Live Deliberately, Not Conditionally: On Carpe Diem

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately […] I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

Henry David Thoreau (quoted in the movie “Dead Poets Society”)

carpe diem
quam minimum credula postero
* * *
Seize the Day
Trust Tomorrow as Little as You May

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Such was the advice Mr. John Keating gave his students in the movie Dead Poets Society. Along with this, he passed along an answer to the meaning of life: “That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play (of life) goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

But how do we seize the day? What is happiness, the one thing that we seem to be dreaming so much of and capturing so little of?

Carpe Diem = Reject Living Conditionally

We don’t want to be unconditionally happy. I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. But this is really to say to our friend or to our God or to anyone, ‘You are my happiness. If I don’t get you, I refuse to be happy.
– Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality

Happiness, for most people on most days, rarely comes with “no strings attached.” Happiness is the product of an “if…then…” clause, which is typically phrased in one of two ways:

  • If I have [X], then I will be happy.
  • If I do not have [X], then I cannot be happy.

I think the above is more accurately stated as:

  • If I have [X], then I will be happy for a limited time only (until I see a better alternative to [X] called [Y]).
  • If I do not have [X], then I choose to be unhappy.

In his eye-opening book Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, Anthony de Mello shares an FAQ he gets: “Nobody loves me; how, then, can I be happy?” Anthony replies with this witty question: “You mean you never have any moments when you forget you’re not loved and you let go and are happy?”

Image result for Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality

“Until everyone started getting transistors, they were perfectly happy without one. That’s the way it is with you. Until somebody told you you wouldn’t be happy unless you were loved, you were perfectly happy. You can become happy not being loved, not being desired by or attractive to someone. You become happy by contact with reality. That’s what brings happiness, a moment-by-moment contact with reality.”
– Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality

In the words of Naval Ravikant: “That’s the fundamental delusion – that there is something out there that will make you happy forever.” Once we drop this illusion and come into contact with reality, that is when we are better positioned to Seize the Day.

Carpe Diem = Embrace Living Deliberately

A common rejection to carpe diem is that we should be “rational being” and not be driven by “irrational whims.”

John Keating’s quote in Dead Poets Society in some ways answers this concern: “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” Rather than being the slave of our desires & wants, we should be their Captain.

Such is living deliberately – choosing what preferences to satisfy with a deliberate purpose to stay true to ourselves, and to stay honorable to our values. In the words of Ayn Rand: “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” Living deliberately means being able and willing to choose actions that not only satisfy our pleasure, but also match our values.

Image result for There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.

To all friends and readers – Carpe Diem. Make Life Extraordinary. Let us all remember to better seize the day as the footsteps of a brand new year draws near. May we all be better present for 2020 ahead.

Does meritocracy lack merit? A critique from “The Meritocracy Trap”

Context: The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite is a book by Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School, “attacking the false promise of meritocracy”. An insightful read – packed with elaborate arguments backed up by research & case studies. For those who are short on time, you could get the big ideas from Daniel’s sharing on the Erza Klein Show podcast, or from this article in The Atlantic.

The bold claim: merit is a counterfeit value

Merit itself has become a counterfeit value, a false idol…what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division. A new aristocracy, even.

Daniel Markovits

The meritocratic ideal, i.e., “social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding,” is a mainstream ideal that is often taken for granted and rarely even questioned. In his book, Daniel not only questions meritocracy, but goes one step further to challenge and critique it.

Image result for the meritocracy trap

His central, unconventional claim is meritocracy is a form of aristocracy in disguise – just like the aristocratic system it aims to replace, “merit is not a natural or universal value, but rather the upshot of prior inequalities“.

The setup: meritocracy constructs the “elite class” via meritocratic competition

Daniel argues that meritocracy constructs what is commonly referred to as “the elite class” via two ways:

“First, meritocracy transforms education into a rigorous and intense contest to join the elite.
* * *
Second, meritocracy transforms work to create the immensely demanding and enormously lucrative jobs that sustain the elite.”

(1) The education race: the meritocratic inheritance

“Although meritocracy once opened up the elite to outsiders, the meritocratic inheritance now drives a wedge between meritocracy and opportunity.

Inheritance under the old aristocratic system is largely viewed as “unjust” – the (relatively cost-free) inheritance of capital, such as passing down money or real estate, is widely viewed as unfair birth lottery. In layman terms, it is unfair that some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

Proponents of meritocracy believe that “merit” is the right answer to encouraging social mobility – build an education system that selects based on merits of the students, they say, and let the truly talented make their way up the ladder.

Daniel argues the reverse:

“Education assumes the role in meritocracy that breeding played in the aristocratic regime.”

Today, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford & Yale accept more students from households in the top 1% of the income bucket than from households in the bottom 60% combined. Students with parents whose annual income exceed $200K score ~250 points higher on the SAT compared with students whose parents make $40K-$60K.

The statistics on social mobility do not show a more optimistic picture. As The Atlantic reports:

“Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor.”

