We’re all going to get it. So what do we believe?

Joseph Campbell, the Sarah Lawrence College professor credited with opening the minds of Americans to the religions of the far East, had a wonderful line recounted in “Myths of Light”:

The term ‘nature religions’ has become the object of rejection and abuse. But what else are you going to worship? Some figment of your imagination that you have put up in the clouds? A strange thing has happened. It is so extreme that if you don’t believe in a figure, you don’t have anything to worship. Now everything is lost!

As Covid-19 creeps into our societies, like the green vines of some alien species seeded under the beds at midnight, we seem to have become stuck partway through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief wondering what to believe. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. As of late March, politicians and pundits are still bargaining — regional governors want more supplies shipped to them, the U.S. president muses whether we all just go back to work, Congress nitpicks over the details of economic stimulus. What was first denied by some leaders (that Covid was going to ramp wildly) and then caused xenophobic anger (it was all the Chinese’ fault!) has now turned into some form of extended contract negotiation.

Clever observers see our society is caught in a version of The Trolley Problem, the classic ethics puzzle in which a runaway trolley is barreling down a track to kill, say, 12 people. You have an option to throw a switch to divert the speeding trolley to another track, where 2 people stand unaware.

Do you take no action and let fate kill the dozen? Or do you step in to swing the switch, responsible yourself for killing 2?

Get to work. Shelter in place. Economics and social distance are now the bargain we must strike over how many to kill and when.

Kübler-Ross goes on, of course, to suggest the final, inevitable stages of grief are Depression and then Acceptance. Strong minds don’t like either, since opposing a threat is what we must do in the world, we must fight! … but if our inevitable decay and death are not just likely, but preordained, then shouldn’t acceptance be our final mercy?

Personally, I’m still stuck in the middle at bargaining. I stroll the house, confined, like a caged animal. The first move was to stock the home supplies a bit, food, water, and yes, toilet paper. Then, when disaster still seemed a few blocks off, I drove out once to fix the home TV stereo setup and buy a few more dumbbell weights for the garage gym. And then, it’s work from home.

Now I wake up in the morning wondering if the dry lump in my throat is the onset of Covid, and then worry about my wife, who still commutes daily into a regional hospital to help others, and walk the halls back to the office over the garage. Then I glower at the screen, typing on projects, trying to smile when the video green light clicks on.

But bargaining seems creaky and the stormclouds of depression loom. Instagram and Twitter have tossed their usual rainbows and rages to meet somewhere in the middle, a neutral land of strange outreach, of avatars of empathy. An agency friend whom I’ve never met IRL pinged me, “hey, you doing OK?” Tough snarky souls have started sharing motivational sayings, recipes. Home video clips are everywhere. Suits, ties and makeup are tossed to the wind.

Like a beautiful-but-crowded oceanfront beach where the tide has suddenly raced out to sea, pulled by a looming vortex, we all wait, looking at each other, wondering.

Natural selection

Nature has surged back in this pause. Dolphins are swimming in the unpolluted waters of Venice; owls can be heard in quiet U.S. suburbs before dusk; overhead the sky is unmolested by jet contrails, just wisps of real clouds before the blue.

This pause before the surge.

Humanity isn’t done mucking with the world, of course. Concrete still clutters the planet, and at night, with our electric grid hum, light pollution still dims the stars. A utility worker came by our house last weekend with some water filtration supplies, and as I asked how he was doing, he smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re a stubborn species.” His face was red. I wondered if it were fever. It is these splashes of frisson, of nature emerging from the tides of commerce, that interest. A friend wrote me that she can perceive the world is changing, just out of sight, and she’s waiting, alert, watching for it.

This tension between death and life reminds me of a 1940 story. As Germany bombed England during “The Blitz,” Churchill’s civil servant John Colville wrote in his journal about a trip back to London:

The night was cloudless and starry, with the moon rising over Westminster. Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires … never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.

The question I have when Covid-19 really begins to kill is: What will I believe?

Religious evolution

Many of us, immersed in modern secularism, digitally removed from nature, have fallen into Joseph Campbell’s mental trap: We are not certain whether to trust the religions of our youth, but absent specificity, is all really lost? Nature beckons for some. Leonard Shlain has claimed in his history of religion, “The Alphabet versus the Goddess,” that female-nature deities were the origins of human belief, and only later, as we encoded our societies with the linear alphabets of writing and math, were our brains rewired to believe in male father figures. Perhaps the feminine, empathic side of spirituality is more in line with our true nature.

This is not to say that God doesn’t exist, but the Yahweh and Elohim of the Old Testament are mysterious beings, where even the singular/plural pronouns are confused, and no where is this deity described as an old man with a beard. With more than 300 religions in the world, the odds of any one being exactly right are less than 1%, but the commonalities within their myths and stories — almost every religion has an Adam and Eve story, and the Noah’s flood tale has different versions across dozens of cultures — suggest there is either something true about them, as Campbell hints, or a mass delusional projection from our psyche, the vote of Carl Jung.

Intellectuals often favor Jung, saying belief in God or Goddess is just a warped projection of our inner needs and fear of death; Campbell seemed to believe there was an inner truth within all these stories, and that their common traits should give us hope.

The irony of our modern age is science is beginning to back religion.

At first glance, physics would seem at odds with a caring God. The second law of thermodynamics says entropy (disorder) increases, until all that will be left is a universe of static, unmoving heat death, of tiny particles that no longer vibrate at all. Hardly a fitting end to creation. But science has two counterpoints: Biology and Astrophysics.

Biology begins with the ever-growing complexity of creation. If things fall apart, how do bodies get put together? Even Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution, was troubled by the “eye,” a construct of aperture and lens and clear liquid and retina that is so perfectly constructed, like a wonderful camera, he questioned how his own theory could ever put together something so beautiful. It was as if you threw a bunch of paper clips in the air a million times and down fell a silver Leica.

Add in the hidden forces propelling the universe’s expansion, and something creating things seems real. Science is coming around to admit there are hidden secrets: dark energy and unseen matter of the universe being forces that continue to create, to expand, pushing the manifold of spacetime out to the new. When scientists peer into our galaxy and count the stars and planets, they find there is just not enough mass to hold the spiral together. Something unseen makes it turn, pulls us forward, binds what we see to the unknown. Even science doesn’t have a name for it yet. “Dark energy” is an obvious fudge.

