Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Language learning, before and after puberty

One can learn a 2nd language, before or after, but the way the brain accomplishes that may change:

Why Can't I Speak Spanish?: The Critical Period Hypothesis of Language Acquisition
"Ahhhhh!" I yell in frustration. "I've been studying Spanish for seven years, and I still can't speak it fluently."

"Well, honey, it's not your fault. You didn't start young enough," my mom says, trying to comfort me.

Although she doesn't know it, she is basing her statement on the Critical Period Hypothesis. The Critical Period Hypothesis proposes that the human brain is only malleable, in terms of language, for a limited time. This can be compared to the critical period referred to in to the imprinting seen in some species, such as geese. During a short period of time after a gosling hatches, it begins to follow the first moving object that it sees. This is its critical period for imprinting. (1) The theory of a critical period of language acquisition is influenced by this phenomenon.

This hypothetical period is thought to last from birth to puberty. During this time, the brain is receptive to language, learning rules of grammar quickly through a relatively small number of examples. After puberty, language learning becomes more difficult. The Critical Period Hypothesis attributes this difficulty to a drastic change in the way that the brain processes language after puberty. This makes reaching fluency during adulthood much more difficult than it is in childhood.


Noam Chomksy suggests that the human brain also contains a language acquisition device (LAD) that is preprogrammed to process language. He was influential in extending the science of language learning to the languages themselves. (4) (5) Chomsky noticed that children learn the rules of grammar without being explicitly told what they are. They learn these rules through examples that they hear and amazingly the brain pieces these samples together to form the rules of the grammar of the language they are learning. This all happens very quickly, much more quickly than seems logical. Chomsky's LAD contains a preexisting set of rules, perfected by evolution and passed down through genes. This system, which contains the boundaries of natural human language and gives a language learner a way to approach language before being formally taught, is known as universal grammar.

The common grammatical units of languages around the world support the existence of universal grammar: nouns, verbs, and adjectives all exist in languages that have never interacted. Chomsky would attribute this to the universal grammar. The numerous languages and infinite number of word combinations are all governed by a finite number of rules. (6) Charles Henry suggests that the material nature of the brain lends itself to universal grammar. Language, as a function of a limited structure, should also be limited. (7) Universal grammar is the brain's method for limiting and processing language.

A possible explanation for the critical period is that as the brain matures, access to the universal grammar is restricted. And the brain must use different mechanisms to process language. Some suggest that the LAD needs daily use to prevent the degenerative effects of aging. Others say that the brain filters input differently during childhood, giving the LAD a different type of input than it receives in adulthood. (8) Current research has challenged the critical period altogether. In a recent study, adults learning a second language were able to process it (as shown through event related potentials) in the same way that another group of adults processed their first language. (9)

So where does this leave me? Is my mom right, or has she been misinformed? The observation that children learn languages (especially their first) at a remarkable rate cannot be denied. But the lack of uniformity in the success rate of second language learning leads me to believe that the Critical Period Hypothesis id too rigid. The difficulty in learning a new language as an adult is likely a combination of a less accessible LAD, a brain out of practice at accessing it, a complex set of input, and the self consciousness that comes with adulthood. This final reason is very important. We interact with language differently as children, because we are not as afraid of making mistakes and others have different expectations of us, resulting in a different type of linguistic interaction. [...]
I enjoyed this, because I'm attempting to learn Spanish, and I've been reading a lot about the differences in the ways children learn a 2nd language, compared to the ways adults learn. Both can be successful, but it's important to find the right approach, particularly for adults, I think. Read the whole thing, for the many embedded footnotes and reference links.

And if you think you are too old to learn a 2nd language, you should read these links too:

Why adults are better learners than kids (So NO, you’re not too old)

The linguistic genius of adults: Research confirms we’re better learners than kids!

Breaking Down the Language Barriers


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How to educate Americans for jobs

How to educate Americans for jobs? Ask the Germans, employers urge
INDIANAPOLIS — Two years. That’s how long it takes William Lankin’s fast-growing electrical contracting company to teach new hires with four-year university degrees the tricks of the trade.

