Monday, September 4, 2017

The Twenty Year Itch: A New Approach to Education

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
Samuel Beckett. Westward Ho.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”                 
George Bernard Shaw. 1856-1950.

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”

"Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years."
         Thomas Jefferson. Letter to James Madison. September 6, 1789.

Anyone who doubts my passion about this subject is welcome to go read my other blog posts on the topic:

I don't think anyone will argue with the statement that we can create a much more meaningful and impactful educational system if we fundamentally rethink our approach to it. The disagreements are rather about the type of system that should replace it.

One thing has become obvious to me. Incremental improvements in the current model of education will not get us where we need to go. Nothing short of a revolution in our thinking about education will address the problems of the current system. We need to stop thinking about sixteen to twenty years of education early in life that prepares you for a lifetime of work. Our world is moving forward at such a fast clip that the education we received even twenty years ago is basically obsolete for today's workforce, let alone tomorrow's information based needs. It makes no sense to assume that the education you are receiving today will prepare you for a career in 2150 or beyond.

Think about a model of education, instead, as something that will prepare you for the next twenty years of your life - not the next eighty, as it is currently being implemented. Rinse and repeat every two decades in order to avoid the “planned obsolescence” almost guaranteed by today's system.

There is an admission here that on the job learning and continual education is required for staying competitive in today's market. Once you reach age forty, in my new mode, you have a fork in the road. If, after twenty years of combined investment in education and work in a field, any field, you find you are happy and content and want to continue down the same career path, then by all means, double down for the next twenty years, pick a specific subfield to specialize in, continue to take more senior level graduate courses to beef up your education and learn about the technology and sub-specialty you're interested in. Remember, you've just spent twenty years investing in this particular field - be it computer science or economics or art history. Now you've come to a fork in the road and decide to double down. Well, good for you. Fame and fortune is sure to be yours as you become a senior leader in your field of study with many years of work and study under your belt.

If, on the other hand, you decide you've had enough and want to try your luck at something else - be it nuclear physics or genetic engineering or finance, well then - welcome to your second twenty year “era”: you have felt the “twenty year itch” and decided to scratch it.

You may go down this other path for several legitimate reasons. Maybe you decide you're just not good at "it" (your initial field of endeavor) and want to try your hand at something else. Maybe you're entrepreneurial and feel you've learned enough about this field (say, computer science) and want to learn more about economics - and the intersection of these two fields of study. These, by the way, I find, are the true innovators today - the ones who don't limit themselves to a single specialty, spending the first thirty years of their lives specializing in some esoteric field of study before their careers even begin. This model obviously rewards generalists and practitioners but it also leaves the door open for specialization - later, as needed and fresher when delivered compared to today's model. Rinse and repeat every twenty years and, I claim, the end result is a much healthier society with healthier, happier people living longer more productive lives.

Lots of interesting business ideas are born at the cross-section of disciplines, not within a single field. We should be welcoming and rewarding polymaths. If we want to succeed in the future, we have to abandon our education system built for the eighteenth century, for the industrial revolution, for mechanization, for memorization, and replace it with one for the information revolution, one based on inter-disciplinary insights. It may have made sense two hundred years ago to educate ourselves once at the beginning of our lives - when life expectancy was forty, not in the next century when it will be over a hundred.

In such a world, to be clear, you would spend the first twenty years of your life learning a craft - be it science or history or economics or medicine. You would then spend your twenties and thirties working in that field - and continue to take classes for further specialization as needed. At age forty, then, you come to a fork in the road. Continue to specialize or flip to another industry, another field of study, another career? Your forties and fifties, I claim, in this model, will be much more productive than what we get today - with the vast majority of people deciding they're stuck in a career they hate for the rest of their lives. It reinvigorates them, I claim, if they are given a chance to pursue another career. Rinse and repeat at sixty and eighty. You get my point. As our average life expectancy increases, it's the only sane option.