In the meritocracy system, parents in the elite class pass on “inheritance” in forms other than direct capital transfer – these parents invest capital heavily into the education of their kids, at orders of magnitude that middle-class parents cannot expect to match.

When we hear educators advertise “equal opportunities to education” for children, we should pause and ask ourselves: what does the word “equal” mean here? It is not sufficient to apply the same (equal) screening criteria to applicants. The pre-requisite to equal opportunities comes from equal access to opportunities. This means the resources that a child has access to should not be constrained by the wealth of the family he or she is born into.

(2) The jobs race: “compulsive overwork” of the elites vs. “enforced idleness” of the middle class

The meritocratic competition “pervades elite life” and extends far beyond school into the professional lives of those who want to sustain their position at the top:

“Evaluations that were once quarantined to exceptional moments like college admissions season or promotion to partner or managing director now infect every step of a meritocrat’s career. Every year, from preschool through retirement, includes some contest or assessment that filters, tracks, or otherwise influences his opportunities.”

Daniel points out an interesting shift in the work paterns of the elites: the “once-leisured rich” work harder than ever before today. Along with a change in work behavior comes a change in values:

“Elite values and customs have adapted to suit these new facts (of compulsive overwork). High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks ‘How are you?’ the correct answer is ‘So busy.’
* * *
Meritocracy makes effortful and industrious work – busyness – into a sign of being valued and needed, the badge of honor.

Daniel shares a “standard disciplinary joke” amongst investment bankers that “they will be lucky to get any day off besides their wedding day. Nor do the hours necessarily improve with seniority.” In a similar humorous fashion, the Wall Street Journal puts up an advertisement that reads, “People who don’t have time make time to read the Wall Street Journal.”

On the flip side, just as much as the elite class today take pride in being busy, they also look down on idleness & leisure. Daniel notes bankers often compain about the “outside (non-elite) world,” where “people leave work at five, six p.m.” and “take one hour lunch breaks”. These people are perceived as “just are not motivated in the same way” as they are.

The compulsive overwork of elites is “the same alienation that Karl Marx diagnosed in exploited proletarian labor” with “an added twist”, in the words of Daniel: “The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.” Daniel believes the “busy” elite who takes pride in never creating time for one’s true self “places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others – he uses himself up”.

An analogy is made with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard:

“The ancient orchard that gives the play its name yields its greatest rents by being cut down to make way for holiday villas – which is to say through its own absolute destruction and the destruction of the way of life that it once sustained.”

It is hard for elites to break out of this cycle of overwork, as long hours often is one of the reasons used to justify the (extremely) high pay of those at the top:

“As a dean of Stanford Law School recently observed in a letter to graduates, elite lawyers are caught in an intensifying ratchet: higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, longer hours require higher yet salaries to justify them, and each increase generates another in a seemingly endless cycle. Whose interests does this serve? He lamented. Does anyone actually want it?”

Goldman Sachs has renamed its personnal department “Human Capital Management” – the irony is not lost that the human labor itself today is one of the most exploited forms of capital:

“Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income – at least using current technologies – only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”

While elites are stuck in compulsive overwork, the middle class are idled. Note that the middle class are not idle by active choice, as in “reluctant to work”. Rather, they are idled as a passive outcome, as in “denied opportunities to work.” Daniel attributes this to “technological transformation” that “shift(s) the center of production away from mid-skilled and toward super-skilled labor”.

As an example, Daniel says the middle-tier manager has gradually faded out from the labor market, replaced by a much smaller number of top executives (the overworked elite class with higher pay) and a large number of lower-end workers (the squeezed middle class with lower pay):

“The managerial control stripped away from production workers and middle managers has been concentrated in a narrow cadre of elite executives, who are separated from production workers by differences of kind rather than degree. The technologies that underwrite such concentrated managerial power – not just the information systems that monitor organizations and gather & manipulate data, but also the ideas and analytic frameworks employed to make sense of the data – are enormously complex. Only intensively trained managers can possibly acquire the sophistication needed.”

The result is the labor market is divided into “glossy jobs” of the elites vs. “gloomy jobs” of the middle class. Glossy refers to jobs whose ” outer shine masks inner distress”, whereas gloomy refers to jobs that “offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion.”

The product of meritocracy: Nativism & Populism in the middle class

Daniel argues meritocracy is the culprit behind nativism. Take white privilege as an example, he thinks the mere idea of white privilege itself irritates whites out of the elite class, because “they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.”

“The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient (i.e., lack of merit) stokes this anger…and the meritocratic fixation on diversity and inclusion channels the anger into nativist, sexist identity politics.”

Nativism allows the “native” group to blame all their problems on the “foreign” group. This finger-pointing on “aliens” is a mask for the insecurity of “natives” – sense of guilt even – that they themselves are the reason to blame: they are not good enough, they do not have enough merits, and hence they are behind where they would like to be in this (supposedly) “meritocratic” system. The “natives” seem to be on guard against the “aliens”, but what they are really pushing back against is their own sense of inferiority.