These college grads “have learned the book stuff, but they don’t have real-world experience,” said Lankin, vice president of Industrial Electric. “They don’t know how to work with other people, or subcontractors — how to actually do business.”

Bringing them up to speed while paying them a salary is time-consuming and expensive, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll be good enough to keep. Which only complicates the original predicament: In spite of the still-soft job market, companies like Lankin’s can’t find enough qualified workers.

Now some hiring managers, a few policymakers, and a handful of community colleges are accepting help to solve this problem from an unexpected source: Germany

Through an initiative being quietly promoted by the German Embassy, U.S. colleges, which consider themselves part of the greatest higher-education system in the world, are importing the German model of career and technical education to keep up with a demand they can’t fill for skilled American workers.

“We said, ‘What is the best model?’” said Sue Smith, vice president for technology and applied sciences at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, which has teamed up with Lankin’s company to create a program for prospective employees based on what the Germans do.

“And, quite honestly, the German model is the best model.”

It consists of a so-called dual system of education and training that combines a few days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools with on-the-job apprenticeships that are designed to lead to full-time jobs for which graduates are ready straight out of school. The German students also receive a form of credential called a certification qualification.

This simple setup keeps German industry humming, and youth unemployment down to about 8 percent — less than half of what it is in the United States — according to the German Embassy.

By comparison, routes to similar careers in the United States are convoluted and confusing, even as the need for workers to fill them escalates, a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, video and more. There are some interesting comments in the comments section.

This website has a seven minute video:

Skills Initiative: Enhancing German-American Cooperation on Workforce Training
The German Embassy in Washington, DC presents the Skills Initiative as one of the cornerstones of its work.

Through the Skills Initiative, the German Embassy is bringing together German and American businesses and local education/training providers with the aim of developing training programs best suited to businesses’ needs. The Embassy launched the Skills Initiative to identify and spread best practices in sustainable workforce development in the USA.

Now the Embassy, through Skills Initiative, is seeking cooperation with federal states, locally convening groups of German companies and bringing them together with training providers so that they can work on the best fit for training programs in their area. [...]

The video has some interesting comments by American students who are participating and learning career skills, about why it is such an attractive alternative to college.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Largest outdoor arts festival in North America

A Look Inside the Burning Man Festival
Burning Man, held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, is the largest outdoor arts festival in North America. It began August 25th and runs through Monday. Festival-goers attend from around the world to “dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” say organizers. Last year, 68,000 people attended the sold-out festival, which is now in its 28th year.

‘‘In all my travels, Burning Man is utterly unique,’’ Destin Gerek, an 11-year veteran who teaches Burning Man workshops on the ‘‘intersection of sexuality and spirituality,’’ told the Associated Press. ‘‘Absolutely nothing compares.’’
I'd rather look at it on the internet, than actually be there. A gigantic Artsy Fartsy, Hippy Arts and Crafts festival. With sex, drugs and rock and roll too I'm sure. And plenty of spectacles.

If you go to the page, and follow the "Next" link at the end of the text on the first page (or arrows on the edge of the photo), it will start you on a slide show of about 25 photos, with text underneath describing what you are looking at.

There were some interesting things. The Temple of Grace was nice, both in the daytime, and lit up at night. A very detailed, classic design, looked kinda like something from India. At night, electric lights were used in lots of creative ways on many of the exhibits.

There are more links about the festival at the bottom of the first page.

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"Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time"

Order vs. Disorder, Part 3
[...] Seidman looks at the world through the framework of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In recent years, he argues, “more people than ever have secured their ‘freedom from’ different autocrats in different countries.” Ukrainians, Tunisians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis to name a few. “But so few are getting the freedom we truly cherish,” he adds. “And that is not just ‘freedom from.’ It is ‘freedom to.’ ”

“Freedom to” is the freedom to live your life, speak your mind, start your own political party, build your own business, vote for any candidate, pursue happiness, and be yourself, whatever your sexual, religious or political orientation.

“Protecting and enabling all of those freedoms,” says Seidman, “requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together.”

