Let Them Speak

Why is freedom of speech so important?  Because it’s the only way people can ever come to think clearly on issues.  In this next video University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson explains why this is the case.

Oftentimes people don’t know what they think until they actually speak it out loud or write it down.  Once it’s out in the open, another part of their mind analyzes what’s been said, critiques it, reflects on it, and then edits it.  Half of the time, this is what happens with me as I write these blog posts!  When it’s all out in the open, others can react and offer feedback.  As someone who is now teaching for a living, feedback is one of the most important things there is.  It’s how learning happens.

Freedom of speech is really the freedom to make mistakes, and everyone makes mistakes.  Nobody’s ideas are perfect and razor sharp in the beginning.  Things are fuzzy in a person’s head, and they’re not quite sure where they’re trying to go with something.  This is where a loving community comes in.  In a loving society, you should be able to talk about the things you’re thinking about with others without feeling like simply saying this or that is enough to get you shunned or banned from society.

I’m sure you’ve all experienced this firsthand, but have you ever had certain ideas running through your head that you’re afraid to express out loud?  So you wait until you’re in the company of really close friends, and only then share what you really think?  Then your friend may say, “Whoa man.  No.  You’re so wrong.  Let me tell you why.”  You reply, “Is it really that crazy?”  Then they explain it to you, you realize you may need to rethink things, and maybe you go home and read up on it more, do some soul searching, or whatever, and oftentimes change how you think.

I remember once hearing a near-death experience.  The man claims that he died and saw the tunnel of light open up; a being of light then descended down and took his hand.  Upon close examination, this being turned out to be Jesus.  So off they go, traveling through this light tunnel and Jesus asks the man, “What are you thinking about?”  The man replies, “You can read my mind, can’t you?”, to which he proceeded to imagine a beautiful brunette masturbating.  Jesus then gave a playful smile and began laughing, and they proceeded up into heaven.

I’m sure most don’t give much credence to near-death experiences, but one thing I found most interesting about them was the way in which they described God.  When they conversed with this being, it was more often than not informal.  Even if you’ve only been in this being’s presence a short while, you feel free to express your thoughts, as they are, not holding back anything.  Many yell at God, storm around the room, wave their hands in frustration, and so on.  Some tell God to his face that “creation is stupid.”  And this being always responds with infinite patience and forgiveness, and tries to use the situation in some positive way to teach you something.

I personally feel that one the worst things we can do is associate people with the ideas they have.  Ideas are just ideas.  I come at it from a scientist/engineer’s perspective, and I view the human brain as a neural network computer.  I’ve studied a lot of artificial intelligence and neural networks.  The words that come out of people’s mouths are a combination of their own first-hand experiences combined with information they’ve been exposed to, whether it from the news they’ve read, stories they’ve heard from friends and relatives, or things they’ve been taught in school.  Combine that with all of our complicated emotions and desires, and you have the words which come out of people’s mouths.

Thoughts are a type of accumulation we gather from this life.  Depending on where you grow up, the environment you’re exposed to, the education you get, the culture that surrounds you, and other facts, all of that sticks to you and surrounds you, like a shell.  When words come out of people’s mouths, they’re processed fragments of those experiences and the beliefs they’ve formed from those experiences.

I think using artificial intelligence may help shed some light on free speech.  Let’s say I build an android like Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek The Next Generation in my lab.  This android has a neural network brain, and is capable of a high degree of intelligence.  So after completing this android I drive it out to a rather dingy trailer park and turn it on for the first time.

Knowing nothing, the android wakes up and begins to wander around aimlessly, simply observing what it sees.  It begins to make observations and generalizations about us human beings, such as what we’re like, what we’re capable of,  and how intelligent we are.  I then swing by in a truck, pick up the android, and take it back to my lab.

What do you think it’s going to tell us if I then ask it, “Android, what are humans like?”  As you might guess, it’ll be sure to tell me many things about humans, much of which I’ll consider “offensive”.  I could then tell the android, “How could you say those things!  Don’t ever speak that way about humans!”  But that’s not going to change what the android’s neural network believes about humans.  That’s only going to teach it to hide what it really thinks and not be truthful with you.

When the android says something offensive, coming to beliefs that are uncomfortable to hear, it’s not like it had a choice.  Thoughts are a by-product of how its neural network operates.  It took in sensory data, processed it into abstractions and individual objects, created a flow of how those separate objects behaved through time, and then tried to assess patterns in behavior so that it could further predict what those objects would do, and how to behave around them.

Instead of shaming the Android for its opinions, I should instead tell it, “The humans you’ve been exposed to are not representative of how all human beings are.  Many are quite different.”  At this point, the Android may or may not believe me, but maybe seeing me and the other scientists in the lab, it may wonder how it was created in the first place; it may assume, “There must be intelligent humans living because how did I come into existence?  These particular humans seem different.  There may be others.”  But it doesn’t know this to be true.

So what’s the best thing to do?  Give it new experiences!  Let it walk around the streets of New York City, or Los Angeles, or St. Louis.  Take it to universities, to military bases, to the SpaceX headquarters, to Buddhist Temples in Thailand, to a Christian mega-church in the deep-south, to the Super Bowl.  Let it simply observe humans in all kinds of situations and environments.  Then ask it again, “What do you think of humans?”

We’re going to get a much better result this time around, won’t we?  And the more it experiences and learns, the more nuanced and accurate its assessment of human beings will be.

Now imagine I build a second Android of roughly the same make and model.  I unleash it in another country, one that is impoverished, full of gangs, and riddled with crime.  Now the first Android, living in a wealthy, peaceful nation develops a mindset of “love is the way” and begins to view all other mindsets to the contrary as “inferior”.  However, the second Android has come to much different conclusions about life and how one should live.  It’s been struggling just to stay alive.  He’s been constantly attacked by drug dealers and gangs, wanting to scrap him and sell him for parts.  After all, his circuitry is quite valuable on the black market.  The people he encounters are often liars, and most everyone he’s known has tried to take advantage of him at some point.  He lives on the streets and watches nasty race wars take place, day after day.  But he’s not the only one treated badly.  He’s watched the humans do terrible things to one another, over stupid things.  Those he’s known as his allies one day are his enemies the next, and its hard to know how they’ll behave one day to the next.  He must use all his wits just to survive day to day.

