The 10 Best Links from Myth & Matter No. 13

This 1970’s quote by Joseph Weizenbaum made me uncomfortable: Programming “appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success.” Found in The Seventh Sense.

Jewish Stars and New York Values – my new favorite blog Slate Star Codex has an article on “dog whistling” and why it’s kind of dumb.

If you like programming OR you like Chuck Norris Facts, these Jeff Dean Facts are really funny. Jeff Dean is a hyper-productive coder at Google.

Lenin was a Mushroom – File this one in your “Weird Wikipedia articles folder.”

Have you ever noticed how almost anything can be a cure for depression? Think of anything that isn’t directly harmful to your health and search for it as a cure for depression. I bet you there’s an article about it. Knitting. Carrots. Cats. Gems. Pottery. You name it.

I have a small hobby of collecting articles about Norway. For such a modest country, it seems to be very well represented in the news. This time – Why the Norwegians Love Electric Cars.

Urbit is the new hotness in the digital currency world. It’s been under development for 12 years and is finally coming out of hiding.

Here’s to hoping. The NYT says that 1 Minute of All-Out Exercise May Have Benefits of 45 Minutes of Moderate Exercise.

Articles that talk about why dead philosophers are “so hot right now” always crack me up. This time, David Hume.

Speaking of dead philosophers, Vivekananda is in the news for his influence on Tolstoy, Salinger and Tesla.

Warrant Canaries are an interesting experiment in detecting government surveillance. Here’s how it’s going a year on.

The Archer’s Paradox in slow motion. The fascinating physics of archery.

A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece.

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What Motivates Super-Achievers?

Is intense passion the best motivator for getting stuff done? It seems to be a reasonable enough proposition. When you look at the world’s top [insert-anything-here], they often seem to be driven by their demons. Maybe something happened to them when they were young that propelled them into a frenzy of productivity to prove that they could build something of value. Many times they are proving the world wrong, proving to themselves that they are strong enough or proving that they’re not the failures that their parents or society or their teachers thought they would be.

With this narrative being so common as to have almost become a cliche taken alongside the objective knowledge of the effects that stress and anger can have on physical and mental health, it’s worth re-examining these assumptions. Specifically:

  • Is there value in becoming a super-achiever. If so, what is it? Does it lead us toward the common, ultimate goal of flourishing? Is it better for society? Do some people have a duty to humanity to sacrifice their personal health for the greater good?
  • What is the best motivator to become a super-achiever? Is it actually anger or some other strong emotion that comes from a place of deep discontentment? Can the same level of achievement arise from a healthier emotional basis? An example a friend at work gave was: If there are two marathon runners and one is motivated by his or her ultimate fear and the other is motivated by pure devotion to action, is it a given that the first will win with all else being equal?

Seneca believed that there is never a place for anger or other negative emotions in the pursuit of virtuous goals:

An assertion: “Anger is useful because it puts more fight in people.” Drunkenness can be regarded in the same way: it makes people aggressive and reckless, and many have been better at handling a blade when they’re tipsy. Claim, too, that delirium and insanity are necessary for strength, because madness often makes people more powerful! Or consider this: hasn’t fear sometimes had the contrary effect of making someone reckless? Hasn’t fear of death roused even the most sluggish to battle? But anger, drunkenness, fear, and other things of this sort are foul and futile stimulants: they give no tools to virtue, which needs nothing that vices can give, they just give a little lift to a mind otherwise supine and abject. No one becomes braver by becoming angry except the sort of person who wouldn’t have been brave without being angry: anger thus doesn’t assist virtue; it substitutes for virtue. What of the fact that anger, were it a good, would attend all the most highly developed people—-whereas those who are most inclined to anger are babies and the aged and the sick? Everything weak is by nature given to complaint.

I’m not sure that Seneca was right, but I hope so. The famous Yoda quote was never more appropriate: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” My gut feeling is that super-archivers who are motivated by discontentment are much more likely to suffer and cause suffering than those who, as the Bhagavad Gita says, “perform action without attachment.”