Such values-based legal systems and institutions are just what so many societies have failed to build after overthrowing their autocrats. That’s why the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces: countries with what Seidman calls “sustainable order,” or order based on shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics; countries with imposed order — or order based on an iron-fisted, top-down leadership, or propped-up by oil money, or combinations of both, but no real shared values or institutions; and, finally, whole regions of disorder, such as Iraq, Syria, Central America and growing swaths of Central and North Africa, where there is neither an iron fist from above nor shared values from below to hold states together anymore.

Imposed order, says Seidman, “depends on having power over people and formal authority to coerce allegiance and compel obedience,” but both are much harder to sustain today in an age of increasingly empowered, informed and connected citizens and employees who can easily connect and collaborate to cast off authority they deem illegitimate.

“Exerting formal power over people,” he adds, “is getting more and more elusive and expensive” — either in the number of people you have to kill or jail or the amount of money you have to spend to anesthetize your people into submission or indifference — “and ultimately it is not sustainable.” The only power that will be sustainable in a world where more people have “freedom from,” argues Seidman, “is power based on leading in a two-way conversation with people, power that is built on moral authority that inspires constructive citizenship and creates the context for ‘freedom to.’ ”

But because generating such sustainable leadership and institutions is hard and takes time, we have a lot more disorderly vacuums in the world today — where people have won “freedom from” without building “freedom to.”

The biggest challenge for the world of order today is collaborating to contain these vacuums and fill them with order. That is what President Obama is trying to do in Iraq, by demanding Iraqis build a sustainable inclusive government in tandem with any U.S. military action against the jihadists there. Otherwise, there will never be self-sustaining order there, and they will never be truly free.

But containing and shrinking the world of disorder is a huge task, precisely because it involves so much nation-building — beyond the capacity of any one country. Which leads to the second disturbing trend today: how weak or disjointed the whole world of order is. The European Union is mired in an economic/unemployment slump. China behaves like it’s on another planet, content to be a free-rider on the international system. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is playing out some paranoid czarist fantasy in Ukraine, while the jihadist world of disorder encroaches from the south.

Now add a third trend, and you can really get worried: America is the tent pole holding up the whole world of order. But our inability to agree on policies that would ensure our long-term economic vitality — an immigration bill that would ease the way for energetic and talented immigrants; a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would replace income and corporate taxes; and government borrowing at these low rates to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs, while gradually phasing in long-term fiscal rebalancing — is the definition of shortsighted.

“If we can’t do the hard work of building alliances at home,” says David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming book “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” “we are never going to have the strength or ability to build them around the world.” [...]
How ironic. "Nation Building" was supposed to be one of President Bush's mistakes, according to Democrats. Is it now coming back into fashion, because a Democrat is in the Whitehouse?

This article does say nation building is beyond the capacity of any one country to do. OK then, who does it? The U.N., which has never been able to do it? And perhaps more importantly, who pays for it, in a world where national budgets are already severely over-extended?

The article does a good job of identifying problems, but solutions are more elusive. And don't get me started on his wish-list for putting our own house in order. If it were that simple, we'd be doing it. But that's a whole another article, or at least way more than a few comments that I could make here.

One thing seems certain. The "world of sustainable order" has got it's work cut out for it.

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

OSU: Languages and Small Farming

I was looking at on-line language learning classes, and discovered that Oregon State University has one of the best on-line language learning programs in the country: OSU Online Foreign Language Courses

I was also surprised to learn that they have a course about growing your own small farm or ranch:

Growing Farms: Hybrid Course for Beginning Farmers
[...] Growing Farms: Hybrid Course for Beginning Farmers teaches those new to farming how to plan and manage a farm, while giving them tools to produce and market farmed and raised goods. The course also encourages interaction and community building among participants, helping build a professional network among small farmers and ranchers.

While developing a whole-farm plan, participants will learn about sustainable practices and land stewardship. The course encourages farmers to see how small farms and ranches fit into our community’s economic and environmental success.

It's called a Hybrid course because it's partly on-line, and partly on-site. But the online portion is also available by itself.

