What if fat doesn’t make you fat?

That was the question New York Times Magazine posed to its readers back in the summer of 2002 when Gary Taubes, a science journalist, submitted his lengthy attack on the mainstream view of nutrition in the article “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” He peeks behind the curtains of the medical research field and shares a tale of incompetence, CYA politicking, and well-intentioned misguidance. Though the science was far from conclusive in 2002 (and still is, of course, rife with controversy), the evidence for the hypothesis behind which most of the medical community and the full force of the US government had stood since the early eighties was unconvincing at best. Indeed, the body of evidence showing that the hypothesis was exactly wrong was growing steadily, and the past fifteen years has seen only more reinforcement.

And what was this disastrous advice? That fat makes you fat. That the key to dieting is counting calories. That a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. That too much fat will kill you, and you’re better off loading up on grains.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been looking into this debate, and I’m fully convinced. The healthiest diet is one of lots of fats, complex carbohydrates from a wide variety of vegetables, an enjoyable helping of fresh fruit, and solid intake of protein from nuts, legumes, and animal sources (if you’re not ethically opposed to the last).

I’ve actually spent so much time reading up on this that it’s almost become common knowledge, at least to me. I’ve gotten in the habit of preparing recipes that fit within Tim Ferriss’ “slow carb diet”, and I’ve come to accept that bread and potatoes should be for cheat meals. I seem to be an outlier, though. Especially now that I’ve been sharing food with friends and colleagues more frequently, the conversation seems to come up at least once a week. Someone makes a joke about how all the fat in the meal is going to kill them, and I can’t bite my tongue anymore. Especially after spending two months gathering around a lunch table with a spread of sugar-laden packaged potato salads, a variety of sugary cheeses, and at least a few members finishing every meal with a slice of bread coated in a dripping layer of honey, I can’t not be that righteous ass who takes the bait.

“Actually, it’s the carbs in the bread, not the fat that’s going to kill you,” I’ve retorted more than once. I then have to rehash the processes I’ve only partially understood but have rehearsed enough to get through a reasonable explanation of the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats.

I hate being that guy, but I feel like a religious apologist who just wants to save the souls of those I care about. There has been so much misinformation about nutrition over the past few decades that it seems no one knows what they ought to be putting into their bodies, and the overwhelming amount of terrible options makes it all too easy to make bad choices.

Perhaps I’ll do this properly at some point and actually go through a well-cited review of the literature, but I need to get to sleep. I still need to prep for my thesis defense on Friday, and I’ve ended up being more involved in this conference than I had planned, so it’s going to take most of my time over the next couple days.

If you’re curious about the subject, I suggest starting here:

The Story of Fat: Why We were Wrong About Fat: This is basically and entertaining and abbreviated version of Taubes’ article.

This guy has a bunch of videos on the subject, and he really seems to know his stuff on an extremely detailed level.

Here’s a pair of videos about fat and weight loss:

Here’s one about the drug that’s basically alcohol, but it doesn’t even get you drunk enough to stop caring how bad it is:

And why it’s so hard to avoid:

And how you can break the habit:

And a habit that you absolutely should pick up, no matter what you think of athletics, competition, or physical work:



Today’s featured image: Sunset over Tønsberg harbor.

I left off yesterday with a bit of pondering about my future with a potential family. The idea is far from settled, but the topic of education has come up multiple times over the past week. Of course, this is a major concern for any current or expectant parent, and everyone seems to have their own idea of what a proper education looks like.

Returning to the film Human Resources, there was a small but significant section that discussed the development of the modern education system. As I discussed previously, the writers and experts showed no restraint in blaming the ineffectual and rigid system on a cabal of capitalist elites who designed the system as a form of social control.

I’d like to respond to the claim. First off, the claim that any system of such proportions as a country the size of the United States (even at the turn of the twentieth century) could have been designed by a small handful of people and actually achieved its ends gives those people far too much credit. The strongest case against almost any conspiracy theory is that the people implicated almost certainly could not have pulled off the plot. Whenever you think that the people in power are deviously super-intelligent and can dupe an entire nation, just remember that the current cabal is either part of the Trump administration or is flailing in disarray because they couldn’t figure out how to stop the Trump train.

Is it really so unreasonable that the current state of education came about in much the same way any large human system did? Organically, without design, and constantly evolving. I will make no effort to defend or criticize the current system. I have many bones to pick with education systems around the world, but why must we immediately jump to the conclusion that a failed system is the result of intentional skulduggery? Is it not just as reasonable that the system is failing not out of malice but out of ignorance? Or incompetence? Need there be devious intent? Let’s play out an alternative explanation.

