Monsters under the bed

While I was meditating today, I heard a particular notification sound from my phone,  that made me immediately anticipate a specific message from a specific person.

A few seconds later, as my mind and body was relaxing back from this, I asked myself, ‘And what if this is not the person you are hoping it is?’

I saw my mind instantly prepare the sequence of things I would do in that case (some minutes of internet entertainment on my phone, followed by reading a book the rest of the night). I was immediately trying to fill the imagined void, and I wasn’t too bad at it.

The enterprise of incessantly filling this kind of void has become so commonplace today that it is starting to emerge from private lives into popular culture. Louis C K talked about it:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty — forever empty. You know what I’m talking about?

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you.

And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’.

I remember a friend talking about this, about the awkwardness of catching the reflection of your unfulfilled self on a dark TV screen in the few seconds between episodes of a binge-watch.

As a generation we look only at the bright side of technology. But as we constantly create better distractions, do we notice that this is the process of making a scarier monster out of the void?

Let’s just play with this as a hypothetical question. What happens, if on a night when the void is knocking, instead of planning a strategy to avoid it, we draw a deep breath and look into it? Instead of constantly fabricating our plan to escape from this fear, what if we tentatively explore what exists in this void that scares us?

I have done this a bit, and the answer is that some familiar monsters do actually live there: impatience (very true for me), sadness (somewhat true for me right now), maybe loneliness for some, anxiety for others. How scary these monsters are can be different for different people, and confronting and working with them are a truly demanding task. But I have also seen that years of practiced avoidance have made their shadows grow longer and scarier than they really are, and have created new monsters that begin to fall apart even with the very first curious investigation.

Most influences in our lives today are incessantly prescribing us cheap, low-hanging, shiny, shallow and always accessible distractions from the monsters under our bed. But this is what the monsters feast on, too. How will life unfold if we could start taking the first difficult steps in the opposite direction, such as living a more physically healthy live, cultivating tenacity and becoming more tolerant and friendly with boredom, discomfort and fear?

I hope that like the past year or two of my life, the rest will be a story of continuing to succeed and fail, but never stopping to try.

 

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The only reality

On a weekend summer night some time back, I was listening to live music at a laid-back venue. As I stood surrounded by a young, hip crowd, watching the performers play spirited, lighthearted music under strings of cute multi-coloured lights, a sequence of thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession.

They are vague to my memory now, so I am afraid I will be constructing some of it as I recall.

The beginnings are especially blurry. I guess they had something to do with the historical evolution of music. This in turn made me think of the idea of history repeating, or at least rhyming, which led to what feels like a small revelation.

The notion of reality that is shared among people  well, educated people in the modern world  is that there is a single truth of what happened in the past. What happened in the past consists of a great many things: a convoluted, interconnected web of natural, historical and cultural events and changes, all constantly causing each other in their interconnected evolution. In this history there are patterns to be found. For example, physical changes occurred in exact accordance with the natural laws. Social, cultural and political changes, although much harder to derive from the exact natural laws, still obey broad, qualitative patterns that have been empirically found and described by historians, political scientists and economists. It is in this realm of socio-politico-cultural evolution that history supposedly rhymes with itself. Together, the determinism of natural history and the qualitative patterns of human history are pieces of the great puzzle of Truth, or Reality, that are being steadily revealed by science and humanistic studies, and used to advance predictions of the future.

As individuals in the modern collective human society, tightly knit by a global database of shared truth, technique and values, this is what we constantly and subconsciously refer to as the single Truth. No one person has experienced all of it (in fact, almost none of it has been experienced by anyone alive), but there is the scientific method that provides indirect means of knowing what happened. Thus, Reality is viewed as an elephant that many different blind men have partial access to, and the process of reconstructing it is the great human enterprise. Regardless of how complex and ultimately infeasible this enterprise is, we still trust that Reality is a single elephant. My experience and account of reality may have little overlap with that of a 7th century Chinese philosopher, but within the final grand picture of the whole Reality, they must finally be compatibly reconciled, otherwise that Reality is not complete or true.

As I watched the musicians, my next thoughts were about a very different kind of truth, a very different form of reality: the personal one.

Not for the first time, I realized that the shared notion of the single Reality is after all indirect. This Reality which subsumes everything that ever happened: the big bang, electrons, dinosaurs, other people’s lives, the Holocaust and the final death of the universe, all ticking away along knowable laws, is a belief. It is a cluster of thoughts in my head that I have acquired from others and believe in because they are connected to other thoughts in a dense interconnected network of relations, reasons and logic. The glue of reasoning that holds this cathedral together is part of the scientific method, which is itself learned, indirect truth acquired from others. Most of this great undivided Truth is not really what I directly observe.

What, then, is my direct truth? It is only my own subjective experience: sensations, feelings and thoughts that are constantly unfolding before me, undeniably. It is undeniable to me not because I have scientifically proved its reality to myself, or had it validated by historians or seen it upheld by society as a shared belief. It is true, beyond denial and beyond the notion of having to prove or believe in it, simply and clearly because I have experienced it.