Participants can enroll in the full course, which includes six learning modules and onsite sessions, or the modules-only option.

Online modules

The modules are interactive and feature audio and video. Participants will test their comprehension with short, ungraded quizzes throughout each module and create their own farm plan.

1.) Dream It – Planning
2.) Do It – Farming Operations and Equipment
3.) Sell It – Marketing
4.) Manage It – Finance, Administration and Personnel
5.) Grow It – Ecological Agricultural Production
6.) Keep It – Liability and Risk

Onsite sessions with cohort:

The total number of sessions, times, dates and locations have yet to be determined.

In addition to the online modules and onsite sessions, a social networking website will be developed for participants in both course options.

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"Provoking Emotions" = "Political Intolerance"

I guess it's good or bad, depending on if you are in power or not:

S. African President Walks Out of Parliament Amid Chaos
[...] Early this year, the public protector ordered Zuma to pay back to the state a portion of the $23 million used for security upgrades to the home. Zuma was in parliament to explain his response to the public protector’s report. “I have responded appropriately and I am saying people who did the upgrades at Nkandla, they are the ones who always determine who pays, when to pay,” he explained.

But the leader of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters, (EFF) Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ruling ANC partly for undermining Zuma’s authority, demanded a precise response. “The question we are asking today and we are not going to leave here before we get an answer, is when are you paying the money?” he stated.

When President Zuma insisted that he had already answered the question, there was commotion as EFF members refused to take instructions from the speaker of the House of Representatives.

It is at this point that Zuma decided to walk out. The speaker then temporarily adjourned parliament and called in riot police to eject EFF members, who violently refused and instead started chanting "pay back the money."

Chaos: scuffling, shoving

When it was time for parliament to resume, ANC members of parliament charged towards the EFF members, leading to a scuffle as they pushed and shoved each other.


The ruling ANC is now calling on parliament to slap the EFF members with the strongest sanction possible. In a strongly worded statement, the ANC warned the EFF not to provoke emotions, saying this could lead to political intolerance with dire consequences to the country’s democracy.
A bit ironic, that last statement. When the ANC was in political opposition, they did their share of provoking emotions. But now that they are in power, provoking emotions is a bad and dangerous thing.

Here is an earlier post I did, about the money issue the president is being questioned about:

What South African Taxpayer's Money Buys

I'm no fan of Julius Malema. But taxpayers everywhere have the right to question how the government is spending their tax dollars.

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USB Devices and Malware Attacks

New Flaws in USB Devices Let Attackers Install Malware: Black Hat
[...] In a blog post providing more insight into the talk, Nohl and Lell reveal that the root trigger for their USB exploitation technique is by abusing and reprogramming the USB controller chips, which are used to define the device type. USB is widely used for all manner of computer peripherals as well as in storage devices. The researchers alleged that the USB controller chips in most common flash drives have no protection against reprogramming.

"Once reprogrammed, benign devices can turn malicious in many ways," the researchers stated.

Some examples they provide include having an arbitrary USB device pretend to be a keyboard and then issue commands with the same privileges as the logged-in user. The researchers contend that detecting the malicious USB is hard and malware scanner similarly won't detect the issue.

I'm not surprised, and no one else should be, either. After all, this isn't the first time researchers at a Black Hat USA security conference demonstrated how USB can be used to exploit users.

Last year, at the Black Hat USA 2013 event, security researchers demonstrated the MACTANS attack against iOS devices. With MACTANS, an Apple iOS user simply plugs in a USB plug in order to infect Apple devices. Apple has since patched that flaw.

In the MACTANS case, USB was simply used as the transport cable for the malware, but the point is the same. Anything you plug into a device, whether it's a USB charger, keyboard or thumb drive has the potential to do something malicious. A USB thumb drive is widely speculated to be the way that the Stuxnet virus attacked Iran's nuclear centrifuges back in 2010. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly has similar USB exploitation capabilities in its catalog of exploits, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

While the Security Research Labs researchers claim there are few defenses, the truth is somewhat different.

