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Thinking about thinking

This is another post inspired by John Vervaeke’s lectures on the Meaning Crisis. Halfway through the 50 lecture series he switches from focusing on how humans have made and found meaning throughout history to looking at how cognitive science can help us address the loss of meaning we face in a post-religious world.

Vervaeke introduces the section on cognitive science by framing it as a broad discipline that encompasses several levels of thinking about thinking:

Cognition levelAcademic discipline
CultureAnthropology
LanguageLinguistics
BehaviorPsychology
Information ProcessingArtificial Intelligence – AGI
The BrainNeuroscience

He then argues that the best way to advance our understanding of cognition it to, rather than approach each academic discipline as a discrete field that sometimes gleans from other cognitive fields, take a more integrated, more philosophical, approach.

For example a linguist might ask herself “what can I see in psychology through the lens of linguistics?”

This description barely touches the surface of his thoughts. The first 15 or 20 minutes of this video are well worth watching and don’t necessarily require the full context of the first 25 lectures:

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How to start birdwatching

If you think you might be interested in learning more about birds, here’s an easy three step plan to become a birder.

Level 1

This is where I began back in July 2018. I knew there were sparrows, seagulls, crows, flamingos and a few others, but mostly I’d never payed particular attention to birds at all. If this is where you are:

  • Look at the birds that show up in your yard (or balcony or whatever space you have around where you live) and see if you can identify them by sight. I’d recommend downloading Merlin, the free app from Cornell University. It’s very helpful for figuring out what you’re looking at.
  • Start writing down the birds you’ve seen. This will be the beginning of your life list (and your yard list). Write down the date you saw the bird, along with any other interesting observations.
My brother’s life list, the one that first got me into birdwatching.

Level 2

Once you can identify most of the birds that show up in your yard, it’s time to go further afield.

  • At this point, a pair of binoculars becomes important. I’ve found that around $200 USD is about where binoculars become “worth it.” Vortex is a good brand. You can, of course, use less expensive binoculars if they’re out of your budget. I’d suggest getting 8×42 magnification.
  • Find a local park or nature preserve and head over to see what birds are there. The best times to go are generally just after sunrise or just before sunset when birds are most active. You’ll probably start to notice birds you don’t recognize, often getting just brief glimpses. Don’t worry about identifying everything, just observe. You may see other birders around. Usually they’re pretty friendly and willing to help out a newbie.
An American Avocet taking off at sunrise

Level 3

  • Create a free ebird account and download the app. This is the de facto (especially in the US) app for tracking what birds you see where. It’s also extremely useful for finding other birding hotspots and seeing what rare or unusual birds are around. Create your first checklist! The easiest place to do this is probably around your own home.
  • Start paying more attention to bird sounds. Often sound is just as good, if not better, for determining what birds are around. Very good birders almost always are good at birding by ear.
An adult and two juvenile Bald Eagles after the same fish

At this point, you’re a birder! There are all kinds of directions you can take things in from here, but you’ve got the basics covered and you’ll naturally gravitate in the direction you’re most interested in. You’ll also meet lots of people who can help you take next steps.

The only word of warning I’d give is that birding is surprisingly addictive! I never in a million years expected to get interested in birds but one day something clicked in my brain and I haven’t looked back since. Good luck and see you out there!

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50 Books in 2021: Update 2

I slowed down a bit from my earlier breakneck pace and also got… shall we say distracted by lots of shiny objects–the in-progress books below the list of finished books. Despite those intermissions, I’m still relatively on track for 50 this year. I’ll likely revisit this post and add mini-reviews or link each title to a longer reviews at some point in the near future.

Finished

  1. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  2. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
  3. The Hamlet – William Faulkner
  4. The Dog Stars – Peter Heller
  5. Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
  6. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck 
  7. The Sunset Limited – Cormac McCarthy 
  8. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens 
  9. Conscious- Annaka Harris 
  10. The Red and the Black – Stendhal
  11. Extraterrestrial – Avi Loeb
  12. The Evolution of Desire – Cynthia L. Haven
  13. Never Enough – Judith Grisel
  14. Unmasked – Andy Ngo
  15. La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert – Joel Dicker (the first and only book I’ve read entirely in French)
  16. The Revolt of the Public – Martin Guri
  17. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
  18. Gun, With Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem 
  19. Klara and the Sun – Ishiguro Kazuo
  20. Live Not By Lies – Robert Dreher
  21. The Virtues of War -Steven Pressfield
  22. All About Love – bell hooks 
  23. The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth
  24. The Price of Tomorrow – Jeff Booth
  25. A Thousand Brains – Jeff Hawkins
  26. The Comfort Crisis – Michael Easter