So now the Androids meet.  The second Android begins, “I will now proceed with my conclusions about humans.  People are untrustworthy.  They’re violent.  When dealing with them, you have to take care of yourself first.  And people who look like this, who dress this way, they’re especially dangerous.  Cover all your angles and play it safe.”  The first Android hears this and is appalled.  “How dare you say that about humans, especially those with that appearance!  You stupid Android!  I’m offended by your stereotypes and prejudices!  It’s people who think like you that keeps our world from progressing!  You intolerant bigot.”

You know what the best thing to do at this point would be?  To plug a cable between the two Androids and let them copy one another’s memories and experiences.  Then they’d both come to understand one another.

I’m sure you all have drawn the analogy by now.  We human beings utilize neural network computers just like the Androids, it’s just our hardware is slower and more prone to forgetting things and reasoning incorrectly.  We also have no way to quickly copy one another’s memories and experiences.  The next best thing we have available to us is to simply ask one another, “Why do you think that way?  What have you experienced or heard that makes you think that?”  But since we’re so prone to forgetting, those we ask are often not even going to remember every piece of information they were exposed to over an entire lifetime.  So most of the time, we don’t know why we think the way we do because we don’t even remember our life history.  We remember very little.

I’ll just give you guys a silly example.  The other day I was in a gas station.  I walked by the candy aisle and saw all these sweet candies, such as gummy worms, sweet tarts, etc.  I found myself cringing.  I couldn’t help but wonder why I was cringing.  What do I have against gummy worms?  Don’t I like those?

So, considering I’ve been trying to be more “open” lately, experience the world, live in the moment, all that jazz, I bought some gummy worms (baby steps, right?).  That day I had decided to walk home from work since it was such a nice day, and I enjoyed nibbling on my delicious gummy worms.  MMmmm mmmm.  Why haven’t I done this before!  These are great.  What was that feeling of disgust all about?  That’s so weird.  I put the bag in my jacket pocket and all seemed well.  Then fifteen minutes later it strikes.  My head starts pounding.  Oh no.  Oh.  Ohhhhhh.  Riiiiggghhhtt.  Then I remembered — this is why I don’t eat gummy worms.  There’s something weird in the artificial sweetener, or the food dye, or something that often gives me these pounding headaches.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.  I don’t really get it.  But I had forgotten that because I had been avoiding eating them for years and years and hadn’t experienced that lovely pain in ages.  All that was left in my neural network computer was a residual feeling of disgust, and I guess that had kept me away from them for a while, until then.  I had an unconscious  bias against gummy worms, so to speak.

There are a lot of other differences between humans and the android example as well.  Take openness for example.  Depending on how many receptors, and what type, your neural connections have, they fire at different rates, and that’s basically how your neural network does Bayesian (probability) reasoning.  Take me for instance.  I am very low in “openness”.  My good friend Megan learned that about me when we went on a trip together.  She’s high in openness, so she’s always wanting to experience new things, experiment around, and all that.  I’m the opposite.  Once my brain finds a strategy which works, it sort of locks in and wants to continue doing things as it always has.  She thought it was strange that we can be traveling, be visiting a restaurant, and I can just eat the same things I always do at home, and have no interest in trying out new foods.  Then I told her, “I know I already like the food I ordered.  If I tried that weird stuff you’re wanting me to try, I have no idea if I’d like it or not.”  I think she was wanting me to eat octopus or something like that.  Nope.  That’s very characteristic of people with my type of brain.

I say all that to point out that not everyone’s brains will process the same experiences the same way.  We’re wired up different emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, the whole gamut.  No strategy is inherently better than the others.  For example, openness isn’t necessarily better than being more closed minded.  Take what happened under Stalin way back in the 1940’s (I think).  Stalin appointed some new minister of agriculture who had this weird theory for seeds (farming).  He felt that if you froze the seeds in super cold temperatures, this would help them adapt to Russia’s brutal winters and grow better.  So they froze a bunch of seeds and ordered farmers across the nation to use them.  Well, the farmers who have brains like mine (personalities like mine) said, “I don’t want your new seeds.  The seeds I grow every year work fine.” Whereas the “open” farmers were fine with trying out the new seeds.  Guess what happened?  The “closed-minded” farmers were forced to comply because it was a communist regime, so everyone planted these new seeds.  Sad to say, they were total duds, and it caused a huge famine and there was mass starvation.  Openness isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when you have a huge nation depending on something working out.  You can’t just go and change everything and not have a backup plan, but it’s skeptical “party-poopers” like me who are the ones who raise their hands and ask, “But what if it doesn’t work?  What’s the plan B?”  But it could’ve worked, then all the openness people would be like, “See!  Trust the universe!  Trust your intuition!”  It’s yin and yang people.  Both play a part.

That was a bit of a tangent, but I want to go back to what I was saying initially.  Thoughts are not who we are.  I don’t even ascribe moral relevance to one’s thoughts.  You can’t help what you think.  I do think we have some power over them, however.  If you learn that you are not your thoughts, you can step outside yourself (so to speak), and simply observe the thoughts happening, and then think about why you think the way you do, and whether or not its beneficial to think those thoughts.  But your brain is a physical thing, following the laws of physics.  It’s a computer of sorts and one of the by-products of its information processing is producing “thought”.  As a side note, one of the best ways to silence your mind is to convince it that your thoughts are not useful.

However, that’s not how people seem to view thought.  I was with a lot of faculty the other day and we were grading exams.  One foreign graduate student made a comment on some political issue hinting that he may have been somewhat conservative, and another professor just came down on him like a hammer.  “Someone like you WOULD think that.”  Just insulted the guy.  There was this supreme confidence that the other person was wrong, under all circumstances, and such ideas weren’t even worthy of being uttered nearby.  That opinion was total garbage.  Wasn’t even worth discussing.