Things are bound to fall part. Things are destined to be created. Death and birth go hand in hand, in the huge unseen wheel turned by nature.

As we modern humans, typically insulated from death with our old ones stashed away in retirement homes, suddenly encounter the Covid-fever thought that we really will die, perhaps belief will make a resurgence. God and nature are partners in every mythical system. If you can’t believe in one, perhaps try the other.

Myths are not lies; they are simply pathways to understanding.

The 5 keys to creating desire

How do you get someone to fall in love with you? This is the central question, if we’re honest, of all marketing. While most marketers are in the business of professional flirtation, unveiling products and services in hopes of stoking arousal, most fail — while a few, such as the late Steve Jobs, seem to have magically cracked the code of desire. Jobs took a bit a glass, called it an iPhone, and the world swooned. But why?

There are five variables that create arousal. Marketers wishing to emulate Jobs should write them down.

In “The Creativity Code,” Marcus du Sautoy tells of Picasso unveiling “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in Paris in 1916. The painting was a breakthrough in the Cubist movement, a tableau of geometric nudes … and critics initially hated it. But decades later this would be recognized as a masterpiece, a true turning point in the history of art. By pushing the edges of novelty to the brink of revulsion, Picasso had hit the five critical inputs of arousal:

1. Novelty (what is that?!)

2. Unexpectedness (you surprised me!)

3. Complexity (hm, this is hard to process)

4. Ambiguity (I don’t understand where you’re coming from)

5. Creation of puzzlement (I don’t understand where this is going)

These five variables, drawn from the psychology of Daniel Berlyne, provide a fascinating framework for how to build desire toward a product (or yes, a person). Watch any old RomCom flick and you’ll see most of the silly plots with J Lo track to these five cues. Matthew McConaughey is the new guy in town, stumbles into J Lo unexpectedly, they’re both ensnared in a complex situation, and then the potential lovers stumble through ambiguity and puzzlement before discovering what was meant to be.

A lover’s leap awry

The trick is not going too far.

A new iPhone or Picasso masterpiece stacks up these five rules to create just the right amount of hedonic value — the pleasure principle that motivates us to take action. But there is a risk, one that the Apple Watch (which did not take off in sales) and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles (which early critics hated) brushed up against. If you leap too far, pleasure collapses, hedonic value goes negative, and your recipients push back. What turns us on, if overstimulating, can flip us into revulsion.

Think of a horizontal scale going from familiar—->new, Du Sautoy suggests, and as you progress to the right an overlain curve of hedonic value (pleasure) will shoot up … and then collapse down. Something a bit novel entices, as we move into the “new realm,” but if we leave the familiar too far behind, we revolt. An iPhone probably would have bombed had it been released in 1940. (“A glass screen with no rotary dial? No thanks.”)

The marketing landscape is filled with such romantic failures. The 1957 Ford Edsel used a new thing called focus groups to design a car based on the particular features consumers liked best, but the aggregate result was a Frankensteinian monstrosity. New Coke launched in 1985 with a sweeter formula to mirror Pepsi, which taste tests showed consumers liked better … but bombed because Coca-Cola drinkers couldn’t accept the jump.

The best products hit the five vectors just enough to incite arousal without aversion, by connecting future surprise to a shared past. A few good bets ahead: The Motorola Razr 2019 revives the beautiful 2004 flip-phone design with a foldable touchscreen inside; 130 million people bought the first one — what a latent base of love to be rekindled with touches of new mystery! The 2022 VW Microbus, when it gets here, will add design flare and electric motors to the iconic hippy vans of the 1960s. Jimmy Wales’ new social network, WT:Social, rekindles the failed hopes of Google+ with a Wikipedia news twist, and might be just unusual enough to scale desire. Notable in WT:Social’s launch is its ambiguity — what will this become? — and puzzlement — what content will it feature? Jimmy is flirting with us all.

And what of ambiguity and puzzlement?

Berlyne’s theory of what drives curiosity and arousal includes two vectors marketers typically don’t think about — ambiguity and puzzlement. But consider, some of the most addictive products in the world offer enigma as stimuli.

Ambiguity is core in social networks. Yes, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram use game mechanics to create “scores” and feedback loops, number of comments or Likes etc. But these score systems also taunt you with uncertainty. Every time you share content, you face an ambiguous payoff. Will people like what you submit? Or will it draw blanks? This frisson of expectation is part of the appeal, a slot machine that may or may not pay off. Ambiguity works like the Steve Carell character in the movie “The 40-Year Old Virgin”: when a woman at a bookstore asks him what his name is and he responds, “What do you want it to be?” she is immediately turned on. Not knowing if you’ll get a response makes you want even more to get one.

Puzzlement is the last hook, also often deployed in software interfaces. The entire electronic game industry is founded on forms of puzzles. Twitter in its early days was criticized for being hard to learn; Snapchat has followed in this approach. But that very confusion gives users a huge mental reward after they climb the hill. Apple’s iTunes / Music services are notoriously overwrought and complex; try making a playlist for the first time and usually a newbie will encounter frustration. Click where? Beyond a rewarding learning curve, puzzlement is also a form of discovery, a way to engage more deeply in the system and potentially be inspired to buy more products. Bookstores with crowded shelves, Starbucks with its bizarre coffee-size naming conventions, Volvo’s XC40 SUV with a novel shifting mechanism, Amazon.com which strangely seems to hide its Prime Video links making you search just a bit to boot it up — all puzzle just enough to entice you to want to stay in the relationship. IKEA, most famously, designs the halls of its stores like a maze, forcing you to hunt through things you don’t want to find your way out.

A fun exercise, marketers, would be to jot these five beats — novel, unexpected, complex, ambiguous, puzzle — on a whiteboard and then score your products and services against them. Before you write a word of ad copy, ponder if your core product will kindle consumer desire on these vectors. You can also test them out with sweetie next date night.

New sensors can hear the voice inside your head

Last spring at SXSW I got to chat with Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, about her vision for a world where sensors help humans become more authentic. Her idea is new augmented reality devices (glasses, earbuds) don’t only give us vision and sound inputs, but they can output our heartbeat, focus of attention, even emotional state. Sensors extracting human data will lead to good things: Anticipation of a disease you don’t realize you have; warnings to 911 that you’re about to be mugged from the skin-crawl you feel as someone approaches behind; conversational clarity in loud restaurants as an earpiece amplifies sound just for the one you seek.