Some of this direct truth can in fact never be proved by the mechanisms of science and incorporated into the shared Truth, just as most of the contents of shared Truth will never be direct truth to me, regardless of the infallibility of evidence and proof. For example, when you hurt me, the pain that arises is as real as anything in subjective reality could possibly be. Yet, within the framework of the shared, objective truth, it is notoriously hard to even prove its existence. How can I get everyone to know and therefore believe, in perfect detail, my summer weekend night of live music, as my own memory of it is already beginning to fade? Technologies that can bridge the gap between such personal realities and the shared, objective Reality are on the horizon. Yet in the meantime, a lot of truths that are plain truth to me cannot be accepted as shared Truth by any means.

The shared ‘objective’ and direct ‘subjective’ truths thus appear to inhabit different worlds, and be antagonistic in fundamental ways. There are bridges connecting them, such as neuroscience, but they are not the same truth, and in fact they often come into direct conflict. As science tirelessly builds its cathedral of the one Truth, it remains nervous and uncomfortable with subjective truths , deciding on different occasions to dismiss subjective truths that counter its version, or simply announce that they are unreliable, and therefore unimportant as a topic of scientific investigation.

But science hasn’t won the war yet, despite how strongly shared human opinion is going along with it. For example, consciousness is one of the great remaining puzzles to science. We do not understand the very entity on whose subjective experiences we have constructed the whole cathedral of objective Reality. How then can we claim that this Reality is infallibly true and complete? Subjective truth thus still has some trump cards that threaten to topple the entire scientific cathedral.

I got sidetracked into a philosophical discussion. I’ll abort that here, and just tell you what I felt that night. I felt that from my perspective as I stood there, there is only one reality, and it is my reality. When I close my eyes, reality goes dark. When I am in a dreamless sleep, reality disappears. When I am happy, reality changes, although nothing about the physical world does. The only universe and reality I know wakes and sleeps with me. My perspective is the only one that truly exists, and subsumes all else, including the bits and pieces of the cathedral of objective Reality that I have learned. Proofs and arguments about other perspectives, and truths discovered by others and incorporated into the great shared account of Reality, are mere thoughts when it comes to my subjective cosmos, and lack the undeniable authority of my immediate and direct experiences, such as hunger, love, or stubbing my toe.

In my reality, history has never repeated. Even when there arises conversation or thoughts about the repeating of the shared history I only indirectly know about, the conversation or thought itself arises and unfolds in a manner that has never occurred in my reality before. In my direct, immediate, unprovable but undeniable truth, reality is one. It is one in the sense that there is no more than one account of it. It is one in the sense that it never repeats itself. It is one in the absolute sense, that there was and never will be anything else. (It is also one in the sense that apparently different things like cars and chairs and people and emotions and science and the past all constantly blend into each other if you carefully notice, but let’s not get into that.) This reality is one, like a single gem, constantly revealing its endless facets with every new experience. I hold this one reality in the palm of my hand, and I am the sole observer of it. (I would earlier have said sole author, but now I doubt that I author anything about reality, although there exists the illusion of authorship.)

So that’s what I felt in a few seconds as I watched the musicians. Oh, and there is a small note about contemporary social life that was attached to this realization, which I shall conclude with.

Even as I stand listening to nice live music in a pretty setting, surrounded by happy young people, I can’t help but compare my life and experiences with those of imagined others that have social media accounts and might be having a better time than me. This very tenuous imagination has a very real effect on my immediate reality. It makes me feel anxious and distracted. But if I look closely, I see that in my subjective world, the reality where other people are having a better time is only as real as my thoughts about it. As I pay more and more attention, I see this more and more clearly, and as my imaginations of derived reality recede into the darkness, it is replaced by appreciation for the great and miraculous mystery of my unique undeniable reality, constantly turning its facets of pain and joy, boredom and serenity, glistening like a perfect singular gem under the only light of my consciousness.

Why do artists and academics earn less than the value of their work?

The money that artists and academics make fall short of the value of their work. Why?

Let’s take a case study: music streaming service Spotify does not pay its musicians well. Let’s examine if they could.

There are two non-exclusive ways they could pay their musicians more. Either they could maintain their profit and start charging their listeners more, or maintain their pricing and cut their profit. Imagine they make it their mission to make sure artists get paid the most that consumers are willing to pay for their music. So they do both. They start charging more and more, and channel all earnings (minus operating cost) to their artists and take no profit.

The first thing to acknowledge is that people will be willing to pay more for music (and art and literature and knowledge) if they are forced to. This may be hard to imagine in today’s world of overwhelmingly cheap and accessible content that is constantly vying for our attention. But take our hypothetical scenario as an example. In support of their mission of fair compensation for musicians, imagine that Spotify takes over the entire music industry, so that all music that is created can only flow from creator to consumer through them, and they can completely control the terms of this. Once they monopolize the industry, they start raising their prices. This makes music a more expensive commodity, and it starts to disappear from the sphere of our attention where it was plentiful before. It takes a while for people to adapt to this removal of stimulus, but gradually a population that was overstimulated and spoilt for choice becomes hungrier for music, and willing to pay more.
Spotify can milk this to the fullest extent possible by making listeners pay as much as they are willing to. In the extreme case they are able to artificially create the condition of optimal scarcity (like the diamond industry), make the maximum revenue possible, and pay the creators the maximum possible (unlike the diamond industry). Under such an extreme condition, a considerable section of the population will be unable to afford the amount of music they would like, while a small rich fraction will be paying most of the money that musicians make.

