My Beliefs

Every sentient being has a belief system. It may be an implicit system – where an individual's beliefs manifest themselves through the choices an individual makes – or an explicit system that can be written down and talked about. Everyone believes, even those who loudly proclaim that they "don't believe in anything": we make statements about the world by reasoning from axioms that we cannot prove, and the set of these axioms is precisely that individual's belief system.

The various belief systems are, at their core, incomparable. I do not consider some people as having a "better" set of axioms than others. One set may be more sound than the other, or more complete – but that only points to logical superiority, which is not necessarily what matters. I don't disrespect anyone for being inconsistent or for having blind spots. Therefore, the concept of "truth" is not well-defined across individuals. Truth is relative to an individual, but of course there are approximations that are consistent across individuals, especially if we talk about truth regarding testable everyday observations. For example, I hold that we cannot talk about whether the statement "God created the Universe" is true or untrue; however, we can talk about (and agree) whether the statement "if I punch the wall really hard, my hand will hurt" is true or untrue.

My axioms are as follows:

  1. There are questions which we will never find answers to. These are questions about our Universe that are unanswerable to any being existing inside it. I consider the existence of these unanswerable questions to be equivalent to the widely accepted concept of God, or deity or gods.
  2. I believe a theory exists that explains all observable phenomena. Until such a theory is found, I accept the prevailing scientific theories which aim to explain the most observable phenomena.
  3. I define "truth" as a confidence around statements relative to my fundamental axioms with the following properties (the so-called "scientific method"):
  • All statements have a confidence which is a function of the statement's falsifiability and the volume of independent observations that support the statement
  • Statements that are logically inconsistent with other statements of nonzero confidence, or that are incompatible with direct observation have a confidence of 0

I make a distinction between an individual's belief system and his or her accepted dogma. While I consider dogma culturally important, I don't believe that the concept of "truth" is well-defined at the dogmatic level. For example, I don't believe that we can talk about whether the statement "Jesus came back from the dead" is true or untrue. While I don't consider any dogmas as "truth", such disagreement does not prevent me from respecting others' belief systems, which may include dogma.

I ask only that everyone chooses a belief system of their own, informed will, and that they don't impose their system on others (i.e. doesn't directly or indirectly prevent others from adopting a belief system of their own, informed will).

To end with, a quote.


I'm a highly organized pattern of mass and energy and when the time comes I will cease to be. The certainty of my death makes my life more meaningful.

Why I Hate Doing Laundry

"Hate" is such a strong word. It's overused these days – most people who use it don't really mean it. For example, I consider myself very lucky in that I don't hate any human being. I don't really hate any inanimate object. However, there are two activities I absolutely hate, and they are scrubbing and doing laundry.

I've spent some time thinking about why I hate those two specific activities. I think with scrubbing, as you apply continuous, intense pressure to a dish, the combination of hot running, splashing water, the fatigue of my fingers, and – most importantly, the uncertainty of whether and when my actions will actually make a difference just about does it for me.

But even scrubbing (especially if I get to use one of these steel wool things) fades in comparison to doing laundry. It's not that I don't like chores – there are plenty of chores which I don't mind. Some I even like, like ones to do with organization. But laundry consists of more frustrating mini-tasks than any other activity I can think of. It's an activity full of little problems which will bite you unless you expend a lot of precious mental resources and hand-eye coordination. Finally, it's a process that has a long duration, but consists of bursts of work, and I don't like being interrupted frequently. At the end of the day, I guess, it just seems like a waste of effort, the reward is so massively disproportionate to what I put in, and there aren't many shortcuts.

I was bothered by the fact that I hate doing laundry so much, so I painstakingly recorded all the little things that I need to do when I do laundry, including all the problems that I need to be on the lookout for. I'm not just venting, mind you, there is a point to all this which I'll get to. But in addition, I found that holding a magnifying glass to something that evokes such an emotional reaction helps me understand me better. Normally, I solve problems almost as quickly as I encounter them -- continuous improvement is something I got very good at over the years -- and so this outlier is likely a helpful data point for me. After all, the best way to understand something is to trace its boundaries, and me doing laundry is certainly a boundary case.

First comes the separation of whites from colors from blacks. As someone who likes to understand the world and cut it up into little pieces that are logical, I never got to that point of zenness with separation. Is a light gray/white sock a color or a white? Does intensity of color matter? How about color clothes that haven't been washed before? Rugs? And which setting should I use? Is permanent press more appropriate than normal? Maybe I should just wash everything in warm (normal) water and not worry about it? I suspect that the latter is true, but I just don't have the confidence. I could (and probably should, given how much it bothers me and how much I'm willing to talk about the problem) do some research and answer all these questions, or run experiments, but I just can't get myself to do this outside of what I already perceive to be a waste of time.

Then comes the separation of clothes that get tumble dried from those that don't. Up until recently, I would do the separation late in the process, after the clothes have been washed, and I was incredibly frustrated at the menialness of having to take every single piece of clothing out, inspecting it (and for those that aren't mine specifically, remembering whether they get dried or not – and often getting it wrong) and sorting it. Now I come up with a separate pile of clothes that don't get dried, but even then sometimes the pile is too small to do as its own load. And if that happens, I have to carefully remove every single piece of clothing from the washer after the wash, inspect it, try to remember if that piece happens to get dried or not, and put it in the drier.

Carrying the clothes in the bag, the detergent, and the laundry card isn't so bad. I used to hate it when the laundry room was in the basement – I traced it down to having to wait for an elevator, which seems to me like more of a waste of time than walking down the hall (even if the expected time is shorter), a kind of control bias, since I do control my walk but not the elevator.

Then was the uncertainty of whether a washer is available. In NYC, the ratio was 6.5 (working, on average, out of 8 total) washers to about 200 apartments. In California, it's now 1 to 10 apartments, so that's much better. Plus, here there seems to be less correlation in the times people do laundry. Maybe more people have time to do it during the week. This pure waste of time really bothered me, to the point where I thought about a weekend project to install an Internet-connected sensor in the laundry room (camera, or a strategically placed photocell). Not a big pain point right now, but the project might still be a fun one to do, assuming I can either hide it well or okay it with the building management.

A minor point (my ignorance, though, is at fault) when loading the washer is figuring out how much detergent to use. Another minor point is the amount of time it takes to do the laundry. I set the timer so I'm reminded when a cycle is done, but for some reason the washer timer is off, and – worse – it's off by a different amount for different settings. There is nothing more frustrating than to appear in the laundry room with 3 minutes still left of the cycle.

Then comes moving the loads from the washer to the dryer. First, the clothes always, invariably, get all tangled up so that it's next to impossible to remove the clothes without some falling on the floor. Then there is always some little sock hidden at the bottom of the washer, so I end up tumbling the washer cylinder by hand at least once. Putting the clothes into the drier (and removing them once dry) is also annoying because on their way in, the clothes always touch the little compartment that accumulates all the lint.