When I see that sort of thing, it makes me think of another lecture Jordan Peterson had about freedom of speech.  He often encounters students who hold extreme political beliefs, right or left.  Whenever he sees it, he then asks his students to write a long essay on the opinions of whoever they disagree with.  For example, if he deals with a far-leftist, he’ll assign them to write a long essay outlining the benefits of corporations.  It’s an interesting exercise.  After the student does all the research to write the paper, they tend to end up somewhere center-left, instead of far-left.  Same with people far to the right.  Just exposing yourself to strong arguments from intelligent people who disagree with you tends to move you closer to some position between you and that other person.

In today’s society, we have media which is obsessed more with sensationalism and drama than deeply expressing and elaborating upon ideas.  Unless one studies politics on their own, they never hear strong arguments for their opponents sides.  Instead we watch something like the Daily Show, and it all looks like a big circus.  But you know what?  I once listened to an interview with Jon Stewart, and his team’s process consisted of watching the news clips from the past few days and purposely trying to find the dumbest and most absurd things they could find.  Then they would air that stupidity, along with some witty comical commentary, while weaving some political narrative, and that was their show.  It may be funny, but it’s not going to give you a clear picture of the other side.  Don’t seek out the dumbest, seek out the smartest, most well read, brightest people from their camp, and hear what they have to say.  Not doing so only further polarizes us, closing our minds to those who we think aren’t worth listening to.  Why listen to those clowns?  It’s all a joke, right?  If you put yourself in an ideological echo-chamber (which social media inevitably does), you keep hearing your own opinions from different people, and only expose yourself to the dumbest of the other side, you’re just asking for confirmation bias.  Then you only feel more and more sure of yourself, which breeds that sort of blind confidence.

It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re oh so smart, and everyone else is really dumb.  People like that feeling of superiority.  That’s why it’s so popular.  Just tell yourself that the only reason someone could be a conservative or a liberal is because they’re dumb and being manipulated.  It’s a nasty form of disrespect.

Be humble and let people speak, especially if you dislike what they’re saying.  Let it all out in the open.  Love and respect everyone.  Remember that what’s coming out of their mouths is processed fragments of their own experiences and what they’ve been taught and heard.  They may well be wrong, very wrong, but instead of instantly screaming that they’re an idiot and taking over the conversation, instead be quick to listen.  Listen and try to understand.  Most of all, if someone realizes that you love and respect them, they’ll feel free to be open with you, and they’ll probably offer the same love and respect toward you (at least there’s a chance).  Then you can both have an open conversation and learn from one another.

But one thing I do know – hate only breeds more hate.  Silencing people only makes their hatred fester.  When nasty people go to insult you to your face, combat it by being loving and respectful.  Let them see firsthand that their prejudices and biases are wrong.  When they see you carefully listening and acknowledging what they have to say, there’s at least a possibility for dialog to take place.  This is far more important than being “right”, because both parties think they’re “right”.  If you just yell over top of one another without listening, no real communication happens.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself wrong about everything at one time or another, even by own standards, simply judging myself.  I enter a conversation assuming I’m probably wrong, which is often the case, especially if I’m not an expert in that area.  And even in physics, I’m wrong there all the time too.  It’s something I have to work on, especially considering I teach physics!  Can’t make excuses all the time in that domain, but I’ll admit, there’s a lot more that I don’t know than what I do.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics | Leave a comment

How Free Speech Withers Away

I’m a big advocate of freedom and free speech.  Whatever you have to say, offensive or inoffensive, intelligent or stupid, speculative or well researched, whatever it may be, people have a right to say it, to express themselves, to be themselves.  As easily as people are offended these days, I’m sick of these whiners wanting to ban everyone and everything.   I worry about free speech online, or at least on popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and others.

More and more, we see social media giants programming filters into their systems which essentially block certain types of content.  It’s not hard for these filtering systems to be abused, and they already are being used as political weapons.  Employees within these tech companies have an agenda, banning, and teaching machine learning algorithms to filter the sorts of content they personally disagree with.  Also, we have whiny SJWs crying about everything, and corporations reacting to them, pulling their advertisements, and demonetizing content left and right.

Like take this next video.  It just makes me sad.  Project Veritas secretly recorded undercover interviews with Twitter engineers in bars and other places, and in them the engineers freely admit that they’re programming these filtering algorithms into Twitter’s systems.  Like for example, they talk about “shadow banning”.  When a person is shadow banned, they are still allowed to post on their account and everything looks normal, but nobody gets to see their content.  It’s an invisible stealth ban.  Similar tactics are used to ban or filter posts that aren’t liked by Twitter employees, etc. The tool was originally created to filter out Nigerian scammers and other things like that, but it’s increasingly being used as a political weapon.

For example, we meet one Twitter employee who doesn’t care for Trump; he uses the excuse that conservative content is “offensive”, so he’s been going around shadow banning conservative accounts.  Others are training machine learning algorithms to filter out posts from anyone who talks about Jesus, who has a cross on their page, who features an American flag, who has pictures of guns, or any of a number of things like that.  Right now it’s them, but who’s next?  When these Twitter employees are called out on it, they say, “Oh, that’s just to filter out bots and to keep the Russians from interfering with our election.  They’re all fake accounts created by the Russians to create false excitement for Trump.”

It’s strange looking at the folks actively dismantling free speech.  They’re just ordinary dudes from southern California.  They’re typical software engineers talking in that valley accent, “And then like, yeah.  Trump supporters and shit.  And conservatives.  Like, yeah, we totally assign numeric values to that shit.  Like if there’s a gun on the page that’s 1.5 points.  If there’s an American flag, that’s 5 points.  And like, you know, if the total is like, above a certain threshold, we total just like filter them out and shit.  They’re totally designated as a bot.”  Then he jokes to the girls there with him, “Lol.  You should totally be an engineer.” That’s how free-speech is destroyed; some bot tallying up everything you do, point by point, and filtering you based on some arbitrary standard, probably set by some social justice warrior hired by their corporate diversity officer there in the Valley.

