Weekly Head Voices #70: Patterns in the sand.

(I just deliberately deleted the draft I was working on. It was not the best pattern.)

I want you to read this quote by Richard Dawkins, taken from the God Delusion:

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you?

How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place …. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

Do read it again. It’s a pretty mind-expanding realization.

However, reality is perhaps even more mind-bending than you might already think. I looked up the original work on this phenomenon by Aebersold, published in the 1953 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. On page 232 he wrote (emphasis mine):

But radioisotope studies have called our attention to much more  amazing facts on the day-to-day operation of our bodies. Medical men used to think of the human body as an engine that takes in food, air, and water mainly as fuel to keep running on. Only a small part  of the intake was thought to go for replacement of engine wear. Investigations with isotopes have demonstrated that the body instead is much more like a very fluid military regiment which may retain its size, form, and composition even though the individuals in it are continually changing: joining up, being transferred from post to post, promoted, or demoted; acting as reserves; and finally departing after varying lengths of service.

Tracer studies show that the atomic turnover in our bodies is quite rapid and quite complete. For example, in a week or two half of the sodium atoms that are now in our bodies will be replaced by other sodium atoms. The case is similar for hydrogen and phosphorus. Even half of the carbon atoms will be replaced in a month or two. And so the story goes for nearly all the elements. Indeed, it has been shown that in a year approximately 98 percent of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in in our air, food, and drink.

Yes, you read that correctly. In a single year, 98% of your whole physical manifestation, your body, is completely replaced by other atoms.

This observation has led me to think differently about myself, and about you. I indeed used to think that we were a solid body of somehow consistent matter moving through life, constructed from millions of grains of sand somehow sticking together.

Now I see us all as nothing more than the continuously changing patterns that form briefly in the grains of sand of the universe. Winds blow grains of sand around, now taking part in one pattern and then in another. At some point, your body has contained parts of your best friend, and of your worst enemy. The patterns change continually; sometimes they fade away, and sometimes new patterns emerge. All of them are dependent on the same grains of sand.

Don’t dream big.

For months I’ve been walking around with this idea in my head. I was planning to turn it into a blog post titled “On not scaling”. It was going to be about deliberately choosing focus over bandwidth in one’s activities. One is often faced with the choice between scaling up (more work, more people, more things, more turnover, more for the sake of more) on the one hand, and simply not scaling on the other, instead holding on to one’s simple and linear way of doing a few things well. The former approach seems to be the one favoured and encouraged by modern society. The latter has become my preference.

I was still planning to write this post, when I ran into a TEDX talk by Jim Zemlin, whose claim to fame (at least for the purpose of his talk), is that he is technically Linus Torvalds’ boss. Linus Torvalds is the gentleman who created Linux. As you might or might not know, Linux is taking over the world at the moment: 1.3 million new telephones running Android (Linux) are switched on for the first time every day, 0.7 million new Linux-running TVs are sold every day, millions of machines at Google and Amazon run Linux, machines which run most of the web-based services that you know, almost the whole internet runs Linux, and many more embedded systems everywhere. Whether you like it or not, and as Jim Zemlin says, you probably interact with Linux multiple times per day in some way or another.

Through his World-changing creation Linux (and don’t forget the distributed version control system git), Linus arguably is one of the most concretely influential people alive today. With this in mind, skip to about 5:20 in the youtube clip (if you don’t have time, you don’t actually have to watch the clip, my summary of the relevant bit is right below):

When Linus first announced Linux 1991, he wrote I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. With hindsight, this is a fabulously humble quote. Linus was only interested in the awesome thingamabob he was working on; success and ambition were irrelevant. In the end, his creation changed the world.

From this, Zemlin draws a parallel with something the poet Robert Frost said:

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

I think this is a beautiful life lesson.

Let’s not dream too big.

Just start.

We’ve all been there.

Faced with a daunting and complicated project (thesis, book, building a house, the list goes on), or a whole bunch of projects, you start suffering from an acute sort of brain deadlock, freezing like an antelope in the headlights of the rapidly approaching deadline pick-up truck, yeehawing redneck behind the steering wheel.

