Mindfulness for Programmers

Our senses keep us plugged into reality. They instantly create a connection to the present. Paying attention is the only way to experience this moment in life. If you’re feeling distracted, panicked, or out-of-touch with reality, try taking time to intentionally notice the things that stimulate you. Note-taking and blogging is a great way to do that.

Writing about how the world seems through your own particular lens fosters mindfulness and appreciation. It keeps your mind grounded in this realm. Journaling is an important ritual that I practice daily, but it is hard to take note of and digest everything that happens in our lives. Doing it here is a way that I can highlight the stuff that has truly touched me.

In diaristic fashion, I will periodically take note of the things I saw, heard, felt, smelt, read, or otherwise consumed. This will give me a chance to share (and keep track of) the things that I love.

Something I saw: The tallest waterfall in New York State. This summer, I drove a few hours north from NYC to Ithaca, NY. It’s a city known for its gorges, cut into stone by natural running water.

It was a short hike (maybe twenty minutes) through Taughannock Falls State Park to get this awe-inspiring view of nature.

Something I read: Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity by David Lynch. David Lynch is a filmmaker and artist. He discusses his development of ideas in this book and likens the process to catching fish:

The beautiful thing is that when you catch one fish, even if it’s a little fish—a fragment of an idea—that fish will draw in other fish, and they’ll hook onto it.

Lynch explains how meditation had helped him overcome the depression that gets in the way of creativity, “You must have clarity to create“.

Something I ate: I live in New York City. I eat a lot of good food. But, this culinary experience happened in Illinois this summer. I ate at the famous Lou Malnati’s Pizza in Chicago.

pizza pie

Deep dish with a few toppings hit the spot, washed down with a cold beer.

pizza slice

Stimulation == Simulation

To get philosophical about it, I think that what’s really out there and what we experience might be very different things.  Like how a the experience of a computer screen showing a beautifully drawn graphical user interface never hints at the reality of computer boards directing electrical circuits to represent the information we see. Our notion of reality is a digital simulation instigated by the sensory input interpreted through our senses.

Mindfulness & Awareness

Even under the richest of experiential excitement, without mindfulness there is no participation with, nor illusion of, reality. If you mindlessly read a book, you might as well have not read it. If you day-dream during a movie, you may know as much about the plot as someone who has never saw it. The same is true for life in its entirety. Don’t miss out – pay attention.

You can train yourself to get better at paying attention. The better you get at it, the more you will experience the richness of vibrancy of this world. The two best techniques I have found for this is: meditation and reading.

Writing, engineering, and creativity

writing resources

It was 2006 and I had just installed WordPress on a web server. I would draft blog posts nightly, before getting ready for bed. At the time I was a philosophy major and wrote prose more than code. That was my first venture into web development and digital marketing. It started with writing.

Writing blog posts and publishing software have a lot in common. For both, “perfect” is the opposite of ready. It’s easy to keep editing your own work. It’s even easier to keep adding half-done features and clutter. That’s why having a plan before you start helps so much. When I write, my first draft tends to be bullet points and a vague outline. The same goes for software. If I’m building something complex, I write comments explaining its functionality before any code. It’s my way of “thinking out loud”, and making sure that what I plan on doing even makes sense.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve maintained a blog. Creative tasks require hard work, lest they bear no fruit. (“Writer’s block is for amateurs”). Problem solving, in its many shapes, is the highest form of creativity. It’s how we build our reality. Modern technology gives us creative leverage through tools, knowledge, and community. We’re being given opportunities to build and create things, to grow and be better, at an unprecedented scale. It’s the best time in history to be CEO of your own life; creative director of your destiny. This also sets the bar higher to stand out.

My plan here is to write regularly, and discuss what I’ve been working on and learning, as well as what’s next. This gives me a chance to explore my thoughts, and prune the branches from which they stem. Hopefully, working at this will help to make me a better storyteller too.

Technology and Consciousness

Throughout philosophical discussions concerning technology the concept of “human nature,” and its influence, are often referenced. Upon examining consciousness within a technological context the idea of a loss of humanity or individuality continually arises. Curiously, this seems to imply something very strange – specifically that the major trends of human nature are ultimately leading to its own demise. The abstraction of human characteristics and qualities, such as talent and emotion, which emerges from the influence of human nature on technology, causes a reasonable sense of fear and unnaturalness in most people. It’s clear and obvious that the world is rapidly changing in a way that history has never felt before. Socially, environmentally, and even spiritually, humankind is experiencing a metamorphosis. Issues that have stirred the minds of fanatics and dreamers for centuries are finally coming to a boil. Despite this, we may find consolation in the idea that perhaps human beings are simply a stepping-stone in the bigger picture, and that quality which we refer to as ‘humanity,’ actually derives from the whole of the cosmos and will be survived regardless of the fate of the 46 chromosomed machines that claim it as their exclusive birthright.

The twenty-first century is understood to be a pivotal moment in the history of humankind. Through technology human nature is being altered and we begin to face issues that never before existed. In a talk given by Sir Martin Rees, it is argued that this may be our last century on Earth (1). Discussing the immense future lying ahead of us, Rees explains that complexity and intelligence have far to go even here still on earth, not to mention into the depths of space. A main tenet of his argument entails that for the first time humans are able to materially change themselves, and the planet on a global scale. With the arrival of the internet, complexity and abundance of information has sky-rocketed. Slowly, digital information is becoming more important than material things (consider cash versus electronic banking, etc.). Perhaps this transition is also affecting humanity itself. Our own ability, and desire, to change ourselves may in the end result in the loss of ourselves. Bioengineering and bionics aside, I assert that most vital role will be played by the systems we create in this ‘infinite game.’ Humanity itself is based on information systems, in various regards. Our physical selves result from genetic information. Our minds, our consciousness, are all essentially information processed through a system. Everything that defines humanity seems to be compatible.