Such a system, I claim, would have to abandon the current model of standardized tests and specialized fields of study in its initial iteration. But the first step is to recognize that a rinse and repeat model of education is the right one for our future. Such a model will reduce the teaching of unnecessary minutiae, I claim, and will deliver a more coherent, less specialized model of education in the first twenty years of life. It will do so because it knows it will get a second chance at a subset of those students twenty years later - and maybe even forty years later. And when they come back the second time around, they'll be much more motivated than they were as teenagers and they will have twenty years of experience behind them as well. Let’s face it: Some fields of study just naturally lend themselves to incorporation of past social interactions. It is more fruitful to study, say, psychology or law later in life, as a forty year old than it is to do so as a twenty year old with no life experiences or scars on your back.

Industry would have to collaborate in this model of the universe, accepting people into their employ with perhaps a few fewer TLAs in front of their title. More generalists interested in learning a craft than specialists. In reality, most high tech companies already do this through intern programs that sometimes reach all the way into high school to pick early talent.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

I Don't Think This Is What They Meant by "Retirement"!

“The testicles of a sparrow are about a millimeter long and weigh about a milligram. (That’s one of the reasons you never hear that someone’s hung like a sparrow.)”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.

“Honeybees warm themselves by contracting the muscles in their thorax. Wood storks cool off by defecating on their own legs. (In very hot weather, wood storks may excrete on their legs as often as once a minute.)”
Elizabeth Kilbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

“Writers don’t prepare for people to read them, so much as they prepare for no one to read them.”
     Ta-Nehisi Coates. On Homecomings.

It's been almost a year since I “retired”, so I figure it might be time for a status update. I put that word in quotes because, to be honest, it's only a partial retirement, a semi-retirement, a toe dipped in the water to check conditions before full submersion. I still advise a few startups and spend a bit of time working on my own startup ideas; enough to stay engaged with the industry and, hopefully, also to learn new things in the process, to stay relevant.

The rest of the time I bike, I travel, I spend time with the family, I read, I do things that I never had the time to do when I worked full-time. My days start at five or six a.m. I'm an early riser; who knew? And, yet, thanks to not being saddled with work stress, I sleep well. A state of affairs unheard of just a year ago. At first, I thought this was due to the amount of physical exercise I was getting but I realized later that I slept well even on days that I didn’t get a chance to exercise. The only difference was the level of stress in my daily life compared to when I worked.

At one work related event last week, I ran into an old colleague who also recently “semi-retired”. He sits on half a dozen boards, works a few hours a day, reads like a fiend, and also has found out he likes “taking naps in the early afternoon.” He must have really low stress in his life.

I spend two to three hours a day, pretty much every single day, exercising. In my case, that means biking up the mountain. Having destroyed every joint in my body through decades of running long distances, having suffered through lower back surgery and years of related physical pain, I have settled on biking as a much more “reasonable” sport, one that can be enjoyed every day without doing as much damage to your body. I even tried to argue with my wife that, three hours a day times seven days being over twenty hours a week, my time in the saddle should practically count as a part-time job in and of itself. She just rolled her eyes. Whatever keeps me out of the house and out of her hair, I guess.

Another joyous outcome is the number of hours I can spend reading. I've always been a bookworm but I haven't read this much since I was a teenager! And I'm loving it. There is still nothing in the world better than losing yourself in a good book. And thanks to Amazon, there's always a fresh batch of them on my bedside table.

I've also spent quite a bit of time with friends and family. “Quite a bit of time”, in my case, meaning any non-zero positive integer. It's amazing how easy it is in 21st century America to lose yourself in your work, in your online social life, and maybe your immediate family. Spending time with friends and family takes time. And who has time for that after a dozen hours at the office?

One of the most enjoyable events of the past year was a month we spent traveling in Europe with friends and family. The best part was not having to check email every day, not having to jump on conference calls every night, not having to rush back home to attend a meeting. There is definitely something to be said for the slower pace of life that most other cultures enjoy and that American society has abandoned in favor of efficiency and economic advancement.

