Who are you?

Who are you? Really. What makes you you? How do you define you? Are you a body with definite edges? Are you something inside that body? Are you a brain? Are you a product of a brain? Are you just the collection of chemicals that create your thoughts? Are you the thoughts? Are you all of them or only one of them?

When someone asks, “Who are you?”, what do you say?

Last year, I was at a party, and a girl asked me that question but in a tone that suggested she was not rudely demanding that I simply state my name and relation to the host. I was lost for words. I hadn’t really considered the idea.

Who am I? What am I?

It’s a question we ought to consider more often. We ought to do so far more often than we consider the idea of who we want to be.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog, I’ve been digging deeply into the writings and lectures of the mid-twentieth century philosopher Alan Watts. He was a great popularizer of Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. I’ve been attracted to his work because he puts the ideas of a very foreign culture in a way that resonates well with my Western mind.

One idea that my listening to his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity has brought up is the notion of the self. The difference in the concept of self between Eastern and Western ideology is a core point of misunderstanding when people of opposite hemispheres meet. Where Westerners often hold a concept of self consistent with Enlightenment ideas of personal liberty and the natural state of man being and individual human outside of society, Easterners see the society itself as being fundamental to the definition of an individual.

This latter view, I believe, is an unfortunate oversight in the Western mind. We are so apt to define ourselves as separate from the world, an intrusion into it, and somehow an independent actor upon it that we frustrate ourselves in the endless search for our proper place within it. To take the view that not only is our relationship to society fundamental to our concept of self but so is our relationship to the entire universe eliminates this question.

To answer the question“Who are you?”, we must define some sort of limit where “you” end and the rest of the universe begins. Does it begin at the end of your brain? At the edge of your body? At the edge of the things you control? And how does one define these edges? Is it at the first molecule of air resting upon the surface of your skin? Is that last molecule of dried and dead skin which awaits its imminent fate as a speck of dust actually still part of “you”?

Pursuing these questions ought to illuminate the fact that our final decision is simply conventional. Such a convention is useful for purposes such as communication or the studies of biology and medicine, but they are no more real than the words on your screen. They are simply ideas, concepts, constructions of the human imagination.

When we recognize this fact, we must also recognize that this lack of boundaries means that I am no more separate from you than your brain is separate from your body. Though thousands of kilometers of Earth, water, and air may separate what our categorizing human brains recognize as our two separate and distinct physical entities, we are both merely features of the existence that we call the Universe.

Purity

Note: Hej allihopa. I’m back on the internets. I’ve been hesitant to open my computer over the last week, but I’ve been jotting lots of things in my journal. I’ll get around to sharing some of the more interesting stuff this weekend. Here are my thoughts from last night after the final events of the 2017 World Wind Energy Conference in Malmö, Sweden.

Today’s featured image: Sunset over Pildammarna, the lake in the middle of a large park in Malmö.


Any atheist who says that their lack of belief in the supernatural requires their lack of religion is full of shit. Atheists can be just as religious as the most fervent apologist, and I honestly hope that many are. It just depends on how you look at what exactly a religion is. Typically, it’s associated with a “supernatural controlling power” that is imagined as a god that is a creator of the universe. However, such a figure is really no more than an idea that lives in the collective imagination of humanity, and gods make up only a small part of that collective imagination. Other significant ideas are those of justice, human rights, liberty, rationality, integrity, and a whole host of other banaler an uncontroversial concepts. String a few of these together, and you’ve got yourself an ideology, and the line between ideology and religion is a narrow but fuzzy one.

Those that gain a significant enough number of followers to be recognized as a distinct doctrine almost invariable have a code (or at least a central message) that is simple enough for followers to explain and for potential converts to understand. Whether they do it in the name of the group or not, the adherent will try to convince others (or at least hope that others are influenced) if they truly believe that their doctrine is right.