If you watch the video, you’ll have the joy of encountering engineer who has made it his mission to remove “mean” people from their platform.   He’s creating a bot which analyzes the speech patterns of offensive, mean, disrespectful people, and then plans to unleash it on the entire Twitter community.  If you happen to use those speech patterns, poof, your posts disappear, or maybe they’re even secretly shadow banned.  Who can tell?

Having studied a lot of artificial intelligence, and realizing the difficulty in programming a bot that actually deeply understands speech (anyone heard of the Turing test?), I know such a system can’t possibly work well, no matter how well intentioned this engineer is.  It’s going to end up as this confusing filter that’s banning things left and right, and nobody even knows or understand why.  Posts just disappear, being secretly flagged by some ineffective bot.  What a mess.  The same thing is going on today on Youtube as videos are being flagged for demonetization and nobody understands how the system works.

This is why I hate centralization.  I wish everyone had their own websites and systems.  That’s how the internet was originally designed.  Instead we now have everyone using a handful of websites and systems, and this sort of stuff happens.

This is the current attack on free-speech.  We’ll try to share our opinions online, but artificial intelligence bots will be looking over everything we do, filtering out anything that doesn’t line up with the whatever narrative has been programmed into them;  alongside them will be the armies of do-gooders, the control-freaks, clicking away, training the machine-learning algorithms what’s “good” and what’s “bad”.  Don’t ever allow ideas like this on the platform!

Why can’t people watch what they want to watch?  Why can’t they read what they want to read?  Listen to what they want to listen to?  Why is this so difficult?  Freedom.  Just give people the freedom to choose.  You want to watch it, watch it.  Don’t want to watch it?  Don’t watch it.  Nobody’s forcing you to do anything.  Don’t like the content on someone’s Facebook page, their Twitter account, their Youtube channel?  Quit going to that page.  Quit being everyone’s nanny.  They don’t need you filtering “harmful” content from them.  Is it really that hard?  Just close the web-browser, hit the back button, go to some other page.  But no, not these people.  They have to ban it, filter it, they have to control everything.  They’re control freaks.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Some Random Thoughts On Video-games

Recently the President showed a highlight reel of the sorts of intense violence in today’s video-games.   It’s pretty bad.  You can take a look at the reel for yourself.

I think the highlights speak for themselves.  Considering that’s what we consider entertainment, and others are arguing that it’s “art”, what does that say about all of us?  It’s not very good.  I find it embarrassing.

I’m more of a casual video game player these days, so maybe I’m not the one best suited to comment on all of this, but from my own experience, I will say that the level of violence in the highlight reel is pretty typical of what you’ll see in something like a first person shooter, or other games like it.

In those types of games in particular, gameplay mainly consists of violently killing things you have no emotional attachment to, over and over, often in bloody gore.  The objectives are normally very simple, asking you to do simple things like get from point A to point B in some virtual map, interact with a few simple objects in the virtual world (such as pulling a lever, pushing a button, etc), and kill everything you come across with guns, swords, rocket launchers, knives, magical spells, and other implements.

I’d blame all of this on our evolutionary past.  Our species lived as hunters and gathers, so is it any wonder why games are filled with hunting and gathering, whether it be killing animals and beasts in magical lands, or other players, or fetching items from the wilderness?  Just read our history.  That’s what humans do.  That’s what all animals in nature do, if you’ve ever watched a wildlife documentary.  It’s not all that shocking, but it’s not a pretty sight.

I personally don’t play those sorts of games.  Well, not anymore. I had a brief stint with them in my early teens, playing games like Doom and Quake, but those games haven’t really grabbed me since.  It’s strange, but when I reflect on playing those games as a teenager and young adult, it’s like I was “asleep”.  None of the violence registered in my mind.  The game was just something to do.  When I’d play Doom, the video game offered some sort of resistance, some challenge or obstacle to overcome, and I would practice the games I liked, and get good at them.  I enjoyed memorizing the maps and clearing the levels as quickly as possible.  But as the years have gone on, I sort of look at it all and am like, why?  It’s not something I want to be a part of anymore.

I think it’s because I started to get into meditation (I guess you could call it that).  I’ve been working at silencing my mind, and in doing so, I felt like I became aware of this inner witness I wasn’t aware of before.  This “something” would ask me to step outside myself, take a look at what I was doing as a dispassionate observer, and I’d find myself reflecting on what I was doing and how I was spending my time.  There was this inner voice in me, and it didn’t judge me, but it said, “Look carefully at what you’re doing.  Watch and interpret the events you’re seeing on the television screen as you’re playing this game.”  I was the judge of myself, but looking at myself with a clear mind, if that makes sense.  It’s been a kind, thoughtful, teacher.

One day it just sort of hits you like, wow.  This is how I’m spending my life?  My time?  Violently killing zombies, monsters, and other things?  It makes you step back and do some serious reflection.

While I don’t play first person shooters, or the other extremely violent video games, I’ve spent a lot of hours playing a different genre called japanese role-playing games.  They’re very fantasy’ish, but they too have their share of violence.  Like you may be some sort of magical warrior, running through beautiful, magical landscapes, killing the different animals that live there.  You burn them with magical fire spells, cut them with swords, and beat them with clubs.  Then after killing them, some numeric indicator pops on the screen and it says, “You’ve gained 200 experience points.  Your strength levels have increased 1 point”, etc.  As you fight these indigenous life-forms, over and over, and get stronger and stronger, you can go on to kill even bigger, stronger life-forms, and progress in the story, which often consists of resolving conflicts with other game characters through fighting them in magical settings.

As I got older, it all started to bother me.  It’s like I step outside myself, my mind is silent for a bit, time stops, and a presence asks me to reflect on the game I’m immersing myself in.  I step outside myself, like an alien, and I’m hovering over my computer chair, looking at myself and what I’m doing.  I learned a great deal about myself in the process.  I realized that what I actually enjoyed about the games had little to do with the games themselves, at least what the game was asking me to do.  I’ll explain.