Daniel goes on to argue meritocracy is also at the root of populism: “a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions.”

“Class resentments in America aim at the professional classes rather than at the entrepreneurial or even hereditary super-rich: not at oligarchs but rather at the doctors, bankers, lawyers, and scientists that working and middle-class Americans feel…’are more educated’ and ‘are often looking down on them.'”

Daniel makes the interesting comparison of Obama vs. Trump: Obama (and also Hillary Clinton) as “a superordinate product of elite production”, i.e., someone who rose and triumphed in meritocracy, and Trump as “a ‘blue-collar billionaire'” who rejects the meritocratic elites – the group that Obama & Clinton are both members of.

Trumpism – and Trump’s own rise – exposes the incumbent elite’s meritocratic contempt for ordinary citizens and its own disenchanted weakness…When Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables,’ she said aloud what the broad elite, regardless of party, had long thought in private. Indeed, Trump’s rise not only reconfirmed but redoubled the condescension that elites feel toward the Americans whom meritocracy excludes.

The philosopher’s angle: Meritocracy and individual rights

According to philosopher Ayn Rand, the fundamental right of the individual, which is the pre-requisite & root of all other rights, is one’s right to his own life:

“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life…which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Rand’s definition, in the meritocratic system we live in today, neither the middle class nor the elite class have fully realized the fundamental right to one’s own life – neither is free to pursue their happiness. The curse of the meritocratic competition – starting from education all the way throughout one’s professional life – enslaves the poor & the rich alike: the former locked in their class with little hope of upward social mobility, the latter willingly enslaving themselves in work with brutal hours that they derive little pleasure from.

“A worker can quit his job. A slave cannot.” This is the curse fallen on the elites, who deceive themselves into believing they owe it to their expensive education to hold high-paying jobs with long hours, even those that they have little interest in.

“Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men.” This is the curse fallen on the middle class, who see themselves as producing for the consumption of the elites, whereas not moving up the social ladder themselves.

The collective illusion: Why it’s hard to critique meritocracy

Although the middle class and the elite class alike are harmed by meritocracy, both groups blame each other rather than critiquing the meritocratic system itself:

Fragile elites disdain middle-class habits and values as a defense mechanism to ward off self-doubt. Meritocrats lionize achievement, or even just distinction, and disparage ordinariness as a bulwark against rising insecurity. They cling to any attitudes and practices – ranging from the absurd (food snobbery) to the callous (corporate rightsizing) – that might confirm their merit and validate their advantage, to others and, above all, to themselves.”

It leads one to wonder: why have we heard so little critique of the meritocratic system itself? Here is Daniel’s explanation:

“Mankiw sums this up when he observes, ‘When people can see with their own eyes that a talented person made a great fortune fair and square, they tend not to resent it.‘”
* * *
“The meritocratic transformation entails, bluntly put, that equality’s champions must justify redistribution that takes from a more industrious elite in order to give to a less industrious middle class. This makes meritocratic inequality difficult to resist.”

The success of a few in the meritocratic system has been used as the poster child to justify the merit of the system itself. The real danger of meritocracy lies not in it being unequal, but in it being justly unequal. It is white-washed to such an extent that those enslaved by meritocracy believe the way out is via the meritocratic system itself – the middle class believe in realizing the “American dream” via “meritocratic education” despite not even competing in the same arena as the elites; the elites cling to their high-paying jobs attained via “meritocratic job selection” despite physical fatigue and emotional voidness for work they feel little attachment to.

We are blindfolded, and yet we believe the way to see is to put more blinds over our eyes. Such is the irony. Such is the power of the meritocratic illusion – it not only makes us not see, it makes us refuse to see. This has to be the most ingenious form of slavery.

The way out: How should we fix the problems?

Daniel suggests we should go back to tackle meritocracy at its two major forms of manifestation, i.e., education & jobs.

For education, he suggests: ” Private schools and universities should lose their tax-exempt status unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. And public subsidies should encourage schools to meet this requirement by expanding enrollment.”

For the job market, he suggests: “favoring goods and services produced by workers who do not have elaborate training or fancy degrees. For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors.”

As Daniel admits, change will not come easy: “Any victory will be long-fought and hard-won.” The key first step is acknowledging the problems of meritocracy, and the need of a united force to tackle them. I leave you with the last sentence from the book:

To update an old slogan: the workers of the world—now both middle-class and superordinate—should unite. They have nothing to lose but their chains, and a whole world to win.

Daniel Markovits

What does it mean to be “Educated”?

Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience…the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.

John Dewey

Education is a continuing reconstruction of experience – at least according to philosopher John Dewey. John’s quote was splattered across the first page of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. This book is so amazing that I am at a loss of words to describe its impact – parts of it hit me like a truck, while parts of it softened me like a lullaby; parts of it sent chills down my spine, while parts of it swelled warmth in my chest.