Which brings us to this news: 24-year-old Arnav Kapur has invented a sensor device that can extract what you are thinking if you just focus on language. Apparently when humans compose speech in our heads, tiny neuromuscular signals are fired away even if we don’t utter a sound. Kapur’s “AlterEgo” device, which fits around the head and jaw like a white iPhone tentacle, now helps people with speech pathologies. Play the tech forward a few years, and you can foresee remote sensors in someone else’s AR glasses scanning your brain for your mental conversation.

But … there is a spectrum of helpful-confusing-um-no-thanks in all this. For example, what if you have crush on someone and sensors reveal your glowing emotion amid a business conversation? The digital virtual valentine falls out of your chest onto the boardroom table. Oh, how awkward.

The mind spins at a world where no one could withhold anything. Humans couldn’t lie or dissemble. Romance would lose its frisson as the lengthy process of courtship is compressed to a little red-green score (“she is 78% in love with you with 10% platonic ambivalence and 12% annoyance”). New business pitches would require companies to send in only emissaries armed with true love. “Team, we’re meeting with BMW next week. OK, who has a crush on the CMO?” The subterfuges of social humans would be laid bare.

HR consultants will have a field day.

Poppy Crum hopefully proposes this future will be one of authenticity, where humans like dolphins can see inside each other and so deception and its offspring hostility, war and hate will fade away. Sensors will ease communication, monitor health, cocoon your home in IoT personalization, even maintain “the Internet of broken things” to keep electricity flowing and water pure, especially helpful in poor areas or developing nations with limited infrastructure.

But … if I engage with you just a little, and you can unfold all of my dreams, is that a good thing?

Details at Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/device-can-hear-voice-inside-your-head-180972785/

Seeing only the truths

Can two things opposed to each other both be true?

Consider this theater demonstration. A ball is painted white on one side and black on the other. A magician on stage holds the ball, standing between two volunteers who are dozens of feet apart, aloft carefully, with the line of demarcation directly centered. The audience titters, already seeing the trick. “What color is this sphere?” he asks. The woman on stage left sees only the black side of the ball, and states clearly, “the ball is black!” But a man on stage right sees only the white side of the ball, and says “no, it is white!” Both see the truth. But only from their perspective.

Truth does not exist. It can only be perceived by an observer, who by his or her nature of viewing only part of the universe’s data can only misjudge the truth. This is important because when we interact with others, we must also consider truth from their perspective.

To dig deeper, consider that much of what we believe isn’t real at all. Religion, nation-states, money, advertising impressions, the value of gold, your relation to family, the company you work for — all don’t really exist. The historian/philosopher Yuval Noah Harari suggests even something as believable as “good” or “human rights” are only figments of our imagination. If one human harms another, we feel this is wrong. But to test this “good vs. bad” thesis, if we saw an ant chase another ant into a roadway where the first was crushed by a car, we wouldn’t feel horror for the insect. It’s just a dead bug in the road. When we have chicken for dinner, we don’t feel bad that it was killed at 6 weeks after arriving at prime chicken-weight when the poor bird should have lived to age 10. Because as humans we can’t wield enough empathy for smaller creatures. But the dead insects and animals, in their last gasp, might decry car tires or human forks for abuse. Our belief in the truth of “rights” is all warped perspective.

The politics of modern America bear this out. President Donald Trump has fewer than half of all U.S. adults supporting him, but those who do believe he tells the truth. Put a liberal Democrat and a MAGA Republican in the same room, and both will swear h/she is right and the other is wrong, because the facts on Fox News/MSNBC support them. This sounds absurd. But both see truth.

In the complexity of our everyday world, an Einstein of ethics might surmise we all bend the vectors of truth toward our own selves, simply to filter out the swarm of too much information, just as planets and stars warp space around them. Our very existence as points in morality makes us biased toward ourselves.

Now, certainly, there are some truths that should outweigh others. If life itself is a noble cause, because the rising complexity of our various organic beings fights the negative entropy that can only lead to the heat death of the universe, then anything that enhances life should be “good” and all killers of life are “bad.” Jesus, good. Hitler, bad. But even this is a perspective wrought by living beings who prefer wiggly atoms to those particles that don’t hook up. If the universe devolves eventually to burned out chards of hydrogen, will those little bits complain? Of, if they retain a last, tiny grasp of consciousness, will they simply sing in unison, “at last, we’ve achieved the peace of stasis!”

My point is we humans should consider the gradations and mutations of “truth” in our interpersonal interactions. Every day, I am certain I am following the truth, and any friction with others means they are wrong. But what if those others are right? Or more clearly, what if we both are right? The sight lines of perspective make more than one truth possible.

It sounds crazy, but perhaps we should believe in opposites. Truth is not a singular direction. It is a rubber sheet stretched across the universe, upon which we, as leaden balls, stretch morality into the stories we tell ourselves.

The expansion of love after death

I sit here surrounded by books and wonder, what’s the point? No. Not an overly dramatic-life-threatening-self-injury-thought-thing like that, but more, what is this goal, this imbibing of knowledge, when life itself is so fleeting? A friend of mine just died. I’m processing this. And I look at the books scattered before me and wonder, why?

A few years ago I got serious about re-learning things, paying attention to the greater ideas that I once glanced over in college, and now my house is filled with Amazon shipments. Marcus Aurelius keeps me warm at night, with his pondering that “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse,” on his dark journal nights, or more cheerfully, “Either it is a well-arranged universe or chaos huddled together, but still a universe. But can a certain order subsist in thee, and disorder in All?,” meaning, get over yourself, ego-man, everyone has challenges holding it all together. What little I’ve gleaned from Marcus is that souls don’t continue to exist, because the universe has no room for all the energy of all the human and animal and plant souls that preceded us; the storage locker of infinite data would just get too full, so we are best off simply acknowledging that we will pass on, absorbed into the light of future creatures and elements, and that when this too shall pass, it’s OK, just the natural order of things. Marcus was a downer.