Meditation in the Age of Apps

As meditation becomes more popular and accepted in the mainstream, many are exposed to it through by apps or drop-in classes. Just as yoga is much more than the physical actions of the Hatha yoga that most studios in the US practice, meditation is more than sitting silently focused on the breath or on a mantra. There are benefits to both Hatha yoga and to concentration meditation, but both are only the beginning.

My exposure to the deeper aspects of meditation is limited, but I had the good fortune to stumble on Allan Wallace’s eight-week retreat podcasts. Wallace has studied Buddhism for many years in both an academic and personal settings. and has generously put a lot of time and effort into making the audio from his retreats freely available by podcast.

Relative to other guided meditations, the depth is incredible. The first few sessions are spent training you to settle your mind and body into its “natural state.” This is Samatha meditation. The focus is on a having relaxed body and a mind free from wandering thoughts and desires. He then moves on to other types of meditation such as Vipassana, or insight meditation, which is an exploration of what reality is by close examination of the mind. This is where things get more interesting. While Samatha meditation is excellent for lowering stress and increasing concentration and mindfulness, Vipassana is not always so easy. The level of attention required to address the tough questions it poses is something that takes time and energy to build. From Vipassana he goes on to Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation and with 94 sessions, there is enough time to dive in deep to some of the relevant Buddhist (and other) texts.

The point of this is not to argue for which form of meditation is best or which you should start with, it’s to say that there’s a much deeper world of meditation out there than what you find in the guided meditations that most apps come with or what you might find at a center where anyone can drop in at any time. It’s the difference between Cliff’s notes and the full book. Find a teacher, a good book or, at a minimum, check out Allan Wallace’s podcast. There’s a lot out there.

Mystical Conversations

I just published another the 12th issue of Myth & Matter, here it is in case you haven’t subscribed yet.

Derek Sivers has published more of his “directives.” Short, often controversial, statements on how to live. It’s unsourced, unexplained and distilled advice. For example “Do not be the starving artist, working on things that have great personal value to you, but little market value. Follow the money. It tells you where you’re most valuable.” I hope this type of list becomes a trend. It’s what inspired me to post my list of values and he links to this list by Cheryl Engelhardt of her directives.

How can you review a rap album so exclusive almost no one will ever hear it? Dan Cohen has a fascinating take on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” and, more generally, on the mystery and beauty of the secret and ephemeral. He compares it to Ai Weiwei and his broken urn.

urn

Science has problems. Paper after paper is being retracted after results can’t be reproduced. FiveThirtyEight writes about how this might actually be moving science forward. Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University, is more pessimistic and says it’s time to basically declare bankruptcy; that “Everything published before 2016 is provisional.” It’s a big, embarrassing problem that’s not going away any time soon.

I recently read Magicians of the Gods by journalist and amateur-of-many-years archeologist Graham Hancock. He proposes the existence of a civilization with advanced science and agriculture that existed before 9200 BC. He theorizes that this civilization was destroyed, but managed to pass along some of its knowledge via messengers or “magicians,” to help jump-start future civilizations. His work is controversial but mostly level-headed and, without a doubt, very interesting.

Slate Star Codex is one of those sites where you can lose yourself for hours in a fantastic rabbit hole of everythingness. Not to be missed. The author, Scott Alexander, is also writing a serial novel called Unsung. It’s about what happens after an Apollo rocket crashes in to the ceiling of space and cracks it open. It’s first-rate science fiction.

A couple IQ related links: Dogs have their own test now. Tall people are more likely to have a higher IQ

With the recent confirmation of their existence by LIGO, gravitational waves are back in the news. I’m looking forward to reading Black Hole Blues to understand the significance of the discovery a bit more.

It had been awhile since I read Roald Dahl. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator to my son and rediscovered how refreshing his writing and how bizarre his plots are.

I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Altruism by Matthieu Ricard. It’s a good answer to proponents of selfishness ranging from Dawkins to Ayn Rand. And, as with most things, the Internet has taken altruism and made it weird.

At work we’ve had a lively discussion of the guaranteed minimum income. It’s an idea that has been loved and hated by people on all points of the political spectrum. Some think it could bring about another creative or entrepreneurial renaissance. The idea has been seriously explored in the UK, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and now in the USA. Others think it would only increase global poverty.