In-progress

  • An Elegant Puzzle – Will Larson
  • Postjournalism – Andrey Mir
  • Battling to the End – René Girard
  • Human Diversity – Charles Murray
  • L’Élégance du hérisson – Muriel Barbery
  • The Sovereign Individual – James Dale Davidson
  • Baltasar and Blimunda – José Saramago
  • The Courage to Be – Paul Tillich
  • Novels, Tales, Journeys – Pushkin
  • Falcoln Freeway – Christian Hagenlocher
  • War and Peace and War – Peter Turchin
  • Lila – Robert Pirsig
  • The Language of Creation – Matthieu Pageau
  • Hollow Kingdom – Kira Jane Buxton
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman
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On being an urban wildlife photographer

Living in the city, having a full-time job, a budget, and a family can make it tough to find chances to get out and do amateur wildlife photography. But, to get good at anything, you’ve got to put in the time. So…

Find a spot close to home that you can visit over and over.

My go-to spot is about 20 minutes away; close enough to visit before or after work in the summer. I pretty much know what I’ll find there, so when I’m going it’s not to find charismatic megafauna or rare birds, it’s to practice with the birds, beavers, and rabbits I see every day. It took (and still takes) a mindset shift to accept that some days it’ll just be mallards and crows, but I find I never regret getting out and practicing.

An Anna’s Hummingbird at my local spot

Make a calendar with what’s in season.

If you’ve got a list of what to expect at any given time in the season, it makes planning much easier. That way when you’ve got some time on a weekend, you can quickly refer to what you’ve seen in the past and get out and shoot.

Photography calendar

Use those vacations

Family vacations generally don’t have wildlife photography as their first priority because… of my family. That said, there are often times early in the morning when I can find a good spot on ebird and head out before everyone wakes up.

An American Brown Pelican and Laughing Gull from a vacation

Don’t stress

Sometimes it’s just not the season of your life to be out in the field much. Don’t worry, change will come. It always does.

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Everything is filled with gods

Scientific thinking in the West started off sort of weird. Before the Greek philosopher Thales:

Early Greeks, and other civilizations before them, often invoked idiosyncratic explanations of natural phenomena with reference to the will of anthropomorphic gods and heroes.

Wikipedia
Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 107.jpg

This was the state of the world until Thales, back around 600BC, started to think about why stuff happens in terms of causes and effects in the physical world. He came up with 3 propositions:

  1. All is the moist
  2. The lodestone has psyche
  3. Everything is filled with gods

Wat. It sounds like nonsense, but if you think about it, you can imagine him meaning something like:

  1. Everything is made of water.
  2. Magnets (lodestones) have spirits as evidenced by the fact that they move things.
  3. Everything has an essence of gods, that dictate how each thing behaves.

All 3 of those propositions are… well, they’re wrong. But what he’s doing is novel. Rather than attributing natural phenomena to the arbitrary whims of the Gods, he’s trying to explain the world as a system where things make sense.

To us, it feels like the scientific way of thinking is just how humans naturally think. When we want to know why something is, we naturally look for a chain of events. Strangely though, it hasn’t always been this way. Thales was pioneering a new way of thinking. He was one of the first natural philosophers.

This post was directly inspired by John Vervaeke’s excellent lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. He addresses Thales in lecture four, linked here.

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Image of the week: The Housefly

The Housefly

I’ve been learning macro photography and finding that one of the hardest parts is finding subjects. Fortunately, there’s at least one that’s always around, the humble fly. I think I did it justice on these flowers.

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Notes on The 21 Immutable Laws of Leadership

This post is an export of the notes I took while watching a YouTube lecture series by John C. Maxwell on what he calls The 21 Immutable Laws of Leadership.

1. The Law of the Lid

Leadership determines the highest level of effectiveness. Everything rises and falls based on leadership.

Maxwell tells a story about the first thing a certain hedge fund does after taking over a bankrupt company: they train all the leaders and fire the president. The reason?

“If the president was good, the company wouldn’t be bankrupt”

Rank yourself, and rank the lid numbers of those around you.