To move past the theoretical, I must bring in my own religion: sustainability. There exists enough data to determine that certain sources of energy, modes of transportation and diets are more sustainable than others. This knowledge and a dedication to a sustainable lifestyle guide my decisions, large and small. I, of course, want others to follow this doctrine because my own adherence is insignificant without the help of many, many others.

I do my best to set the example by being vigilant about wasted energy in my home and workplace. I am proud of my pursuit of a career in renewable energy development. I have been consistent since the end of my winter travels in choosing the low-carbon option for my travel.

But I have been a confused mess when it comes to my diet. Over this past week, I have eaten more fish, chicken, pork, and beef than I had in the past two years. I have not compromised my “sustainatarian” principles that I cook vegan but otherwise, will eat anything that is offered to me or is bound for the waste bin. This is not a simple doctrine that will gain converts. It requires significant and often convoluted explanation. I am doing nothing for my cause by snagging extra plates of roast beef even if I am convinced that they’ll otherwise be wasted. The image of me, forkful of red meat plunging into my maw, does not send the message, “That plate of food required too much greenhouse gas emissions for me to approve by consuming it.”

I am herby repenting for my sins and reaffirming my faith. I am holding to the simple rule in order to set the example for all who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their diet:

I don’t eat meat.

As with any religion, there are caveats and exceptions. I’ll need a cheat meal every so often (once a month at a maximum; let’s face it, I still enjoy meat). If I have been invited to a meal and the plate in front of me does not allow the simple offloading of the meat to a neighbor, I will graciously accept the food. And, of course, if the agricultural industry learns to make meat widely available with significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions (and ideally without animal suffering), my mission will be complete, and I will enjoy the miracle of technology.

However, save these, I will practice what I preach and show consistency that does not require explanation.

So if you see me sneaking a piece of chicken from the buffet counter, please stab me with a fork and remind me of the commandments of my god.

My Windmill

Today’s featured image: Voss, Norway. I’ve decided that when I retire, I’m going to become a farmer in these mountains, and the view will continue to take my breath away every single day.

A contact of mine on LinkedIn shared an article today from the New York Times entitled “In Praise of Lost Causes” by Mariana Alessandri. Though the only specific causes Alessandri cites in the article are those from the early twentieth-century Spanish dissident Miguel de Unamuno, her ideas fit easily over a wide swathe of lost causes and giant windmills that are in need of their own quixotic errant knight.

The article was particularly timely for me. I read the article and am responding while on a train to Malmö, Sweden where I will attend the World Wind Energy Conference during the first half of this week. I have rushed back across the Scandinavian peninsula from my little mountain paradise in Bergen for the sole purpose of meeting contacts who can help me kickstart my career in renewable energy development.

This passion that I have dedicated my life to in relocating to Sweden to study wind power specifically and in committing to a return to North America despite the strengthened allure of Norway, is indeed a known lost cause, and Alessandri’s rousing call for action was exactly what I needed right now.

To answer your obvious question, yes, I do see myself as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I know that neither I nor we as a renewable energy industry will take down the fossil fuel machine upon which our modern world is built. Well, we will eventually, but I know that it won’t happen before it’s too late to stop many of the predicted consequences of climate change.

Keeping average temperatures below two degrees rise above preindustrial levels? Not a chance. We’ve practically already blown our carbon budget, and we’re not slowing down anywhere near fast enough.

Avoiding major food supply disruptions due to altered weather patterns? The recent drought in the American Southwest, where we grow a significant portion of food that the US and many other countries depend on, is only a taste of what will surely rock the food system in the next couple decades.

Handling the flood of climate refugees that will overwhelm host countries, pry at societal cleavages, and exacerbate fundamentalist extremism? A passing glance at any set of headlines ought to be enough to see that it’s already too late. Let’s not pretend that climate change had nothing to do with the situation in Syria.

Of course, the more pressing question is “Why?” Why should we continue tilting at windmills? Why bother trying to save the world when it’s already well on its way to certain doom?

