Angels and Demons at Play

I hope you enjoy this week’s post. Here’s some reading music from the always-relevant Sun Ra.

Maxwell’s Demon

In a nineteenth-century thought experiment, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell showed that the second law of thermodynamics is more of a strong suggestion than a law. The experiment shows our universe’s natural entropy can be subverted using intelligence. I think we all hope some kind of super-intelligence can prevent the disintegration of our universe.

Imagine a box filled with gas. Now divide it in two by a wall. We put a tiny door in the wall the size of one gas molecule. Now we put a demon in there to operate the door. The demon watches the gas molecules bump and grind against themselves on the dance floor and he sees that some are hotter and faster than others. He watches for a hot molecule from This Side on a trajectory with the door and he opens it. The hot molecule goes through to the Other Side. The demon keeps doing this, and letting cooler molecules back through the door to This Side. Suddenly we have a distinct temperature difference without adding outside energy; things are becoming less homogenous, and we have more energy to do work.

The experiment is meant to show that information (the demon’s intelligence) can be used like an energy source to do physical work. Of course in the experiment, the demon is an energy source doing work inside the box, but what the experiment points out is that the right organizing principle can reform our our fundamental ideas about how the universe works. Maybe Mind can reverse the decay of matter.

I once had a conversation with a Creationist who claimed there is no such thing as negative entropy, therefore God must have intervened to create us. But human beings have always organized into more and more methodical structures, physically, culturally, and mentally, for all of our history. Obviously this Creationist person was repeating an argument he had heard before, but it’s interesting to me that in his worldview, human beings are outliers in the natural order of things.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Author, inventor, engineer, philosopher, and autodidact Bucky Fuller realized in the twentieth century that technological advancement was making it possible to do more work with less materials and less time. This idea undermines Thomas Malthus’ proclamation that the world is a place of limited resources, hence there will always be “haves” and “have nots”.

Back in the day if I wanted to give you forty sheep for your daughter, I had to shepherd them to your house, then haul your daughter back to my place (gently, of course). That’s a lot of work. Transactions now happen using about three calories of thumbwork on a smartphone. Money and purchasing power are now metaphysical and with them you can buy physical labour to plow your fields, carry your luggage, and park your car, or you can purchase physical goods to do with what you like.

Fuller saw that every generation is increasingly technology-savvy, and the advancement of technology therefore increases exponentially. And technology allows humanity to accomplish more work using less pounds of material, ergs of energy, and seconds of time at a correlative rate. This implies that the human race is more and more capable of supporting itself and doing the work it needs to do at a decreasing toll on natural resources.

He called this process “Ephemeralization“. Doesn’t that word sound like the name of an angel? Ephemeralization…she drifts over us intangibly, giving blessings of efficiency.

Unfortunately, the weapons get better as well.

One Big Happy Play-Thing

It’s exhilarating to think how fast our collective intelligence is rocketing us into the future. It’s a bit like a roller coaster in the dark; it could yank us in any direction and there are too many possibilities to prepare for. I’m new to smartphones while in science labs around the world right now people are accomplishing quantum levitation, invisibility clothes and 3D printing. (Cheers to the best invention using those three technologies together for something awesome.)

When I think of the amount of personal information I have floating around cyberspace it’s a little unnerving. And I don’t even use Facebook. Financial information, contact information for everyone I know, purchasing habits, web history, and so much more could be lifted and used for who-knows-what. I have the choice to be paranoid and secretive about my personal information, protect it from the Googles and Apples and Facebooks etc., or I can extend my trust and hope all the beautiful conveniences that come with those brands are symptomatic of good intentions.

Conceive of an “angel” as an organizing principle following good intentions, and conceive of a “demon” as an organizing principle following selfish and freedom-reducing intentions. Demons play dirty, but angels surely have the bigger team. Once the angels and demons have had their fun, my hope is that our collective will to survive and evolve will continue to move us forward to a point where everyone’s needs are met and people can get on with being happy.

And as always music is there to help us along.