The truth of the matter, I've come to realize, is that I hate the act of travel. The planes, the jet lag, the hotel rooms, living out of suitcases. I've been on so many trips in my life that the novelty has long since worn off. I still fantasize about and rhapsodize about off-the-beaten-track destinations but we've made the act of traveling itself so stressful that it completely negates any positive feelings we may experience when we finally get to the destination. At times like these, I am thankful that our memories are imperfect and tend to romanticize the distant past.

In the same vein of travel and family, my parents are visiting with us. They spend most of the time living in the old country and come to the US once every two or three years for loooong visits - four to six months spent traveling around the US, staying with their siblings, children, in-laws, nieces and nephews: their extended family. The Islamic revolution of 1979 tore that extended family apart and its members have spent the past forty years living drastically different lives across multiple continents.

I found myself spending many hours talking to my parents over the past few weeks, mostly my dad. Hours that would have been spent at work in a meeting or hunched over a laptop during their prior visits. The sad truth is that we inhabit two different universes and there is nothing we can do to reconcile those two worlds. Here are two octogenarian cancer survivors who don't speak a word of English, have never used a computer (despite our half-hearted attempts), don't have an email address or a credit card. I love them as my parents but I find, increasingly, that I have very little in common with them. That, perhaps, is the saddest part of the story. Having spent roughly forty years of my life away from them, and doing so in a world that has been moving away from theirs at light speed, hasn't helped.

I'm sorry to say my parents have never known what I actually work on. Sure, they know I work on computers. They even know the names of some of the companies I’ve worked for. Microsoft, SGI, Cisco. But push one level deeper and they would be lost. Operating systems? Cloud? Storage? Security? Networking? Applications? Disks? Memory? CPU? Bits? Bytes? Where do even I begin to explain my world to them? I might as well be talking in Chinese. Facebook? Emojis? Texting? Streaming? Netflix? These concepts don't even exist in their universe. Try having a conversation with any such elderly person about the cloud, social media, or pretty much anything in our digital universe and you'll see what I mean. Do so with someone living most of their lives in a third world country and you'll grok my point even more clearly. Try doing so in a language different from the one in which you learned the concepts and you'll have an even better appreciation for my dilemma.

Part of the problem is that our physical world has also moved online while theirs is still brick and mortar. Their daily concerns are so different from ours. They go to the corner grocery store while we order our fruits on Amazon. They stand in line at the bank to cash checks while we snap a photo of the check we want to deposit. They religiously call friends and family on a regular basis just to check in, even if they really have nothing to say. They get on the plane and travel for eighteen freaking hours to come see us in person. Meanwhile, we limit our personal contacts with friends and family to Facebook shares and Instagram likes, maybe an email or a text message if we really have something important to say.

Our spoken languages are almost as foreign. And I'm not talking about the words or the grammar, I'm talking about the concepts expressed by those languages. I happen to be perfectly fluent in Farsi as it was the first language I ever learned. Yet, put a book or newspaper article  in front of me that was published in Iran in the past forty years and I would struggle to read it. Not because I can't read the words. Not because I can't figure out the grammar. But because the concepts are foreign to me. The names of the people are meaningless. The historical events don’t ring a bell. I don’t have this problem with older books, ones published before the revolution. Only with newer books; not because the words are different but because the concepts are.

Our cultures have drifted apart, too. They know nothing about the music I listen to and I've long abandoned theirs. They watch Turkish soap operas while I listen to John Oliver and quote Seinfeld. They lived through a war while I went to school and built a life half way around the world, in a different universe. They see Donald Trump as a maniac. I see Donald Trump as a maniac. Okay, maybe we agree on one thing.

I'm sorry if this sounds insensitive. I don't mean it to be. It's just that, however painful it might be to admit, we inhabit different universes. It's so much harder to find common points of interest when there are so few points of intersection - in our histories, in our daily lives, in our worlds, in our world views. I don't mean to imply that my world is better than theirs or vice versa, just that they are almost inconceivably different, almost irreconcilably apart. And every day that goes by, they become even more so.

So those hours of conversation with my parents are not spent talking about technology or business or the markets or even politics. They often revolve around their “end games”: how we can help if (when) the end comes for each of them. It's been a sad visit. Enough said.