Now it becomes important to consider the particular nature of music and other cultural content: it gives us intrinsic joy to create and share such content. Even if it isn’t making them any money, people feel like creating and sharing art, and seeking out and sharing academic knowledge. Under conditions of extreme scarcity that we’re imagining, there will be people who will feel more compelled to create and share music for cheaper or for free, because the need for this is more acute and the joy in satisfying it is greater. We will have people who deliberately forsake the possibility of making a lot of money, and find ways to create and share their own or others’ content for free, sometimes in violation of existing laws.

This is a crucial step in the reasoning. The property of intrinsic joy is not true of a lot of other services and content that people create. There is little intrinsic joy in working through accounting spreadsheets: its value is mostly tied to the money it earns that can be spent towards other things that bring happiness. But art, culture, learning and science bring intrinsic joy in doing and sharing.

As a black market of cheap or free content starts becoming available, the starved people will naturally turn to it. This will directly eat away at Spotify’s business and begin to harm their altruistic mission of paying creators the most possible. They will realize that the only way to continue business is to lower charges and pay their creators less.
The bright side of this is that content that brings us intrinsic joy can never be completely taken away from us and monopolized by corporations. Since there is incentive to not only consume for cheap, but produce and share for cheap, people will always find a way for cheap distribution.

In short, artists and academics make less money than their content is worth because they are compensated by the intrinsic joy of the work and are willing to be paid less, and the free market automatically adjusts to price their work accordingly.

Sriracha Chicken Quesadilla with Mango Salsa and Guacamole

Takes about 1 hr 15 min. Serves 4.

All ingredients

  1. ½ lb thinly sliced chicken breast
  2. 1 small onion or ½ large onion, diced
  3. 1 tomato, diced
  4. ½ jalapeño, thinly sliced
  5. 1 large or 2 small mangoes, diced
  6. 3 ripe avocados
  7. Mexican blend shredded cheese
  8. flour tortillas
  9. cilantro
  10. Sriracha hot rooster sauce
  11. lime juice
  12. sesame oil
  13. salt and pepper to taste

 

Sriracha Chicken Quesadilla

Sriracha Chicken Quesadilla

Ingredients

  1. ½ lb thinly sliced chicken breast
  2. Sriracha hot rooster sauce
  3. some of the lime juice
  4. flour tortillas
  5. Mexican blend shredded cheese
  6. sesame oil
  7. some of the cilantro
  8. salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Mix sriracha, lime juice, salt and pepper with chicken and marinade for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Heat sesame oil in a pan. Cook chicken and set aside.
  3. For each quesadilla, put a flour tortilla on a hot pan, add a generous layer of cheese, then chicken, some cilantro, another cheese layer, then another tortilla. Cook just enough to melt the cheese, then cut into fours.

 

Mango salsa

Mango Salsa

Ingredients

  1. 1 large or 2 small mangoes, diced
  2. some of the cilantro
  3. ½ small onion or ¼ large onion, diced
  4. lime juice
  5. pinch of salt

Directions

Mix all ingredients. Refrigerate if not immediately served.

 

Guacamole

Guacamole

Ingredients

  1. 3 ripe avocados
  2. 1 tomato, diced
  3. ½ small onion or ¼ large onion, diced
  4. ½ jalapeño, thinly sliced
  5. lime juice to taste
  6. salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Mash the avocados until creamy.
  2. Mix the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate if not immediately served. (Contrary to popular belief, including the avocado pit will not slow oxidation).

On a passing

It’s the 14th of June, 2017, and a man has shot several congressmen who were practicing at a baseball field, before being shot by the police and succumbing to his wounds.

As I tinkered about in the kitchen for breakfast, I caught snippets of this from the news that my landlords were watching in the next room. At some point the newsreader’s voice hushed as she spoke of someone’s critical injuries. For a few moments my imagination drew a pretend picture that it was the assailant she was talking about.

Shall we pause for a minute and imagine what our world would be like if that really were so? What would our public culture be like if news anchors spent a few moments mourning the passing of a fellow human, no matter what they had done? What if we held a deeply rooted culture of acknowledging the intrinsic value of human life, irrespective of our individual vices? Are you afraid that it would imply condoning their most vile act? Or would it be an admittance that however deplorable our darkest actions may be, circumstances and conditioning are often the true author of our misdeeds? Would it be a reiteration to steadfastly believe in the capacity for goodness in every human? Would it be a reminder that love and respect are the best ways to respond to the lowest human impulses and the darkest of tragedies?

I think I would like to try out such a world.