Even less cheery, the atheist Richard Dawkins glowers on my bedside table with his “The Selfish Gene,” arguing that people don’t really matter at all, we are simply lumbering robot clouds of biology that pass like waves as our genes spurt out to meet others, recombinate, and let their predictions of the future succeed or fail in a casino-lottery bet in which only the best genes get to live forever. Bodies don’t matter, just what’s in your egg or sperm. Jesus, Richard.

While Dawkins also coined the concept of “Meme,” an idea that spreads like genes through our biological social networks, Yuval Noah Harari takes story-telling further by suggesting the collective stories we tell ourselves — about religion, or money, or nations, or corporations, none of which exist, because after all, can any of these fictitious entities feel pain? — make our species successful. It’s not you that matters (as Marcus would say), or your little spermy-egg genes (Richard), but the stories we create, which allow enormous groups of soldiers or religious zealots or Amazon.com executives to band together. The fictions we create that become embedded in our species’ collective hive mind at large are what make us thrive and live forever.

Those are just three ideas of the many floating in the books in my house — that the universe can’t accept the information load of past souls; that souls don’t exist because they are simply the information processing units of the genes that fight for evolutionary survival; or that neither souls nor genes matter, because the greater data output of the human species stories is a form of meta-information that will outlast any individual.

But I call bullshit. I knew my friend. The spark within him was not a fiction, nor a gene cascading upward into some giant fantasy to fuel its next sex to be passed forward, nor a meta-story about a new religion/money/corporate concept to drive groups toward shared ambition. My friend had a soul. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his laughter, fear for it when he tried to steer me around Austin’s SXSW in a rental car when this guy really didn’t know how to drive.

The soul lives on a thin wire, between DNA pulling for propagation from its greedy lower nuclei and the tug of millions of other humans who spin stories of shared meaning. On one side, we have gritty genetic particles trying to spread and mix little codes; on the other, massive information waves rippling forward. Balanced in the middle is each of us humans. Our little spheres of energy may indeed dissipate into the ether, if Marcus Aurelius is right, since the universe must have balance. But the universe is expanding, propelled by some unseen force. Perhaps all philosophers, old and new, are missing the truth of our human expansion after all.

If our giving to others is not a zero-sum-game, where every win requires a loss elsewhere, perhaps if we give love in new ways, unfettered, freely caring for others, we can expand our futures. Falling in love, sharing in love, spreading that love, is an unbounded resource that leads recursively to each soul’s survival.

Which means my friend’s energy is still out there. All I can do now is love others to help the wave move on.

That time I found a gun

Beyond the dark mountains of Idaho
We climbed onto plains
The night sky filled with small lights
Then yellow glow on the horizon
And then finally our red Oldsmobile dropped
into the city valley
Of Great Falls

I was six and small and my father
Loomed like a Tom Hanks hero in the front seat
His buzzcut glowing from the light of the radio
Turned low so we could sing songs
We had driven all the way from Seattle
Sam beside me, shouting
She’ll be coming around the mountain
When she comes
When she comes

Grandpa and grandma and Aunt Gin
Greeted us at 3 a.m.
I still remember
The kitchen clock hands pointed in odd places
The window a black square
Smiles hugs
And they fed us lamb and fragrant bread
And we rejoiced in family cheer

The next day, in that kitchen, parents chatting
Aunt laughing
Grandpa bald and strong at the head
Of the table a man who had
Moved to Montana to cure TB
And won a new homestead
I climbed a white-and-black step ladder crooked
Between refrigerator and white counter
Exploring and on top I found
A silvery gun

What’s this? I wondered
Picking up the shiny object
Shiny and sharp
A toy perhaps, with a notch above a barrel
White pearl handle and metal
circle before it
And suddenly
All conversation stopped

The adults jumped up—
my mother moaning, someone shouting
Something something
And I dropped the pistol
Where I found it
On top of the fridge
Crying
Why were they mad
So mad mad mad at me
About a toy?

My grandfather knew guns and rifles
Steel tools that went with horses
Alan Kunz was in the last U.S. cavalry
Just before machine guns
Made riding horses in battle
A bad idea
Given the line of sight
Of thousands of bullets bullets
He told a story about training on a horse
Running at full gallop while he had to take off
His shirt, turn it inside out,
and put it back on
Holding the horse with only his legs
Rebuttoning the cloth completely
To prove his balance

This was a man who was careful
With guns
But I had found one
Grandpa missed
As a shiny toy

I’ve almost forgotten that day, because it faded
Everyone safe
But I wonder in America
As we fill our homes with ever more weapons
To protect ourselves
With children crawling around us
Exploring, playing, fighting
Is it at all that unexpected
Sometimes guns
Go the wrong way?

Human robots driven by the code within

Human-to-human spiritual connections are rare, fleeting, often unnoticed, but if you encounter one, flag it. Ponder it. Digest it. That’s what life is about.

Of course it’s hard in this age to understand relationships, when we all are learning about communication encounters in three levels.

1. Blood

The first layer of relationships is biological, the close family and kin of genetic diversity, and if you have read Richard Dawkins and his gene-centric theories, that is what we all fight for. If you wield sword to protect your brother, his genes, which are 25% of yours (each of your parents were half, so if you go downstream through their other descendants, you divide each following generation such as your brother by 2), will continue to pass along. And those winning genes pass to others the aggression which made them survive.

Thus genes instruct the biological giant-robot clouds of humans far above them to fight for their own procreation. This was Dawkins’ great insight: that you are not the center of the universe, but the tiny genes which spurt out to connect via sperm and egg really are. You are but a giant bloated intermediate step. From the perspective of a gene, you’re a lumbering idiot cloud of cognitive lightning enmeshed in some fantasy about “money” and “religion” and “politics.”

Winning genes don’t think, but if they survive into the next generation, they pass forward all of their motivational mechanisms.

So genes control you, not your bloated, silly, clever brain.

2. Family

The second layer of human connections is the extended family of tribes or nation-states, the broader genetically similar grouping of those like us most likely to have our genes survive. In this structure, we build Walls (or invite Mexico to pay for the Wall) to allow our broader similar genetic pool to continue its procreation without fear of intrusion from The Other. Our genes control this; because if we fight for a clan, relatively similar genes will survive. And those surviving genes in turn will be coded to support our group aggression.