As the Industrial Revolution came into full swing in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, the economy started to become more coordinated. It required that people be in the same place at the same time. This is also the time period that you start seeing some of the first alarm clocks and people actually having clocks in the home. With the advent of the assembly line just after the turn of the century, it became an imperative that many workers are in their places at exactly the same time. Life itself became more rigidly structured. People who grew up in such a system saw it as a logical and efficient way to structure all sorts of things, including the education of their children.

Building not only on the structured time of the Industrial Revolution but on the academic compartmentalization that grew out of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, educators put together systems that they believed would most efficiently bring up the children. Lawmakers, proud patriots that they were, recognized the importance of education in building a strong nation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, so they made formal education compulsory. They were convinced that it was for the good of the children and the nation. Despite all these good intentions, everyone was working with constrained budgets, infrastructure, and time. The systems needed not only to give the information to the students but also to accommodate the limited resources. What developed is a clunky and inefficient machine, founded on outdated assumptions about learning and incentive schemes that have grown away from their original intention.

This is, of course, purely a speculative thought experiment, but it seems like a more logical sequence of events to me.


Today’s featured image: Verdens Ende (“World’s End”), the southernmost point of the island of Tjøme, which lies in the fjord south of Tønsberg, Norway. I guess you’re only seeing that if you got here through my social media feeds.

Many of you slightly leftist and generally rebellious readers in my social media circle are, no doubt, familiar with the linguist and pop culture philosophizer, Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky – whose education and academic career were entirely in linguistics, not political theory – rants endlessly about the lack of democracy in the United States. He confidently asserts that the political system has been corrupted into an oligarchy of wealthy politicians who feign a type of choice while playing petty games of political wrangling to ensure their perpetual rule. This system, though clear to all as a farce, he explains, perpetuates itself through the massive financial efforts of the ultra-wealthy, particularly the corporate elites, who have made elected officials dependent upon their enormous political advertising campaigns, which ensure that only the politicians who will dependably legislate in favor of the interests of the top 1% can even have a shot at running for office.

Despite my condescending tone, I think he’s essentially right. But he didn’t convince me. Lawrence Lessig, in his book Republic, Lost convinced me that this is actually the situation we are in. Both men have identified the same phenomenon, but I see one as a rambling old crank who maintains his popularity through a pedantic pseudo-intellectualism and the other as a logical and just, if ineffectual, scholar, whom I wish was able to lead a larger movement.


The two political critics have very different targets for their vitriol. Chomsky is unabashed in his blame of the heartless ruling class, who conspire in nefarious schemes to satisfy their own greed at the expense of the poor, innocent laborers. Lessig, on the other hand, points the finger at the long and dangerously banal evolution of a gigantic political system into an oligarchical behemoth that swallows up both politician and voter alike.

Chomsky blames people. Lessig blames systems.

What’s the difference? Systems are just collections of people, right?

Sort of. People act within systems, but a system can persist for generations not because people want it to but because they can’t (or won’t) conspire to change it. Placing blame on a system recognizes that maintaining the status quo is always easier (often significantly so) than challenging it. Blaming people assumes that some intelligent actor(s) is/are actively deforming the natural order through their malice, greed, or other motivation to ensure their own material gain at the known expense of others.

I will admit that I don’t personally know any billionaires or high-ranking government officials or federal politicians, but I would bet my bottom dollar that these people are not so different from the vast majority of human beings that they have become so callous and sadistic as to devote their lives to the pursuit of making everyone below them in the socioeconomic order absolutely miserable. I would bet that dollar again (the stakes aren’t very high) that most of these people are actually well-intentioned, caring human beings who want the best for their families and friends, who legitimately care about the suffering the in the world but believe that our solutions are either misguided or infeasible, and who often use their social or political power to effect changes that were honestly meant to do good for others but fell victim to the inevitable law of unintended consequences.

Maybe I’m giving them too much benefit of the doubt, but what good does it do to call them greedy and psychopathic? Does pointing our finger and identifying the culprit actually solve the problem? What is the logical response to a crowd of raise fists? To cooperate? To submit? To throw their money out the window as they flee in terror?

I hope you see the preposterousness here.