Back to the topic at hand: semi-retirement it is. I'm not sure what I'd do with full retirement anyway. I'd have too much time on my hands - and no one wants to hear about a retired geezer biking up the mountain six hours a day!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dr. StrangeCloud – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

I wrote this blog a few years ago when I was still CTO at VMware. I didn't realize it was published on the web by VMware until someone sent me this link today. The last paragraph is a sales pitch for VMware products so I've deleted it below but the rest is a fairly honest assessment of the cloud and its impact on infrastructure that I still stand by.

Dr. StrangeCloud – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

  • By   
By Ben Fathi, Chief Technology Officer, VMware
Marc Andreesen famously wrote “Why Software is Eating the World” in August 2011:
“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”
A scant three years later, it’s time for us to admit that software has already eaten the world. It’s also time for us to get over it and start dealing with the consequences.
Here’s a simple challenge: Name one industry or a single aspect of our social lives that hasn’t been dramatically and irreversibly changed by the power of software. Whether entertainment or education, travel or medicine, genetics or physics, banking or shopping, driving or communicating – I challenge you to find a single activity not influenced by or totally redefined through software. Entire industries – travel agencies, bookstores, photography labs, music stores, telcos – have either disappeared or have had to reinvent themselves to survive.
Until recently, incumbents routinely enjoyed decades of prosperity in every industry – including software. But in this brave new world, whether consumer or enterprise, we are innovating at such a pace that products introduced just a few years ago are already obsolete or being disrupted. As computation and storage costs continue to decrease and network bandwidth increases – as computing finally becomes a true utility – we’ll find more and more applications that can benefit from the power of software.
We are truly starting to live in a digital universe with software at the core of everything we do.
Just like we stream or download our movies and music today rather than going to Blockbuster or Tower Records, we download most of our applications from the internet as well. When was the last time you installed software by going to Best Buy and buying a shrink-wrapped box? The new cloud-based consumption experience is more convenient. It gets rids of the inventory problem, the manufacturing problem and the supply chain problem, but it also presents new challenges. Having these services available 24×7 is no simple feat. To pull it off, we run massive data centers in the cloud, with software designed to be resilient and scalable.
I sincerely believe we are at an inflection point in the history of computing. The future will be “cloudy” – not just for consumers but for enterprises too. The massive and unmistakable move toward cloud computing further reduces the barrier to entry for startups and simplifies the consumption experience dramatically.
We’re already seeing this in the consumer space as the complexity of Windows has given way to the simplicity of Android and iOS—simple operating systems augmented by compelling cloud services, with “worry free” upgrade and maintenance.
The same benefits apply to enterprise software as well.. Many categories of enterprise software are now being delivered as cloud based services: Salesforce for CRM, LinkedIn for recruiting, Workday for HR, Office365 for productivity, etc. Even infrastructure, such as servers and storage, can now be consumed through the Internet with IaaS offerings from the various public cloud providers.
Now let’s put ourselves in our customers’ shoes for a minute: As a progressive virtual infrastructure/private cloud admin, I would like to install the latest release of vSphere once a year so I can get access to the latest innovations from VMware and its partner ecosystem. Realistically, though, upgrading to a new version is often tied to hardware refresh cycles, so I may have to wait 3-4 years for the latest innovations. I also have a lot invested in high-end storage gear and network switches, so I want to continue to utilize them. As part of the upgrade process, I will have to install the right third-party drivers and firmware on the servers and the SAN arrays and the network switches, install and configure disaster recovery solutions, etc. In essence, I become the system integrator and take on a significant amount of work for my IT organization, in the process creating a bespoke environment that is different from every other enterprise.
Now let’s switch hats for a minute and become a “cloud” customer.  I pull out my credit card, go to (or one of our 4,000 or so service provider partners in the VMware vCloud® Air™ Network), click a few buttons, and I’m up and running my application in minutes. If I need high availability, I just check a little box that says “Make my workload resilient to two simultaneous infrastructure failures” and the cloud takes care of the rest.
You will correctly point out that I’m comparing apples to oranges here. I’ve just outsourced my IT to VMware by using their cloud. Some poor administrator is still installing software on those servers somewhere and maintaining them. True enough, but that’s our specialty and I think we’re better positioned to handle it. The key point here is that the cloud provider optimizes their capital expenditure and operational costs by drastically reducing the hardware and software configurations that he supports to provide the service.
Let’s face it. The cloud experience is a major leap ahead of any improvements we can ever make to the “shrink-wrapped” experience. Even if we ship perfect bug-free software, we are still asking the admin to do integration of all the third party components on-site and to manage the lifecycle of all these products by performing upgrades and patching. Increasingly, admins (and CIOs) today are being asked to choose between this model and the cloud model.
... [Rest of blog (VMWare-specific comments) available here] ...

