Over the next few days, I’m going to move my blog to https://medium.com/@benbob. The process for transferring content is still too manual and error-prone so I won’t bother transferring all the content (too lazy). I’ll repost a few old blogs on Medium as I learn the logistics. The rest of my old blogs can always be found at https://benbobsworld.blogspot.com/.
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Saturday, December 9, 2017
“If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”
Shimon Peres. 1923-2016.
“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
“But if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine”
Bob Dylan. It’s alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding). Bringing it all back home.
Here, I will argue that many of our personal and societal ills, while disparate in appearance, are in fact rooted in a single tendency, that of human beings to obsess over a topic, any topic. This tendency is at least partly genetic in nature and has been shown definitively to transcend national, racial, and cultural boundaries. In fact, even animals can suffer from addictions in a similar fashion so the genes have been with us for millions of years. I will use the terms “obsession” and “addiction” interchangeably. Addictions are nothing but obsessions that are frowned upon by society for one reason or another. Instead of penalizing our negative addictions ex post facto, we need to reinforce the positive ones. Far too much money and effort is spent on fighting destructive addictions late in their life cycles, long after they’ve taken over our lives. Instead, we need to admit that we all have such tendencies and to harness and direct them in positive, socially acceptable, directions. Obsessions, after all, take an inordinate amount time and effort. The more time we spend obsessing over positive activities, the less time and brain cycles we have to dedicate to negative ones.
If you think I’m overstating the case, consider the fact that so many of us have become “digitally addicted” in such a short span of time, seemingly surgically attached to our smartphones and laptops - items that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago. Human civilization has, by necessity, created addicts of all of us - and we are complicit in the crime. It doesn’t matter whether that addiction is destructive in nature or constructive. As a species, we seem to like to obsess over something or other. Sooner or later, we all find things to obsess over. You may be addicted to alcohol or opioids, you may pick food as your drug of choice or cigarettes, you may obsess over videogames or you may choose to cut yourself. There is no shortage of vices to choose from, it seems, nor any end to our depravity as a species when it comes to addictive tendencies: there is gambling, there’s pedophilia, there’s drug addiction, you name it. The common characteristic of all these vices is that we spend hours, days, months, years thinking about them, obsessing over them. Pedophiles don’t just wake up one day and decide, out of the blue, to do what it is that they do. They think about and visualize and fantasize about what they’re going to do long before they ever act on the impulse.
And then there are the obsessions that are deemed acceptable by society. There are those who are addicted to exercise, to music, to photography, to reading, to work. I’m not talking about an hour a day spent exercising or a few minutes spent listening to the radio. An audiophile spends just as many hours thinking about and listening to music as an alcoholic does thinking about his next drink. An elite athlete has no choice but to obsess over the sport of her choosing, spending many hours a day exercising.
I speak, by the way, from firsthand experience. I’ve blogged often about my own personal struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder although thankfully, in my case, one that is mild and mostly positive in nature. I may obsess over the music of Bob Dylan or the movies of Woody Allen or the books of Richard Dawkins. I might obsessively follow their careers, spend hours listening to their albums (or watching their movies or reading their books), I may even admit to reading every Wikipedia article about them. Obsessions one and all, to be sure, but mostly harmless ones. I have destructive obsessions as well, like everyone else, but I find the more time I spend on the positive ones, the less time I have to dedicate to the negative ones. After all, there are only so many hours in a given day.
Here’s another example: I used to be a long distance runner for many years. Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that running becomes an obsession after a while. Our brains just crave the endorphins and we become addicted to the exercise. More recently, due to injuries, I switched to biking. It took only a few months for me to start obsessing about biking - first unconsciously and later consciously. These days, I spend an average of roughly three hours a day biking. This year, I’ve racked up roughly six thousand miles and 500,000 feet of elevation gain. That’s not normal. That’s obsessive behavior by any stretch of the imagination.
To the extent that our lifestyles dictate our behavior, civilization itself is reinforcing many of our addictions. Notice I didn’t say “western civilization”, the usual escape goat. The truth is that you can go dig up any human society in deepest darkest Africa and you will find some addictions running rampant. The propensity for obsessive behavior is in our genes and has also been observed in many other species. Western civilization has merely increased the number of things we can obsess over and made them more readily available to us. Our answer, then, cannot be to attack each and every one of these negative addictions as a unique disease: to fight alcoholism with AA, food addictions with diets, cigarettes with the Nicotine patch, drug addiction with Methadone, etc. We’ve spent years and trillions of dollars doing that with little or no impact.
The right answer is to help people pick the right addictions, the positive ones, and to do so during our formative years - before the negative obsessions take root. Many of our addictions are formed during our childhood and adolescent years. That’s when we first experience cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, and many other vices. That’s also when we become addicted to reading, to music, to studying, to sports. Instead of trying to stop the bad addictions once they’ve already taken root In our psyches, then, we should be spending more money and putting more effort into the years of youth, guiding children and teens into positive activities that will serve them - and the rest of society - throughout their lifetimes. We need more mentors, more engaging art and sports related opportunities, more investments in our future generations. And I bet it would cost a fraction of what we are spending on treatment and incarceration today.
As I mentioned earlier, I use the terms obsession and addiction interchangeably. Addictions are simply obsessions that are frowned upon by society, detrimental to ourselves and/or those around us in one way or another. We all carry the genes and, sooner or later, we all latch onto something and obsess over it. It almost doesn’t matter to us, to our genes, whether that obsession is a positive one or a negative one. We don’t have a gene for alcoholism and another one for gambling and a third one for smartphones, we have a gene for obsession. So the answer is not to penalize and demonize the negative addictions but rather to admit that we have such a genetic propensity built into us and to guide it in a positive direction – before it’s too late. Our current approach, I worry, is scatter-shot, entirely too reactive, and prohibitively expensive.