These thoughts came from my viewing of a documentary called Human Resources. It shed light on some very interesting and dirty parts of American history, but there was a constant overtone of conspiracy by the corporate elites who have trapped us through their devious technological advances in a cycle of control.

Perhaps I’ll go deeper into this tomorrow, but such extraordinary claims are almost invariably made without any evidence (much less the requisite extraordinary evidence) and belie a simplistic vision of the world that I believe is worse than useless.

Commitment Pt. III

It’s hard to believe that this blog has existed for two and a half years now. What a wild ride that time has been. It all began in an attempt to change my life for the better. It was a rough time in my life, and I needed somewhere to put all the tortured thoughts bouncing around my brain. Thanks for being that somewhere, Internet. In reading some of the old posts, I find myself stumbling over my first encounters with the ideas of how important habits are in shaping our lives and our characters, of the importance of recognizing the truly valuable parts of our lives, and the futility of trying to put walls around our deepest insecurities. These are now principles that guide my life. They’ve become obvious truths that are intrinsic to who I am. I suppose that means that I have succeeded. I wanted to reinvent myself, and I have. Where I used to think that the best approach to life was to set a course for as far down the road as I can imagine and then follow the straight and narrow path as closely as possible at all times, I now live in a series of self-improvement experiments that have a general direction but function mainly to broaden the potential path. Where I used to obsess constantly over the monetary and symbolic value of things, I now hold onto only what is useful as a means to the joys of life that are entirely intangible. Where I used to fear the voicing my thoughts to any public audience, I have now poured hundreds of thousands of words of my deepest thoughts and emotions into the ether for all to see.

Indeed, one of the deepest insecurities that has guided this has been my failure of commitment. To rebuild, I started small and committed to 30 days of putting 500 words into these pages. I succeeded, and in so doing, I rebuilt a bit of my character that I hope will attract that trust that I hope to build with everyone I meet. I’ve continued with those 30-day challenges. For the most part, they’ve been quite successful. I’ve gotten through 30 days of certain diets, of sleep routines, of exercise routines, of morning routines, of meditation practice, and probably a few others. They’ve built up a great deal of momentum that I have recently been drawing on in keeping my life moving in a direction of mental and physical health. But recently, I have been far less successful. Constant interruptions in these routines have made even some of the old ones difficult. Sometimes, I get too overzealous and try to cram several challenges into one block, but one of the most important things I’ve learned in this approach to habit-forming is to be patient. I may want to rebuild some old habits before I relocate again, but I must remember that I will always have time to continue my challenges through new phases of life and that trying to build too many new habits at once is the surest way to build none of them. What’s the old saying? A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush?

And as I prepare to enter one of the most transitory phases of my life and that will leave me in 30 days at the beginning of what I have claimed to be my best opportunity to write this book I’ve been meaning to write for over a year now, there has been no better day than today than to make yet another public commitment to writing.

As I did two and half years ago, I am committing to putting 500 words on this blog (or my other one) every day for 30 days. It’ll be a good warm up and a good opportunity to get back to some good habits.

I’ve been making some other big changes in my life (not to mention the whole being on the move pretty much constantly for the next 30 days), so I’ll have plenty to ramble about.

So here’s day 1 of the latest commitment. Twenty-nine days to go, and the end of this will be only the beginning of something even greater.

Turn the firehose around

We may not be able to turn off the firehose, so why don’t we just stop trying to drink from it?

Last week, I linked to a conversation between Sam Harris and Tristan Harris (no relation) about the potentially trillion-dollar industry of how to get you to be less productive, more distracted, and generally miserable. It was a fascinating and disturbing conversation, but if you want an abridged version of the main point, here’s a video from my new favorite YouTube star, What I’ve Learned.

The fact is that we now live in a world where attention spans are plummeting, and people are so plugged into the constant stream of entertainment that they have built their lives around it – and we’ve gotten here with deliberate effort. Now that I’m deep in a conversation about the latest political developments, I’m thinking more about how this culture fits into the cycle of news production and consumption. It’s no secret that the current American president ran a political campaign largely through a massive effort of controlling mass media, ensuring that he built upon his already widespread name recognition. What the media punditry gaped at was the fact that it worked. How could this completely unqualified, visibly unstable, and second-most unlikable candidate win the world’s largest popularity contest while proving publicly and with the most intense scrutiny, day after day, that he was all of those things? Ignoring the fact that he ran against the most unlikable candidate, he exploited a truth that most people are too afraid to embrace that is truer today than I think it may have ever been: all press is good press.