Perhaps even worse than the freezing, is the procrastination. You somehow manage to start moving, except that you’re pouring all your energy into everything but the work that you actually need to do. You manage record numbers of facebook / twitter / google+ posts, and you attain mastery of coin-knuckle-rolling (marketable skill #1), but the day ends with you having made no further progress.

"Procrastination" by Viktor Hertz on flickr.
“Procrastination” by Viktor Hertz on flickr.

Both of these responses, infuriating as they may be, are completely natural. The mountain of work seems too high to surmount on time, or there seems to be more complexity than we can cognitively contain, so we simply avoid it in one way or the other.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Just start.

Well duh, you say, of course you need to start somewhere. However, what I’m proposing is slightly more subtle. It’s more of a humble and honest life philosophy:

When faced with a daunting project of any size, deliberately and explicitly forget about completing the project. Focus only on making a start. It can be a small start, even an half-hour of focus will do the trick. Pick the most meaningful thing to start on. Take a break. Then do exactly the same. Make another start, and take a break. Look back, remind yourself that that’s another half an hour of good work that is now DONE. Keep on doing this, and keep on telling yourself: “I’m just going to make a another start, nothing big.” By the end of the first day, you will have noticed that all this starting has resulted in output, but far less anxiety and debilitation. You should also have noticed that your attitude with regard to your project has changed for the better.

Continue to focus on starting. Practise picking the most meaningful or important thing to start on. Eventually, you’ll finish your project by starting on it enough times, and soon you will be that person: The one who gets their stuff done.

(This post is inspired by Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, by the Pomodoro technique, and by my own experience keeping on starting until stuff is done.)

Rhythm of the Night. [Weekly Head Voices #66]

(This post has an extremely high slightly-insane-rambling index (SIRI). You have been warned.)

The rhythm of life

I love Unkle. Here’s the introduction to their song Back and Forth:

The only life you can get is one made up of ups and downs. The trick is in learning how to deal with the downs, increasing the number and duration of the ups, and enjoying every last drop out of them. This realisation was brought to the surface by a car advert in which the narrator claimed that time in the car equalled “quality time”. I don’t like cars, but I love quality time. It usually comes in little bits and, as I’ve reported before on this very blog, happiness and other important things also come in little bits, interspersed by other often less interesting bits. Although one has a limited extent of control over some parameters of this rhythm of ups and downs, of excitement and boredom, it can never be smoothed out. As is often the case, the best course of action is the zen one: Step outside and try to absorb completely the multi-factorial whole.

Intermezzo – this post’s title was inspired by this Italian masterpiece:

Selling one’s soul to the Virtual

A week ago, I started going through my bookshelf trying to find books that could potentially be given away or sold, freeing up some space for I’m not sure exactly what. Here’s a photo of some of them:

Books traded for space.

Each of these gave me pleasure at some point in my life, taking me on journeys to faraway corners of my imagination. Each of these contributed in some way to the ball of thoughts that is me. Years ago, I would not have considered giving even a single book away. Now I do, because I convince myself that everything is available digitally. I do read on my Kindle, where everything is far more convenient and takes up zero real-world space. I can never lose anything again. If I want anything, I can either find it in my archives or acquire it anew.

Could this line of reasoning, this position, be something that’s really quite insidious? Besides containing information on their pages, the books are tangible and visible reminders of the knowledge that they represent. By getting rid of them, could it be that I’m exchanging parts of my soul for an empty, virtual promise, for oblivion? Maybe the books should remain there, on my bookshelf, as constant physical reminders of the knowledge that they brought me — of all the knowledge that I should continually cultivate and upgrade.

Maybe the time has finally come for the 21st century reboot of Microsoft BOB. :) Then a failed (and the brunt of many jokes) experiment, perhaps now the seeds of a solution to the problem of trading the physical for the virtual. Imagine a private room where you can walk between your virtual bookshelves, a virtual haven to keep your slow, real humanity intact.