If any clothes don't get dried, I need to carry the wet clothes back to the room. I could put it in the bin, but I don't like having wet clothes get all wrinkly. Maybe I'm too particular. What is objectively difficult, though, is putting all the clothes onto a drying rack in my apartment. I have to put them up one by one, they always look more wrinkled than they should, and there is never any room on the rack.

Drying large items (such as towels or sheets) is something I'm not looking forward to. All the other items always get tangled inside and as a result, they don't dry. If that's the case, that means an additional few trips to the laundry room, and, yet again, the ensuing uncertainty.

Then there is carrying all the laundry back. The carrying bag is really uncomfortable and hurts my fingers. When the clothes arrive in my apartment, folding is another one of these things that takes longer than it should. At least I'm in my room and can listen to podcasts while folding.

Finally, almost every single time, there is some sock that is missing. That's the worst thing, because you never know when you lost that poor sock. So you have to retrace your steps, all the way back from the laundry bin in the apartment to the laundry and really dig in there, looking around everywhere in between.


There are a few interesting takeaways to all this. First, I found it rather interesting how emotionally charged this broad problem space makes me. In general, I love encountering problems in my life because I know that it's just a matter of time before I solve them, and solving them is often a fun challenge. And so here, in the case of laundry, I could also solve my problems. Many of these little issues I mentioned above have solutions, and, in fact, I have been slowly working on some of them. The separation into clothes that get dried and those that don't (as opposed to merely just whites and colors) is an example innovation that came from this process. Yet, I can't help but wonder why it took me so long to put these in place.

I think more interesting to me (and my learning) is the fact that the entire process consists of a large number of very specific manual actions whose orchestration still require my mental capacity, and which have a long duration (say, a four-load routine takes a total of three and a half hours) but take a form of tasks highly scattered in time. It's probably this interruptive nature of the task that makes me most frustrated. As someone who doesn't multitask well, and as someone who needs time to get into a "flow" state while working on something, having to get up every 20-25 minutes is very disruptive. And so there is a takeaway for me from the experience of reflecting on doing laundry (and pushing myself to write it up): going forward, I should avoid tasks of that nature, even if as a whole they don't look too frustrating, because of the opportunity cost they pose: half a day is shot.

Stepping back to the laundry issue, there is obviously a way to not have this problem, at a very high level, and that is to delegate to someone. And maybe at some point I will. Right now I know that a service that meets my requirements doesn't exist in my area. I could relax some of the requirements, but at this point I can withstand some pain and I don't have to sacrifice quality.

Finally, I can't help but think that the entire laundry experience just shouldn't be that way. It's very manual, repetitive, and tedious, and it's something that every household needs to do. Even if one has a washer and dryer in house, many of the problems I outlined remain. I don't think the current alternatives – taking the laundry to a cleaner, or having the laundry taken away using some sort of valet service (only available in a very few localities) – just cut it.

Nota bene: Every so often a person that I share my pain with hastens to point out that what I have a first world problem and that I should put it in perspective. Nonsense!  I live in the first world, I have first world problems, and I should focus on solving them. I didn't live in the "first world" country my whole life, and so I already have all the perspective I need. With comments such as this, sometimes I get the impression that the "first world problem" comment is just a way to avoid dealing with the reality of the world we live in, and to avoid taking the responsibility to own one's problems.

Hoarding Information

(Adapted from a talk I delivered at Stanford in March 2013) 

Meet Paul. Paul is unable to throw anything away. His house is packed with hundreds of boxes. There is so much stuff on the kitchen floor that you can't even tell what color the floor is. Paul wastes a lot of time in his life trying to find stuff he needs. He often hurts himself, walking around his house and tripping on something sharp. Paul's habit is also holding him back: he had to turn down a job offer, because with all the stuff at his house, he simply couldn't move to another city.

You will most definitely agree that Paul has a problem. In the physical world, this problem is called hoarding.



Yet in the virtual world, you and I are no different from Paul.



We hold on to every bit of data we generate or download, and we let it clutter our virtual lives, wasting our time and holding us back. When was the last time you cleaned up that desktop, or your Documents folder? When was the last time you went over your camera roll to delete the 80% of pictures that you don't care about at all, so you don't struggle to find the few that you really needed to find?

But you will probably say that it's a different type of hoarding, out there in the digital world. Sure, you hoard bits, but that doesn't cause you any pain. Well, I am here to tell you why it does, and what you can do about it.

True, data is much smaller than physical objects, but there is just so much of it. And it's growing at an unprecedented pace. Right up until the year 1980, mankind has generated a grand total of 1 exabyte (=10^18 bytes) of information. That's about 4 billion Encyclopaedia Britannicas. How about today?

3 exabytes. 

Not since the dawn of humanity.

Not even since 1980. 

We have generated 3 exabytes – 12 billion Encyclopaedia Britannicas – in just one day!

If we don't change our habits, we'll soon become overwhelmed with data.

We are weighed down by all this digital mess, and we don't even realize it. The sheer amount of time that you or your computer spends looking through all these bits is shocking. You waste about 25 hours each year sifting through, or waiting for your computer to index data you don't need. That's more than one full day, a full day that you could be spending with your family, or your friends, deepening your connections with others rather than staring at a computer screen.

Businesses are particularly affected by this problem. They are notorious for keeping clutter around. Because data is rarely deleted when not needed, and even more rarely cleaned up, it costs an average business an estimated $1200 per employee per year in time wasted and storage costs (according to my rough estimates). When it comes to reviewing files for legal purposes, companies waste tens of thousands of dollars having the lawyers go through garbage.

But it's not just about the time you waste. Because of all this clutter, you are less likely to find information when you need it most.

Hoarding bits also changes the way you behave. Data holds you back, just like stuff would hold Paul back. You are much less spontaneous because you've surrounded yourself with the record of the past.

A few years back, Paul decided to seek help. He realized that his problem was getting out of control and he didn't want to live surrounded by clutter. He could not easily get rid of stuff, but he stored most of it out of sight, creating some distance between it and himself, and bringing his problem under control. Now you can tell what color the kitchen floor is. And yes, he is moving to take his dream job offer.

Inspired by Paul, I no longer hoard my bits. I keep my important data clean, and my unimportant data far away from me. I no longer waste time, one trickle at a time. I no longer struggle to find the information I need. And, not being surrounded by mementos from the past has allowed me to be much more spontaneous now, doing things I've never done before.

You too can stop being weighed down by your data hoarding habits. Start by organizing your digital life. Separate what's important from everything else. Keep what's important close, and keep it organized. Put everything else far away – ideally in an external drive or online. That way, if you need to access it, you still can, but you won't be distracted by it every day. And try to avoid generating data in the first place. Stream, don't download. View, don't save.

Most of us hoard bits. But if you change your mindset just a little, if you employ some basic data hygiene, you'll suddenly find yourself having more time for the things you want to do, and you will live more in the moment, spontaneously, more deeply than ever before. This advice, unlike your clutter, is really worth keeping.


(And ending on a philosophical note) 

How does information age?  Will the historians of the distant future have access to all our hoarded bits? Or will their machines automatically synthesize information to the point where looking at the individual bits – though possible – will be a fun but vain exercise akin to flying over swaths of land in Google Maps today?