Every time his name flashed on another news report, it was another chance for that word, which he has gleefully emblazoned on just about everything he has ever owned (or pretended to own), to sink deeper into the minds of voters becoming more familiar and thus more comfortable. Even if you hate his guts and everything he represents, hear the name enough, and it just gets banal and innocuous. If you hate the alternative even more, at least you have banality, and that’s a big part of why just shy of 63 million people (27% of eligible voters) marked next to his name last fall.

Quick aside: let’s reflect on that number real quick. 27% of eligible voters, or 19% of the American people, decided on who would be the commander in chief of our armed forces, the head of our government, and the face of our nation to the rest of the world. That’s not even an admonishment of the system (if it were a pure popular vote, I could still say that 28.5% of eligible voters, or 20% of the population, chose for the rest of us. That’s pretty sad. I could go on, but that’s a real sideways glance at everyone who said, “My vote doesn’t matter so I won’t bother”. 

The firehose of absurdities came at the news media so fast that all they could do was keep covering it, mocking it, and hoping that their disdain would be reflected in the voters. It wasn’t. The strategy worked, and there was no reason to give up on it after January 20th.

The current flood of scandal that seems to pour out of the White House like a cartoonish string of bees from an angry hive has found a comfortable home in the 24-hour news cycle. Despite the media’s bout of soul-searching that began on November 9th, they’ve apparently learned nothing. They feed us hungry news consumers the latest scoff-worthy atrocity in a steady stream of deliciously distracting entertainment, and the advertisers are loving every minute of it.

“But what else can we do?!” you protest. “People need to know about the crimes against democracy and decency that this man is inflicting on them!” Sure, they do, but they don’t need to know on a minutely, hourly, or (I will argue) even daily basis.

What if tomorrow morning, all the news channels announced that for the whole day, they would not be covering developments coming from the White House except for a 1-minute summary of what happened yesterday at the top of each hour. They will do this every day for the foreseeable future. For the rest of the programming, they will provide only in-depth analysis of events around the country and historical moments that help to give the news context.

They can’t turn the firehose off, but they point it away from our faces. They can give us a chance to stop ingesting the news and start digesting it. They can give the American people the space we need to consider fully what events are actually impacting our lives, inform us on what issues we want to prioritize, and disarm an administration whose only tool for keeping millions of people oblivious to the fact that their incompetence isn’t actually improving things is to keep flooding them with new distractions.

Yes, of course, I recognize that this is a totally utopian pipedream, but having it as a dream closer to what I would really hope to see from the media gives me a direction to look for practical solutions. So if you’re in the media, here’s what I hope to see in your industry:

I hope that the big players in journalism, whether broadcast or print, start to pursue a news strategy that encourages people to have the important discussions not only with themselves but with their communities. I hope that they start to recognize that it is not enough for the population simply to be “informed”. Indeed, in a world in which whatever “alternative facts” you want to believe are available and distilling which stories are true, which are fake, and which are technically true but misleading is an increasingly difficult task, we may be too informed. The electorate needs not only the information but the tools to use it. This smorgasboard of coverage of the same events makes it clear that the market is well beyond saturated. If the soul-searching journalists really want to get people to recognize the dangers of extreme right-wing populism, they need to get all their lefty listeners and readers out there to unplug for a minute and start paying attention to what’s going on around them.

Let’s bring back Rep. Tip O’Neill’s catchphrase that “all politics is local”. The big players in news media are so focused on national and global issues, it’s hard to determine exactly how it all actually impacts us. The liberal news junkie who’s read every bit of commentary on the latest bit of Russia-Trump collusion scandal has no concept of why ignorant coal miners would support a party that wants to repeal with no legitimate replacement the most important bill that could actually save their lives! By the same token, the conservative FOX addict who knows every talking point about how the wall will shut down drug smuggling can’t wrap their head around how dumb liberals want to cut defense spending at a time when rampant terrorism and rogue states threaten our very existence!

But what if both these well-informed citizens consume their news while trying to unwind (unsuccessfully) and (only slightly more successfully) entertaining their over-sugared-from-daycare toddler after a long day at their underpaying jobs? I bet there are lots of people in exactly this situation. If they both live in Colorado, what are the odds that they know that their state legislature just scored them up to $500 back on those on those child care expenses? Or, if they live in west Greeley, that their representative, Stephen Humphrey, voted against the bill? Maybe they have differing opinions on his decision (and that of 15 other Republicans; no Democrats voted against the bill), but they almost certainly didn’t know that they disagreed on the issue because they’ve probably never heard of The Child Care Expenses Income Tax Credit Extension (HB17-1002). Indeed, there’s a good chance they don’t even know who Stephen Humphrey is or that one of his campaign promises is to fight the implementation of common core state standards, about which young parents probably care deeply.

