagine itself, and this process is only beginning – through you.

From the first micro-second of its existence, the universe has been a vast though inanimate battleground between two universal mathematical trends: order and chaos, creation and destruction, syntropy and entropy.

Your life, and human life in general, represent the universe’s single best hope in the battle against randomness, entropy, and chaos; the single best reason to believe that creative forces, order, and harmony will prevail.

The way to fulfill this promise is to think and act like an intelligent being. To find a use for that marvelous brain of yours in the service of progress. To create things that are good and useful. To empower others to do the same. And to be happy, truly happy, because that’s the only way to make sure that you are not a force of entropy after all.

Working with Imperfect Models (Part 1)

Lego HouseWhat does your prediction of an acquaintance’s reaction to a piece of news have in common with the weather forecast? They are both based on models of incomprehensibly complex systems; models that approximate, but do not fully capture the underlying reality, and can therefore prove very wrong.

I use the term “model” here to mean any of the condensed mental constructs we use to represent a far more complex reality. These include concepts, principles, visual models such as maps, mathematical representations, and representations of change such as workflows. More often than not, our models use several of these put together, to create a more complete representation of a particular system.

Human beings need models of reality to survive, of course. They allow us to explain current and past behavior, predict the future, and imagine alternative routes of action. And for the most part they work remarkably well: When an architect designs a building, for example, he can calculate the forces and tensions his building must withstand and can counteract them using his model of sound engineering.

But not all of our models are so reliable. Follow most nutritional or exercise theories with 100% dogmatic adherence in the same way that an architect must adhere to the science of building, and you are likely to harm your body. Trust the weather report too much and you’ll end up wet. Believe in your own self-image too much and you end up stunting growth and afraid to take risks.

It’s easy to conclude that the particular model is at fault: simply find another diet, find a better weather prediction algorithm, or change your conception of who you are to a more “correct” one, and you’ll be happy ever after. But many if not most models are inherently imperfect. Specifically, when dealing with systems of extreme complexity, any condensation of information is a net loss in accuracy and predictive ability. Yet, this condensation has to happen for us to be able to hold the model in our limited brain.

So what do we do? I find it useful to try to keep in mind that I am dealing with a model, not with reality itself. Once you introduce the concept of a “model” into your thinking, you can begin to interact with your models as models, and have a healthier relationship with them. Specifically, you can:

  • Keep Your Eyes on the Road – While the map is a useful model, the road is what really matters. Do not get so involved with the map that the road becomes invisible to you. If you are on a new diet, the “road” is what your body is telling you. If you are getting to know someone new, the “road” is what they actually say and do.
  • Identify Limits – Always keep in mind the limits of your models. Try to find the blind spots, the inaccuracies, the oversimplifications, and the edge cases the model doesn’t account for. If you’re an architect, for example, it’s good to ask yourself whether you’ve accounted for unusual strains such as an earthquake or a hurricane; or whether the forces in play change after reaching a certain height.
  • Expect to Adapt – Models are mental constructs, and as such easier to revise than the underlying reality. Yet most people spend their lives trying to make reality conform to their impossible models. Life is a process of revision and rewriting of your models based on new experiences and new skills. So nurture your models, learn from them, but never worship them!
  • Use the Baseline Rule – When you must rely on a model you know is not 100% accurate, such as the model for a healthy diet, or a training regime, try to determine a baseline that you would follow in absence of this model. This can be based on current or common behavior that has a known outcome. Once you’ve established the baseline, experiment in the space between that baseline and the new model. This will help protect you from the cases where the new model is imperfect and potentially harmful.

Remembering the inevitable gap between reality and our imperfect models of it is tough, especially when it comes to models that are emotionally charged. An inaccurate model, though, can yield frustration and suffering, often in direct relation to how blindly we follow it.

I’ve been fascinated with the idea of models, and the ways they change over time, and interact with our emotions in interesting ways. I’ll write more on that in Part 2 of this post. In the meantime, I hope you found these musings helpful! Would love to hear your thoughts, additions, or corrections.

Why do many people believe things based on faith rather than due to the Scientific Method?

(Originally published on Quora on December 29th, 2011)

I believe that the following reasons play a major role:

  1. Human beings have a psychological need for meaning. That meaning must be more than the simple injunction to “make the most of it.” People are looking for some way to look at life and feel that it matters in more than just a personal sense. They want to know what is a life well-lived, and what is the standard.
  2. Human beings have a need for everyday psychological guidance and practice. This goes beyond “curing mental disease”, which is the focus of most of today’s psychotherapy. People are looking for guidance in dealing with the normal difficulties of life. Especially the universal limitations that all human beings must deal with: limited control, limited time, uncertainty, etc. People are looking for tools for increasing happiness, satisfaction, perspective, and meaning in the face of the inherent difficulties of everyday life.
  3. Human beings need a systematic way of dealing with and accepting death.Even Atheists (such as myself) find it helpful to remember and “digest” the fact of their own mortality, and place it in a positive framework. Virtually every religion in the world revolved around a core concept that either denies death or explains it away in a way that help people accept it, at least as long as they believe in the model.
  4. Human beings have a psychological need for meaningful social ritual. By this I mean a way to share and celebrate life and its meaning with others. A structured way to share the journey with your loved ones and your community. A structured way for the community to provide emotional and moral support in times of crisis.

As an Atheist, I believe it is possible for a completely scientific, rational, and proven system to provide us with all of the above. However, it’s also important to note thatno such system exists today.

Until one is developed, people will always flock to systems that seem designed to answer those fundamental needs. They would rather ignore the light of reason when it means, to them, a meaningless and cold existence with no support network or the comfort of social rituals.