Think of it like this. If your distant cousins, the offspring of your brother’s children, only have 12.5% or 6.25% or 3.125% of your genes, if you’re compelled to fight others to protect them, those genes still have a propensity to survive over the 0% connection of the weird clan over the mountain.

So our tribalism is built into our DNA code. Our in-group/national instincts are an itch to get genes somewhat like us to make it to the next generation.

Keep those refugees out, and build that wall.

3. Internet

But … recently … we’ve invented a third layer of relationships, a Digital Camaraderie of Others in a new world which allows us to find a spiritual partner on the continent across the sea, a doppelganger not here but there, a springboard network of similar minds which brings the geographic- or sex-based connectivity of souls into harsh negative contrast. What’s interesting about this is the tiny powerful motive of gene propagation has been supplanted by this new Age of Connection in which you can find similar minds almost anywhere. The geographic and biological “nearness” imperative of genetic lumbering robot clouds is no longer needed, since we’ve redefined the definition of proximity to all those others almost anywhere, screening them for only kindred views.

This is a bit deep for Facebook, so I’m going to break my diet and have some ice cream.

Reposted from my Facebook account. 

Ray Kurzweil says the future does need us

Joshua Tree sunrise 3

On my last warm spring day in Austin, I got to see artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil speak at SXSW. I’ve been a fan for years, ever since reading Bill Joy’s classic April 2000 Wired magazine treatise, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” in which Joy recounts debating the odds of artificial intelligence dooming our species with Kurzweil over a drink at a bar. Beyond AI, Kurzweil has other claims to fame. Now 70 and leading Google’s machine learning program, over the past 50 years he has invented much of the stuff that makes our modern technology work: the flatbed scanner (fax machines, printers, the iPhone screen), speech-to-recognition (Siri and Alexa, your new car’s dashboard), and music synthesizers (all those little beeps). But rather than riff on the future AI singularity in which we merge with machines, Ray was surprisingly optimistic about our species today.

Here’s what Kurzweil said:

We live in the best moment in all of human history. War is at an all-time low. Your risk of dying from bodily injury caused by another is minimal. Poverty and disease have declined around the globe. Literacy is at a record high. Fewer people are dying from hunger. We thrive in a generation of peace.

The problem we have, Kurzweil said, is modern communication. Humans are wired to listen for potential threats, the rustle in the leaves indicating a snake may be there, the bump in the night. So while in the past the village just over the mountain could burn to the ground and we wouldn’t hear about it for months, today we get news updates in seconds, via modern communication networks, about violent outbreaks 10,000 miles away. Being so wired to listen, we hear trouble every day.

We are empathic human beings, so we perk up, worry, and feel pain. Protestors say wrong words, and we grow upset. A politician makes a bad decision, and we shout a response. The communication networks we’ve built give us the illusion that the world is on fire, when really we just see every spark so far away.

But the global pain is really lessening as our species progresses. The very sensitivity we have in response continues to push societal momentum for more peace and less aggression, more human health and less human sickness.

The lightning of the networks that connect us is compressing the darkness we find so troublesome.

It was a beautiful talk. I hope Kurzweil is right.

If you are living in The Matrix, can you control it?

There’s a moment in the film The Matrix when the protagonist Neo sees a cat walking past a dark green-lit doorway … and then the same cat flits by exactly the same way, again.

“Whoa, deja vu,” Neo says.

The erratic Tank flips. “Shit. Oh shit!”

“What happened? What did you see?” Trinity asks.

“A black cat went past us and then I saw another that looked just like it,” Neo responds.

Trinity grimaces at Morpheus. “A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix.”

OK, you’ve seen the film. But what’s going on here is a deeper philosophical conversation about the nature of our universe: what is real vs. unreal, and can we humans control it? The red-pill-or-blue-pill decision given by Morpheus to Neo in the Matrix — that he can either simply believe in what is around him and follow its rules, or seek a deeper level of reality — is a choice for all of us as we explore spirituality or science or the meaning of life.

The question is: can we control ourselves? It’s either fate or free will.

Einstein vs. Schrödinger, slaves vs. freedom

The famous Albert Einstein was a proponent of fate, that the universe was fixed and we are all simply balls rolling on our paths toward a single destiny. This seems counterintuitive, the idea of Einstein backing a slave-mentality of the future, since Einstein was a liberal genius who opposed wars and controlling governments … but upon inspection his view makes sense. He proved that space and time is really one thing, spacetime, showing that the gravity of our sun would bend the light from incoming stars (later evidenced in a solar eclipse) and that time slows down the faster you move. (It’s true. Today the iPhone in your pocket picks up GPS signals from satellites in orbit that adjust their internal clocks for the slowing local time of their super-fast trajectories around Earth, just so you can avoid traffic.)

So if space and time are connected, then the time arrow of your future has to be fixed, pointed at only one place. You are on a road and you can’t get off. If you go into work tomorrow and get a raise, or get fired, or start your own business, or run away crazy to live in a cardboard box under a bridge, that future is already there. “God does not play dice with the universe,” Einstein said. In a bit of a bummer, you have no free will.

Erwin Schrödinger believed the opposite. He was Einstein’s friend, and helped conceive of quantum physics, which includes the crazy concept that at subatomic levels, particles can be in two locations at once, at least until observed. He famously thought of a cat in a box connected to a poison vial that may or may not open, triggered by a subatomic particle in two simultaneous states. Since that tiny sub-atom bit is doing two things at once, the poison is also released or not released at once, meaning the cat is still alive or dead at once … at least until you, the human observer, open the box and “fix” fate into one of two outcomes. You find either a meow or a dead cat, once you crack the lid. “Schrödinger’s Cat” became a famous idea, but beneath its curiousness is a hopeful concept: That we control our fates, because the universe moves left or right based on what we decide to do.

Nick Bostrom’s AI game

So far, easy. You can believe in a fixed future, or believe you have personal control over fate. But Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom takes all of this one level deeper.

What if whatever fate you are operating in isn’t really real?

In his whitepaper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation,” Bostrom  expounds on a simple thought experiment that in the far future, any smarter descendants of today’s humans are likely to still play games, and computer games will likely become so high-resolution they’ll be filled with AI agents that see an accurate reality generated around them. So in this future of only one possible reality and hundreds of millions of game simulations, you and I are likely living … as AI replicants in some form of future game.