If I could only recommend one book to read this year, Educated would be my pick. In the words of Bill Gates, this is “the kind of book everyone will enjoy. It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

Tara’s book is aptly named and poses this grand question, among others: what does it mean to be educated? What makes one deserving of this word?

Educated = Claiming Selfhood. Unapologetically.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
* * *
I call it an education.

Tara Westover

“I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me (from my family) and that difference is not good. I want to bellow, to weep into my father’s knees and promise never to do it again.”

Traitor. That was how Tara Westover felt when her father & family wrestled for control over her life, and she attempted to fight back.

That was how Tara felt after she rushed her injured brother to the hospital instead of to her mom’s herbal therapy. That was how Tara felt for simply thinking about going to school instead of growing up into her “rightful” place as a stay-at-home mom & wife. That was how Tara felt for telling her brother to stop physically abusing her and throwing her onto the floor. That was how Tara felt for wanting to try on jeans & fitting crops, clothes that she were told to belong to “whores”.

There were moments where Tara had doubts about what she was taught by her parents:

“Sometimes I wondered if perhaps school was less evil than Dad thought, because (my brother) Tyler was the least evil person I knew, and he loved school – loved it more, it seemed, than he loved us.”

But these seeds of doubt & curiosity rarely blossomed into the fruits of action. These prescient signs of Tara’s claim to her selfhood were crushed time and time again in a vicious loop:

“Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go.
* * *
But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.”

Naval Ravikant said: “If you want to see who rules over you, see who you are not allowed to criticize.” I would take that one step further – if you want to see who has the greatest power over you, see who you do not allow yourself to even question.

Such power at its most forceful throws its slaves into this endless cycle of rejecting one’s claim to selfhood, over and over again. Such power at its most damning whispers the hyptonizing words “to simply be is to be evil,” until these words are tatooed into the victim’s soul. One feels its chilling effect from Tara’s words: “I believed then – and part of me will always believe – that my father’s words ought to be my own.”

The most lethal poison is one that you drink as if your life depended on it; the most deceitful mask is one that you wear as if it were part of your natural skin. Eventually, you are no longer able to discern between what is your voice vs. what is the voice from others – they blend into one, and you take the latter as your own. You have rejected selfhood. You have given up believing in selfhood.

The dictionary definition of “selfhood” is “the quality that constitutes one’s individuality; the state of having an individual identity”. Interestingly, according to Google Books, the frequency that the word “selfhood” appears in English works have been on the rise in the past two centuries. This upward trend coincides with the rise of individualism and freedom of expression:

I argue what sits at the core, as the prerequisite, of being “educated” is to claim our selfhood. To claim our selfhood unapologetically. To question others’ claim over our selfhood critically. Becoming educated starts with saying: “I recognize and honor my innate right to define and continuously redefine my self.” Selfhood is where education starts. Selfhood is where identity starts. Selfhood is where living as a free, breathing being starts. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Tara remembers vividly the defining moment where her brother, Tyler, stood up for his selfhood:

“‘College is for extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,’ Dad said (when Tyler wanted to go to college). Tyler stared at the floor, his face tense. Then his shoulders dropped, his face relaxed and he looked up; it seemed to me that he’d stepped out of himself. His eyes were soft, pleasant. I couldn’t see him in there at all.”
* * *
“I will always remember my father in this moment, the potency of him, and the desperation. He leans forward, jaw set, eyes narrow, searching his son’s face for some sign of agreement, some crease of shared conviction. He doesn’t find it.”

Selfhood starts when we no longer copy the “shared conviction” of the group. When we “step out of ourselves” to inspect who we are. When develop convictions that we could truly call our own.

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind…If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now.
* * *
What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

Educated = (Re-)Creating the Structure of Life. Unconstrained.

You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance…The underlying structure of your life determines the path of least resistance.
* * *
Structure determines behavior.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance
The shape of water is defined by the structure it is in

“‘It’s time to go, Tara,’ Tyler said.
The longer you stay, the less likely you will ever leave.
‘You think I need to leave?’
* * *
Tyler didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate.

‘I think this is the worst possible place for you.’ He’d spoken softly, but it felt as though he’d shouted the words. ‘There’s a world out there, Tara…And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.

Leave. Leave home. This was the advice Tara’s brother Tyler gave her, before he himself walked away from home, and never looked back.What Tyler was really telling Tara was this: change the structure of your life. As long as you are stuck in the same structure, you will never know what the world is like out there. Worse still, you will never be able to imagine what life on the other side is like.

Tara’s recalls her experience taming a wild horse:

“In the space of a moment, he had accepted our claim to ride him, to his being ridden. He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that other world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.

People commonly believe that if they change their behavior, they can change the structures in their lives. In fact, just the opposite is true.
* * *
If you are in a structure that leads to oscillation, no solution
will help. This is because these psychological solutions do not
address the structure, but rather the behavior that comes from
the structure.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance

In the memoir, Tara wrote about native Apache women, whose fate were dictatated by the customs & rules set in their community:

I thought about the Apache women. Like the sandstone altar on which they had died, the shape of their lives had been determined years before…Decided. Choices, numberless as grains of sand, had layered and compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.