The painting in the header is Mystical Conversations by Odilon Redon.

Hasta la Proxima

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Book Pairings

Better Together – 2 Pairs of Books

These book pairings are a couple examples of when 1 + 1 = much more than 2.

The Melting Pot

A few good links to get your wheels spinning:

Aspergers, Bees, James Joyce & More

  • In an effort to branch out, I’ve been reading Neurotribes. It starts with a history autism and Aspergers syndrome and their strange parallel development and weaves this through many other realms. Science fiction, computer science, medical science and psychology in Germany, England, America and other places. There’s even great section on John McCarthy and the beginnings of Artificial Intelligence in the book. Well, so much for branching out…
  • The Bees by Laline Paull is a sci-fi told from the perspective of a female sanitation bee inside a hive. It is bizarrely amazing. After reading it, somehow I feel like I am more at one with the mind of the bee. 🙂
  • The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham looks at James Joyce’s Ulysses and the cultural context for its publication. There are crazy stories of censorship, subversion, suffragettes and the magazines that were early predecessors of blogs. The writing is excellent and the story it tells is relevant, interesting and wild.
  • Here’s a fun tech-centric wrap-up of 52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2015.
  • Tetrachromacy – 12% of women have four cone types in their eyes, one more than men. A small percentage of these women actually see more colors.
    Cool.
  • The Siberian Times has a cool article on Russian prison tattoos and a guy who tries to catalog their meanings. What a different world.
  • I came across another method for learning vocabulary in a foreign language. It’s called the Goldlist method. The official explanation is here, but I find it to be too wordy. Check out this short video for a more concise rundown. I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems promising.

Lists & Expeditions

  • This is cool, the Bionic Bird – a super light drone that you could almost mistake for a bird. I’m not sure how long you could expect it to last with such thin wings, but it’s the first reasonably priced robotic bird I’ve ever seen.
  • The Scoville Scale measures the hotness of chili peppers. I ate a ghost chili this week so this scale was especially relevant to me for about 15 minutes. At ~1 million Scoville units, it was very, very hot 🙂
  • OpenAI  is a new nonprofit with a billion dollars pledged to it from big names like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel to help direct the future of artificial intelligence.
  • Also relevant to AI is Crispr, a relatively new way of editing genes. This powerful technology could be used to alter the human genetic code. It obviously comes with many ethical implications. As far as how it relates to AI, it could plausibly be used to enable us to create exceptionally high intelligence humans who would accelerate the path to human level general artificial intelligence which could then lead to a super intelligence along with everything that implies.
  • Noam Chomsky gets some more evidence to back up his highly controversial linguistic theory that says that we come with a genetically built in grammar that all human languages adhere to. The best argument against his theory comes from Daniel Everett and can be found in the very enjoyable, very accessible book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.
  • Michel Houellebecq is an interesting guy. I found him in a blog post where containing a video where Houellebecq talks rather eloquently about the famous French critic of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville. Houellebecq’s book Submission is now available in English and is said to be a good critique of the situation with Islam in the West. I’m looking forward to reading it.
  • There’s a solo expedition across Antarctica going on right now. If Henry Worsley completes his trek, he’ll be the first to do a solo trek across the Southern continent. His short daily audio updates are fun to listen to from the warm comfort of my couch.
  • In a different type of expedition, Ann Morgan read a book from every country in the world and made a list for us to follow along with her. Pretty awesome.
  • And while we’re talking about lists, ever thought of writing sci-fi? Here’s a list of things not to do.

How to Learn a Foreign Language in Your Spare Time

Since this is an article entirely focused on one topic, learning languages, I want to start with a non-obvious answer to the question  “why would you spend so much time learning a language?” 

The answer is that it’s often the only thing I have time and/or mental capacity to do. Between working full-time and an active family, there aren’t many opportunities left in the day for uninterrupted focus. Then, if there is a block of time, I’m often simply too tired to dig into something that requires my full attention. Language learning, as it turns out, is perfect for those times. As long as some preparation has been done beforehand, I can spend anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours opening up an app or some flashcards (see below for examples) and get in some solid learning. Interruptions are fine, having only a few minutes is fine. I can jump in, get a quick session done and go back to whatever else needs my attention. The best part is, it’s fun. Once I have a new word or phrase in my head, I’ll teach it to my kids or repeat it out loud a few times. I’ve found that it gives me the same kind of boost as playing an iPhone game.