“Without music life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

The Language of Enlightenment

The first steps on the road to enlightenment are fairly simple. Here’s what you do: 1) Sit still; 2) Stop thinking. If you can cover those two, you’re way ahead of the game. But most people don’t master either of those in their lifetimes. Those two little instructions can take years even to understand.

Talking and writing about meditation is tricky. Sitting down to meditate for the first time is a little like trying to paint a timeless masterpiece without practice; it’s pretty much impossible to have a game plan, or even know what you’re doing. One of the best arguments for reading books on meditation is that they provide us with a vocabulary. The vocabulary helps give intelligible form to nebulous concepts.

I notice while I’m reading religious or so-called spiritual books my meditations tend to be better, even though my meditations aren’t religious and I don’t consider myself a religious person. I just find that the concepts in such literature have an almost gravitational effect on the other thoughts in my mind. It’s similar to learning about a new car, or a new word, and then noticing it all over the place as though it just appeared into the world. When ideas about meditation or philosophy or spirituality are fresh in my mind, it focuses both my conscious and unconscious tendencies towards a positive use of attention. In other words, those books help me keep it real.

Over the years the lexicon I use to describe my meditations (in my journal entries, two per day) has developed into an idiosyncratic jargon with a few symbols and neologisms thrown in for fun. I doubt anyone who read it would understand it. That’s perfect, because the journal is only for me, and just like meditation, develops with me, and is something that nobody outside can comprehend. The fact is, if I wanted to explain what happens inside me while I’m meditating, I would have to adopt some kind of familiar language to use, and that’s where so-called spiritual literature comes in handy.

(Obviously I don’t like the term spiritual. Like the word God, it is spoken about often but rarely defined. I only use the term spiritual because of its relation to the Greek word pneuma, which I define as the action of Mind. Mind, of course, includes thinking, but also all conscious and subconscious content. See the problem with words?)

There are a lot of different definitions of meditation. The Buddhists have their stages of jnana, Catholics have contemplation, there are shamanic trances and Transcendental Meditation, and The Secret of the Golden Flower, then there’s Samadhi, dharana, zazen, prayer, petition, and on and on. Swami Vivekananda doesn’t define “meditation” the same way as Dr. Michael de Molinos. But it’s fair to assume that any meditation practice that survives hundreds of years or more must have some legitimate value to the people who use it.

When taking advice on interior matters, I prefer someone to speak in concise, concrete terms. Skip the flowery language about opening like a lotus above the surface of the water (flowery, get it?). The style of advice that motivates me most is practical. “Try A. What happened? Okay, now do X, Y, and Z.” I think clear language is a symptom of clear thinking, and clear thinking is something I want. Though to be fair, I think it’s good to balance things out with the occasional lotus vacation.

I don’t like hearing advice from someone less qualified than me. You are fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have breadth and depth of experience. You are not fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have little or no experience. A child looking up from the sandbox adorably, saying “We all go to heaven when we die,” is no excuse for believing.

You can have faith, but faith is belief without proof. Also, you can have faith in something without really believing in it. However belief is like pretended knowledge. You can believe something and still be wrong about it. It happens all the time. The real goods is the knowledge.

Real knowledge comes from experience. I’m going forward with a try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. If it works, it’s fair game. It doesn’t matter if your guru is charismatic, or brilliant, or ancient, or Hindu, it matters that the message resonates with you and the advice makes a practical positive change in your psychological welfare.

Now I would like to sign off with a sample of Bardo Pond lyrics for your collective consideration.

“I have to say
It’s opening up
It smiles at you
All the way to the door
And the hole in it’s middle
Runs out
We push our way

There’s a place
For those who came
All this way
With the clouds in your eyes”

Inside, from the album “Dilate”

The Man Who Knew Too Much

It’s an old social adage that you shouldn’t make conversation about religion, art or politics. This keeps the dialogue safe and everyone at an even temper. Because it’s bland. There are more important things to talk about than the weather. Plus, dialogue can be a time for learning.

We all have our own opinions, and we like to search out messages among friends and various media that support our beliefs. If you belong to the Christian Right, you’re probably not reading the newsletter for your local Church of Satan. On the other hand if you watch The Daily Show, you’re probably only watching Fox News so you’ll get the jokes.