2. The Law of Influence

The true measure of leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Position – lowest level of leadership. “Rights” are granted to you and people follow you because they have to.
  • Permission – relationships. People follow you because they want to.
  • Production – results. People follow you because of what you’ve done for the organization
  • People – reproduction. People follow you because of what you’ve done for them.
  • Personhood – respect. You’ve done it for so long that people respect you. The highest level of leadership.
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Even in a palace…

Marcus Aurelius, apart from me being his namesake, is surely the philosopher who’s most influenced the direction of my life. John Vervaeke, in his amazing series on Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, highlights a epigram that I’d not previously noticed while reading Meditations. The way he translates it is:

It is possible to be happy, even in a palace.

Marcus Aurelius Book V.16

In those 9 words Aurelius captures so much. He’s saying that being surrounded by power or possessions doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re living a good or happy life. In fact, it may even be harder to live well when your life, by all external appearances, is ideal. Importantly though, he affirms that where ever you are, even when you have “everything,” you can live well.

It’s a simple saying, but it really highlights why Marcus Aurelius was the best of the Stoics. Vervaeke also cleverly contrasts this with the Buddha who famously left his palace to seek enlightenment.

Just for fun, here are several other translations of the same text:

Where a man can live, there he can also live well. If he must live in a palace, then he can also live well in a palace.
-George Long translation, Dover Thrift Edition

Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one. Lives are led at court… then good ones can be.
-Gregory Hays translation, Modern Library Edition

Wherever there is life, there, too, the good life is possible; there is life in the royal halls, and so even in the royal halls it is possible to live rightly.
Needleman & Piazza, The Essential Marcus Aurelius

Wherever a man lives, he may live well; by consequence, a life of virtue and that of a courtier are not inconsistent.
-Jeremy Collier, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

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Get Tough on Comfort

Michael Easter’s book The Comfort Crisis makes the argument that our way of life in America is too comfortable relative to our ancestors. He argues that in some cases, we’ve gone too far with making sure we’re always comfortable and that it’s negatively affecting our physical and mental health.

Easter outlines 5 broad areas of comfort and suggests how we might address them. Here’s a broad outline of his ideas along with some of my own thoughts:

  1. Do really hard things. Occasionally do something extremely hard—so hard you feel like you might not accomplish it. Very much along the lines of David Goggins or Wim Hof, both of whom say that we usually quit at just a fraction of our potential. These types of challenges are intended to build mental strength more than physical. They provide good stress that fortifies us and give us confidence for when life throws us challenges that we otherwise might feel are too hard to overcome.
  2. Being bored sometimes is good. Boredom creates fertile ground for new ideas. It forces us to know ourselves and be okay with being alone with ourselves. It spotlights the things that we need to work on.
  3. Feel hunger. Fasting is trendy these days (who would have guessed?) and the science to back it up as beneficial seems to be there.
  4. Think about your death every day. This Stoics, the Bhutanese, and the Buddhists know what’s up. Keeping death in mind helps us remember how precious life is and what a miracle each moment is.
  5. Carry the load. Working out should look more like what our ancestors used to do—carrying heavy stuff long distances across rough terrain. Our gym workouts are mostly strength focused and isolate our muscles in unnatural ways. We burn fewer calories that way and excercise fewer muscles.

Check out the book for more. It’s well written, engaging, and goes much deeper than what I’ve written here.

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Finding Meaning

Here’s a way to think about what constitutes a meaningful life:

  1. Coherence – to feel meaning you should have a cognitive understanding of the world. Without a sense of coherence, the world is chaotic and it’s difficult to see patterns and trends.
  2. Significance – this is the spiritual aspect of meaning. It’s the feeling that life is inherently valuable and worthwhile. This can be a particularly tough topic because it’s where all the big existential questions come into play.
  3. Purpose – this is the realm personal growth. It’s where you feel you can self-transcend and also where you can provide value to others. If you understand the world (coherence) and feel life is valuable (significance), what will you now do with your time?

Breaking down “meaning” into those smaller categories helps me feel that a lofty goal like finding meaning in life is much more approachable.

I discovered this framework in John Vervaeke’s 51 (!) part lecture series on Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. In many ways, it surpasses the Jay Garfield series that I recommended way back in 2016 by quite a bit. Definitely check it out.

By way of credit, I’m not sure who originally came up with the framework, it’s not Vervaeke, but here’s a paper from the Journal of Positive Psychology that goes over the state of the research.