What if organizations like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal dumped some money into local offices that reported on state or local legislation and highlighted such subsidies/handouts (depending your perspective)? What if they used those offices to survey the situation on the ground across the country and get a better picture of the issues people care about most, taylor their coverage better, or even not get duped by unorthodox political campaigns?

What if people’s interests started to change when they pulled away the firehose of national news and allowed people to drink from the trickle of local news? Would people become more divided over the contentious issues that go through state houses? Would they become more impassioned? Would they actually take action when the person to express their (dis)satisfaction to isn’t the president of a nation of 324 million but is a local resident who posts her personal cell phone on her web page(yes, State Rep. Jeni Arndt encourages her constituents to call her cell phone; I know because I’ve called her. She answered.) 

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I’m not exactly sure how NYT or WSJ turns this approach into a sustainable business model, but I know that editors and writers at both those ideologically opposed publications are not happy about where their journalism has gotten us. I also know that we’re going to need to figure out a way to handle the Trump-storm before he does something so stupid that it actually does affect all of us, in big, big, most bigly not good – I mean, like, the most not good in the history of ever – kind of way.

The Minimalists

This is actually my second attempt at watching the documentary film called The Minimalists, which follows authors Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus as they go on tour to promote their book Everything that Remains.

First off, thanks, Mom and Dad for continuing to subscribe to Netflix so I could continue to be a moocher and watch these two moochers push their brand and convert more moochers!

Ok, that’s not exactly a fair labeling, but you’ll see how it might certainly look that way from a certain perspective.

This is the second attempt because the first time I got about 10 minutes in and said to myself, “Ok, this is basically my life. I’m not learning anything.” I proceeded to watch an entertaining but, again, un-educational 90-minute whine-fest called ReGeneration that I really hoped would conclude with some actionable advice. It didn’t.

I came back to The Minimalists because it got me started thinking while I was on my trek back from the end of the world (I didn’t make it, by the way; I stopped at an abandoned military fort a couple kilometers closer). I got to thinking about how my minimalist lifestyle actually works and what it would mean if everyone adopted it.

My hope for humanity is probably closest to utopian socialist hippy beliefs but tinged with a heavy dose of realism. I believe that we all should be much less materialistic and much more focused on our relationships, but I recognize that our ability to have these discussions in this exceptionally comfortable setting comes on the back of centuries of rampant materialism. I also recognize that the system that allows me to be minimalistic is the same system that perpetuates frivolous consumerism.

Neither I nor “the minimalists” advocate the complete abandonment of modern comforts. I won’t deny that having a warm apartment with modern amenities, a smartphone, and a laptop are wonderful things that I have no intention of giving up (permanently). In fact, I just collected a couple hundred dollars worth of stuff that I ordered online (and paid more because apparently the EEA isn’t quite the same as being in the EU, so I had to pay customs on the box from the Spanish company). Now, I actually might have more stuff than I can carry, which was a point of pride when I left Sweden.

However, the lifestyle change that we minimalists are advocating is that the things we own are things that add value to our lives. The things I picked up were something I slept in (a tent), navigated with (a compass), and drank water from (a Camelback-style bladder). These all came in handy when I slept outside in the rain, needed to orient myself under a cloudy sky, and didn’t die of dehydration. These things (among a few others I’ve collected recently) allowed me to go on this little journey, which I found fulfilling for a whole host of reasons (which I’d be happy to discuss with anyone willing to ask; seriously, please do; I’ll get to why I’m pushing this later).

So being a minimalist is not about giving everything away and living as a hermit, it’s about living mindfully. It’s about recognizing that most of the stuff people typically buy is impulsive, adds little value to their lives, and contributes to a lifestyle that prioritizes things and the jobs we must work to get the money to buy those things over relationships.

In a sense, it’s about telling the marketers to bugger off and stop pushing junk we don’t need. It’s about telling the product developers to take their latest model that does hardly anything more than the last to shove it. It’s about telling the fashion designers who push a new clothing line each week to go choke on their cheap fabrics.