Just like the Apache women, the shape of Tara’s life has been determined years before she was born. Before she was born, her parents had decided not only what she would become, but also what she would believe. She would believe schools and medicine were evil. She would believe women should not work. She would believe giving birth at home with a “midwife” without any formal training or certification was safer than giving birth in a hospital. She would believe the “non-believers” – those who held opposing beliefs – were out here to get her. She would believe the Feds could come with their guns to hunt her family down anytime.

As long as Tara was stuck in this structure, she would never have a shot of truly breaking free:

“I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms…that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.”
* * *
“All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.”

Leaving her birth family was an educated decision for Tara. It is hard to imagine how she felt as she wrote these words: “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them…You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

It takes education and courage to re-create the structure of life, such that the path of least resistance takes you to where you want to go, such that you re-shape the cup so the water morphs into the shape you have in mind.

This could mean saying goodbye to people you love and / or people who love you:

“We think love is noble, and in some ways, it is. But in some ways, it isn’t. Love is just love. And sometimes people do terrible things because of it.
* * *
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you…It’s very difficult to continue to believe in yourself and that you’re a good person when the people who know you best don’t.”

Perhaps part of us would always miss the old structure that we broke away from, just as a part of Tara would always miss her family – or rather, the parents she wish she had:

“…(I thought of) my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.”

But to be educated means the ability to detect the unsolvable conflict between the present structure & your future self. To be educated means the audacity to craft a new structure where your true self could blossom. After the initial ‘cultural shock’, you will eventually find peace:

“I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances…I learned to accept my decision for my own sake.”

Believe it: you will eventually find your inner peace when you let your inner self blossom.

Education is about Making a Person

I leave you with one last quote from Tara:

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.

Tara Westover

Educated means claiming selfhood – your right to define yourself as a person. Educated means crafting structure – the birth-bed to let your selfhood flourish.

Borrowing words from the rationalist school of thought that it’s not about being more right but being “less wrong”, the making of a person is not about becoming more perfect but “less flawed” and “less plastic”.

Circling back to John Dewey’s quote at the very top: education is the continuing reconstruction of experience. I wish we all continue smoothly along the journey of education, of bringing us closer to the person we want and deserve to be.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful”: Man’s Journey to Make Sense of the World

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Edward Pelham Box, British statistician

This quote by a British statistician is, arguably, not limited to describing statistical models. Every thought we have shapes our map (mental model) of the territory (how the world works).

An article on the rationalist blog Less Wrong believes the “abstract concept of ‘truth” is better thought of as “the general idea of a map-territory correspondence“.

The map is not the territory” is a core mental model:

The map of reality is not reality…If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us.

Farnam Street blog, “The Map Is Not the Territory

This is the paradoxical takeaway: the flaw & value of the map both lie in it being a reduction of reality. On one hand, every reduction is a conscious decision to be imprecise – some information is inevitably lost. On the other hand, compression is what makes it of use to us: focusing on what is the most important (or per the 80/20 rule, focus on the 20% that yields 80% value) allows us to maximize the value density of information we have, i.e., think of it as value per “unit storage space” of information.

I could not attribute the source of this – but someone said: the world always makes sense. If you think something “does not make sense”, what really does not make sense is your model of the world.

For those who are into rationality & critical thinking, I highly recommend this fanfiction: Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality – after all, what could be a more fun way to learn about something than mixing it with magic? 🙂

Here is a quote from the fiction: “I ask the fundamental question of rationality: Why do you believe what you believe? What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?

As the author wrote in another post: “We need the word ‘rational‘ in order to talk about cognitive algorithms or mental processes with the property ‘systematically increases map-territory correspondence‘(epistemic rationality) or ‘systematically finds a better path to goals‘ (instrumental rationality).

Striving to be rational means striving to improve map-territory correspondence, while acknowledging we could aim to be less wrong but never completely right. This recipe of curiosity plus humility combo is what powers us to build a model that is inevitably wrong, but hopefully helpful.

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[Big Ideas 003] Role of Museums in Education & Science vs. Religion

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Former Head of Chicago’s Field Museum John McCarter

John McCarter is the CEO & president of the Chicago Field Museum. He “oversees the work of 200 scientists” on diverse research topics from protecting endangered tropical environments, to molecular evolution. He is also “one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement (that argues life is created by an intelligent cause, or God)” and “an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students.” Read the original interview in the May 2006 issue of Discover magazine here.

Why it’s hard to sustain kids’ interest in science

McCarter thinks there are two challenges to science education:

First, “kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade —when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated.” He proposes counteracting the problem “by telling stories”:

We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later.