Interestingly enough, there is already a website that is devoted to “the putative future process of copying one’s mind from the natural substrate of the brain into an artificial one, manufactured by humans.” “The Mind Uploading Webpage, (2)” also details a list of various issues and questions that seem to arise from the concept, including personal identities, brain enhancements, and artificial realities. What future does a website like this promise in the developing context of web 3.0 and beyond? Imagine once something like this invades our everyday lifestyle – the explicit and intentional outsourcing of the human brains. The reason why I have focused so much on this mental outsourcing and expansion of humanity is because it points to result in something even more complex than the sum of its parts. The various digital systems that humanity has begun to embrace, interconnected within a system itself (which will ultimately be a descendant of today’s internet), will itself eventually develop into a conscious, sentiment being. As described in an article from the New York Times by Jim Holt, something as simple as a rock may “be viewed as an all-purpose information processor.”

I recently enjoyed a cartoon strip by Scott Adams that maintains great relevance to the topic (3). Its title, “Supreme Being: Our Future, Not Our Origin,” accurately describes its argument. Its initial four slides explain how complex things result from the combination of simpler, less capable components. Its sixth slide then says: “What if ‘God,’ is the consciousness that will be created when enough of us are connected by the internet?!!” Interestingly, I feel that this idea generally pointing in the right direction. A ubiquitous, unseen entity that connects everything, huh. Not that I’m trying to bring up a theological argument (perhaps God does exist, and what the cartoon refers to would simply be a manifestation of such), but the idea does seem remarkable.

This post was originally written for my first blog that has since been discontinued.

The Future of Education

articles about the future of education

In today’s world it is conventional wisdom that a college education is necessary to excel as a professional. Times are said to have changed, and without proper schooling one is doomed to a life of either hard labor or low-paying pencil pushing. And if you’re planning on paying for an education there is no escaping the fact that college costs are rising. Besides the hefty price tag, traditional schooling is consuming, socially and mentally, forcing a particular lifestyle upon the student. Further, the relationship between the educator and the educated maintains a certain depravity, as a professor holds a figurative gun to the student’s head (any false moves may lead to a career crippling F). But is there an alternative?

In a recent editorial featured in the New York Post (April 23, 2008) Thomas Sowell attributes the high cost of college to two reasons: “People will pay what the colleges charge, and colleges have little incentive to reduce tuition.” He explains that unlike most markets, where lowering prices attracts business, in the academic world the government is ready to step in to pick up the slack. A university would loose millions per year in government money if they lowered tuition. Considering the position that today’s young people are placed, where the arduous task of completing a degree is coupled with unfair prices and a dire necessity, which will affect the rest of their life, it is fair to say that they have us by the proverbial balls.

In an article which I recently compiled I attempt to imagine the direction of coming educational paradigms. It quickly becomes obvious how the talent of great minds may be ignored due to lack of proper credentials. Our current scholastic system bespeaks the Tory elitism representative of Western culture. Perhaps the stereotypical role of an experimental, bohemian college student is effected by the sharp contrast of the academic organization. While it is clear that the classroom is continuing to evolve, it will be necessary for the vintage activist spirit of the student to lend guidance to new educational trends that shifts to a liberal method of intellectual maturation.

So where is the classroom going? I can say with a great deal of confidence that virtual technology will play a leading role in the future of education. Already most colleges and universities offer distance learning programs (online classes). Some colleges, such as the University of Phoenix offer completely virtual degrees. Hybrid courses, in which physical meetings compose only a third of the course time, are also becoming popular. This model moves the educator from the head of the classroom, handing knowledge down, to a guiding medium. This new role forces a teacher to not merely present knowledge, but to be sympathetic in facilitating its acquisition.

Despite the advantages of a virtual classroom, the heavy price still lingers overhead. In overcoming this obstacle towards an open, intellectually progressive society we must embrace the idea of autodidactism.

Being self-educated sounds harder than it is. Some of the most important figures in history have been non-traditionally educated (including Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, Alan Watts, and Mark Twain). It means having a choice in subject matter, moving at your own pace, and it’s free. Its relevance towards the shifting educational paradigm can be attributed to the dawn of the information age, coupled with the open content movement. Considering resources available today, it has never been easier to be self taught. Wikipedia alone serves as an ocean of open knowledge. Various colleges, including MIT, offer ‘open-courseware,’ which include lectures, videos, and notes for entire courses for free. E-books, language courses, podcasts, and dictionaries have all become openly available in a spectrum wide enough to cover anyone’s interests. Even aspiring musicians can learn basics of instruments, theory, and entire songs through online tablatures, sheet music, and video lessons. Rather than growing around current structures, we should move to evolve the system to fit our needs and goals.

Additional Resources:

“I have never let school interfere with my education”
-Mark Twain

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.”
-Mark Twain

The PH.D Octopus by William James

“It is interesting to imagine the direction of the classroom and forthcoming educational paradigms. I imagine that within the next twenty years the physical classroom will become obsolete, only to be replaced by an autodidactic virtual environment. The role of the teacher will shift from dictating at the head of the class, to more of a supervising librarian that directs the flow of the program in a very yang manner.”