It usually helps to look back in the past and try to see patterns. The Romans – a very sophisticated civilization, just before its decline – were capable of recording information, even though it was more expensive. Then why do we know so little about them? Does information degrade over time? Does the fall of an empire naturally bring about loss of information? Has the information become irrelevant, and thus filtered by successive generations, was withered down to minimum?


Our lives are deeply interconnected. You never know which of the tiniest, most trifle encounters with others will ripple through your life and end up changing it entirely, in a kind of butterfly effect. I remember, when I was 16, I was helping run summer school organized by the management of the British high school I had the pleasure and honor to attend. Among my many duties was being – you may say – superintendent at the boarding house where all the summer school kids were staying. I met this nice, somewhat shy girl named Misha. We talked a little – very little – I don't remember what we talked about. Truth be told, I would probably have forgotten Misha if it wasn't for a message I received from her in 2010:

It feels like forever ago now that I'm about to graduate from college, but back then 14-year-old me was definitely thinking, "wow, look at that smart kid.  I want to go to an Ivy league school, too, one day."  Be careful what you wish for, indeed...

This is one of the few things that anybody has ever said that touched me deeply. I remarked on all the connections I've made with people in my past that have set the course of my life, all the words of wisdom I have received that helped me make the decisions that got me where I am today. To all those angels – many of whom I know and remember vividly, and many of whom have slipped my mind by now – I send my most sincere, humble thanks.

We are all standing on the shoulders of giants –  though in some cases, these giants are among us, people no different than ourselves.

What is Conceptual Thinking

(This post was originally published in late 2009. To my surprise, it's received some attention from random people throughout the Internet. I've refreshed it a little and posted here, hoping it has retained its relevance)


To me, conceptual thinking is simply the ability to effortlessly walk up and down the ladder of abstraction.

Most people believe that great conceptual thinkers simply think in more abstract terms than non-conceptual thinkers. The ability to think abstractly (i.e. in terms of themes, patterns, and generalizations, rather than specifics, examples, and concretes) is a necessary condition, but I don't think it is sufficient .

While someone who is just an abstract thinker is likely able to solve problems more easily (by separating themselves from distracting details and focusing on the core of the problem), their impact is limited. For example, they find it hard to communicate with those unable to think abstractly (the majority of the population!) so they limit the extent of their influence and collaboration. They also often struggle to shape reality, because, like it or not, reality is concrete and not abstract.

To make their ability useful, abstract thinkers need to be able to convert an abstract thought into a concrete one, and vice versa. This ability is what I call conceptual thinking.  A conceptual thinker (comfortably) starts in the concrete, then walks up the hierarchy of abstractions. At some level they make connections between the abstract representation of the concrete thought and another abstract representation. If need be, they can then walk that abstract thought back into another, very different concrete thought.  The idea is that a local search (i.e. making connections) in the abstract space is easier than a local search in the concrete space. But by starting and ending in the concrete, that person can both communicate more effectively with others, and actually make things come true.


Suppose I have to solve a difficult puzzle.  If I am a conceptual thinker, I can turn the problem into a more abstract one (recognize it as an instance of a more generic class of problems).  The "abstraction tree" is sparser the higher you go, because each time you walk "up" the hierarchy, you collapse a number of more concrete thoughts into one more abstract one. At some point, you're likely to have encountered an abstraction that you have seen before, find the answer you're looking for, and then walk the ladder all the way "down" by adding layers of concreteness to actually find the solution to the specific puzzle. That way, instead of solving hundreds of puzzles in hope that in the future you will encounter one, you really just need to solve one.

Unfortunately, this ability to walk up and down the ladder of abstraction is not easy. You replace the ability to solve a concrete problem with the ability to turn concrete things into abstract things, and vice versa. In the latter, the higher the abstraction tree you go, the harder the walk becomes.

Live in the Present Tense

(Originally published in July 2012)

 We're surrounded by the inspirational success stories and the succinct, poetic life narrative we've come to expect from biography writers.

As a result, we're spending far too much effort thinking about what we'd like our biography to say, and not enough actually living our lives.

It's not your responsibility to create a narrative or a coherent plot to your life's work. Once it becomes clear that you live a meaningful, impactful life, people much more qualified to extract the essence of your life and craft the story will come along.

For now, just focus on producing the data points. Live in the present tense.

Mankind's Local View of History

(Originally published on August 31st, 2010)

I believe that it is intrinsic in human nature to possess a kind of confirmation bias, extrapolating severely limited set of data points (say, the time span of one generation) to make statements about timeless truths, concepts lasting for very long time frames. In other words, we all have a kind of local view of history which is causing us to make incorrect assumptions about the past, or is preventing us from questioning things enough to make good predictions about the future.

There are numerous examples to support this idea. Until about 2006, the general populace was convinced that housing prices will always go up. We fear of terrorists taking over planes but forget that in the seventies, plane hijackings were rather common. We love good food but just fifty years ago Americans considered food to be a rather utilitarian exercise.

It is commonly thought (and by “It is thought” I mean “at some point we all thought that, even if now we may not admit it because of a certain pressure from those who tend to expose common conceptions as myths who may make us appear stupid”) that the Middle Ages were by and large a waste — several centuries of backwardness. However, I believe that we think that only because we live in a technophiliac age where one assigns value to a very specific kind of progress that was, admittedly, absent in the Middle Ages. This is most likely coupled with a phenomenon in which we conveniently forget that progress has an exponential nature — sure, the Renaissance seemed like a huge step forward, but it very likely needed to be bootstrapped by a much slower progress that was brewing in the centuries before it (plus, following the Durants in the Lessons of History, “Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes”). But, even more fundamentally, our belief in progress is an even more deeply rooted assumption about the human race. Can we extrapolate it into the future? Will we always aim towards progress? What if we deplete our natural resources?

And how about political systems? We think of monarchy as a less developed, more primitive form of government that suffers from a lot of problems that we have since managed to mitigate with other systems. But again, this is just confirmation bias: we were raised in a culture that relishes in the importance of democracy. We seem to think that democracy will reign forever — or at least, that monarchy will never come back. But that doesn’t have to be the case (Frank Herbert was onto something). It doesn’t have to be the case because the path between concept and execution is chaotic — small variations in the original assumptions can lead to massive differences in execution, so what seems like a massive problem with monarchy in the context of eighteenth-century world citizen’s worldview may easily be solvable with twenty-first-century’s tools and mindset. For example yes, there is potential for abuse, but what if we use technology to limit it just as technology today ensures we don’t abuse some of the privileges given to us. Once we solve these problems (which centuries of oppression have brought to the foreground), the underlying framework may provide a much more efficient way to stabilize the society (in fact, I’ve always thought that democracy is ostentatiously very inefficient — just think about the years of training, campaigning, and money spent by the candidate who loses the elections).

That’s exactly the problem with extrapolation: it assumes that some phenomenon can be approximated well with a linear model. So long as the extrapolation is minimal, most phenomena do behave pretty nicely: if today we’re burning up coal like crazy, tomorrow we are also likely to use up a lot of it. But it does not necessarily follow that in fifty years we will. Extrapolation over a long time window is unable to take into account the interactions of the thousands of variables that affect the outcomes we’re trying to predict.