It’s good to contemplate ideas that oppose our beliefs. I think it’s good to play the Devil’s Advocate because it encourages holistic thinking. Most of the time when I hear an opinion my brain automatically tries to find a balanced opposite. This helps me avoid getting bent out of shape about anything. And at the best of times it works like the Hegelian Dialectic, where you combine an idea and its antithesis to get a new whole that contains them both. Pro-lifers say abortion is wrong. Pro-choice advocates argue that it can be right. The whole truth is this: it’s a nuanced issue which is more complicated than either side wants to let on.

Especially annoying to us are pretentious people. Pretension is when a person assumes what they’re saying is important, or more worth while than what others have to say. We don’t want to be told we’re wrong by someone who “knows better” than us. Of course, some people actually do know better than us. Even still, I doubt I’ve ever met the world’s foremost authority on anything.

So what if someone isn’t assuming an air of dignity, but actually does have more important things to say? Sometimes a lone gunman will shoot that person. Then everything can go back to normal. I wonder if, once the horror of the assassination of John Lennon passed, people weren’t secretly relieved on a subconscious level that one less genius exists to point out their mediocrity by virtue of contrast.

I remember when Barack Obama ran for president and the right called him “an elitist”. This was apparently meant as an insult, as a defect of his character. Can you believe he thinks he’s better than us? What an asshole. Please give me a president who watches Family Guy and can barely read, someone I can get drunk with.

If you’ve ever read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, you know what I’m talking about. The idea that “mediocre is good enough” has become so pervasive that the USA doesn’t want a president who thinks he’s better than anyone else. The USA wants someone who’s just a regular Joe Blow. Now let’s go find the best man for the job. Fortunately for the gene pool, the USA actually did want Obama when the time came.

Idiots are made into heroes all the time in movies. There’s nothing like a good old idiot bumbling into success (Forrest Gump, Best Picture, 1994). Now the media has made celebrities out of people who literally have no redeeming qualities. I can see it now – The Situation from Jersey Shore is elected president and renames every room in the White House “The Situation Room”. And they laughed and laughed, and then got drunk and got into a fight and bombed “anyone who steps to Italy”. I’m reminded of a girl I went to high school with who raised her hand with the stupidest answers I’ve ever heard. Her friends told me she really was smart though…being dumb was all an act. I dig that mystery still.

The fact is that some people do have more to say than others. Some people are more intelligent than others. This is like saying that some people can bench press more than others. It’s just a fact. I’d like to believe that in some mystical sense we’re all completely equal, but I wouldn’t declare this out loud because it would sound pretentious. How could I know that without claiming some kind of assumed insight?

In reality, meditation has given me a tiny bit of insight into myself. I know I can be pretentious (as if having a blog isn’t automatically pretentious). But the fact is that I care about what I think about. And I think what I think about is important, otherwise I would think of something else, I think. Plus, daily Scrabble for years and reading a lot has given me a bit of a vocabulary. And a vocabulary…is pretentious.

But there are right and wrong words for things. Sometimes using the right word sounds pretentious, so people use more casual phrasing. Sometimes, particularly in the news, people create jargon so they sound smarter than they really are. The sad thing is, it is just easier on the ears to hear the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” than it is to hear the word “torture”. Like the man Patanjali said, “vast is the domain for the use of words”.

We do crave authority. We don’t read the paper to feel moderately confident about some hearsay. We want authoritative language delivered by experts in their field so when we repeat their findings to our friends we sound like we know what we’re talking about.

In that spirit I’m going to recommend the wisdom of idiots and the stupidity of experts equally. Whether people sound pompous and arrogant, or like buffoons, they might have the answers. It’s best to take it all in, forget how it sounded at the time, and hold ideas up to our own internal judgements, then act on that.

When you’ve actually thought about both sides of something, and turned an idea around in your head like a Rubik’s Cube, you feel more confident and authoritative when talking about it, and that’s satisfying. You might even find people quote you as an authority. But be careful not to sound pretentious.