Monday, July 3, 2017

Riddle Me This: Sketches from a Brief European Sojourn

"To believe something is to believe that it is true; therefore a reasonable person believes each of his beliefs to be true; yet experience has taught him to expect that some of his beliefs, he knows not which, will turn out to be false. A reasonable person believes, in short, that each of his beliefs is true and that some of them are false."
           W. V. O. Quine. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary.

"Well, we got wines from all over the world. We got, uh, English wines from France, we got Italian wines from all over Europe."
EJ Carroll. Everybody's Fine.

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
Robin Williams. 1951-2014.

We’ve been coming to Europe on a regular basis for almost forty years now and love practically everything about it: the bustling and historic cities, the cobblestoned alleys in medieval villages, the sun-drenched islands in the south and the green valleys in the north, the many languages and cultures. I stopped going to museums and tourist sites long ago, choosing instead to walk the streets, sit at sidewalk cafes, and watch people.


We’ve just landed in Paris, the sun is shining, and I’m jetlagged. What better time to go for a walk? As I walk through the twisty side streets of Marais, I’m surprised to note the lack of tourists. I have always been in love with Paris but had come to dread visits surrounded by throngs of tourists at every corner. This time, things are different. The airport was practically deserted; it took us less than five minutes to clear customs. There are tourists around, to be sure, but they are few and far between. Police cars and armed officers are everywhere, government buildings are barricaded, and we are asked to cross the street when we get too close for comfort. Every few minutes, police cars and armored vehicles streak past at high speed, sirens blaring. There is a tension in the air that I’ve never sensed before. I’m sad to see that terrorism has killed tourism in this beautiful city but I’m also, secretly and guiltily, enjoying the quiet streets.

I sit at a cafe in Place des Vosges to have a drink. There are almost no tourists around and the locals are sunning themselves in the park in the middle of the square. The waiter comes by, hands me a menu, and walks away. He doesn’t say anything and neither do I. A few minutes later, I look up and notice that he’s standing in a corner, grinding his teeth, making ugly faces, and flexing his muscles while looking directly at me. That’s odd! Another couple of minutes go by and I glance at him again. If anything, his gestures have become even more pronounced. He’s clearly not happy to see me there and is making it obvious.

[Paris - Source:]

It’s a strange spectacle I’ve never witnessed before. Everyone talks about rude Parisians and I’ve seen my share of them but this is not normal. I think back to what I may have done to irritate him but we have barely interacted and haven’t even spoken to each other yet. I sit there, puzzled and uncomfortable. The next time I look in his direction, he’s talking to another waiter inside the restaurant. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to serve me and is looking for a way out. This second waiter now comes to take my order. I ask for a glass of wine and try to ignore the hostile environment but it’s no good. Amazingly, the first waiter now stands in a corner, raises his fists, and grimaces as he stares angrily at me.

I’ve had enough. I stand up and pay for the wine I haven’t drunk. As I turn to walk out, I see him smiling broadly, frankly beaming, happy to be rid of me so quickly. It occurs to me that he’s probably a Le Pen supporter, angry at all the foreigners destroying his country and culture, frustrated about the terrorists killing his people. I see a parallel to the current political climate in the US and can’t honestly blame him for his actions. What I don’t quite understand is why such a person would take a job as a waiter in a touristy location where he has to interact daily with the very people he dislikes.