History, or social sciences in general, suffer from this problem particularly much, precisely because there are so many variables at play (i.e. the systems they try to explain are so chaotic). In a way, one of my biggest realizations was that social sciences are enormously more complex than exact sciences because the latter have the liberty of operating on kiddie worlds where everything can be controlled and measured and there are relatively few degrees of freedom. It’s only when we move on to sciences that rely on inaccurate, nondeterministic and complex objects, such as economics (struggling with the complexity of human nature when applied to incentive-driven behavior), politics (struggling with the complexity of understanding the impact of policies on e.g. economics) and history (struggling with the complexity stemming from the interplay of a number of economic, political and social factors with individuals and their decision-making process), that the number of variables increases beyond our comprehension. Those models are nowhere near linear, so let’s not extrapolate.

There are some positive consequences of the abandonment of superfluous extrapolation. It is not necessarily the case that food will look less and less like food — in fact, we are slowly starting to see people go back to natural sources of food, from organic food to CSAs to growing their own vegetables. We may run out of rare earth metals in twenty years, but that doesn’t necessarily imply armageddon.

On the Cyclical Nature of Things

(Originally published on September 16th, 2009) 

I’ve been meaning to write about this for quite some time because I think it’s one of the more fundamental concepts I’ve come across, if not the most fundamental. I think it’s also pretty obvious to people but this fact has implications which are incredibly useful to think about (because they may not be intuitive).

It has become quite clear to me that as many things around us, the decisions we make in our life follow a sort of circular pattern: at times we decide on something, only later to revert the decision. The strangest thing about this is that each individual decision seems like it was made deliberately, rationally, and with a careful consideration of all the pros and cons. If that is the case, why on Earth would the decisions we make change so fundamentally? Do our values and philosophies change as fundamentally as well?

Let me give you an example that I think illustrates this best. Over the past three years that I owned a car, I would frequently (at least once a week, sometimes twice or more) go to New York City to meet up with my friends. Each time I was faced with a choice: I could drive to the City, or I could take the train. Over those three years, I must have reversed on my decisions three, maybe four times. I found it difficult to believe — each time it seems natural to me to do A; I know I didn’t use to do A but that’s because I didn’t know better; now it definitely makes sense to do A. Only to, a few months later, think it obvious that I should do B.

What is going on here? I believe that the system that connects our philosophies (and the system of our values–so the most fundamental building blocks of our reasoning) to the decisions we make every day is a chaotic one, that is, small changes in our philosophy may lead to large changes in the ultimate decisions. Our philosophies change slightly, but as a result we may end up turning our life upside down — in my case, I may decide that the only reasonable thing is to take the car even though two weeks ago I thought it obvious to take the train. Such “reversals” may happen multiple times, in fact — in my case, I’d switch between taking the train and driving several times over the three years. Specifically, if you’re interested, here is an abbreviated version of the reasoning I would go through:

  • 9/06: Take the train. I don’t like driving to the City, it’s stressful. And parking is expensive. Since it takes about the same amount of time, I’ll just take the train
  • 11/06: Drive. Well, actually driving is kind of exhilarating. And parking is $15; if you include the cost of the train ticket, it pretty much ends up being a very similar amount. And if I drive, I have the benefit of staying in the City much longer — I’m not bound by the schedule of the train
  • 3/07: Take the train. I can’t drink if I have to drive, and if I happen to miss the last train, I can always crash at my friend’s place until the first train in the morning, which is at 5am, which is usually around the time I’m done for the night
  • 6/07: Drive. First of all, I can find free street parking. I still have to drive to the train stationso the drinking immobilizes me pretty much regardless of the method I use. If I drive, I’m not bound by when the train leaves — I don’t have to rush at all to make the train into the City
  • 5/08: Take the train. I can read a book when I’m on the train, or even use my computer, and don’t waste 45 minutes each way
  • 12/08: Drive. I’m usually tired anyway so I don’t get anything done on the train. And when I drive I can listen to audiobooks.
  • 5/09: Take the train. I like sleeping in my own bed, and leaving with the last train will give me the much needed discipline.

I think the nature of changes is, strictly speaking, more like an outward spiral rather than a circle, because with each new decision, we have the benefit of the decisions we made in the past, so even if the decision may seem like one we already made, it was made by incorporating all the prior reasoning. It’s not the outcome (the specific decision) that defines your reasoning, it’s the entire baggage of reasoning you have acquired over time leading up to your decision.

In retrospect, what happened to me with the whole car v. train debate is very interesting. For one, all the arguments were true from the very beginning, I just chose to include some and not the others. The weight I attached to some (usually one) arguments was much higher than before, and it’s this difference in weights that caused the balance to shift from one decision (take the train) to an entirely opposite one (drive, i.e. don’t take the train).

The reason why these differences were so frequent is that as I later found out, most of these arguments boil down to “it doesn’t really matter”. In fact, there is a workaround for every one (Stuck to train schedule? Crash at your friend’s place. 45 minutes driving feels like a waste of time? Listen to audiobooks). I think the cost one was the most obvious instance of this — it seemed that one way was “overwhelmingly” better than the other until I included some other hidden cost — at first it was parking garages being expensive; then I found cheaper garages (thanks to Then it was all the tolls and gas; then I realized that I’m paying for parking at the train station.

With arguments that are easily fixable, and decision that is highly sensitive to those arguments, it’s no surprise that my mindset at the time (which is a combination of the ever-so-slightly changing factors in my life philosophy) would make the decisions downstream oscillate like this, even if I happened to make the exact opposite decision in the past. And as the arguments are found to be moot, we tend to pick out subtler and subtler ones to guide us.

Another example from my life is fairly recent: what should I listen to when I run? Should I listen to music or podcasts/audiobooks? For the longest time I’d listen to songs because I liked that. Then I switched to audiobooks because listening to the same songs seemed wasteful; surely I could utilize the time better if I listened to a book. I recently switched back to music for two subtle reasons: for one, music strangely motivates me to work out better; it has something to do with the beats or the symmetry. Secondly (and this one really is subtle), listening to music (as opposed to audiobooks) actually allows me to think about things. In a way, I can multitask better because the resources I need to think (high level) are different than the resources I need to enjoy music (low level).

This rapidly changing set of outcomes brings me to an important principle which I’ll call “the answer is somewhere in the middle”. The principle helps us make decision in the face of uncertainty and says that the right answer is likely to be in between the two extremes so so long as you are by and large in the ballpark, you’re optimizing your use case. For example, take the problem of finding your purpose in life. One extreme says that you have to expose yourself to as much in life as possible: go climb mountains, pick rice in China, hang-glide, go to missions in Africa. Only then will you be able to figure out your purpose in life. Another one says that it’s all random — you could be doing nothing and the purpose could just randomly come to you; and hence, it really doesn’t matter what you do — you may just as well relax and do less. People have many philosophical wars about which one of the two is the “right” answer. The principle which I’m evoking says that the answer is somewhere in the middle (in other words, there is no “right” answer) and you’ll maximize your chances of finding your life’s purpose if you do a little bit of both — explore and experience some, but not too much — give yourself some time for serendipity.