This might sound bizarre, but what really grabs me in most video games I play are the magical landscapes, the music, and the architecture, which is often so different than anything I experience in normal life.  Running around slaying monsters is generally uninteresting to me.  I’m drawn to these video games as a source of creativity.

For example, you can take me to an art museum and I don’t get anything out of that.  There is some piece of fabric hanging from the wall with a cigarette burn in it, then you move to another display and there’s some sketch of some woman, and then another display with a random photograph of a woman standing beside a mountain.  I feel nothing from it.  It’s lifeless.  I’m certainly not impressed.

However, let’s look a clip from one of my favorite games — Xenoblade Chronicles.  You’re in this magical village, filled with these cute, strange-looking creatures, and they live in the interior of a giant tree; they’ve built this beautiful city that winds up along the trunk, filled with dangling bridges leading to the tree’s outward branches, which in turn leads to other trees, and so on.  It’s just really neat.

And listen to the music.  Do you ever hear anything like that?  How about on TV?  At school?  At the university?  At work?  Before I got into role-playing games, I had never heard musical scores like this.  I heard a lot of bluegrass and blues music growing up, along with gospel hymns, and 90’s pop music that played in the gym when I’d play basketball, but the music in these games was like an entirely new world to me.

Video games create an outlet for these artists to produce that sort of music which has no other way to exist otherwise, as far as I can tell.  There are these super talented people, and these melodies are flowing in their heads, but they have no way to make money producing it without something like video games.

Like take this track.  When I first heard it, I was floored.  I was playing Final Fantasy VIII on my Playstation, just walking through this little virtual village, and this amazing music starts playing in the background.  I’d never heard anything like it.

Games also are outlets for the imagination, in a world where we’re more and more constrained.  Like in Xenogears Chronicles, the entire story takes place on gigantic robot which has broken down, long ago.  Nobody remembers when.  The adventure is you are traveling all across the exterior of this robot’s body, which is covered in forests and magical realms, along with its strange mechanical interiors.  Eventually you journey into yet another giant robot which is connected to it via a giant bridge, which is actually an extended sword.  It’s really something.

Just to show you one particular area of that game, you’re wandering through this marsh, where these aurora like lights are shimmering everything, the trees glow, and there’s these glowing insects buzzing around everywhere.  Though the game is older now, if you let your imagination flow a little bit, it’s really quite beautiful, as is the background music.

Video games are full of really fantastic things, whether it be waterfalls, magical creatures, or stunning environments.  They can be very artistic and beautiful.  Artists are given free reign, and even encouraged to make things as magical and wonderful as they can imagine.  Where else does that exist?

Do you find that in the office where you stamp papers, aren’t allowed to even cut jokes because somebody may be offended, and everyone adheres to some dress code where we all dress alike; it’s boring.  This is why kids escape into video games, just as people in the past did in stories they’d write.

Like take where I work.  Our physics building is beyond drab.  The walls are just cinderblocks, painted some light bluish color.  We have these tiled floors and florescent lights.  My friend Greg and I call it “communist decorating.”  No carpet, no color, no artwork, no designs or paintings on the walls, no music playing.  You go into the offices and there are these green’ish steel bookshelves, along with these old World-World II era steel desks.  My job itself consists of calculating numbers, particularly transmission of waves through biological materials.  Just crunching numbers and producing charts.  No emotion, nothing.  It’s just lifeless and dead compared to these video game worlds.  Like take Macalenia Temple in Final Fantasy X, another one of my favorite games.

Take a look at the floors.  Look at those blues, greens, and the gold.  Look at the beautiful designs.  Look at how the light shines into the room, illuminating the art on the central floor.   Look at how there are statues, there are these urns with plumes of pink flower-like fire coming up, and the banners hanging down, colorful with designs.  Look at how the building is shaped.  It’s not boring and Euclidean.  Instead of being a big rectangular box, it has has a strange shape, with curved walls, all covered with art.  Then there’s this beautiful stair-case, with ornamented rails, and carpet.  See what I mean?

Or take the latest Final Fantasy XV.  You come sailing in on your yacht to this magical city, entering through this elevated waterway, surrounded by waterfalls, looking off in the distance to see this stunning city filled with palaces and grand architecture.  If I died and woke up on that yacht sailing through that waterway, I’d think I’d went to heaven.

Another thing I noticed I liked about games was adventuring with friends.  There was some meaningful thing to do for the world, and we took part in it together, working together.  That probably appeals to me because in my job, I work alone.  I only meet occasionally with my advisor for an hour or two, to basically show him my results.  Whether my work is meaningful or not, I really have no idea.  I’m told it is.  Mostly it’s just a really complicated mathematical exercise to me.  And I certainly don’t get to see any sort of tangible results, even if it is being used by some engineering team somewhere, someplace.  To me, it’s just a lot of tedious calculations, and then submitting the results in a scientific paper located in some journal (which I don’t really read) and on various websites.  Other than that, I get no feedback.  Then I go back to my desk and get back to cranking numbers.   Personally, my mind screams for something more.

In video games, after you adventure with your friends, bonding, saving the world, there’s often a giant, elaborate parade and everyone celebrates.  Maybe it’s because I live in a smaller town, but there’s nothing like that here.  Sure we have parades, but it’s mostly just some guy in his truck, with the name of his business plastered on the side, and his family’s in the back throwing candy.  It’s not very impressive or exciting.

In my reality, I work and work, find some solution to some really complicated problem, and then I produce some colorful charts and hand them over to someone else.  Then I go home.  No celebration, nothing.  I have no idea if anything I do means anything to anybody or not.  Such is life.

A lot of this post is just rambling, but I hope I at least pointed out that there is a lot more taking place in video games than just mindless violence, though I do think the violence is a problem.  If you actually play them, there’s a lot to appreciate, and some amazing creative expression, at least in some games.

Posted in Personal, Psychology | Leave a comment

The Religion Of Inevitable Progress

I’ve spent this weekend reading Aldous Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy.