It's 5 PM in Paris, a few days later. The angry waiter is a distant memory and, thankfully, all my other interactions have been positive. I'm sitting at a cafe on a side street in Saint Germain and trying, unsuccessfully, to blend in. My tourist clothes instantly betray me as I sip a drink and watch locals chain smoke like it's 1985!

A couple of fifty-something men of color sit down at the next table. They are sharply dressed in business suits and are clearly professionals of some sort, either businessmen or lawyers. Both are in superb physical condition - not even a hint of a beer belly - yet I doubt either of them has seen the inside of a gym in the recent past, if ever. They have dozens of printed pages in front of them and scribble notes as they discuss a business deal or perhaps argue over a court case. Surprisingly, one of them orders a glass of milk and the other orders an espresso and chocolate croissant! Did I mention it’s 5 pm?!?

For the next two and a half hours, they chain smoke and talk, laugh and argue, frequently making notations on the pieces of paper. They’re still at it as I get up to leave. For all I know, they will continue the discussion over dinner. It occurs to me, as I walk away, that I've been watching a routine business meeting that is commonplace here in Europe but would be unheard of in the US. Everything about it is different from the equivalent experience in the States: the outdoor setting instead of a conference room, the glass of milk instead of beer, the two and a half hour duration, pieces of paper instead of laptops, sharp suits instead of jeans or dockers, trim physique instead of layers of flab, the relaxed banter, cigarette smoke wafting through the air.

The scene is basically repeated at another cafe the next evening. The guy at the next table looks like a Hollywood movie star: thirty-something and, again, fit as a fiddle. Both he and his girlfriend are smoking and sipping wine. Three ancient looking women sit at another table drinking Campari and Soda, talking up a storm, and, you guessed it, smoking almost non-stop! As I look around me, I see more and more fit people walking around with their kids, buying bread for dinner, or just sitting and talking unhurriedly.

I have to admit the locals are pretty damn healthy looking, by any standard of physical fitness you may wish to use. And yet they eat fatty foods, smoke like chimneys, and stay up until midnight drinking - on weeknights, no less! Most have never seen the inside of a gym and get their only daily exercise by walking. They seem healthier than their American counterparts - regardless of age.

I see the same thing as we travel through France and Italy over the next few weeks. With fewer tourists around, the European cities and countryside are actually much more enjoyable. Rome and Tuscany, perennial tourist favorites, were crowded but the villages of Umbria are almost deserted. More than anything, it’s the relaxed pace that is jarring to Americans. Even in bustling Rome, the pace is glacially slow. Dinner can’t be had in less than three hours - the waiter will make sure of that!

[Assisi - Source:]

Riddle me this: Why do Europeans get to live like this, enjoy longer relatively healthier lives, all while staying out with friends and family eating massive dinners and drinking multiple bottles of wine until midnight, taking four hour siestas every day, never getting on an exercise bike or attending a Zumba class in their lives, and smoking cigarettes?

This will seem like a cliche but there are only two main differences that I have observed: first, Europeans eat whatever they want; second, the level of stress over there is visibly lower. We talk obsessively about work-life balance, they live it. Americans work harder and longer hours, are much more careful about their diets, avoid cigarettes like the plague, spend hours a day exercising, and yet they are chronically overweight, in debt, and tired if not sick. My admittedly simplistic interpretation of the data, based on nothing but anecdotal evidence, is that the combination of hormones and genetically modified ingredients in our foods are slowly but surely making us sick while ever-increasing levels of stress conspire to make us miserable on a daily basis.

A baguette purchased in the morning in a European city goes stale if not consumed by that same evening but a loaf of bread purchased at an American supermarket has an expiration date a month hence. Why do you suppose that is? We’ve gotten so used to having chemicals added to our basic foods that we no longer even question the need for them.
I’m not naive enough to believe that all Europeans enjoy happier healthier lives and that all Americans are doomed to suffer through stressful ones. Nor am I suggesting that Europeans do everything right and we should abandon our lifestyles tomorrow. I do, however, have to wonder when we’ll wake up and get off the treadmills we’ve created for ourselves.