I like this principle because it’s very close to the philosophy of “there is no right answer”. Of course the extremists will believe that being in the middle is a bad idea — if you’re doing something, you should do it fully rather than half-assing it — so they are likely to dislike this principle as well (since they often think there is a right answer). There’s no point arguing with them because of the feedback problem: if they believe there is a right answer, they will not let you convince them that a “there is no right answer” philosophy is just as good as “there is a right answer” one because that would contradict their belief!

I recently realized that instead of being frustrated by the ever-changing decisions I should embrace them. The outcomes as not nearly as important as the path I took to arrive at all of them (even if they seem circular — which is also why I prefer to think about this process as an “outward spiral” to show the same outcome — the phase — but a different point in space — due to the increasing radius). My philosophy will change, there is no point to spend a lot of time on making decisions because they are bound to change in the future. Instead, delay the making of decisions to a later day (when you know more) and pick something in the middle to minimize the probability of investing too much in a decision that won’t be that instrumental to your future life.

This eliminates many frustrations from my life (in fact, I do feel that the purpose in everyone’s life should be to reduce the frustrations one feels in life — if you reduce them to zero, you have succeeded in life!). Some Eastern philosophies probably agree with this to some extent…

The knowledge that most arguments can be tweaked to tell whatever story you want can also be liberating. I used to think that I can no longer stay up at night working on small projects — I must be getting older. Until I stayed up all night two nights ago. Then I realized that recently I just haven’t worked on an exciting enough project, and that there is nothing wrong with me being able to stay up all night (however, I should avoid doing this often…). As a consequence, I strongly believe that we’re all capable of changing regardless of age and the phenomenon of older people being relatively fixed in their likes and habits is simply an artifact of them liking a particular set of outcomes and decidingto stop analyzing the decisions.

Finally, it’s simply good to see that some of the approaches I took in the past are valid today. For example, early in my childhood I was taught the value of humility. This continued until I started working with a bunch of alpha males. Humility no longer seemed like such a virtue. Recently, though, I’ve been realizing that being humble is a good thing (and others–yes, those alpha males–are realizing it, too). I happened to be right but, again, the outcome doesn’t matter as much as the approach–I have a much broader understanding of humility now that I’ve gone through a few cycles of it. Besides, this may all change again soon…


(This post was written between September 5th and 12th, 2009)

Day Zero

A long set of flights. I realized I’m actually not that bothered by flying- especially this time because I took the train directly to the airport- it’s so much easier; and no laptop.

I had enough time to write a lot in Amsterdam at the airport. Didn’t get much done on the plane. And now (end of day one) I’m writing more. Which makes me intrigued what inspires me to get stuff done. Sometimes I’m all poised to get work done the day before, and then come the day I get nothing done. Sometimes it’s the opposite. I did realize one thing though: that in order to be productive (and also creative) I must have downtime.

Africa was not what I expected; I expected something very different. It’s, after all, an entirely different continent. What I saw was a combination of Florida, California, Poland- places I’ve been to before. Perhaps everything I do from now on will be just a linear combination of all my past experiences.
It wasn’t that hot; it wasn’t that alien.

I’m excited about the trip; I think it’s a good first serious “adventure”, so to speak. Something less difficult would be too lame, a waste of time; something more difficult might have been a disappointment. It’s not like I can climb Mount Everest — not quite yet.

Some time before the trip I’ve contemplated how streamlined our life has become. I’m not sure if it’s all humans, or whether I’m privileged to be able to do things in life that others wouldn’t dream of doing; but it was surprisingly painless to get the entire trip arranged and get ready for it. First came the idea- that was one of the original 25 things for me to do when I’m 25. A few months later I mentioned the idea to my friend Przemek who immediately liked it and offered to go with me. That was the missing link: without it it would have been harder for me to go (although now that I look at my fellow travelers I see individuals as well). From there we kept each other honest and on goal- we found the right travel agent and got the flights. It took a couple of hours of browsing the Net and all was done. Three weeks prior I got the visa (didn’t even have to go to New York City; I could simply send the passport out) and the vaccinations. Finally, I went shopping two days before the trip and got the gear; again, I didn’t have to do much; just read the recommended list the agent provided, and asked the staff at the store. Overall the trip was fairly expensive (and I’m trying hard to separate this from everything else, since not everybody might afford a trip like this, but they can go on a trip like this without having to spend a lot of money) but there really wasn’t that much effort involved. And here I am: in Africa. This world is really small indeed.

Day One

Walking in the jungle gives you a strange sense of belonging to somebody else’s dream. The experience was dreamlike indeed- the fog; the windy path that disappeared in the fog thus seeming to be neverending; the trees that enclosed the path like some sort of gates; the exotic shapes and majestic posture of the trees that were perhaps the only proof I was not anywhere familiar- if I hadn’t remembered I was in Africa I would indeed deduce I must have been in a dream; but not my dream since that experience lacked the features characteristic of my dreams- the narrative, the randomness, the visual limitations.

I liked the hike; the six hours of incessant walking didn’t seem tedious at all even though I didn’t listen to music or some podcast and didn’t even seem to be thinking much. I was prepared- I got a comfortable daypack (which I love; I think I will be taking it with me on trips more in the future, especially that I think it can be a carry-on), water, food, clothing, and my camera which, quite frankly, I can’t live without anymore. I think I’ll be taking it with me everywhere, and if I can take it on top of Kilimanjaro, I can take it anywhere.

When one of the team members (there were six of us) started having muscle cramps, we all offered to help- take her backpack, slow down, do more breaks. I think I learned that even something so simple and seemingly individualistic as a hike may be worthwhile to experience as a team effort. The dinner afterwards was double rewarding- for one, it was food and we were starving. Secondly, we all made it.

I had a great idea shortly before I left for Africa. I decided to take notes- a kind of a journal, but also to catch up with writing my thougts that I never had the time (desire?) to write down on the trip, before I go to sleep. The iPhone was naturally a great device for this (small–taking a laptop would have been a stupid idea–and also a phone, a music player, and portable email client and a web browser). To solve the problem of power (since the iPhone will probably run out of juice after 20 hours of note taking, even in airplane mode and with the lowest brightness setting), I bought a great portable radio (the size of two energy bars) that also has a crank that can be used to power USB devices! I was incredibly proud of this idea–I literally got the radio an hour before I left for the airport.

Day Two

This trip is a little too easy. Two of the other travelers agree with me- we were walkig really slowly, without much tangible beneft. The problem is that it’s very difficult to separate hubris from greater ability. In any case, when I get back, I’ll look into other mountains – it’s somewhat crazy, but there again, I’ve been known to do crazy things. Perhaps I can make another climb my goal for when I’m 26: this, and a marathon, and Machu Pichu, and perhaps scuba diving. Flying?