John McCarter

Second, it’s hard to attract or sustain attention amidst the “competition for time” in the digital age:

Two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot…yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I think institutions like this don’t have a crack at people’s attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people’s minds.

John McCarter

Museums in the science vs. religion debate

Shortly before the interview with McCarter took place, the Chicago Field Museum launched an exhibit – Evolving Planet – in March 2006. It showcased the 4-billion-year evolutionary journey of life on Earth.

McCarter shares the Evolving Planet exhibit was motivated by a dissatisfaction with current exhibits on evolution “constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs”.

Yet, he was also challenged on whether this exhibit was intended to promote the evolutionary perspective (that he is a strong advocate of):

Interviewer
What is the harm in telling the other story (of religious narrative)?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution.

McCarter believes religion itself has undergone a shift:

The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact.

John McCarter

For McCarter, the key issues in theology worth focusing our attention on are “applied morality of behavior and guidance”.

McCarter shares that the population that visit museums are skewed to have a higher % of those who subscribe to the evolution theory (instead of religious explanations on intelligent creation). He cites ~50% of the US public accepts the evolution theory, but this number has grown to 75% amidst museum-goers.

“And for those people who don’t accept it (evolution theory), the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don’t do that in paleontology.”

Museum as a powerful storytelling platform

I particularly like this Q&A snippet in the interview:

Interviewer
It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think I’d call it advocacy…I call it storytelling…You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story.

Museums don’t just lay out facts – they use facts to present a story, a narrative. Museums could be another powerful form of storytelling or propaganda.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

[Big Ideas 002] Psychotherapy

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Neurobiologist Eric Kandel: Studying Fear vs. Happiness; How to Make Psychotherapy More Robust

Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize for research on the memory of sea slugs – yes, you read that correctly, sea slugs indeed. He co-edited Principles of Neural Science, “the book every medical student in America is required to read—all 1,414 pages”. Read the original interview in the April 2006 issue here.

Fear and happiness are two basic emotions Kandel studied:

  • We could categorize fear into 2 types depending on how it originated – instinctive fear and learned fear. “Fear comes to a certain neural circuit…you can turn that circuit on and off with specific genes.”

    For example, when researchers knowcked out the stathmin gene in mice, they saw both types of fear reduced. Kandel sees the application of this gene in anti-anxiety agents, and may help to “open up a biology of security and comfort”.
  • Fear is an emotion that is produced in animal experiments using “tone and shock”, i.e., play a tone while subjecting the animals to electric shock. In contrast, it is unclear “whether we can behaviorally—without manipulating genes—produce the opposite, and that is happiness.”

Kandel received training as a psychiatrist, and is also interested in psychoanalysis. When asked about the psychology-neurobiology split, Kandel says: “I am proposing a demanding criterion (for psychotherapy): that you be able to detect abnormalities in patients beforehand by such brain-imaging techniques as functional MRI [which measures blood flow in the brain], and then use (brain) imaging to see whether or not there is a change in those markers for the disease as the therapy progresses.”

Related Reading: Types of Psychotherapy & Measurements of Effectiveness

In 2014, the US Department of Health & Human Services published Strategies for Measuring the Quality of Psychotherapy: A White Paper to Inform Measure Development and Implementation. This paper gives an overview of the types of psychotherapy, and comparison of common measurement methods.

There are 3 dominant types of psychotherapy, amongst others:

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): short duration of 6-16 weeks, focuses on specific, current problems;
  2. Interpersonal therapy (IPT): slightly longer duration of 12-16 weeks, focuses on the connection between mood & stress, most commonly used to treat depression;
  3. Psychodynamic therapy: longer duration that could stretch years, focuses on how past experience relates to the present.

The white paper summarizes the research into effectiveness of psychotherapy:

There are 3 key ways to measure the effectiveness of psychotherapy:

  1. Structure measures: focuses on the capacity of the service provider, “most often used in accreditation or certification programs”. KPIs could include info on staffing, data systems, and treatment procedures;
  2. Process measures: focuses on “whether individuals receive care or treatments that have evidence of improving outcomes”, typically measured based on claims (e.g., track frequency of visits), medical records or self-reported content of therapy;
  3. Outcome measures: focuses on “whether individuals receiving psychotherapy experience improvements in their symptoms and functioning”. This is also the category that the authors of the white paper recommend doubling down on.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

[Big Ideas 001] Genes, Proteins, Pluto

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Geneticist James Watson: The Man who Discovered DNA

James Watson was a member of the team that discovered DNA is organized in the shape of a double helix (i.e., intertwining strands of nucleotides on a superstructure of sugar). In 1962, Watson & his teammates won the Nobel Prize. Watson was also the Director of the Human Genome Project. Read the original interview in the July 2003 issue online here.

A gene associated with violence could exist in 2 forms:
(1) Express a lot of enzyme => anger dissipates fast,
(2) Express little enzyme => children who were abused.

