Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Religion of Ignorance

I have never heard Ray Kurzweil speak nor read any of his books, but he is certainly a major figure in the world of technology, the world in which I live and work. So he is a very familiar character. In his brilliant passion he reminds me of Edward Teller, whom I did get to hear talk a couple of times. Do I remember right, that Edward Teller was the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? Anyway that shoe would have fit well enough.

I have to admit that I find this sort of brilliant passion more on the pathological side of normal than on the wise side. But these crazy visions somehow have become enormously powerful. Who knows, maybe the hydrogen bomb really did make the world more peaceful. Who knows, maybe computers will become more intelligent than we are, maybe computers will become conscious, maybe we will become able to transfer our consciousness into a computer.

What is quite interesting about these speculations is that their terms are quite slippery. Terms, of course, are always slippery: how many whiskers does it take to make a beard, etc. Sometimes the slipperiness doesn’t make a significant difference – but sometimes it does!

What would it mean for a computer to become conscious, to have a mind? What is mind? Need such a question have an answer? How can a meaningful question fail to have an answer? Or, what constitutes an answer, what function does an answer serve?

Alongside the question, what is mind, consider another question, what is the American Dream? An answer to this question is a political platform, a position that claims power. There is a kind of terrifyingly stupid brutality in refusal to grant others the space to hold different dreams. And, whether we call it consciousness or mind or soul, to carve out an answer and enforce adherence to one answer, that idolatry is the totalitarian killing of the soul. Soul is the ever deepening exploration and appreciation of the boundlessness of experience, of life. But, sadly, the totalitarian killing of the soul is what we must confront every day.

Computer technology certainly gets more powerful and more sophisticated at a stunning pace. What are the implications of that progress? To say that technology is one thing and what people do with it is another, that doesn’t quite make sense. Technology is something that people do. In our massively scaled society, the connections between the different facets of a technology become hidden and disguised and so appear separate. Gun manufacturers don’t kill; gun company stockholders don’t kill; gun sales people don’t kill; gun advocates don’t kill: it is gun users who kill.

Limitation of liability is fundamental to the corporate institution, so it’s not quite right to discount conspiracy theory in this pattern. There is certainly value in trying to understand how we got here. But the value is primarily in helping us understand whither we are headed, and more importantly, what opportunities are available for steering toward the happier among whatever paths are open before us.

This notion of transferring our mind into a computer: what does that idea do? Why might that idea be attractive? Of course we are each mortal, and so any sort of survival of mind beyond the body, that is attractive. Clearly we are toying with religion here, with worship of the computer. A computer is a kind of stunning crack in reality, an actual presence of perfection in our otherwise imperfect world. Religion is not altogether a bad thing: the devil is in the details! How might the religion of the computer work out?

Computers are the ultimate in clarity, the opposite of mystery. Computers are mechanical models of dualistic grasping. A final answer is the end of investigation, of looking, of awareness. To worship computers is to worship ignorance. The 1980s brought us the freedom to think that greed is good. The worship of ignorance is not likely to move us in a better direction.

How might this play out in practice? The worship of greed imploded in the marketplace. The worship of ignorance, unawareness, death, this worship seems likely to implode on the battlefield.

Computer technology already plays a huge role on the battlefield. The fighting gets more and more abstract, at least to those who specify the targets. The battlefield itself becomes abstract. The internet becomes a field of potential targets, friends and foes. I saw a video recently… one video gamer called in a SWAT raid on another video gamer. The SWAT team, with all their guns and armor, were the robots in this farce. A name and address popped out of a computer, and they performed their function as they had been trained, in total ignorance of the broader situation.

We already live in a world that is deeply structured by algorithms… for another example, look at the sort of statistical politics practiced by Karl Rove. Our government is run by statistical analysis of polling data! Our legislators have become robots!