I would describe it as Huxley’s attempt to glean some sort of universal truth which all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions point to, while filtering out the rest of the nonsense.  It’s a great book, but it’s not really what I planned to discuss.  While reading it, I came across something that really stuck out to me.

He pointed out that the Greeks believed that Nature was conscious and divine, and that those who tried to conquer her would incur the wrath of a god named Nemesis.  This deity attacks those who attempt to be too rich, too powerful, too violent, or even too ambitious.  Any attempt at excessive control of nature, or your fellow men, will only invite punishment.

Huxley points out that this was a universal truth expressed in many of the world’s ancient traditions and faiths, but our modern world has abandoned it in hubris.  He goes on to make a compelling case that Nemesis is just as alive and well in today’s world as in the distant past.

Huxley asks us if we’re happier in the modern world than we were in the past, and as I read his arguments, I don’t think we are.  Some things are surely easier, but we have a whole new slew of problems that people of the past couldn’t have anticipated. He goes through many of man’s attempts to reform this world into something better, and for every “win” there is always a price we have to pay, and this price is oftentimes just as nasty, if not worse, than what was won in the end.

One particular example was that of the printing press.  Intellectuals of the time were heralding a coming paradise on Earth.  With this marvelous invention, we would soon be entering an age of reason, intelligence, and democracy unheard of in the past.  It’s easy to argue the benefits, but Nemesis was also right there.  It didn’t take long before all of the major means of printing and information distribution were controlled by elites and this new technology came to serve advertisers, big business interests, and governments vying for control and power.  While it did help to educate the masses, it also became a tool of control, propaganda, and manipulation.  Nemesis largely cancelled the benefits.

Another example was the airplane.  We are finally able to build machines which allow us to overcome large distances in space, quickly and easily, but once again, Nemesis was right behind.  Militaries around the world quickly turned these machines into death contraptions dropping payloads of white phosphorous and burning napalm down from above, creating a new source of fear and misery.  In terms of suffering, is the ability to get from New York to Los Angeles in a few hours outweighed by all those killed and maimed by war bombers?  It’s hard to determine, but I’d guess that the pros are cancelled out by the cons.

So when we try to dominate nature, what is the major crime we’re committing?  What are we guilty of?  In short, this very idea of “progress” or “bettering your life” is the apocalyptic religion of Inevitable Progress.  Their erroneous creed is that the Kingdom of Heaven is outside of you, in the future, instead of deep within you in the present.  It’s one of the biggest sources of modern day misery, not to mention the destruction of our planet.

The overall message of the Perennial Philosophy is that there is a Divine Ground, the ultimate unmanifested principle behind all manifestation.  Deep within us is a connection to this transcendent power, and it is possible for us to become aware of this connection, know it, and love it.  It is actually the true end of human existence to fully identify with this transcendent power, which is conscious and alive, having its own way of being.  Past cultures have called this way the Tao, while in the modern day we tend to call it the divine “law”, but if one is to achieve their find end, they must adhere to this principle, which is pure, unconditional love to yourself, others, and all of nature.

For quite some time now I’ve been a skeptic.  I’ve found it hard to believe in much of anything.  Most things I investigate turn out to a bunch of garbage.  Anything that’s “real” should withstand scrutiny, and most of all, hold up in your own direct experience.  It shouldn’t make a bunch of promises and then not deliver.  I’ve never found anything more powerful than that core principle stated in the Perennial Philosophy.  I know, from my firsthand experience, that if your gaze is always directed outward, thinking you’ll find peace and happiness in material things, whether it be a career, a love life, some fancy car, or whatever, you’re sorely mistaken.

However, as I’ve been talking about on my blog incessantly, if you search deep within, connect to this “something”, it will directly manifest itself to you.  It comes to those whose minds are quiet and still.  This connection is easily drown out by a noisy, chaotic mind.  But when you’re in a brilliant silence, it’s there.  The keyword is ‘brilliant’.  It’s not a dead silence.  It’s a background hum of power that at times even communicates thoughts to you.  Some people meditate and try to tap into this energy, saying ‘Aum’, over and over.  If you listen to this Youtube video for a while, it has the same energy, but what the Divine Ground is isn’t a sound, or a vibration, or anything really.  It’s a connection between the real you, at your deepest levels, and the divine source of all being, beyond all manifestation.  It’s not physical.  In Hinduism, they say the sound represents the connection between Atman (your soul, your true essence), and Brahman (the ultimate reality, the Divine Ground).

You can make that sound with your mouth and feel the vibration in your chest, and between the sound and that feeling, that is its core frequency.  It has no judgement, either of you, of others, or nature.  It speaks quietly and subtly, just like your conscience (and it is probably the source of this conscience), and everything it says and does is loving and beautiful.

If you’re unaware of this presence deep within, it’s likely due to why I never would hear it either — you’re lost in thought, particularly all kinds of (mostly negative) judgments about everything.  I’ve mentioned many times on this blog that our brains create a sort of illusory conscious experience of “self”.  Some people call this “ego”.  There’s that background chatter in your mind, always making judgments about reality.  Why did this person do that?  Why did they do this?  Why isn’t this better?  Why is isn’t that better?

So how do you combat this, and find that quiet connection?  Gratefulness and appreciation.  Actively seek out the good in whatever situation, wherever you are, and just thank the universe for the good things.  When you’re around people, don’t focus on their faults.  See the good in them, appreciate them, and thank them for everything they do.  It’s infinitely more powerful than fault finding and nagging.  The same goes for all of life.  I once saw Terry Crews on the Tonight Show, and I could tell that he’s found it as well.

I’ve heard over and over that Terry Crews is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.  That’s exactly what students write in my teaching evaluations — that I’m very approachable and easy to work with.  Strangely, I don’t really take credit for that.  It’s more so the natural consequence of silencing your mind.  Once you do, your thoughts start coming from this divine ground, and everything coming out of your mouth is encouraging, kind, patient, loving, and just overall good.  “You” don’t really have to do anything but just be a vehicle for the experience.  I mean, have you ever thought where thoughts come from to begin with?  I haven’t a clue.  From my experience, it’s like the brain is a radio, and you’ve tuned it to “goodness FM”.  You just tap into it, and then it starts coming out on its own.  A silent peace and divine energy comes along with it.