And herein lies the problem: it’s about telling millions of people that their job shouldn’t exist. If everyone decided to stop listening to the advertisements, learned to live without the newest gadgets, and recognized that no one who matters really cares if you’re wearing this week’s fashion, it wouldn’t just mean that we all live with a bit less. It would mean that millions of people wouldn’t be able to live with anything at all because their jobs stopped being able to generate income. Those who were already out of a job wouldn’t get their welfare checks because the economy came to stand-still, and the government stopped collecting payroll taxes (“but we just print money to pay it anyway!” Fine. That problem just got a whole lot worse, too). This is why I started off by calling myself a moocher: I can live this minimalist lifestyle (and the happy, fulfilling existence that comes with it) because of the billions of consumerist sheeple who keep this machine running.

Before all you Marxists start raising your fists in solidarity toward the evil capitalist overlord, remember that the socialist part of this system (welfare) also just failed. (and the issue of personal property is another conversation entirely)

And this brought me to the seemingly unrelated conclusion that the “automation revolution” isn’t upon it, and it isn’t imminent. It already happened, but we adapted. I don’t know exactly when it happened (the mid-seventies when productivity diverged from wages looks suspicious), but we’ve been covering up the fact that we already produce far more goods and services than we have jobs for. We just replaced those jobs with the designing, manufacturing, and most importantly, selling of more goods and services.

I also listened to an excellent TED Radio Hour podcast (both of these after I returned from my meditative walk) about the rapid growth of AI and what it means for human society. One bit about this phenomenon is that we’re going to start replacing jobs that even highly skilled workers, professionals, and intellectuals currently do, and people like to assert that this is fundamentally different from when we started replacing jobs only animals and uneducated people did. I don’t believe that. It’s not fundamentally different. The technological revolution, the computer revolution, the intelligence revolution, whatever you want to call these leaps in technology; they’re all just phases of the Industrial Revolution, and we’ve been adapting for hundreds of years. Granted, this one might start happening faster, but we’ll respond the same way we always do: by making up new jobs. Don’t need someone to grow crops anymore? Fine, here’s a new “time-saving” home appliance that needs to be invented, designed, manufactured, and sold. Don’t need to trap women at home to do all these chores plus child rearing anymore? Fine, here’s a plethora of new fashion items for her to spend her money on from the job she got at a washing machine factory. Don’t need someone to invent/design/make/market/sell X? Fine, here’s some other Y that I’m going to sell you because I’ve convinced you that you’d rather buy it from me than from a cyborg (that’ll be ironic and almost humorous to about 3 people; if you laughed and know why, please say hi).

Here’s what I’m getting: as AI starts replacing jobs like drivers, doctors, engineers, and lawyers, we’re going to need to make a decision. Of course, there will be pains in the transition (there always are), but the decision I’m looking at is not whether or not we completely revolutionize our economic system to accommodate the masses of the suddenly unemployable. The decision is whether or not we’re going to adapt the same way we always have (by coming up with new ways to sell people more stuff they didn’t want until you told them they did) or by learning to sell stuff that actually improves people’s lives.

The market has gotten unnervingly good at controlling what vast swaths of people desire and satisfying that desire just enough to get them coming back for more like a pigeon pecking for another hit of cocaine. What if we used these powers of mind-control to encourage people to buy stuff that will actually improve their lives? What if instead of selling people the latest new gadget, we sold them services that helped them actually connect with the people they know only through a screen? What if instead of selling people more junk food that only fattens them to crave more, we sold them cooking classes so they could learn how to prepare a wholesome meal for a dinner party with the new friends they just met? What if instead of selling people some piece of junk, we sold them what they really want? A connection with another human being.

This we can do in our current system. We don’t need to overthrow the capitalist overlords and start a glorious revolution of equality and a universal basic income (though the latter might be useful for other reasons). All we need to do is show people that they don’t need a constant stream of more stuff and instant gratification to be happy. If we show people that they can actually desire something real in their lives, there will be a demand for it, and the market will react. It’s the beauty of a capitalist market economy, but with all things, it’s best in moderation. It takes moderation to have the ethical responsibility to try to market an idea that may not lead to the greatest revenue but to the greatest fulfillment. I believe that people will gain that fulfillment on both ends of this transaction by knowing that your product has improved the lives of others and by having new opportunities for fulfillment being provided.

This does, indeed, build on my last post: a moral philosophy that seeks to guide one’s life ought to have as the highest objective the building and strengthening of social relationships.