A reprogrammed USB device can have certain privileges that give it access to do things it should not be able to do, but the bottom line is about trust. On a typical Windows system, USB devices are driven by drivers that are more often than not signed by software vendors. If a warning pops up on a user's screen to install a driver, or that an unsigned driver is present, that should be a cause for concern.

As a matter of best practice, don't plug unknown USB devices into your computing equipment. It's just common sense, much like users should not open attachments that look suspicious or click on unknown links. The BadUSB research at this year's Black Hat USA conference is not as much a wake-up call for USB security as it is a reminder of risks that have been known for years


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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Is Google Plus the next Borg? IMO, it's TMSTDW

It sure looks like they are angling to be! I found this video kinda funny, kinda creepy:

It was kinda informative too. It certainly nailed Facebook's faults. But I'm not ready to jump onto Google+ either. And if the video is right, I won't have to, because it will be inevitable...

I remember the early days of PCs and the internet. I would get tired of it and take a break from them for days at a time, sometimes even a week or more. My life did not revolve around the internet or the computer.

Now, I go on-line at least once a day, for the weather report, if nothing else. I usually glance at the news headlines on Google as well, just to get a glimpse of what's happening in the world. It's faster than watching TV, listening to the radio or reading a newspaper. It saves time!

Convenience. Speed and convenience. A quick way to get the information you seek. And there is much education and entertainment content too. A nice place to visit, but I still wouldn't want to live there almost 24/7. The internet's a good thing, but even so, too much of a good thing isn't necessarily a good thing.

What made me even look at this was, an online class I was interested in. The teacher wanted the students to sign up with Google+, because that was her primary mode of communicating with them (using something called "Hangouts"). So I tried to find out more about Google+. And my opinion of it so far is: TMSTDW (Too Much Sh*t To Deal With). But of course, if it's inevitable, I won't have to learn it, I can just wait until it assimilates me. ;-)

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Esperanto as a bridge for language learners

In a previous post about Esperanto, the video below, a talk at TEDx, was referenced. I recently got around to watching it:

Published on Apr 13, 2012

Tim Morely thinks that every student should learn Esperanto. In this unexpected and persuasive talk, he makes the case that this supposedly archaic tongue can set up a kid for a lifetime of learning languages.

Previously a computer programmer, Tim Morley is now a teacher of English and French. He is pioneering an innovative programme for introducing young children to foreign language awareness using the constructed language of Esperanto. [...]
He has a lot of interesting ideas. He uses a musical analogy at one point. He says if you want to teach a child music, you wouldn't give them a Bassoon, because it's a difficult instrument to learn, and not suitable for a child just learning music.

Children learning music are given an easier instrument to learn: the recorder. It's simple, easy to handle, easy to learn, and the child can make progress quickly, which keeps their interest and builds their confidence. If the child enjoys it, THEN you can introduce them to something more complicated, more challenging, because you have already established their interest and built their confidence to the point where they want to and are inspired to keep learning.

Morely claims Esperanto can be used in the same way to teach children languages. I've also read that it can work the same for adults learning a second language for the first time, too.

I can see why. I've been looking at Esperanto at It's very logical and easy, in many of the ways that Morely describes in the video. He sites examples of studies that show language learners that start with Esperanto, do better than other students when they tackle other languages later.

Some people claim you can become fluent in Esperanto in a matter of weeks. How many languages can that be said about?

In the video below, Benny Lewis the polyglot teaches his girlfriend Esperanto in six weeks, with just an hour a day:

The whole video series is on Youtube here.

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"Blondie", Satanism, and Christian Contemplativism

Two more interesting posts on the Philosophy for Life blog:

Crowley’s Children
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post analysing the video for Blondie’s Rapture, and pointing out the voodoo, occult and mystic symbolism in it. I wondered if Blondie were into that sort of thing, or perhaps I was seeing things. It turned out they were, and one of them – the bassist Gary Lachman – had even become a historian of the occult.

I met up with Gary in the British Library, to ask him about the influence of occult ideas on rock and roll – and particularly the ideas of Aleister Crowley. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in ecstatic states and how we reach them in modernity. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and magic are part of that story. It’s not always a very nice story.