Because this isn’t the end of the world, but merely the end of an era. This is the end of the era of rapid industrialization and dirty energy. It’s the end of the commercial boom and extreme inequality. It may even be the end of the fully independent nation-state and the monopolar world order enforced by a sole superpower. Human society as we know it is destined to change in unrecognizable and unimaginable ways, and I will put my chips on the square that reads in my lifetime.

And when the heat waves take their victims and we finally adapt to an ecosystem we have learned to respect, when the food shortages kill millions before we figure out a better system, and when the civil wars of inflamed nationalism finally quiesce in peaceful settlements of a truly global world order, we will need an energy system that does not equate to dumping our garbage in our living room. In whatever world we come to on the other side of this, we will need a global sustainable energy system that provides humanity with the energy it craves while accepting the gifts of the Earth and the Sun as gracious guests in our single, unified home.

If these utopian dreams don’t come to pass…?

then I suppose it is a lost cause because we’ll all be dead.

Two good things

The area around Stockholm Central Station was quiet, but it boomed in a frenzy of activity. It just felt quiet because it was nothing like what I had experienced when I passed through last weekend. The roads were blocked off to traffic so the noise was that of rocking music from a stage set up in the back of a truck, the voices of those walking the open street, and the shouts of the volunteers who had come to support the Stockholm Marathon. On my way back to the station to catch my train to Oslo, I watched the runners behind the 5.5-hour pacer slog their way up the long gentle climb to the north. They barely shuffled their feet in a mockery of running, their clothes soaked through with sweat though the temperature was cold enough for a jacket. Their faces twisted in pained looks of exhaustion, knowing that this fight was far from over. The singer in the portable stage belted encouraging lines to keep up the spirits of the weary racers.

Watching this line of competitors, competing not against each other but against their own desire to give in, I felt the sudden urge to cry. I think it was the feeling of a parent when they see the accomplishments of a growing child. It was the feeling of being proud of someone for their strength and resolve to be the best version of themselves. It was the feeling of seeing a truly good thing.


A bit less than two hours east of Oslo, our train slid along through the drizzle that dampened the dense green mixed forest and farm of the borderlands between Sweden and Norway. As I started to feel a returning alertness from having slept through most of the journey, a voice came over the intercom. It said the same thing twice, once in Swedish and once in English. As he finished the English translation, “We have now crossed the border between Sweden and Norway”, two startling realizations hit me in short succession. The first was that I understood the message both times. Despite my having been in Norway for the past eight weeks (except this most recent one), I still followed simple messages in Swedish. It’s not exactly a useful skill for someone who is shortly leaving Sweden for the foreseeable future and who speaks only languages that almost every Swede also speaks, but it’s a nice feeling. The second realization was that the message was purely a courtesy. There was no instructive information that followed. He did not ask us to ready our passports or to be awake for border control agents passing through the train. If he had not said anything, most of us would not have realized that we had entered a new legal jurisdiction. This border is literally just a line on a map. It does not exist in the real world, and they are making no pretense that it does. It serves merely as an administrative convenience to determine which government is responsible for which lands and people. But to cross over it is as natural as to step over a stone lying on a forest path.

Presentation

Yes, I missed a day yesterday. So, here are 1,000 obligatory words. It’s a rambling journal entry, but it’s a fair thought. Honestly, I just needed to get some words on the page. This is a tough week for writing. Indeed, minimal chance I’m going to get out 500 words tomorrow. I’ll try to knock it out over lunch, but we’ll see.

Tomorrow morning, I will present the results of my thesis project, which I just completed in cooperation with WindSim AS in Tønsberg, Norway. I spent the last two weeks fretting off and on about how I wanted to present the information. Of course, I could have just turned the headings of the prescribed outline of my thesis into the outline of the Powerpoint slides and read through them like I was recapping my thesis. I suppose that’s what they’re expecting me to do, but that’s not what I’m going to do.