* * *

A protein called POMC is broken down by proteases into:

  • Endorphins 安多芬/內啡呔: makes you happy
  • Melanocortin 黑皮质素 (MSH): made when you’re in the sun

“When you make MSH, you’re also making endorphins. So my theory is that that’s why the sun makes you happy.”

* * *

“Just let all genetic decisions be made by individual women. That is, never ask what’s good for the country; ask what’s good for the family.”

Planetary Scientist Alan Stern: Champion of the Probe to Pluto

Alan Stern was the principal investigator for the probe mission to Pluto. “Stern has made a career of investigating the solar system’s frontiers.” Read the original interview in the Feb 2004 issue here.

A planet is defined as a body that orbits its star and:

  • Large enough to become round under self-gravity (otherwise it’s called a rock), and also
  • Small enough so that hydrogen fusion does not take place in its center (otherwise it’s called a star).

After the interview with Alan Stern, Pluto was downgraded from a (full) planet to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The reason for IAU’s decision is Pluto “has not cleared its neighboring region of other objects.”

Pluto was one of the first discovered in the Kuiper Belt – also known as the 3rd zone of the solar system – featuring a colection of trans-Neptunian objects. The Kuiper Belt is interesting because it features >100,000 miniature frozen worlds, i.e., planetary embryos frozen in time during their gestation. For unknown reasons, the planetary formation processes in the Belt area halted.

Scientists were interested in Pluto for two reasons amongst others:

  1. Plato and its moon (Charon) form a binary object, similar to the Earth-moon system. The New Horizons space mission to Pluto was the first mission to such a binary-object system;
  2. Plato is shrinking in size with an atmosphere “escaping rapidly like a comet’s” – this is what we believe to be the same process that happened to earth during the evolution of its atmosphere.

Contrary to popular belief, despite its distance from the Sun, Pluto is expected to be as bright as dusk on earth, “with enough light for you to easily read a book.” You could also expect atmospheric phenomena such as fog, cloud, haze or snow.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

Talk Takeaway: “Fintech & Blockchain in China” by Prof. He Zhiguo (University of Chicago)

I attended a talk by Prof. He Zhiguo from the Booth Business School at the University of Chicago, titled “Fintech & Blockchain in China”. The talk was recorded and I hope it will be shared online for public view later. In the meantime, here are the most interesting parts I took away:

Pig Faces & Fraud Detection in Insurance

…have nothing in common? You read the section title and stare at me with a puzzled look.

You are not alone – that’s what I thought too. But contrary to our belief, the technology of identifying the face of a pig is very valuable for insurance companies to detect fraud. (Yes, “facial recognition” does not necessarily has to mean human facial recognition.)

Here’s the trick: imagine you are an insurance company, and a farm owner comes to you to buy insurance for his pigs – he wants to secure against say diseases or other factors that may cause his pigs to fall ill or die.

As a scheming insurer, you worry about a potential fraud case – say you enter an insurance contract with the farmer for 100 pigs. Ten months later, the farmer comes back to you and argues that one of the pigs has caught an illness covered by your insurance contract – let’s call that pig Piglet X.

Now, how can you be sure that the Piglet X is one of the original 100 pigs covered by your insurance contract? How can you be sure the pig you see today is the same pig you saw ten months ago? The answer is: you cannot – unless you have technology that could reliably recognize the face of a pig!

At current technology levels, an accuracy rate of ~80% is already top of the league – with much room for improvement. When the number of pigs is large enough, a 20% error rate could mean a considerable amount for an insurer!

Understanding Bitcoin Mining: Think About Kings & Followers (a mathematical game-of-thrones)

In explaining the rules-of-the-game for Bitcoin mining, Prof. He used the analogy of a “game-of-thrones”.

In Bitcoin “mining competition”, each round has multiple miners compete for their own block of transactions to be chosen as *the* canonical block that everyone else follows. Think of each round of Bitcoin mining competition as multiple miners competing to be elected the King-of-the-Round that gets to write history – and this history would be recognized as The Universal History that everyone treats as sacred. All other versions of “history” from other miners – those who lose the fight for the throne – are treated as heresy not to be trusted.

Importantly, to be elected the King and to keep the “crown”, you must write history truthfully. If you blatantly lie (e.g., make up a transaction), you risk losing followers, i.e., your people ‘rebel’ and go after a new king. In other words, there are cryptographic / mathematical checks & balances to make sure the “King” does not get to dictate history entirely to his will.

One common critique of Bitcoin mining is that it is an Arms Race – plus a relatively inefficient arms race. With more inputs in the race (i.e., more miners and / or more computing power & energy that enter the race), the output does not grow proportionately.

Money, In Simplest Terms, Is A State-of-the-World With 3 Factors: You, Me, How Much

The concept of money, put simply, is an accounting system – it simply answers this question: who paid whom by how much?

Say I paid you $100. The ‘money’ in this case is a “state-of-the-world” with 3 variables – you, me, how much ($100).