The notion that computers might take over the world, that is quite absurd. Each individual sentient being is in inseparable possession of unbounded power. But that power can be buried and denied in countless ways. The worship of ignorance through the glorification of mechanical dualism, that is one way we can hide from our own power. How deeply can we entangle ourselves in this confusion? That is the nature of our unbounded power: it enables unbounded confusion.

Don’t worry about computers! If we can each acknowledge our own power and responsibility, and cultivate the awareness, curiosity, and wisdom, to turn over the rocks of easy answers to discover the vibrant puzzling life hidden beneath… we might even become capable of making good use of that amazing microelectronic technology!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Portfolio Management

All too often life is a struggle just to get through the day, to dodge bullets or find food or gather fuel for the warmth to survive. But then, too, it can happen often that we find some options and opportunities for acting with an eye toward the future. What can we do now to make a brighter future?

For an action in the present to bear fruit in the future requires some sort of persistent change in the situation to carry that connection. The resources that we bring to a situation can be viewed as a portfolio. Our actions add and remove assets and liabilities from our portfolio, changing the position from which we will encounter future situations. How can we improve our future position?

Exchangeable Goods

The marketplace is home to many situations that help to brighten our day, providing food or clothing, etc. A marketplace is a place of exchange. Money provides a common medium for exchange; exchange can take place both to and from money. We might bring in a pile of books which we exchange for money at the book dealer, then take our money to the fruit seller to return home with a bag full of peaches. For happy outcomes in a marketplace situation, we need to bring something with exchange value. So, one core component of a portfolio will be a store of exchangeable goods.

Of course, exchangeable goods come in a very wide variety. Financial institutions continue to extend this variety at a bewildering pace. The exchange value of a good depends on market conditions which are always changing. Many financial instruments generate interest or dividends alongside their resale value.

The great virtue of exchangeable goods is their flexibility. It’s hard to know exactly what I might need in the future, but whatever exchangeable goods I might have, as long as they have sufficient total value, can readily be exchanged in the future for whatever it turns out I come to need. That very flexibility has a disadvantage too, as the exchange value of goods fluctuates unpredictably.

An exchangeable good has substance beyond its mere exchange value. Gold coins leave scarred earth and poisoned water in their wake. A deposit account at a bank is not merely a number in a file: the deposit account enables the bank to lend money, facilitating further economic activity whose ripples will radiate along untraceable paths. Stock purchases support the activity of corporations.

Accounting can be a useful tool but, like any tool, it has real limits. . There is a sense in which each of us must tend our own garden, but ultimately the actual situation we face is not limited by the boundaries of my garden versus your garden. Accounting can help broaden our view of a situation by keeping track of the many details. The challenge is to avoid getting lost in the details and thereby narrowing our view of the situation and becoming blind to crucial elements and connections.

Useful Goods

There are many goods that we can store for the future, not to take to exchange at the marketplace, but instead to use ourselves somehow. We can store food to eat in the future. We can store clothing to wear in the future. We can store fuel to burn in the future to stay warm. We can store tools to use in the future, for chopping wood or sewing clothes or growing food.

Useful goods have a stability of value that exchange value cannot provide. The nutritional content of a can of beans is not subject to monetary inflation. On the other hand, the can might rust and lose its integrity so the beans spoil. That’s a large part of what makes gold so useful as money: it doesn’t corrode.


Skills can be divided into two types: those whose value is principally in exchange, and those that are directly useful. If I know how to grow my own food, that is a skill that I can use directly to create happier experiences in the future. Knowing how to operate some large piece of industrial equipment is a skill that I might be able to use in exchange for money with which I can then buy food etc.

Skills can provide a sort of security that no store of goods can match. A farmer or engineer or artist might become a refugee and forced to leave behind all their gold coins and all their cans of beans. But their skills can be very valuable in their new location and enable them again to survive and thrive. The value of those skills does depend on the situation though. An expert coffee farmer’s knowledge won’t go so far in Canada, for example.