The past three days have been full of just such presentations from researchers who are here in Visby attending the wake conference. Most of them were absolutely terrified to be on stage, but 50 out of the 80 attendees still got up and presented their or their colleagues’ work. Granted, English was not the native language of all but a few of the presenters, but I can’t say that more than three or four were actually engaging. I won’t blame any of the presenters for my lack of understanding (it was mostly extremely technical stuff that was way over my head), but something struck me about the overused format that didn’t make for an entertaining presentation.

This leaves me with a rather uncomfortable question: should a presentation be entertaining? Or is the important part the content?

I’m sure that all of the presenters had useful content. A few had some fairly suspect errors in their analysis, but their putting the information out in public was useful for the audience and even more useful for the presenter. Actually, in comparison to how much the audience got out of it, the benefit to the speaker was probably infinitely greater. How much does the audience actually get out of such presentations? How much do we actually remember from having someone talk at us for fifteen minutes? I can remember bits and pieces of a few that I found particularly interesting, but out of eighteen hours of presentations, how much did the audience really take away? One percent? Less?

I’m currently looking back through an entry I wrote two years ago when I took a course through Coursera called Learning How to Learn. It was a fantastic 101 MOOC on the processes of memory and learning. It’s really intended for freshman college students who are out on their own for the first time and are now realizing that they never actually learned how to learn. For the final project, I wrote a short essay on forming memories and the role of sleep. Lessons from that course have stuck with me, and I guide much of my study based on their tips. Of course, a pair of professors who study learning ought to know how to present information in such a way that you’ll remember, right? Apparently. How does their approach differ from all those presentations that slipped out of our brains before we even got to the question & answer session?

First off, they at least tried to be entertaining. They used goofy little animations throughout their videos. The silly cartoons were almost embarrassingly simple, but I still remember the image of a brain with four short term memory areas. It’s a recognizable pattern, and I won’t forget that our working memory struggles to hold three or four different things at once. I even remember the terribly drawn chalkboard that represented short term memory. It was a comparison between short and long term memory. Short term memory is like a chalkboard on which someone is coming along behind us with the eraser and smearing everything we wrote a couple minutes ago. Long term memory is more like a warehouse in which things are stored safely and orderly, so we can recall them quickly far into the future. I even remember this awful clip of one of the instructors running along the beach. He looks goofy as hell, and he’s got that unattractive round shape that late-middle men who spend far too much time sitting at desk tend to develop. But I’ll never forget how much they talked about the importance of strenuous physical exercise in the process of neuron growth, which is an essential part of forming new memories.

Can I adapt these to my presentation? It’s a bit late now. I’m not going to add in little Shivas in my slides to represent the creation and destruction of turbulence kinetic energy, but I can at least try to make the slides visually appealing. Actually, that would have been a pretty good idea. Oh, well. Next time.

One other big idea that I took away from that course was the idea of “chunking”. This is the concept that in order to form a new memory, we need to have a solid chunk for it to attach to. Understanding that memories are actually neural pathways, not just static bits of information, is essential in understanding how we actually build new memories. We can’t just absorb a completely new piece of information, store it, and retain it forever. We need something for it to attach itself to. The stronger that initial connection, the longer it will stick. This is what I do try to emphasize in my presentations. I try not only to use simple language that a broad audience can relate to, but I try to explain complex items in multiple ways in hopes that each of them will form a strong connection with different people in the audience.

However, the biggest thing I’ll try to do tomorrow is something that I didn’t learn in that course. It’s just to be different. After the presentations yesterday, we had a champagne hour in which I started talking to a presenter from the first day. I had to ask him to recap his work because I couldn’t remember what he had talked about. Most of the presentations had all blended together. There was only one that really stood out. A young researcher from Germany elected not to follow the typical script. He decided that he wanted to tell the story of the development of his model. With great moving visuals and an engaging presentation style, I remember at least what I understood of his model. It actually was one of the simpler methods presented in the conference, but it seems the most impressive because of the way he presented it. Or perhaps it was more complex than it seemed, and he just explained it well.

That’s what I’m shooting for tomorrow.

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