We have enormous power over what our society looks like. We can decide whether the exponential growth of technology leads to society’s being torn apart by class warfare of unseen socioeconomic stratification, or to its being sewn closer together by the opportunities born of the satisfaction of our material needs.

Where is this going?

This post is going to ramble. If you’re looking for some bit of entertainment or logical storyline, wrapping up in a nice bit of catharsis, you’ve come to the wrong place. There probably won’t even be anything funny or interesting in here. I’m pretty much just going to rant. My mind is too tired to formulate any cogency at the moment, but I have the urge to put something out into the interwebs. So if you want to waste the next 15 minutes of your life, go ahead, dive into this. It’s probably better than going back to your Facebook feed though. If you can focus on this drudgery for fifteen minutes, it’s probably excellent concentration practice. So maybe it is worth something. The point of this paragraph is that basically every one after it will be similarly disjointed. Just like the whole post.

I went to bed before 7 pm last night. I thought I would just end up waking up in the middle of the night, but I actually slept all the way through to my alarm at 5:30. That’s really only 10.5 hours, which honestly isn’t that much for being what was supposed to be my coming home from work and just crashing because I was far too exhausted to go to the gym. It was definitely justified. We had a few pretty brutal workouts Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. This morning was also killer, so I’m really glad I took the night off.

I also didn’t sleep that whole time. I spent at least a couple hours just kind of lying there, listening to music, and letting my mind wander. That’s really something we don’t do enough. How often is your mind just bored? Probably not very often. You feel that incipient boredom, and bam, you’ve got the smartphone out and scrolling through facebook or pulling up a new podcast or just listening to an old one or reading something you’ve read a million times just to save your mind from the horror of boredom.

Two weekends ago, I walked to the south end of this little island I’m on, which is called Nøtterøy (literally “nuts island”; I have no idea where it comes from). It was part of a series of training treks I’ve been doing as I prepare for a few days of trekking through the fjords of western Norway in less than a month. The walk took me about 7 hours round trip, and I carried most of the gear I expect to carry when I head to the fjords. Physically, it was tiring, but I didn’t return completely exhausted. I didn’t bring food (that was planned), and I probably didn’t drink enough water, but I was ok.

What I also didn’t bring was a pair of headphones. I had my phone, but it remained silent and on airplane mode. It served purely as a compass/map/GPS device. I now have an analog compass, so if I can get my hands on a map of Nøtterøy, I won’t even need it. But I disconnected myself on purpose. I wanted to have my mind be in an extended state of not being entertained. It can be tough, but it’s really liberating. Like the fasting, it feels good in a slightly uncomfortable but regenerative kind of way.

Tomorrow, I’ll take the last of these little training treks. I’m going to walk to the end of the world. Seriously. At the southern end of the island south of Nøtterøy is a place called Vardens Ende, literally “the world’s end”. I expect it to take about 6 hours to get there. I’ll make camp (my 1-man trekking tent just arrived).

[quick PSA: If you’ve ever thought about standing on the side of the road with a sign that says “Honk if you’re  a dipshit!” or some asinine thing like that, just don’t. Because everyone in your vicinity has to listen to all the dipshits who actually honk.]

Anyway, these during the first few hours of these walks, while my mind is still active, I can mull over some difficult questions that take the kind of concentration hard to muster in the rush of a work day.

Last weekend, I mulled over this thought that I haven’t fully been able to wrap my head around but has been causing a lot of existential issues.

Last year, I spent many a morning on the city bus on its way to my favorite cafe on the other side of town. Once there, I would work on some writing and job hunting, but on the way, I did the same kind of unplugging as I do on these walks. The 30-minute bus ride was a good amount of time to work mentally on a rational personal ethic. I wanted to define a moral basis for myself, starting from first principles. In physics, we often start from first principles (such as the laws of motion or the laws of thermodynamics) and inductively reason our way to new hypotheses that form the basis of modern physics.

Why not do that with philosophy too? Well, it gets a bit trickier because we don’t really have “first principles” of philosophy. I figured that I could build a rational moral philosophy starting from one undeniable truth: I exist. As Renee Descartes so famously mused, “I think therefore I am.” From this, and making assumptions only to avoid a trivial solution (e.g. having a philosophy that can’t be followed or doesn’t actually provide any guidance), I was actually able to build a logical case for a whole series of moral foundations. These were such things as honesty, sincerity, fairness, liberty, and the prioritization of the self but not at the expense of others. It really turned into a kind of selfish morality espoused by libertarians and extolled in a very similar form by Ayn Rand Objectivists (I think they start with a good idea, but I had a few key differences).