Crowley was a poster-boy for liberationist philosophy. It makes perfect sense that he would be picked up by rock and roll and later forms of pop music, because in many ways it’s tailor-made to the adolescent sensibility. Think of Jim Morrison’s ‘we want the world and we want it now’, or Iggy Pop: ‘I need more than I’ve ever done before.’ When you’re young you want to throw away all constraints on you. Crowley did that his whole life. His whole thing was excess in all directions.’

Liberationists want to liberate themselves from any social hang-ups, which means liberating themselves from traditional morality and even from reason itself. ‘Turn off your mind and float downstream’, as Timothy Leary said and John Lennon later quoted. Leary and other key figures in the 60s saw in Crowley a genius explorer of altered states of consciousness accessed through drugs, music, poetry and sex – just as they were trying to do. His Rite of Eleusis was a blueprint for the acid tests of the 1960s, and the raves of today – which also aim to bypass rational thought and get the audience into trances. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, pics and videos. It was a fascinating read. Crowley's ideas pervade our society through pop culture. And when you see how Crowley ended up, it's not hard to see why many of his rock and roll followers crashed and burned. I love what the author, Jules Evans, says about the conscious and subconscious mind, and how Crowley used it, and the way Jules concludes the article. Good lessons for us all.

Gary Lachman apparently saw through the Crowley philosophy, and wrote a book about him, showing what a flawed man he was. Thank goodness.

Just for the heck of it, here is a video from 1979 of the band Blondie performing the song "Heart of Glass":

I had come across that video recently, and so when I saw Blondie mentioned at the beginning of that blogpost, it drew me in.

And on that same blog, I also enjoyed reading this article, which is an interview with the Bishop of London:

The Bishop of London on Christian contemplation
[...] I have a simple map of spiritual reality. We spend most of our time at the mental ego level, on the surface, with the self negotiating the world around – a self which we have largely manufactured and confected. It is very difficult to get modern people to understand prayer is not just a form of thinking at that level. That’s one of the fundamental errors and difficulties people encounter at the beginning of learning to pray.

At that mental ego level, there are often things of darkness which are unacknowledged. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, but often those dark things are left unacknowledged within us. And much religion is really dangerous and I would say lethal, because it is in effect the surreptitious re-ascent of the bruised ego.

We project parts of ourselves – our anger, all kinds of personal psychic material – into the middle distance, deifying it and conducting a solipsist conversation. God is very often a projection of some of this unacknowledged material.

You can see it very clearly: the God which causes people to smite and slay. Sane religious cultures which have lasted for a very long time have discerned that the real fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace and various other things. They certainly aren’t homicidal impulses.

So you have the mental ego level – and the adventure of prayer is to go beyond and beneath that – into the psychic zone, in which very often there are gifts of the spirit, charismatic gifts of various kinds – glossolalia, gifts of prophecy, and ecstatic utterance.

There is a great danger in falling in love with yourself once again as a spiritual person, in becoming too intrigued by these things, and to think ‘because I have these things I am a really serious Christian’. There has to be a continued Copernican revolution, and that revolution always turns us outwards in generosity to our fellows and in adoration to God. St Anthony the Great says we must see the Spirit in our neighbour, and love them.

But instead, what can happen when you have notable charismatic gifts, is once again a turning inwards, an admiration of the self. Lucifer the light-bringer fell, because he fell so in love with his own reflection.

And then after the psychic zone, there is what is called the heart, which for the Hebrews was not the blood pump, the heart for the Hebrews was the vitals, where the spiritual centre was actually located. And once you were quiet enough and had been educated by silence and stillness, and had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life, where the spirit is already there and praying in ways we can’t understand. [...]
The bold emphasis is mine. I found it interesting that, even though this is a different subject from the Crowley article, there are some parallel ideas expressed, about where people go wrong in looking for happiness. Not everyone finds happiness in the same way, but among the ways they do, there are often core ideas, realizations and truths, even inside of seemingly different philosophies. The perennial philosophy in philosophy, which is one of my favorite areas of interest.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Distraction as a form of Therapy

These are from a philosophy blog I posted about last week:

Distraction therapy, or ‘shut up and deal’
[...] Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.
One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist - he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.