You think you are real, but you’re just a being in a really good future computer program, designed to see and feel and breathe and act randomly so some protagonist playing the same game gets a solid good thrill.

Hm.

At first glance, Bostrom sounds whacked, perhaps over-intellectualizing his own viewing of The Matrix. But then, imagine that humans do continue to develop, and other intelligent beings follow us in evolution, until some future entity becomes as powerful as God. That God could look back and create anything, including us. So if we live in a world of action and fate filled with adventure and sorrow, is it God that created us, or a future human descendent, perhaps playing a game?

The Bible tells us God made us, anyway, right?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and a word by definition is some form of code. Is that a clue?

And if so, are we in control?

Yuval Noah Harari gives hope

So far, these ideas are an affront at several levels. We all want to believe we are in control of our future, and that God exists but that He’s benevolent, and that technology or AIs won’t replace us, and certainly that if they do, we won’t be some bonus-point target in a computer game for some 12-year-old egghead in the year 2817. And regardless of whatever level we are playing in — human, God-directed, or AI-gamed — we can only act as best as we can.

In his books on the past and future of humanity, philosopher Yuval Noah Harari notes that humans may be alone of all species on Earth in that we build our own fictions, a middle layer of observation between pure reality (stones under our feet) and perceived reality (the images of stones in our head). We tell each other fake stories. Money. Nations. Religion. Organizations. Corporations. None of these things really exist, but we act as if they do. (Ask yourself, Harari suggests: Can these things feel pain?) But we work hard all week to make “money” from the “corporations” we strive for, believing in our “nations” and “religions” and “organizations” that group us together. Most of our actions in life are motivated by pure fiction. An alien visiting from outer space would not see the lines of the United States engraved upon the Earth, and it would have a tough time understanding why we work all week for fictitious money.

We believe in our own stories.

A new Beetle appears

This post on fate and reality was inspired by my drive to work this morning. I had drifted into a bit of wonder about cars, and how the now-old new VW Beetles used to be everywhere on the road after their redesign in 1997 by J Mays. The public back in the 1990s was smitten, Beetle sales went through the roof, VW ran billboard ads that said “Other cars are starting to look funny” … and then quality issues emerged. Word spread that these cute little Bugs fell apart. Now, you never see them on the road.

I thought to myself, I haven’t seen one of those curvy new Beetles in ages.

And as I pulled up to our office drive, a blue new Beetle swung in right before me. As if I had conjured reality, or peered behind some curtain.

Had I seen the future?

If we lie to ourselves about reality, about “money” to buy rolling exoskeletons called “Beetles,” that “VW” brands exist … does it matter if we are living in a fiction?

No. That is too negative.

The better phrasing is: If we can move ourselves forward no matter what we believe in, perhaps we have full control over our destiny after all.

To Switzerland and Austria with love

As the glass doors closed and we clustered a bit nervously among 50 people in the giant square room hanging from a cable, the music of the 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” began to play. Ba-da, dah. Ba-da. Upward the gondola swung, high toward a mountain peak, leaving the cliff village of Murren far below us. That ’69 Bond film was soon forgotten – it was the first after Sean Connery retired, and actor George Lazenby never gained traction as James — but the movie was shot at the summit of Schilthorn at 9,744 feet, in a four-story modernesque round building erected on a mountain spire, and the Swiss can’t forget it.

Today, the summit of Schilthorn remains branded as Bond. Inside the top restaurant Piz Gloria and cable car station, there’s a museum dedicated to Bond films, toilets with Bond femme fatale silhouettes on the doors, and photos of past actors along the walkway toward the summit’s edge. We arrived, and my wife immediately posed hugging a lifesize cutout of Lazenby as James Bond. After an hour hiking around the precipices, we ordered hamburgers at the restaurant. The buns were stamped, “007.”

Schilthorn is cheesy, but Switzerland, Austria and the Alps are not. The summer of 2017, my family spent a week and a half touring the mountains of central Europe, and came back surprised that this Germanic/Bavarian culture is not at the top of more Americans’ travel wish list. I’m sharing our itinerary and notes below, hoping it may inspire others.

Why Switzerland and Austria

Our journey began with a friend. Eight years ago my wife asked me if I’d like to join a cycling group in Connecticut, and soon we spent Sunday mornings being guided by Guido Wollmann, a Yale cancer researcher from Germany. Guido was a youth soccer star who got the cycling bug in his 30s, and quickly discovered talent – winning races, guiding novice biking teams, and while we weren’t beer-drinking-close friends, his warmth was memorable. Guido later moved back to Europe to fight cancer at an Austrian facility, and in 2015 we saw him re-visiting the U.S. at a cycling fundraiser. “You must come visit me,” he said. “Sure!” we replied, as friendly Americans always do without conviction, just as we smile too damned much without integrity. “No, you don’t understand,” Guido told me. “When someone from my country asks you to visit, we mean it. If you say yes, you must come.” The idea stuck. Two years later, it was game on.

Is Europe expensive?

Yes and no. Plane tickets can be remarkably cheap. In late winter, I began scanning direct flights near Austria, and found one from JFK to Zurich, Switzerland, for $426 including tax. Florida often costs more. Hotels in Europe can be found for modest rates, but be warned, rooms are small, so if you are a couple with kids, you’ll need two rooms. Switzerland prices were steep, but Austria’s were cheap, with full dinners there amounting to $20 or so a person. Also note: Many stores and restaurants only take cash, not credit, so get a few hundred Swiss Francs and Euros to tide you over.

The arrival complexity

We landing in Zurich, gliding over green fields and pastures and cows until hitting the rainy landing strip. For Americans, it’s stunning to realize Europe after thousands of years has avoided strip malls and suburban sprawl, with cities still tight clusters of white homes and steel buildings surrounded by what looks like Eden. Peering down from the plane, I couldn’t help but whisper to God, “Sorry, we Americans so f***ed up our side of the planet.”

Zurich’s airport is as all things European, modern and svelte and oddly complex, as if you’ve landed in an alternate universe where trafficking people on walkways is more logical but cars don’t have room for luggage. We crammed three suitcases into the largest SUV we could rent, a Mercedes, which in Switzerland is as common as Fords, and still had to perch the fourth in the middle of the back seat. I walked back to the rental counter, as my wife continued the jujitsu of stacking baggage, and asked for something bigger. “We only have vans,” he replied. I thought of European parking lots and tiny city streets. Nope, a tight back seat it is.