Unfortunately, I started listening recently to a mid-twentieth century philosopher named Alan Watts. He was one of the first to popularize Eastern philosophy in the US, and he started to lead what could be called the first wave of mindfulness thought several decades before the trend making waves by going viral in peak performance circles like Silicon Valley. He introduced the idea (found often in Buddhist teaching, but also many other Eastern philosophies) of non-dualism. I had tried to read into it before, but Watts was the first one to make it even approachable to me. I’ll try to explain what I think I understand, but I’m writing this because I know I don’t fully understand. I think that the moment of complete understanding is what Buddhists call nirvana.

Basically, it undermines the one fundamental truth I thought I had pinned down: the concept of self. Watts sold this to me by highlighting the fact that so much of what we take for granted in the world is purely conventional. By that, I mean that we accept something and follow it merely because it is a useful convention. Think of units of measure. One meter could have been any length we wanted it to be, but it ended up being one completely arbitrary length that we all (except those in developing countries like the US) understand so that we can speak a common language. Language itself is another. Words are simply representations of real things, and a brief thought of the thousands of human languages (and who knows how many non-human languages) there are that represent a particular thing with myriad different sounds, scribbles, or signs shows just how arbitrary these things are. But he extends that that to conventions that are less obvious. Think of time. It’s merely just a unit of measure. Indeed, Einstein showed us that it’s not even its own thing. It’s inextricably linked to space. But the concept of space-time is also just a convention.

We can go even further. If the idea of space-time is just a convention, then any delineations we make within it are arbitrary units of measure. The choice of where one meter ends and the other begins or where one object ends and another begins is just a convention that helps our feeble human minds that have a need to categorize things. One of those objects is what I might call “me”. Where do I begin and end? In space? Does the boundary between me and the rest of the universe have any actual foundation? Where do I choose to put that boundary? At my skin? At the end of my hair? At the edge of my personal space bubble? At the end of the image I cultivate on social media? What about in time? When do I begin? At self-awareness? At birth? At consciousness? At conception? At the formation of the gametes that will eventually combine to form what eventually grows into this body? At the formation of the atoms that make up this body? And when do I end?

All of these are useful questions to answer for philosophical, legal, and social reasons, but in the end, the choice – whether arbitrary or rational – is ours. We define it. The universe doesn’t give a hoot where/when “I” begin and end.

As Watts put it, (I’m loosely quoting), you are what the universe is doing at a point you call here and now.

And that is what Buddhists mean when they say that they are “one with the universe”. They have accepted the fact that there is no actual boundary between the body and the rest of existence. Even your thoughts are nothing more than the manifestation of the universe unfolding in a certain way to form a bit of what we call consciousness. “You are the universe experiencing itself,” as Watts (possibly apocryphally) put it.

If you’ve actually gotten this far. Now is a really good time to stop reading my drivel and go chew on that for a few minutes. or days. or years.

Welcome back.

Now you see my dilemma. “I think therefore I am” is an extremely presumptuous assertion. Just because there is thought does not mean that there is indeed a thinker. As we learn more about quantum physics, we start to understand how particles can pop in and out of existence in seemingly random patterns and in place-times that are undefinable (not just undefined, but undefinable). The universe can indeed create rather spontaneously what appears to our consciousness as a singular stream of thought. Because this thought is controlled by actions in what we call a brain, we must, therefore, be an individual with individual thoughts, right? Maybe not.

Damn. I hit a wall. This happens frequently as I mull over these issues.

But what I was chasing on that walk a couple weeks ago and continue to pursue while lying in bed last night was what it means for my personal ethic. I had a bit of an epiphany a couple weeks ago at work when I realized that if even the self is purely a contrivance, anything we decide to do with ourself is also a contrivance. Therefore, the idea of a personal moral code based on first principles is already illogical. The point of conventions is to allow society to function.

Boom. There it is.

That’s why I’m doing this.

The point of conventions is to allow society to function. An ideal personal ethic is one that best contributes to the cooperative functioning of society.

Alright, now we have a purpose.

I think that realization was really just a better way to phrase what I had already been considering, so it leads to the same place that I ended up while walking.

The foundation of society is the relationships between the members of the society.  Relationships are founded on trust. Therefore, the highest ideal of my personal ethic ought to be the cultivation of the trait trustworthiness.

The highest praise a person can give me is three simple words: “I trust you.”

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