Physical health gives a person the capability of responding to situations effectively. A healthy person can apply the skills they have, can adapt them, and can learn new skills. A healthy person needs fewer resources to engage with situations comfortably and happily. This creates a self-amplifying feedback loop: a healthier person becomes more able to produce a surplus that can be dedicated to further good health; a less healthy person cannot so easily produce a surplus and may even find themselves trapped in a deficit situation when can then have a further negative impact on their health.


Friends and family, people who will help you when you can’t help yourself, are valuable beyond any price. It is our place in our community that gives our lives meaning. Community is the vehicle for giving as much as for receiving. Community is the stage on which our lives unfold. Community is the context in which our identity is situated.

In our modern world there is an institutional dimension to identity and community. For example, our credit record is an aspect of our identity. One can move to a new town on the other side of the country and use bank references etc. as a starting point.

An older sort of community connection is based on religion or ethnicity. A style of dress, knowledge of particular songs or myths, everyday ritual habits such as a prayer before meals, these can provide entry into community.


The world is a notoriously unreliable place. Whatever beautiful castles one manages to construct, at some point they are sure to tumble down. And yet, somehow, underlying the turbulent waves of experience, there is some kind of truth, some essence, something really beyond our capacity to grasp or beyond any possible grasping. If we can let go of the constant chase after the ephemeral and deepen our experience to live in a way more consonant with that underlying ungraspable reality, there can be an unshakable undertone of happiness that can continue despite the inevitable unending stream of alternating successes and failures. This consonance can grow with cultivation and become the most profound wealth.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Better Widget

Suppose we have a widget factory. We want a really good widget factory. We want to make better widgets. How can we make better widgets? What does it even mean for a widget to be a better widget?

One standard answer to this question is that a better widget is a widget that conforms more closely to the specification for widgets. The specification defines an ideal widget. If we can make our actual widget to be a very close reflection of that ideal, then we have a better widget.

The usual first step in this improvement process is to quantify the various facets of widget specification so we can measure how close the actual widget is to the ideal. If we adjust the operation of our widget factory, we can then compare the new widgets with the old widgets. If the new widgets give measurements that show less deviation from the ideal, then we have produced better widgets. And of course there are statistics involved. The actual widgets we produce are not all quite the same: some are very close to ideal, some are further off. The whole process of improvement can get quite complex, but it can be driven by statistical measurement and managed quite effectively.

Another sort of better widget is a redesigned widget. We can change the specification. What does it mean for one specification to be better than another?

One way to think about this is to notice that widgets serve some purpose, have some use. Very commonly, widget A is used in the process of manufacturing widget B. Our process for manufacturing widget B is a better process if the resulting actual widget B conforms more closely to its specification. So a better widget A is one that produces a better widget B.

In judging the specification for widget A, we would like to know how well an perfect widget A would function. Some actual widget A might produce a poor quality widget B, but just because widget A itself is of poor quality, i.e. does not conform well to its own specification. The fault is not in the specification.

So we have two notions of quality or of improvement: design and manufacturing. An improved manufacturing process will produce actual widgets that conform more closely to their specification. An improved design will specify widgets that can improve the manufacturing processes in which they are used.

This framework brings up many further questions. The network of widgets, where widget A is used to make widget B, is quite vast. Are there widgets that are actually useless, whose value cannot be measured by their effectiveness in some application? What happens when there are loops in the network, so that the notions of better and worse become (indirectly) self-referential and therefore potentially unstable, ambiguous, etc.?

Another problem occurs because a widget might have multiple uses. A new specification might be better for one use but worse for some other use. Perhaps we really need two different types of widget… but then we lose the savings from economies of scale.

At the limit, in a custom construction situation, the processes of design and manufacturing processes are not clearly distinguished. Widget B is designed and manufactured for just a single use. We may be able to measure the quality of widget B through its effectiveness in its application. But we cannot clearly distinguish the quality of the specification of widget B from the quality of the manufacturing process that produced widget B. So, for example, if we used widget A to produce widget B, measuring the quality of widget A becomes problematic.