I’m beginning to realize that there are two kinds of people in the world: one, that I am an instance of, that has a high threshold for exceptional situations but a low threshold for “background” circumstances: for example, I’ll err on the side of. carrying less in order to be more comfortable throughout the day. The other one, that my friend Przemek is an example of, will prepare for all possible eventualities (and will tend to inflate the probability of such events — he said that severe diarrhea happens to 30% of travelers!). It’s crazy–I am, granted, a little annoyed by it–he wanted to buy a portable shower!!

I looked at the map of the area that had mapped all the routes and found one that I think would be ideal (if a bit tough), that included a little bit of more technical climbing. I think I would have liked that one, but this being the first climb (and, as I just found out, the success rate being only 50%), I think it’s still a fair start.

I’m also realizing through experence what works and what doesn’t; the hiking poles are really only useful when descending; a comfy daypack is a must even if there aren’t that many things in it; I ended up not using many of the “just on case” clothes I put in the daypack and, frankly, I’m not sure they are actually good for the “just in case” case. I don’t drink that much water but do tend to nibble on food. Finally I don’t mind other people’s approaches to hiking (e.g. Przemek’s paranoia) but get very frustrated when they begin to affect me (for example when Przemek has me carry an additional bottle of water because “you never know”. Needless to say, we wouldn’t have dreamt of drinking a drop of that extra water.

Day Three

I woke up exactly at midnight. What’s the significance of this event? Someone who is watching over me (I know there is somebody) is trying to tell me something. Minor headache, may be bad- altitude sickness?

It’s beautiful outside, I should go out (while using the bathroom, take some pictures. Also move water to my container while it’s fresh and nice and cold.

Here I am, in a perfect silence, taking a picture of Kilimanjaro at night, thinking about how small I am. How insignificant relative to all this. 60 second exposure shots. This is the last night I’ll be able to do this. Too cold later.

I sometimes do things without purpose. We all do; we all should. We don’t want to because we don’t want to face ths question, people asking us what the purpose of the thing we just did was.

Society wants you to conform- quiet, don’t go anywhere at night. Society is self-preserving so it makes sense.

It took me twenty minutes to get ready, get out of the tent. Dedication to discovery.

Moon shines so bright that objects cast a significant shadow.

The iPhone is great in airplane mode- second night it’s been on all night and still one bar gone. Great for taking notes. I am also fortunate that right now it’s allowing me to type vertically; normally it would turn and be very annoying to use while in the fetal position.

What was the significance of the dream? My hidden fears that I’ll miss out on something great. Midnight here = 5pm over there, this could actually have happened (except it’s Friday).

I was made to do things slightly differently than others. What was all this excelling for if not for a greater cause? I don’t just want to become another cog, no matter that I came from another country. It’s not an achievement.

If my country’s government knocked on my door asking for me to come back, would I? I think so. Something similar to what I read about in “Man on Mao’s Right”. The book was mediocre (so was the author, he just happened to be there over and over again), but the circumstances were exceptional.

The world at our feet: really? Is the world really at our feet? Then what are we doing with that fact? Do we really prefer to live comfortably, have a family, and die leaving no trace of anything? That doesn’t increase entropy much.

My children will be less exceptional than I was; what can they do, what can they be to be exceptional?

The quiet was startling; unsettling- at first. Then I got used to it; there was something satisfying, basic about it. I wanted it to continue, and I wanted to contribute to it by being silent myself. But just as there were thoughts racing in my head all the time, nature was alive and busy. Everything from the vegetation, slouching towards the Peak through neverending and perseverant winds, yet standing tall, to the small insects and creatures of the mountainous plateaus, asleep but always alert, vigilant, to the Earth’s processes, microscopic yet more powerful than anything we can imagine (since we still can’t harness, let alone influence them). The Peak is alive even though its maps, created ten years ago, are still impressively accurate.

What would I be doing if I wasn’t writing this? Would I be sleeping, wasting away precious hours of cognitive brilliance? Would I find a different way to express myself, perhaps non-verbal. If this was only two years ago…

What if this was two years from now? Would I automatically push whatever I came up with to the world, for scrutiny, for feedback, to hear whether it resonates with others, thus creating a closely-knit community of people that have a shared context. Taking this to the extreme would be the future society. Social networks, as much as we hate them, are the harbringers of the new world order.
This past year has gone by very slowly. This is a great thing. I don’t feel that life has passed me by, I feel an active participant in it, even better-its director. I want this to continue, and for this I need to push myself.

Work is not something that should drive people. Progress should be. Being outside of your comfort zone, expanding, both internally and externally.

I will achieve things that last and start moving towards my ultimate goal. I will set my schedule to keep me fit (background noise that will follow me wherever I go), I will run a marathon and–perhaps–climb another peak? I will regularly update the world about my life, for posterity but also to define myself. I will not be weak (this includes clean-up from various detrimental habits like drinking alcohol). I will achieve just like I used to achieve.

I don’t need a todo list for this, regardless of its generation.

Whatever we do in life, it is directly connected to what’s between our ears.

Kilimanjaro now looks like the spaceship from “District 9″; it’s so far away that it’s dim because of the air between it and me. You can only tell distance by how faint the peaks appear. You can’t trust your eyes to compare distances between objects based on how small the moutain appears because when large distances are concerned small misestimates may cause large errors- instead, you can compare objects based on how faint they appear (we are more able to differentiate between different shades of one color).

The porters and the tour guides have an awful job; I wouldn’t like to do it. It teaches one humility

Today kicked my ass- very apt given the hubris of last night. A fairly seers headache hit me half way through hiking. I threw up. The headache went away after I took some pills, but then it came back at the end of the day. I think it has to do with altitude sickness. It’s worrisome because if my headaches continue (especially if they are so random) I will find it very difficult to go to the summit.

I have two fairly light days ahead of me; I will try to maximize my chances by being as prepared as possible.

The mountains are massive, much greater than anything I’ve experienced so far. But I also realized the value of persistence: our small steps, over a long period, eventually traversed many miles.

I like the company- it’s a diverse group, I happen to like everyone. My attitude towards Przemek has undergone a curious evolution: from a gently cautious one, to a judgmental one (oh, he’s one of those people), to a hostile (when he wanted for meto carry the extra water), to a friendly and thankful one (when Przemek helped me in need). I think I jump to conclusions too quickly- and write people off too fast.

I also realized a few things about myself: I try to be funny, and can feel comfortable talking to people about many aspects of life- I have the context to start many conversations.

With three people from the staff sick (our tour guide! and two porters), and my headache troubles, I realized that claiming the highest point in Africa is nontrivial. I’m excited about it – it’s a challenge that I’m willing to take on. And if that means suffering from a throbbing headache, so be it- I’ll equip myself in some serious painkillers.

Day Four

Today was my victory day- I had no headache whatsoever (not sure if it’s due to pills or getting acclimated- I’ll continue taking pills). I’m ready for tomorrow which is going to be long, since at 11:30pm we set off for the summit.