First top, Thun 

We were aiming for the Alps south of Zurich, but I knew we’d be tired from the flight so picked Thun, about two hours from the airport, as a first stop. Magic. Most cities in Europe have an “old town” section, but Thun felt authentic all over, and using Booking.com (no affiliation, highly recommended) I had found a boutique hotel built into the castle on the old town’s main hill. The trick was finding the damn place. We arrived in town lost – the hotel entrance was hidden at the top of a winding cobblestone walkway, and I was quickly realizing I should have studied more German and maybe street sign symbols – and I asked a local gas attendant for directions. Nope. No English. Drove around a block, and asked another man parking a car. He pantomimed. Couldn’t understand. Then he waved and said, “follow me!” The man jumped back into a tiny red car, and drove before us around several twists and turns to the hotel road entrance. I’ve realized traveling that not speaking a language gives you quicker insight into human souls — and wherever you are, Man in the Red Car, you are an angel, brother.

Thun was rapid-fire impressions of helpful people and beautiful architecture. The hotel owner poured us drinks (beer for me) as soon as we arrived, perhaps noting we had been awake for hours. I offered a tip, and he said, “No, I just do this to make our guests happy.” Down the cobblestone walk and stairs, a river flowed through the city’s center toward a lake, hinting at the Swiss beauty beyond. We slept in warm beds in a remodeled prison tower next to the castle.

Stay: Hotel Schlossberg, Schlossberg 2, 36000 Thun. You can’t check in until 4 p.m., but they’ll serve you beer or wine in the café outside peering up at the castle.

Day 2: Oeschinensee Lake, Switzerland

The phrase “Oeschinensee Lake” is redundant, because “see” means “lake” in German, but see we did. My son had scoured Instagram for photos of epic hikes in Switzerland and decided that this lake, surrounded by cliffside mountains, was a must. We took a gondola halfway up the mountain and then hiked for four hours around Oeschinensee, dodging incoming clouds and a lightning storm. The walk included black-gravel beaches around one side of the lake, and a mountain trail edging under hanging boulders to a tremendous view at the top. The next morning, my wife and I had breakfast on the hotel balcony below, looking at the meadow trailhead that wound toward the lake we had seen and the mountain peaks above. A commotion. A dozen men in their early twenties ran past, decked out in bright spandex, fancy climbing boots, and hiking poles, the equivalent of a U.S. professional cycling team on the road but in this case intent upon running up mountain slopes. My wife gazed affectionately, then looked at me and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Stay: Bernerhof Swiss Quality Hotel, Aeussere Dorfstrasse 38, 3718 Kandersteg. Check in after 1 p.m. The restaurant is amazing and the hostess will try to become your best friend. 

Day 3 and 4: Lauterbrunnen

I have to thank my son Logan for uncovering this gem in his Instagram research. Lauterbrunnen is the Yosemite of Europe, a huge valley carved U-shaped between mountains by ancient glaciers. Think of this valley as a three-layered cake. In the valley floor, Lauterbrunnen itself is a quaint village with sporting-goods shops and restaurants, with dozens of waterfalls tumbling from the high mountains above.

Two cable car gondola runs – and by gondolas, we mean massive square-bus platforms that hold 100 people – swing up to the cliffs and the village of Murren perched thousands of feet above. And the third layer, above Murren, are cable runs that take gondolas to the peaks of Schilthorn. For non-Bond fans, we found Murren to be the main attraction. It’s a perfect stop for lunch, with moderate hiking trails leading up into the mountains above. Murren itself is so high above the valley floor, it’s at the level of an airplane’s flight — paragliders launch off a field there to soar over the cliff’s edge and down to Lauterbrunnen below.

We spent the first day touring Murren, the second headed up to the James Bond peak of Schilthorn.

Stay: Hotel Silberhorn, Alte Isenfluh-Strasse, 3822 Lauterbrunnen. A wonderful 5-story hotel with wooden balconies off most rooms looking out into the valley. As a plus, the hotel is only one block away from the main gondola ride taking you up to the heights of Murren.

Day 5: Lucern, headed east toward Austria

Our plan was to visit Guido in Austria, so Lucern was a stop on the way. The focus here is not on the city but the hotel itself. We stayed at Château Gütsch, an amazing boutique hotel modeled after the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (famous in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). For just over $200 a night, you can give your family a fairy tale experience. Ask for room 32 if you can, it’s the corner suite on the fourth floor overlooking the entire city.

The town of Lucern itself is not much, a pretty shopping district selling watches at inflated Swiss Franc prices, but with some stunning murals and paintings on the exterior of most buildings. All I know is Charlie Chaplin stayed at Château Gütsch, and I’m wondering if he had my room.

Day 6, 7, 8: Innsbruck

Ah, the joy of friends. We spent a long weekend with Guido as our guide to Innsbruck, and were delighted to find Austrian prices are half that of Switzerland while every meal has sausage and enormous glasses of beer. Liz and Pete, two other friends, flew in from Germany to share a day. To the town’s south, we hiked up the Bergisel ski jump, a curving, skyswept architectural masterpiece by Zaha Hadid, and I met an actual jumper in the tower named Thomas. We watched him fly – ski jumpers practice in summer, landing on strips of what looks like wet astroturf.

I climbed to the top of the jump and looked down; not only do jumpers have serious balls, but Zaha Hadid had a sense of humor. The entire jump points down to a landing pad and just beyond it, over the rim, the largest cemetery in Innsbruck. Ski jumpers here must not only defy death, but leap right toward it.

The town of Innsbruck itself is stunning, with winding streets filled with shops and looming mountains above to the north and south. The airport is nearby, and given the horizontal squeeze of the mountains, jets zoom in right above the city, creating a strange juxtaposition of ancient buildings and modern rocket ships.

We found one shop dedicated entirely to bacon. Down the street, a free brass concert played to hundreds. Everywhere, Austrians rode bicycles, women in dresses and men in suits, simply to get around.

The best part of Innsbruck is the hiking around it. We drove 40 minutes to take on Rofanspitze, where trails follow flowered meadows to terrifying cliff edges. Near the top, little farming lodges provide small restaurants with sausage and soups, including one dish with a chicken broth and cheese-bread dumpling thing whose name I forget. So good.