My brother-in-law travelled with us. He’s suffered from an amazing series of gastrointestinal problems over the years. He's had colitis; he's had a quarter of his intestine removed due to digestive problems; he can't eat dairy, gluten, carbs, or sweets; he is constantly going from doctor to doctor while at home in the US, can’t eat anything other than bland home cooked meals, and is constantly at the edge of another intestinal “episode”.

He had pasta, tiramisu, and bread every single day. He had fried food, he had salads, he had cheese, he had deserts. He ate things he would never dream of eating in the US - and he was fine! He ate anything and everything while he also wondered aloud why he wasn't having any intestinal problems! Same guy, one day later, random restaurant in Italy. The experience was repeated again and again every day while traveling. No intestinal problems whatsoever. The only thing that was different were the ingredients in the food.

Anecdotal evidence.


Then there’s this. I googled the GDP of Italy. It’s 1.8 trillion US dollars - with a population of 60 million. Think about it. That's about three Apples! Sort of puts things in perspective to think about it that way. The numbers are only slightly better for France: $2.4 trillion and 66 million people. By comparison, the US GDP is $18 trillion for a population of 320 million. In other words, the per capita GDP is almost double that of Italy and France. Our economy is clearly doing better but do we live better lives as a result? I wish we’d take a lesson from Bhutan and start measuring our Gross National Happiness instead.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Our True Sixth Sense: Fiction

“Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
James Baldwin. I am not Your Negro.

“In the 300 years of the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course, of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions, to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.”
          Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Hans: As Gandhi said... An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
Billy: No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left? No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?  All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush. Gandhi was wrong. It’s just that no one has the guts to come out and say it.”
Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. Seven Psychopaths.

We humans do have a sixth sense but, despite popular belief, it’s not ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). In fact, I would argue that ESP is simply a small subset of our broader instinct. Our true sixth sense is our sense of fiction, our innate ability to weave narratives at every opportunity, our penchant for asking “what if” at every turn, our willingness to create or participate in stories that may or may not be rooted in the physical world around us. We’re the only species capable of keeping thousands of such complex scenarios in our mind, each a fiction that we personally or collectively believe in. Other species are capable of rudimentary deception (chimps can “lie” about where they hid a banana, for example) but we're the only species who absolutely wallows in fiction in practically every part of our lives – so much so that we’re surrounded by it at almost every moment, often without even consciously recognizing it.

That fiction may be Harry Potter or Game of Thrones but those are obvious examples and momentary diversions. The more common stories are the ones we live in all day and night – our common beliefs. The best analysis of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen is from Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. We believe in soccer and basketball teams: concepts that have no basis in physical reality but are nonetheless “religiously” pursued by millions of people. Think about it: what exactly is the definition of the NFL team, The Oakland Raiders? It’s a moniker we apply to a group of men and watch every Sunday on television. The members of the team change every year, the team manager changes once every few years, the owners change once a decade or so, the team jersey and insignia are redesigned whenever ratings sag, the rules they follow are not only arbitrary but can also be changed by a committee at their whim, even the city they are supposed to represent changes on an infrequent basis. Remember The Los Angeles Raiders? Yup. Same team – for a few years. So what exactly is The Oakland Raiders or the NBA, for that matter?

What exactly do we mean when we say “I love the Oakland Raiders?” You can make the same declaration about roses, about Mt. Fuji, about cocker spaniels, and about the moon – with one big difference. The latter are all physical objects that have a fixed definition that could be recognized, if not verbalized, by even an animal. Pretty much everything else we ever talk about or believe in is made up, a fiction, a story that we tell ourselves and others. Including the Oakland Raiders. And religion and society and government and currencies and borders and corporations and brands. Everything on this new list is just a figment of our collective imagination – something that homo sapiens dreamed up. It’s amazing to think about the world around us through this lens; it frees us of many of the prejudices that we take for granted. I call us homo theatricales – we not only make up the stories, we also star in the shows.