I was also excited to be allowed to cover the finish line today-the last 10 minutes- at my own pace. It was great, I could move at twice as fast as the group did. Przemek was trailing second, followed by the married couple (Sameer and his wife Megan) and then, much further behind, Askhar and Lisa. I think this is the order of preparedness for the hike/fitness- where I fall to fourth place if my headache hits me. Let’s hope it won’t.

Great experiment today- I tried not carrying my daypack, instead putting everything on me. It worked very well and I will continue doing so in the days to come. My back hurt much less, and I didn’t have to stop to get water. I just dressed up too warmly- i’ll correct this tomorrow. I think by tomorrow I will have perfected my equipment.

I’m realizing the power of medicine- it’s actually quite remarkable that such small pills can achieve so much. A small pill to get rid of altitude sickness; a small pill to purify water (although the small UV pen takes the prize here); a small pill to unblock my nose. I used to resist this in the past, but this experience (especially the throbbing headache from altitude sickness).

I had reception today, and was able to send some emails, including one to my dad. It’s quite remarkable that I, being at 15000 feet on my way to Kilimanjaro, was able to send an email to my dad, who’s probably somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Things like this give me hope for mankind and progress overall.

Lisa gave me a great idea to put a map online and mark where each picture was taken (something I was planning on doing for the NYC project).

I realized that I grew very attached to my camera- I think I will continue taking it everywhere. It’s great to be able to make great pictures, especially when I happen to be in such breath-taking locations.
I found Wilson, our guide (who got promoted after Felix came down with something) to be lacking three important qualities of an excellent guide: the ability to always pick the optimal path, thinking on the fly and picking what’s good for the group (or the vulnerable members of the group); the ability to manage expectations- say the right things when the group asks how much longer the hike’s going to take; and the knowledge- again based on the team’s chacteristics, when breaks are necessary. All three abilities boil down to one principle: the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
Tomorrow’s going to be challenging: we won’t get much sleep since we set of for the summit at 11:30pm, and since it’s difficult to sleep at such high altitude (16000 feet) and during the day; there is no access to water at the base camp tomorrow, and it’s going to be freezing cold (-10 degrees Fahrenheit) when we begin our final leg of the journey to the top.

Day Five

I amuse myself while I walk by estimating the speed at which we walk, and the conversion between mpg and liters per 100km.

The hike is pretty easy, no surprises, it’s short. My camera has 20% more battery power left so I’ll have to save it for the peak. Fortunately, since we’ll be hiking at night tonight, I won’t use it much.

Askhar said something insightful today: One’s appreciation for life increases after one uses the so-called public restrooms.

Przemek and I got into a heated argument over what I considered Przemek’s close-minded view of Americans. He considers them geographically ignorant, believing that the U.S. is the only country in the world, believing in the government being totally detached from their private lives yet agreeing to various anti-terrorist laws, ignorant when it comes to the arts, especially ancient history, with a flat sense of humour, not using irony and sarcasm, practical in how they use complicated technology to solve easy problems. But he’s only met a few dozen Americans, and I suspected he was comparing a model European (probably an elite Pole, maybe even himself) to an average American; a lot of what he said was stereotypical (e.g. What differentiates Republicans from Democrats) and also things he appreciated (it’s unclear why sarcastic humor is superior to more direct humor… In fact, people from cultures that have experienced hardship have been known to use irony and sarcasm more).

I thought it was a close-minded approach because I thought that as well in the past and have since grown wiser, and learned to separate myth from reality, and my preference from objective truth. However, it’s a very difficult thing- I still stuggle with it- and I’m not surprised he has that opinion of the entire people.

Hand-cranking my iPhone is hard- 15 minutes of hand-cranking gives me about 15-20 minutes of writing, not much.

I regained my appetite and all symptoms of my altitude sickness are gone. I feel great and the only thing I worry about is being dressed appropriately. It’s going to be cold so I’ll err on te safe side.
Not having a daypack worked out again and I think I’ll do the same tonight. Przemek suggests taking a walking pole and lots of water but I can no longer trust him. It’s sad that my trust of him got reduced to doing so when I’m in deep trouble but I guess this is because I’m the “Can do without” person and he’s the “Just in case” person.

Day Six

The first two hours of the final trek were somewhat frustrating. We were walking up really slowly, and Lisa kept stopping every few stops. Finally we got split into two groups; the Lisa-Asghar group and the rest. This was better and while Meghan had problems still, we were moving faster.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this climb being a team effort; but in this case team effort turned into charity and I don’t mix the two. I also pick my charities and helping an old lady cross the street is not my charity of choice.

I like team effort only if I can feel personally responsible for each member of the team; otherwise I’m in a group of obstacles.

Hiking at night was quite an experience. Seeing nothing but an alternation of the ground and the backpack of the person in front of you gives you the perspective of the climb being very mysterious, mystical even. I heard ringing in my ears, which, naturally, was the loudest sound around.

The peak itself was a nonevent. We got to Stella Point before sunrise but waiting for it would be a terrible idea as we’d all freeze. So I took a great 30s exposure shot of the pre-sunrise sky. We also took some pictures at the Uhuru peak itself. With no snow and fairly good weather (it was still cold as hell) it was easier to climb it.

Then we walked down (or, rather, tumbled down); unsurprisingly going down took us one-third the time it took to go up. By the end of the day we had walked 1200 metres up, and 2600 metres down! I didn’t feel much of the oxygen rush but it was good to be closer to the end. However, we did begin amidst volcanic, sharp, flat, tile-like rocks and ash-like dirt with no vegetation and ended at a camp with what by all definitions can be called a forest, albeit a dry one.

Claiming peaks is interesting; once you get to the top you want the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to capture the night sky tonight. The sky was beautiful- with no clouds, no ambient lighting to provide distractions, and so close to the Equator, it was mesmerizing. But I wasn’t able to capture it without a tripod.

Perhaps it’s better- some things are better left captured by our memory only and not on film (or in digital form). I am sure the camera wouldn’t be able to capture the beauty of the sky nearly enough as my eye has (supported by my mood tonight, and the ambience).

Day Seven

More walking, from 3200 metres to 1600 metres. However, this time we literally walkedthrough the rainforest: we began our descent not in one, and saw the vegetation explode in variety as the humidity increased to the point of virtual rain (it was condensation at the tree branch level high up in the air but it looked the same to us). All that water had to go somewhere and so the path was increasingly more muddy. There was this sweet (or, rather, not sweet at all) spot where the soil had been sufficienty wet to provide little friction but not wet enough to be muddy which made it treacherously slippery.

As we continued our descent, the condensation lessened (again hitting the point of incredibly slippery ground) to the point near the gate where the soil was beginning to dry up. It’s quite incredible how many different zones we went through and how gradual this transition has been.

We arrived at the gate, all dirty but relieved. While we could clean our faces to seem orderly and clean, our nails would betray us. This, incidentally, was the best way for one to discern who had already claimed the peak and who had not, as the two groups mixed back at the hotel (there were, of course, other signs such as whether one was cautiously excited (not yet done it) or unexcitedly determined (done it).