When we say “money”, we mostly care about one of two things:

  1. Who are the transacting parties – sending vs. receiving?
  2. What is the amount transacted?

The forms of money could vary – from paper money to numbers on a ledger to digital entries with no physical form…but all forms of money have one thing in common: they (aim to) represent a state-of-the-world with 3 key factors: You (Who), Me (Who Else), How Much?

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Have comments or want to discuss more? I’d love to hear from you! Write to me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or reach me on LinkedIn. (P.S. At time of writing, I am working at a fintech / blockchain company.)

Interested in other fun events in Hong Kong? Check out this newsletter where I list out events I’m going to this month.

* * *

Special thanks to the University of Chicago for hosting this talk, for free, at their gorgeous Hong Kong campus. The event was well-organized – shuttle buses to and from metro stations, refreshments & food, name badges for registered attendees were thoughtfully provided for. Kudos to the team!

BEST Article I’ve Read in 2019: Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking by Peter Kaufman

Hands-down this is THE BEST article I’ve read in 2019: Peter Kaufman on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. I would recommend spending 20~30 minutes reading the entire article slowly, word by word.

In the meantime, here is my takeaway on the key ideas and comments. At the end, I share my plan for putting what I learnt into action:

Understand => Know What to Do

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “To understand is to know what to do.” This is the central premise on which Kaufman basis his talk – to truly understand is what prevents us from making mistakes (vice versa: mistakes are caused by a lack of understanding, i.e., not knowing what to do).

Read => Master Big Ideas From Multiple Disciplines

So how can we better understand?

The answer, for Kaufman, is to start by mastering what Charlie Munger calls “the big ideas” from multiple disciplines. He discovered that each issue of the Discover Magazine features an interview with an expert on his domain of expertise – explained in simple layman terms. Kaufman printed out 144 of these interviews, and read every single one of them.

[F]or the next six months I went to the coffee shop for an hour or two every morning and I read these. And I read them index fund style, which means I read them all. I didn’t pick and choose.

This is the universe and I’m going to own the whole universe. I read every single one…Guess what I had at the end of six months? I had inside my head every single big idea from every single domain of science.

Peter Kaufman

Model => Develop Multidisciplinary Thinking That Works Across “3 Buckets”

Before we develop a model, we need to have a way to test whether the model is sound. For Kaufman, a sound multidisciplinary model would be applicable to what he calls “the 3 buckets”:

  • 13.7 billion years – since the origin of the Universe
  • 3.5 billion years – since the birth of biology on Earth
  • 20,000 years – since the record of human history

Kaufman believes the following rules are applicable in all 3 buckets:

(A) Everything in the Universe works according to mirrored reciprocation. Everything. Every thing.

In bucket #1, Newton’s Third Law of Motion is universally applicable, i.e., for each action, there is a counter and equal reaction => mirrored reciprocation.

In bucket #2, animals react agreeably to those who treat them well and attack those who treat them badly => mirrored reciprocation.

In bucket #3, “every interaction you have with another human being” is nothing more than mirrored reciprocation.

Kaufman’s model overlaps with the Mimetic Theory of the philosopher Rene Girard. I’ve previously written about it in “Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game”.

(B) The most powerful force across all 3 buckets is “dogged incremental constant progress over a long time frame”, a.k.a. compound interest.

Albert Einstein said “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.”

Yet, being consistent is what we do not like to do. As Kaufman says, this is called variance drain in geometric terms: “Whenever you interrupt the constant increase above a certain level of threshold you lose compounding, you’re no longer on the log curve. You fall back onto a linear curve or God forbid a step curve down. You have to be constant.”

(C) Make “Go Positive, Go First” your life motto.

To understand means knowing what to do. Now we heard about mirrored reciprocation and compound interest, what should we do? Kaufman says: “You have to go first. And you’re going to get back whatever you put out there.”

This is similar to what Rhonda Byrne writes about in her bestseller “The Secret” – she argues a fundamental law of the Universe is we attract what we are and what we think we will get.

However, human’s loss aversion means that a 2% probability of failure is enough to deter us from acting at all in the first place. Kaufman challenges us to up the game: “If you’re getting beat(en) in life, chances are it’s because you’re afraid of appearing foolish. So what do I do with my life? I risk the two percent (chance of being foolish or fail).”

Begin the Doing => Join Me For The “Discovery Challenge”

To move beyond preaching to truly “understanding” (knowing what to do), I have launched the “Discovery Challenge“:

Pledge: I have started reading the interviews in Discovery Magazine to get a grasp of the big ideas across disciplines. I am referencing this PDF resource here (special thanks to the author for compiling).

Join Me: I will be summarizing the Big Ideas in future issues of my email newsletter, delivered every 1-2 weeks, with the motto of “Brainy is the New Trendy. Funny is the New Sexy.Subscribe here to receive the newsletter and curated ideas for free.

Reach Out: If you have other suggestions on how to develop multidisciplinary thinking, feel free to email me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or reach me on LinkedIn – I’d love to hear from you!

No road is long with good company.

Turkish proverb