So, apart from all the obvious reasons for learning a language (travel, communication, etc.) that’s why learning languages has been so enjoyable for me. Check out the resources below and give it a try, maybe you’ll find some of the same enjoyment.

Gabriel Wyner, my favorite language learning expert and the author of Fluent Forever, a must have book for anyone studying languages, has updated his popular learning technique. He wrote about it in an article called On Hacking Fluent Forever. Well worth the read.

 

And… here’s the big list:

  • I’ve started using Memrise heavily over the last few weeks. They’ve updated their mobile apps and website and it’s become a close second to Duolingo. Memrise is mostly free, thought they do have a premium plan. I don’t think the premium plan is necessary for learning, but I subscribed because I think they’re a great business, in particular, I am excited to see the results of their Membus Tour – currently on Kickstarter. Memrise was founded by my second favorite language learning expert, Ed Cooke (the link goes to his book on Amazon).
  • Have I mentioned that Duolingo has Russian now?
  • In addition to Duolingo and Memrise, I use Anki heavily. It’s a spaced repetition flashcard app that is free for computers with an (expensive) iOS version available as well. Check out Gabriel Wyner’s pronunciation trainer decks for the best Anki resource on sounding like a native speaker.
  • The Actual Fluency podcast is generally pretty good. It helps keep the motivation up.
  • The Chunking Express – this is a quick Economist article that can really make your learning more focused and effective.
  • There are a bunch of other language learning sites that are up-and-coming. Some are better than others, I simply haven’t had time to try them all extensively:
    • Readlang – Chrome extension that trains you by translating words to or from your target language inline then saves your translations to flashcards.
    • Verbling – native speaking tutors and lessons. ~$10 – 25 an hour.
    • Ling
    • Forgo – Cool, extensive and free pronunciation dictionary.
    • Bliu Bliu – language learning for intermediate learners.
    • Lingua.ly – learn by reading and translating articles.
    • CoffeeStrap – text chat with native speakers.
    • FluentU – learn by watching videos. Pretty slick translation interface.
    • italki – lessons from native speakers.
    • HelloTalk – language exchange for mobile devices.
    • Speaky – another language exchange.
    • MangoLanguages – good online conversational lessons. Expensive if you pay for it yourself, but most likely free through your public library. My favorite part is the feature that lets you easily compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker.

In addition to all these there are scads of terrible mobile apps (and a few good ones). My recommendation would be to try the above before going to the app store. Also notice that nowhere in this list is a certain software that comes in a yellow box mentioned. I’ll leave it at that.

If that’s not enough, here’s another extensive, but somewhat unfiltered, list of resources.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @zzzmarcus and online at my website. You can reply to (or forward) this with feedback or questions and, if you reply in a different language, even better 🙂

A Potpourri of Brain Food

Nobody will like all of these links, everybody will like at least one:

  • If you use Google Photos for your personal pictures, try using search. It is incredible. Search for something like “Volkswagen” or “red shirt” or “acoustic guitar” or pretty much anything else. It just works. It’s also much faster than any other online photo backup / management app I’ve used.
  • The bluegrass band The Cleverlys do Gangam Style entirely in Korean. Impressive.
  • Jerry (who has no online presence) recommended this MIT course on algorithms. It’s taught by Erik Demaine who is a fantastic visual artist and one of the best teachers I can remember having. It requires a bit of programming knowledge but is otherwise very accessible
  • The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello is a book that reminds me some of Krishnamurti, except from a Jesuit perspective. It’s a strong catalyst for change, even for a secular reader. It’s short and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
  • Mandatory language learning link: This one is personal and less than 140 characters: How I Learned Cyrillic. (spoiler alert: brute force)
  • Hubert Dreyfus’ Lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time. I haven’t listened to these yet, but I’m putting them here because someone should.
  • And a semi-random thought to finish the list: There are four types of hormones – peptide, amino acid, eicosanoid and steroid.