Thank you, Guido, for sharing what looks like heaven with us for a weekend.

Stay: With good friends

Day 9, 10: Salzburg

Meh. Salzburg is a boring modern city with, well yes, a beautiful small section of its old town filled with hyper-expensive shops. There are only two things to see here, but both are interesting. First, Mozart’s birthplace. You walk into a high yellow building, set among a wall of others on a cobblestone street, and suddenly are standing in the very apartment room where the genius of classical music was born. You aren’t supposed to take photos here, but I snuck one of Mozart’s childhood violin, hanging in his birth room.

And … the castle. This was worth the hike. Salzburg has a massive castle above the town, which includes a clever museum filled with 1,000+ years of history, ancient weapons, and beer steins that show you old warriors really knew how to drink.

But forget the Mirabell Palace gardens, made famous in The Sound of Music. It’s a bunch of roses and marigolds that would not look out of place outside Xerox’s headquarters. Honestly, I could have skipped Salzburg for a few more days hiking around Innsbruck.

Stay: Hotel am Mirabellplatz, Paris-Lodron-Strabe 1, Altstadt, 5020 Salzburg. An ancient hotel built by a prince or something, but now lodged among busy streets and shops with too much traffic.

Day 11: Neuschwanstein Castle / Fussen, Germany

We had worked our way east to central Austria, needed to head back toward Zurich. So we hit up the castle made famous in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Bonus points, Ian Fleming wrote both that children’s book and the James Bond spy series, so this was also a bit of closure. The Neuschwanstein Castle is beautiful but … do not go near it. God. Take a photo from the road and move on. Apparently, every tourist guide to Europe promotes this castle, because it is crawling with tourists, the stinky sort, the kind that blare music while walking and weld selfie sticks as weapons and would not look out of place charging Walmart on its opening hours on Black Friday or Thanksgiving Thursday.

We took some shots and quicky retreated to, well, a wonderful hotel in Fussen. Fussen is the village 15 minutes away, and is actually a gem of shops and walkways. Recommend it as a stop. Avoid the castle.

Stay Hotel Schlosskrone, Prinzregentenplatz 4, 87629 Fussen, Germany.

Day 12: Retreat to Zurich.

The return gave us the quick thrill of some unlimited speed on the autobahn – I didn’t notice at first, until cars started to sweep by me at 200 kilometers an hour. We crashed at the Sheraton Zurich Hotel to burn up some free hotel points. It’s a nice pad, but nestled next to industrial towers and train tracks, nothing here but super-expensive room service. The front desk guy smiled warmly and asked if I were from America. I wonder if the Salzburg baseball cap I was wearing gave me away.

Stay: Never mind, it’s just a hotel

So what did we learn?

Friendliness. Almost everyone in Switzerland, Austria and Germany speaks English, and they are happy to do so. We stopped briefly in the tiny nationstate of Liechtenstein on day 6, en route between Switzerland and Austria, and a women named Heidi who didn’t speak English but invoked us to eat at her little restaurant actually invited her daughter over to our table to translate. (She seriously invoked us; we were walking by, after hiking up to a little castle, and she shouted down a greeting from a second-story window. Hallo! Open!) The people here are very, very friendly.

Orderliness. These countries are incredibly neat. Not only is there no litter anywhere, but the basics of life – street signals, crosswalk symbols, hotel bedding, coffee service – all seem neater. When you near construction on roads, everything turns orange; workers wear orange jackets, temporary road stripes are orange, and I thought, geez, this makes sense. Traffic lights that are red then switch to yellow, right before they turn green, alerting you to get ready to hit the gas. All in all, it seemed more orderly than America.

Forget Amex. Poor American Express. Most shops hate it, and about half avoid credit if possible. You’ll need to convert dollars into cash, Francs for Switzerland and Euros for everywhere else.

Diet. This was mixed. Swiss cooking is what would happen if your avant-garde hipster nephew went to a cooking school in Manhattan next to a yogurt factory; lots of tender meat surrounded by bizarre sauces. Austrian cooking, by comparison, is your grandmother if she ran your college fraternity kitchen – sausages and pork, fried meats, crispy potatoes, and lots of good beer. Let it suffice, I preferred Austrian food. Although the Swiss get points for putting a piece of chocolate out with every coffee.

Coffee. OK, I’ll be sad now. American coffee will seem watered-down dribble, once you’ve had the rich, creamy, small-dose cups of Swiss café. Coffee comes in a tiny cup in Europe, but it is thickly, drizzly warm, more a rich syrup of caffeine infused with earth and chocolate and malt than the American weak mist we know. It was not easy leaving this behind.

Budget. Yes, Europe is a bit expensive, if you’re traveling with a family of four – mainly driven by the need to get two hotel rooms everywhere you go. But if you are a couple, or a parent with one child you can squeeze in a room, it’s not bad at all.

Which country was best? The mountains of Switzerland are all pointy peaks of sex, blue sharp ridges that make you lust for the heavens. The steep hills of Austria are more muscular and earthy, covered in flowers and green meadows to the top, and more photogenic for hiking.

And Germany opens between the two countries as a flatland of green farms and blue lakes, rich for exploring. Personally, I’d vote Austria.

Last thoughts

On our second-to-last night, we drove from Fussen, Germany, back over the border into the Austrian Alps to find a lake that might work for night photography. We parked near the edge – the winding road had no guardrails – and my wife climbed down into the water for a swim. In the distance, we heard thunder approaching, quiet and then louder, and realized we should hurry to leave before lightning arrived.

A Volkswagen GTI sounded and then roared past, some young soul scorching up the two-lane lake road to test his or her racing skills. We headed out, the rain pounding. In the tunnel that cut back through the mountains, my wife placed her camera on the dashboard, and took a photo of the massive tube that Austrians had carved into the stone.

There’s something about this mountain region that seems cleaner, larger than life. Perhaps it’s how people there connect more with their environment, erecting towers of rock but leaving the fields unspoiled nearby, the way that little mountain huts surprise you with soups, or how hiking trails take you to cliffs with no railings, nothing to protect you but wit and sky. Switzerland is a land of clouds, Austria the paths to take you there. If you like to look to the heavens, consider this route.