Maybe all of this could be explained with normal human psychology and our brains, but a part of me wonders if there is some deeper mystery and power behind all of this.  I personally have consciously communicated with this entity, and it doesn’t seem to be “me”.  For example, one time I was really discouraged and lacking energy.  I tried to fight it with will power, but my mind kept racing with thoughts of, “I’m so sick of everything”, and other thoughts like that.  It was this whirlwind of negativity and depression.  Then I closed my eyes and asked this being, “I don’t want these thoughts.  I don’t know where they come from, but take them away.  Please give me peace and help me rid myself of this.”  Then I felt it, as if something from the great beyond heard me, and some divine plug entered my consciousness; this ‘Aum’ like energy started pouring in, the racing thoughts quit, I was at peace, and I was left in this “brilliant silence”.

Brilliant silence means that I didn’t go anywhere and nothing was happening, but everything changed.  I just became “aware” of life around me, the room, the walls, my desk, the computer screen, everything, and my attention was lifted from the negative, racing thoughts.  I was just there at peace.  Explain that to me?  Where did that energy come from?  I tried and tried to rid myself of the thoughts, but then I asked this something for help, and it came.  This has happened on to me on multiple occasions now.  If it was some being I could point to, or it resided in some location, I’d give a map and directions, but it isn’t anywhere, yet it’s everywhere.  Whenever you’re in calm, mental silence, it’s there.

I would like to write more about what connection to this ‘divine ground’ is, and how it manifests, but for now I want to conclude this post by saying that the idea of “progress” is something you should really think about.  Most of us think this “progress”, mostly in the form of technology, is necessary to make a better world.  However, I don’t think so.  It’s hard to say whether things are any better than they were in the past.  We make some things better, and in the process make other things worse.  But in the end, everything we will ever need is already within us, and nothing “out there” is necessary to find peace in our souls.  Become more aware of that divine ground dwelling in you and quell the noise through appreciation and gratefulness, and see where that leads you.

Posted in Personal, Philosophy | Leave a comment

Unplugging From A Sick Culture

The other night some of the guys in the gym invited me to hang out with them for a “bro night”.  Since we’re always lifting weights together, I think the world of those guys and was like, “Sure, I’ll tag along.”  It was good spending time with them, but I can’t help but share my thoughts on the night.

It all began with us meeting up at Applebees.  As we sat at our table, laughing and eating, I watched them order plate after plate of food, each with enormous portion sizes, all while they downed multiple giant glasses of soda and beer.  I on the other hand, ordered a small piece of grilled chicken on a small portion of brown rice and drank ice water.

As I looked around the restaurant, watching all these fat people waddling in, eating enormous portions of fried, greasy, salty food, and downing it all with sugary drinks, I thought to myself, “Yep, this is why obesity is so prevalent in our society.”  As of 2007, almost 75% of people in the United States were obese, a number which is growing everyday.  It’s not much better elsewhere around the world.

We have people working sedentary jobs, spending all day sitting in some desk, barely moving, and then they’re shoveling the worst possible foods into their mouths each night.

Some of you reading this may think I’m humble bragging or something.  I’m not.  To tell you guys the truth, I’m very anti-social and spend most everyday, in its entirety, alone to myself.  Since I’m largely disconnected from culture, and have basically zero peer pressure, I fell into routines that are natural to me.  For one, everything I eat is home cooked.  I never eat packaged, processed garbage.  I mostly eat lean protein, like boiled eggs, baked chicken, or baked fish.  Then for my carbs I tend to eat brown rice, or noodles.  And my portion sizes are small.  I oftentimes track my calories in an app as well called My Fitness Pal.  When I’m bulking and lifting heavy in the gym, working out for maybe two hours that day, my total calorie count for the day may be 2500 calories.  On days I can’t make it to the gym, I’ll only eat like 1800 calories.  I get 1 to 1.5 grams of protein for every pound I weigh, maybe (1/2) g of fat for every pound of my body weight (about 90 g per day), and for carbs I may get like 1 to 1.5 grams of carbs for every pound I weight.

But anyways, I state all of this to point out that I’m very aware of what I put into my body and how it responds to what I eat and drink.  For example, if I eat more than 2500 calories a day, even if I’m working out for hours each day in the gym, I’m still going to get fat.  I’ve had it happen to me on multiple occasions.  And on days when I don’t hit the gym (normally the weekends), I have to be even more careful about what I eat.  If I start getting above 1800 calories, I can literally watch the pounds start accumulating on my body.  My stomach starts pooching, then if I keep at it, fat starts appearing everywhere.  In the past I’ve allowed it when I’ve tried out “bulking”, but I’ve learned I’m better off not sloppily bulking at all.  Maybe it’s my age, but I have to eat clean, pretty much every meal.

Why do I say all of this?  I just want to offer some perspective.  Each big glass of soda I watched these guys down (and I’d say they drank 2-3 big glasses of soda, each), they were about 1.5-2 cans of Pepsi each, I’d say.  So each glass was probably anywhere from 225 to 300 calories, and drinking 3 glasses, we’ll just guestimate that to be maybe 800 calories.  ALONE.  Most of that is in pure sugar.  The amount of sugar in cola is insane; it’s best to just see it in a picture. And are you guys aware of what happens when you eat quick carbs, such as sugar?  First your blood sugar spikes through the roof and your body is like, whoa, we can’t have this!  So then it kicks into fat storage mode.  It takes all that extra sugar (now in the form of glucose) and converts it to fat and starts storing it, all over your body.  Wonderful, the exact opposite of what anyone would want.  Plus, this is super hard on your body.  This requires a huge spikes of insulin production.  You’re just begging for Type-2 diabetes.