Life philosophy that works

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a prominent American astrophysicist and science communicator. Recently he took part in a IAmA session on reddit, where he answered the questions of random reddit users. To the question “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?” his answer was the following:

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

This will definitely find its place in the Unified Dogma of Me (UDM). For now, I’m doing my best to fuse it permanently with my atoms.

Slow philosophy. [Weekly Head Voices #64]

I’ve spent days writing this post in my head, and now it’s taken more than two weeks to get done. It’s not that I have something complicated or difficult to tell you, it’s just that I was privy to three absolutely awesome weeks of vacation in an undisclosed location to the very far south of my current coordinates, during which I attained ultimate levels of relaxation that caused my brain to shut-down large parts of itself. The only parts that managed to remain online were those dedicated to slow living, appreciation of people and surroundings and, finally, deep thought. My brain is currently taking its sweet time to come fully online again.

Oh well.

I did bring you a photo of Disa Uniflora, a special little orchid that likes living close to little waterfalls, for example just like the one that can be found on your hike up Leopard’s Kloof. Look:

Pretty Disa in Leopard's Kloof.

As is usual for sunny vacations during which we transition into a new year, a number of realizations and resolutions slowly bubbled up to the surface from some usually submerged part of my consciousness. I’d like to share some of them with you:

Life goals are bad. Let’s stop doing them. The problem is that humans are awesome at adaptation. Unfortunately this means that two days after having celebrated your latest epic life achievement, you’re bored with it. Some people even get bored with their lives in general, and then buy a leather jacket and a motorbike because they think that that’ll somehow solve the problem, only to get bored with their new image soon after. Fortunately, there is a way to sidestep the problem quite elegantly. Don’t set life goals, but rather set life directions. Instead of defining the point that you want to go towards, define your preferred direction. If you do it right, you’ll pass those points as you go along in any case, except you won’t land in the depressing goal vacuum right after reaching the point that you’ve been moving towards for so long, because you’re motoring along in a direction, and that’s what’s important. To those more mathematically inclined, ignore the life function, rather design its derivatives. This is a practical way of applying the well-known addage that life is about the journey, and not the destination.

Disconnecting is good. I do love the internet. I also think it’s one of the most awesome achievements of the whole of humankind ever, and it really empowers humans everywhere. I’m more or less addicted to being constantly connected, having constant access to the sum total of human knowledge and in principle to a large percentage of my fellow humans. However, there is a fine line between having constant access and being constantly interrupted by too many not necessarily valuable packets of data. We’re very vulnerable to this latter situation, due to our brain chemistry being optimized by all of evolution for novelty, and for foraging, so we keep on clicking on “refresh”, and our ears perk up whenever a phone goes “ping”. However, when not being interrupted, human thought gets the room it needs to grow and deepen, into importance and into impact.

I’ve also been thinking about consumption. I’d like to do much less of that, and when I do, I’d prefer to consume quality. In my thoughts, it was primarily about information, but it applies to many other things. It’s an ongoing process.

I’m adding all of these to my growing list of little life tips. As regular readers of this blog, you know some of these by now: Keep on  striving for balance and harmony, focus on the now, create value, study your manual, and, most importantly, drink lots of coffee. One day I’m going to combine them all nicely into the Unified Dogma of  Me (UDM) and then I’ll start a sect. Seriously though, it’s quite challenging keeping these and the other ones in the front of my mind all the time. The UDM would definitely help. And I could start a sect.

One more thing before you go: I came across this recent PNAS article via the science pages of my newspaper. William Ratcliff and colleagues at the Michigan State University showed with a terribly simple experiment that single-celled yeast cells can evolve into multi-cellularity quite quickly. Pouring yeast from one test tube into another about 60 times, an action that favours, or selects, yeast cells that clump together, resulted into a multi-celled organism: The clumped together yeast cells started showing internal specialization. Pretty awesome results, especially considering the fact that you could probably reproduce this experiment in your kitchen.

That’s all for this week kids. Have fun evolving!