Day Eight

Based on how many times I’ve gotten conflicting information about the various times (such as breakfast time) in Tanzania, I suppose that it’s a cultural thing- Tanzanians simply don’t attach as much weight to precise times. I think it’s very interesting (since we all take punctuality or at least schedules for granted) but also a liberating one.

Przemek realized a disconnect between function and form evident in many places. For example, the storage area has a huge notepad for recording who checked in what, and we get receipts after we check in luggage, but everyone can check out their own luggage. Then what’s the point of the notepad, and the receipts? It seems that a lot of customs of the old colonial powers were transplanted without much thought put in the purpose of the procedures. This does make me think how exactly those colonial powers ruled their colonies…

I’m also fascinated by the neon lights used to provide lighting for storefronts, gas stations, and the like. This is probably due to he fact that there is no centralized street lighting system yet, but it gives the area a mysterious, very original look and feel.

The Purpose

(This post was originally published on July 4, 2009. It's a somewhat philosophical answer to the question of what my purpose in life is.) 

spent some time presenting my framework for thinking about one's life purpose and how it is connected to goals and ultimately every decision we make in our lives.  I'll now attempt to describe my interpretation of the world I observe around me, and thus my purpose in life.

The observable universe is enormous -- trying to systematize all the observations one has is a prohibitive task.  Instead, I'd much rather convert my observations into themes -- create, in a sense, equivalence classes of observations in order to get my head around them better.  Those themes I can then further combine into more abstract themes, and so on, until there are very few themes that permeate everything I see.

One of those themes is the concept of "betterment" -- progress, improvement.  We see it everywhere -- cars get faster, batteries get more efficient, humans beat speed records from year to year.  This betterment is a direct extension of our ability to build tools to solve our problems (which is what I perceive to be one of the fundamental enablers of intelligence: one theory posits that our ability to build tools to leverage our natural abilities allowed our brains to increase in complexity leading to the emergence of the self -- the "I" -- which I see as a condition that must necessarily exist in order for us to speak of intelligence).  As we build these tools, we solve the most immediate problems and get ready to tackle more fundamental problems.  So by "betterment" I mean mankind's ability to solve problems at increasing level of fundamental-ness.

A unifying theme for betterment and other kinds of phenomena (such as evolution of species) is increasing entropy: as the complexity of our tools increases, so do the energy demands (it takes more energy to solve a root problem than to patch one of its instances).  As a result, then, mankind's pursuit of a problem-free universe forces the Universe to increase its entropy at an ever increasing rate.

Why is it the case?  Why do we increase the entropy of the Universe?  I don't believe this to be a meaningful question -- asking "why" about a process in a system makes no sense in the context of that system.  It's a little bit as if a creature on a two-dimensional plane (say, a piece of paper) asked questions about the three-dimensional space that the piece of paper is located in.  It's not a question that we'll get an answer on, because it concerns concepts outside of our Universe -- which, by definition, are not part of our Universe.  In other words, the question is not meaningful because any answer would be meaningless (we would be unable to draw any conclusions about our Universe from it).  This is very important.  It allows us to stop asking "why" and it's also the reason why there is nothing beyond our observable Universe.

So instead of asking why the entropy of the Universe increases at an increasing rate (i.e. why the Universe wants to self-destruct) I am accepting it as an axiom of my existence.  This is an epiphenomenon at the most fundamental level that seems to permeate everything that surrounds us, and so my purpose is to contribute to this epiphenomenon.

My purpose is to aid in the self-destruction of the Universe

(Actually destroying the Universe is not achievable within my lifetime, of course, but through my actions I can certainly increase the probability that its entropy reaches its maximum level faster.)

It may sound ridiculous, or crazy, or pointless (but there again, given my reasoning, there is no use figuring out what the "point" is of the most fundamental epiphenomenon in the Universe).  But it has some interesting implications that are not far from what many people imagine their purpose to be (in other words, it can be thought of as a kind of "super-purpose" that supersedes a class of purposes -- or maybe even all of them).  For example, let's look at the track record of mankind: in a relatively short time frame, humans went from having their existence be threatened by all sorts of natural phenomena and predators to being able to materially affect Earth (unfortunately in a destructive manner -- we can, for example, release bacteria that decimates any other species, or scorch the skies thus substantially change the climate on Earth -- or make it virtually uninhabitable).  This is an incredible increase in the potential to increase entropy.  There are good reasons to believe that mankind will soon be able to harness the energy of the Sun, and be able to affect more than just its planet.  Given my goal in mind (and the lack of information on whether there are any other intelligent beings in the Universe), my goal should be to prevent mankind from destroying itself (as it may be my only means of increase entropy in the Universe quickly).  Suddenly altruism is highly relative to one's perspective on the Universe!


My purpose is to aid in the self-destruction of the Universe.  Once you accept this, dear reader, we can start making use of this result.

Of course, the purpose itself is not particularly useful in answering my fundamental question ("What should I be doing right now?").  But I can follow the framework I outlined to get to my goals, and thus actions.  It's a long path, and I haven't defined it nearly enough to talk about concrete actions (or even goals), but I have some ideas.  First let's recap the framework:

  • At the root of everything there are observations of the known Universe
  • We interpret these observations by unifying concepts into themes and themes into epiphenomena.  We don't ask why these epiphenomena exist because any answer would not be meaningful in the context of our Universe: we simply accept them as given.  It seems to me that at the root of everything, there is an epiphenomenon of entropy increasing at an ever-increasing rate.  The Universe wants to self-destruct
  • Our interpretation leads us to our purpose in life.  I strongly believe that such a purpose should be to contribute to that root epiphenomenon.  The purpose should be stable, i.e. not sensitive to small changes in our interpretation of the observable Universe (or to small changes in the information we accept -- since throughout life we refine our observations: we can see more).  The purpose should also be singular -- if your purpose is to do A and to do B, you haven't really figured out your purpose
  • This purpose defines our values.  There can be multiple values.  For example, given that my purpose is to help the Universe self-destruct, one of my values would be to cherish mankind because it's my best bet to achieve my purpose (given the information I have right now).  Note that I mean mankind, not individuals or arbitrary groups of people
  • Our values inform our desires.  Desires don't need to be measurable but they need to be specific.  Given that I cherish mankind and want it to increase entropy more, I should allow it to do so by harnessing energy better.  The ability to control fire gave humans a significant advantage over other species; the ability to harness the energy of fossil fuels allows us to build airplanes; just think about how much more we can do if we can really take advantage of the near infinite energy of the Sun.  One of my desires could be to help invent a way to extract renewable (long-lasting) energy efficiently.  Similarly, I may want to replace some of the intermediate epiphenomena with their more efficient counterparts.  In my post on evolution I remark on as processes that increase entropy go, evolution is inferior to intelligence, genetic engineering, or non-biological intelligence.  Hence, one of my desires may be to allow humans to progress through lifting existing limits -- for example, to reach singularity
  • Our desires define our goals, which should be measurable and specific.  Our design to achieve the goals contains a tree of subgoals, each subgoal becoming more attainable, realistic and timely
  • Finally, at the bottom of that tree are actions.  This is how I figure out what I should be doing right now.