But we’re not done with this.  Now let’s move onto what they ate.  They began by eating appetizers, which alone were more food than I would’ve ate for an entire meal.  They began with a platter of Won Ton Tacos.  So they ate another 600 calories just to warm up.  This was followed up with humongous Cowboy burgers which were 1200 calories, with 2200 mg of salt!  2200 mg of salt!  That’s the entire recommended daily intake of salt in one burger.  Gee, is it any wonder why people all have heart problems and high blood pressure?  But that’s just the burger.  We still have to deal with the enormous plate of greasy, salty, garlic fries which were 610 calories and another 840 mg of salt.

These guys had consumed well over 3000 calories in one setting, not to mention all the alcohol they were drinking.  That was taking it’s toll on their bodies as well.  I was awestruck.

Next we all rode together to the movie theater.  I was in the backseat and then heard the stereo turn on.  It was that booty in the club rap music stuff.  We all know about it.  That music that objectifies women, glories in their drug dealing, talks about their violent retaliation to other dealers and rappers, brags about their wealth and how everybody else is a nobody, etc.  Though a lot of the tunes and beats are catchy, the lyrics and mental messages are toxic and complete garbage.

So we make it to the movie theater.  I had to use the bathroom real quick (due to all the water I drank as I watched them eat and eat and eat).  I come out and I see them buying MORE soda, giant big gulps of soda, and big packs of candies.  All kinds of chocolates, and they’re each carrying a giant container of popcorn.  They then go to this station and dump loads of butter and salt on top and fill up their big gulps with Pepsi and Dr. Pepper.  I was thinking to myself, “Didn’t we just eat?”

I looked up how much soda was in the big gulps they bought.  You know those giant 2-liter soda bottles they sell at the store?  Those things are family sized and last a normal family, under normal consumption like a week?  I dunno, I don’t drink the stuff.  But these guys are about to down half a 2-Liter (0.9 L to be precise) at one go during the movie, an absolutely insane amount of soda to drink.  Also throughout the movie, I saw them eat all of the candies and most of the popcorn.  I can’t remember what candies they were eating.  It’s inconceivable to me to even eat an entire box of candies at one setting, much less several while downing a big gulp of soda and munching on popcorn (just after eating out at a restaurant!).

So finally the movie begins to play.  It was called Death Wish and starred Bruce Willis.  The basic plot is Bruce Willis plays this wealthy doctor and some guys come and rob their home.  Some things go wrong and Willis’ wife is killed and his daughter is critically injured.  Willis asks the police to take care of it but they’re inept and nothing is happening.  Willis gets mad and takes the law into his own hands.  He buys a gun, starts investigating on his own, and brutally hunts these guys down, one by one.

The movie is pure violence and gore.  I remember one scene where he tracks down this guy named Fish.  The guy is underneath a car, working in an automotive garbage.  Willis asks the guy, “Are you Fish?”  The guy’s like, “Yeah, what of it?”  Willis grabs a giant mechanic wrench, winds it up like a baseball bat and crushes the guys knees as he’s underneath the car.  The guy’s screaming, then Willis (being a doctor) takes out some syringe and drugs the guy. Fish passes out.  Upon waking up, Fish finds himself tied up, and the car he was working on is jacked up several feet over his head.  Willis then begins probing him, “Who else was with you!”  The guy won’t talk.  Willis then pulls out a scapel, cuts into the guy’s leg and tells him, “Do you know that such and such a nerve is located at this location in your leg, not to mention an important artery.  In medical school we learned that striking this nerve is the most painful experience one can inflict on a patient.”  A few grueling cuts later, Willis digs the scalpel into the guy’s leg, strikes that nerve, and cuts into the artery.  Blood gushes everywhere.  Fish starts panicking, tells Willis about some other goon that was with them, and then Willis ties a rope to the car jack.  As he walks away, he yanks on that rope, the jack gives way, and the car falls straight onto Fish’s head in a giant splat.  Blood flies everywhere, onto the walls, oozing down the floor, literally everywhere.  Willis then makes a little quip, and the entire movie theater starts laughing hysterically.

I feel like a killjoy, but was I the only one bothered by that extreme display of violence?  Do we really need all of that to tell a story?  At the very least, any sane person has to conclude that we’ve become desensitized to violence and other things that should otherwise bother us.

That’s when I realized, I’ve been disconnected from our culture for so long, living in my own world studying physics, reading, going to the gym, etc., that I’ve lost touch with what everyday people do with themselves.  My diet is nothing like most people’s.  I don’t watch the sort of television or movies that most people do.  I don’t do the sorts of activities most people do.  But what really concerns me is that I don’t think people realize the toxicity of the culture around them or how it’s affecting them.

It’s sort of like they’ve been living in the murky, disgusting waters for so long, they don’t remember life outside of it.  Or maybe they never have been outside of it.  I’m sure people will say, Jason, it’s just a movie, it’s not real!  But it is affecting you, in subtle ways over time.  I can’t even begin to guess in what ways, but I don’t believe any of it is good.  And just some other advice — stop eating fast food.  Stop eating at the restaurants.  Stop eating what most people eat, period.  Start buying good quality ingredients at the grocery store and cooking healthy meals for yourself.  A few years from now, when you’re slim and trim, feeling good, and full of energy, you’ll thank me.  Everyone around you may be obese and have health problems, but you don’t have to.  Take care of yourself.

I have a few more things to say.  These guys were planning to do more bro-nights and invited me to come.  They want to hang out and play video games.  And what video games are they playing?  Violent shooters, where you’re all thrown into a some small environment, killing each other, over and over, in bloody, violent competition.

Do you guys see the pattern yet?  Destroy your bodies.  Destroy nature.  Destroy the bad guys.  Consume your mind with death and destruction.  Death, death, and more death.  And then listen to violent, degrading music.  Flip on the radio and listen to this!  (This played in our car ride)

Consume, consume, consume!  Eat, eat, and eat!  Bigger, better, more shiny!  Compete, we gotta win! Turn on the news, and fear, fear, fear!  More death, more death, more death!  Rape, violence, murder!  Fear, fear, fear!

The song says “Something’s got to give”.  Yeah, you have to unplug.

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