His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them: [...]
Read the whole thing. It actually starts with a letter from a reader, who talks about how his relentless search for meaning of the mysteries of life, lead to great and deep depression. And how he eventually got himself out of it, through distraction therapy, while still remaining a "seeker". The article then goes on to talk about how many of the great minds of history knew this, and how even modern medicine is recognizing it today.

Following a similar theme, another blog post is advice to a teenager, who decided after smoking Marijuana, that life was pointless, resulting in deep depression:

What’s the point in life?
[...] This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!


I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more. Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ - doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward. [...]
There's a lot more, with embedded links too. Pretty good stuff!

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Not another NYT opinion piece on "inequality"?

Yes. And no. It starts by talking about Thomas Pikety's book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century", which everyone is talking about and buying, but also not actually reading, apparently:

An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality
We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.”

Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

The rush to purchase Piketty’s book suggested that Americans must have wanted to understand inequality. The apparent rush to put it down suggests that, well, we’re human.

So let me satisfy this demand with my own “Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” Here are five points: [...]
I can't repeat the five points, without reproducing the whole article here, so you'll have to follow the link.

I don't normally post about these kinds of articles, because they are often filled with "class warfare" rhetoric and drivel. And this NYT opinion piece has it's share of that as well. It's ironic that the author chooses to call it the "idiots guide", when I think some of the things he says are pretty idiotic (especially the option about rich people and expensive cars. Isn't it possible that rich people by expensive cars, because they like them and can afford them? Duh!).

But the article does have some moderate views, and does have a lot of embedded links to back up it's arguments. So while I may not agree with the article as a whole, it doesn't mean that it doesn't touch on some interesting facts or ideas. I'm not against rich people. But if indeed only the rich are getting richer, it's worth looking at why, and understanding why and how. I don't believe in communist revolutions redistributing the wealth. But a rising tide that lifts all boats IS preferable to one that only lifts yachts. Most reasonable people would have no argument with that.


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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Would robots be better or worse for people?

There are conflicting opinions:

Pew: Split views on robots’ employment benefits
WASHINGTON — In 2025, self-driving cars could be the norm, people could have more leisure time and goods could become cheaper. Or, there could be chronic unemployment and an even wider income gap, human interaction could become a luxury and the wealthy could live in walled cities with robots serving as labor.

Or, very little could change.

A new survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center found that, when asked about the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, nearly 1,900 experts and other respondents were divided over what to expect 11 years from now.

Forty-eight percent said robots would kill more jobs than they create, and 52 percent said technology will create more jobs than it destroys.

Respondents also varied widely when asked to elaborate on their expectations of jobs in the next decade. Some said that self-driving cars would be common, eliminating taxi cab and long-haul truck drivers. Some said that we should expect the wealthy to live in seclusion, using robot labor. Others were more conservative, cautioning that technology never moves quite as fast as people expect and humans aren’t so easily replaceable.

“We consistently underestimate the intelligence and complexity of human beings,” said Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, who recalls that 40 years ago, people said that advances in computer-coding language were going to kill programming jobs.

Even as technology removed jobs such as secretaries and operators, it created brand new jobs, including Web marketing, Grudin said. And, as Grudin and other survey responders noted, 11 years isn’t much time for significant changes to take place, anyway.

Aaron Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, said the results were unusually divided. He noted that in similar Pew surveys about the Internet over the past 12 years, there tended to be general consensus among the respondents, which included research scientists and a range of others, from business leaders to journalists. [...]
It goes on to give more opinions from educated people who make good cases for their opinions. Reading them all, it seems like no one can say exactly how it's going to play out, though a common theme of many of the opinions is, that over time, there may indeed be less jobs for people. And what changes will THAT bring? That seems to be the big question underlying it all.


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A real "Warp Drive" for Space Travel

I had posted about this previously. Here is a video, talking about a possible prototype, if experiments on earth justify further research:


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