Now let’s turn the same lens to a different scene. What does it mean for hooligans in Britain to kill each other over a Manchester United game or for terrorists from the Middle East to kill Christians for their beliefs or for a gunman to take up an AK-47 and walk into a crowded square because IRA? Every single one of those constructs, those sets of beliefs, is a figment of our imagination. If you don’t believe me, let’s look at countries. Think about the “line in the sand” that separates our modern nations. Step over this line through the accident of birth and, suddenly, villages that are separated by a mere five miles are mortal enemies. The proverbial “line in the sand” is just one example of such a fiction. Not a physical line in the sand, mind you. It's just a line somebody drew on a piece of paper about a hundred years ago, roughly speaking, for most countries. But it’s good enough for us to kill each other over.

Most of what we believe in - nations, corporations, religions, gold as a valuable metal, money as a piece of paper that has real value - these are all fictions we have created for ourselves as a species. It is what sustains us, it is what distinguishes us. It is, unfortunately, also what separates us – what turns us into competing bands.

So, I have to ask: if we all agree there is really no line in the sand separating, say, Israel and Lebanon, if we agree that such an imaginary line shouldn't mean the inhabitants on one side are “Arabs” and the guys on the other side are “Jews”, forever and ever - and, oh by the way, we just made up that line a hundred years ago; if we agree that a piece of paper, even when adorned with fancy colors and markings, a unit of currency, does not really have any intrinsic value of its own that would lead you to hand over a car or a jacket over for, that its only value is an index into a database of international monetary exchange rates - so we know that a dollar is worth 1.24762 Euros - even though both are nothing but pieces of brightly colored paper backed by a “promise”, a fiction that exists nowhere but in our collective consciousness; if we understand all this, then why are we so adamant that our side is right - when all the rules are imaginary? Why are we convinced that Catholics are right and Muslims are wrong, or vice versa? The very concepts and teachings of both religions are nothing but the collective beliefs of a group of people. Nothing more and nothing less. Why are we so adamant that North and South Korea are enemies, when neither of those countries - those ideologies - even existed a hundred years ago? They exist nowhere but on paper and in our minds.

Almost everything we get worked up about these days - nationalities, religions, sports teams, financial markets - are nothing but figments of our collective imagination. If you think of it that way, it's much easier to let go of the dogma, the irrational belief that my side is right and your side is wrong - and I don't care which side of the argument you're on, nor do I care which argument we're talking about.

If you think of it this way, furthermore, our sixth sense being our ability to spin yarns and create fictional scenarios in which we live - be they at the personal level, at the corporate level, or at the international level - then the idea of the sixth sense being ESP also starts to make sense. Extra Sensory Perception is nothing but us spinning yarns, making up stories about things, belief in an extra-sensory experience that simply does not exist. I claim every case of reported ESP is nothing but someone creating - or following - a fictional narrative. That doesn't mean they're lying. In their minds, they believe everything they are seeing. Our confirmation biases are too strong for that to not happen.

The lesson? Question your beliefs. Don’t follow them blindly. They are often nothing but fictions, stories that we have weaved for ourselves. As a species, we're damn good at doing that.

That democrats are assholes or that republicans are idiots, that moving a couple of kilometers across a border dramatically changes people’s belief systems and outlook on life, that Manchester United is better than Real Madrid because Ronaldo - these are all fictions in our heads.  I don't even know if that last sentence made any sense because I don't follow soccer. I just know Ronaldo is the name of a character in that universe, that narrative - and the other two are “teams” that may or may not be rivals.

The next time you get all worked up about something, anything, ask yourself: Could I explain this to a member of another species – any species. Ask any passing elephant or gorilla if they are citizens of Namibia or Botswana and you will see my point. Or try to give a ten dollar bill to a chimpanzee for his bananas. Good luck. We are the only species that believes these things. They are figments of our imagination - and, as such, malleable. If we only allow ourselves to be a bit more flexible on our “beliefs”.

So what does it mean to get all bent out of shape over an imaginary line in the sand? Or a religion for that matter?

These are all fictions. We are all the same. Get over yourself.