It’s a fine balance, so here are my top three ways to avoid sounding pretentious:

1. avoid using a British accent (yes you Alex Trebek);

2. don’t mention that you like classical music; and

3. don’t be Werner Herzog.


P.S. For the record, just because Herzog sounds pretentious doesn’t mean he isn’t right about everything he says. This is because he is a genius. Listen for his mention of “overwhelming fornication”.

Game of Thrones – Season 2

I’m a recent inductee into a new kind of mania. It’s called Twitter. I signed up on Saturday night and spent all of Sunday checking it like an addict, getting more and more excited for the Game of Thrones season two finale (called Valar Morghulis). The show itself, and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, are a mania I’ve had for a little while longer.

Forget whether you agree with the politics of the show, or ‘aren’t into’ the fantasy genre – Game of Thrones is one of the most absorbing things on television (HBO, big surprise), on par with Breaking Bad (AMC, also not a surprise). The storytelling is so huge and the world is so rich that Game of Thrones is the best bargain on the air, in that it takes you the furthest per minute of television watched. I’ve done the math.

When adapting literature for the screen, I don’t fault screenwriters for straying from the source because film is not literature. The experience of a book is completely different from the experience of a movie. Literature generally happens in the psychology of the characters, so internal reasoning and decisions can be dramatized within the prose. Film and television are visual and audible media, so the audience must be able to see or hear the dramatic action. Compromises have to be made.

In the first season HBO and the show creators stayed close to the book, and where they deviated from its blueprint, they did so meaningfully. In season two, with a quickly expanding world of characters and locations, new customs and intrigues, a lot was changed for the screen. Some of this was great, some of it was frustrating.

So here is an offering of thoughts on the season. There will be spoilers that go deeper than season two. If you haven’t read the books and don’t want anything spoiled, don’t read on. Instead, read the books.

First, Tyrion’s story was abridged for the season. The Imp is arguably the most complex character in the series, and I was saddened that he didn’t kick as much ass in season two of the show. In the book A Clash of Kings Tyrion is active the entire time, plotting and scheming, defending the city, outdoing his sister, carving out his destiny, and protecting his lover. His discovery of Cersei’s mole was handled by a two-minute sequence. His involvement with the Alchemists was reduced to one or two brief scenes. And the giant chain-trap for Stannis in Blackwater Bay was completely eliminated. Fortunately, he still did kick ass, and Peter Dinklage deserves the praise he’s getting.

Theon’s journey is great in the book. In the show it took my breath away. Some big elements changed, particularly near the end, but I think HBO will reign it back in next season. Alfie Allen brought a great performance to the table and humanized Theon despite the character’s incredibly bad decision-making. Being able to see his face subconsciously second-guessing himself made the character heartbreaking instead of infuriating. It’s interesting that in the series Roose Bolton keeps telling Robb Stark to send the bastard Ramsay Bolton to Winterfell, yet Theon’s involvement with Ramsay was written out of the show. It’s still early in the series, but I was eager to see the Bastard Bolton because by book five he’s such a terror.

Robb Stark’s romantic plot line is completely invented for television. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t and feels a bit sappy. Fortunately for those who know the books, Robb’s scenes, particularly discussing his vow to the Frey’s with Catelyn, falls in the shadow of such dread that it can only be riveting.

Danaerys Targaryen’s narrative was distinctly weaker than last season and her foot-stomping outside of Quarth was the low-point. In A Clash of Kings she starts slowly but ends in such a bizarre and engaging finale that the progression is satisfying. The series finale veered away significantly (have we even seen a red door in the series?). Instead of trippin’ through the House of the Undying she seems to have two very sober visions before being attacked by Pyat Pree. The feeling-tone of her journey in the show isn’t as delicious as the book. But all is forgiven for that glorious dragon fire.

A Storm of Swords might be the best book in the series, so the wait for next season is going to be bittersweet. And with no concrete date for the sixth book there are a lot of what-ifs floating around the collective conscious, and a hell of a lot of time to psyche ourselves up on Twitter.