We’ve already learned that outlawing addictions doesn’t work. A century ago, alcohol was illegal in the United States. Today, it’s so ubiquitous that many people don’t even know about the prohibition and its historical consequences. American society tried to outlaw alcohol - through a constitutional amendment, no less - and failed miserably, eventually reversing course and making it available to the masses. At the end of the day, society realized that the addict, the alcoholic, will go to any lengths to get his hands on a bottle and outlawing alcohol would only open the door to bootleggers, moonshiners, gangsters, and a whole host of other problems. Society, at large, suffered when prohibition was in effect. We realized that repealing prohibition would harm the alcoholic but make many of the other negative societal effects of alcohol irrelevant. Implicitly, society is turning a blind eye to the addict. After all, he’s just harming himself by drinking so much. Let him do it. No skin off my back. This, of course, massively underestimates the communal impact of alcoholism: the broken marriages, the parental abuse, the drunk driving, etc. The current state of affairs, we seem to be saying, is better than what happened during prohibition. We’ll deal with the fallout later!
Addiction to gambling is another example that may be cited here. There are now casinos in pretty much every state in the union, a far cry from a few decades ago. Once again, society is punting on the problem, admitting that outlawing gambling caused more problems than it solved. Here, again, most of the “harm” is self-inflicted. Or, at least, myopically viewed as such by society at large.
It’s only when we cross the line with our addictions, when we get to impacting others with our obsessions, that society finally draws a hard line in the sand and says enough is enough. Pedophilia is as repulsive to most of us as it is addictive to its adherents. So is rape. Both of these crimes, I claim, are in fact addictions. The sexual predator doesn’t just happen to one day decide he wants to grab someone’s genitals. He spends hours upon hours fantasizing about it before he first reaches out. By the time he has sunk so low as to act upon his impulses, he is too far gone, too addicted to the endorphins he experiences just thinking about it. It’s too late to try to fix him then. The damage is already done. You’re fighting a losing battle. Sooner or later, the obsession will come back and take hold of him. The sad truth is that for every convicted pedophile or sexual pervert out there, there are thousands who thought it but never crossed the line. Meanwhile, we are busy punishing the few and ignoring the fact that ninety percent of the iceberg lies under water. We’re basically screwed. We have this gene in us that likes to obsess. And we have this brain that becomes addicted to high levels of endorphins. The best we can do is distract it with, exhaust it with, overwhelm it with positive obsessions.
It’s much cheaper for us, as a society, to invest in creating those positive obsessions in our youth than it is to try to treat the results of our negligence after the fact by punishing or treating people for their negative obsessions. The math, and hence my logic, is simple. The more hours spent engaged in and obsessing over positive activities, the less time I have to obsess over the negative ones. It’s a zero sum game, you see. There are only so many hours in a day. The answer is not to lock up the liquor in the cabinet, to tell teenagers it’s sinful to have sex before marriage, to make cigarette sales to minors illegal, to spend billions of dollars on diets, etc. The answer is to get Junior so addicted to exercise or books or music, depending on his interests, that he won’t have time for the other stuff.
Monday, September 4, 2017
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
Samuel Beckett. Westward Ho.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw. 1856-1950.
“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”
"Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years."
Thomas Jefferson. Letter to James Madison. September 6, 1789.
Anyone who doubts my passion about this subject is welcome to go read my other blog posts on the topic:
I don't think anyone will argue with the statement that we can create a much more meaningful and impactful educational system if we fundamentally rethink our approach to it. The disagreements are rather about the type of system that should replace it.
One thing has become obvious to me. Incremental improvements in the current model of education will not get us where we need to go. Nothing short of a revolution in our thinking about education will address the problems of the current system. We need to stop thinking about sixteen to twenty years of education early in life that prepares you for a lifetime of work. Our world is moving forward at such a fast clip that the education we received even twenty years ago is basically obsolete for today's workforce, let alone tomorrow's information based needs. It makes no sense to assume that the education you are receiving today will prepare you for a career in 2150 or beyond.
Think about a model of education, instead, as something that will prepare you for the next twenty years of your life - not the next eighty, as it is currently being implemented. Rinse and repeat every two decades in order to avoid the “planned obsolescence” almost guaranteed by today's system.
There is an admission here that on the job learning and continual education is required for staying competitive in today's market. Once you reach age forty, in my new mode, you have a fork in the road. If, after twenty years of combined investment in education and work in a field, any field, you find you are happy and content and want to continue down the same career path, then by all means, double down for the next twenty years, pick a specific subfield to specialize in, continue to take more senior level graduate courses to beef up your education and learn about the technology and sub-specialty you're interested in. Remember, you've just spent twenty years investing in this particular field - be it computer science or economics or art history. Now you've come to a fork in the road and decide to double down. Well, good for you. Fame and fortune is sure to be yours as you become a senior leader in your field of study with many years of work and study under your belt.
If, on the other hand, you decide you've had enough and want to try your luck at something else - be it nuclear physics or genetic engineering or finance, well then - welcome to your second twenty year “era”: you have felt the “twenty year itch” and decided to scratch it.
You may go down this other path for several legitimate reasons. Maybe you decide you're just not good at "it" (your initial field of endeavor) and want to try your hand at something else. Maybe you're entrepreneurial and feel you've learned enough about this field (say, computer science) and want to learn more about economics - and the intersection of these two fields of study. These, by the way, I find, are the true innovators today - the ones who don't limit themselves to a single specialty, spending the first thirty years of their lives specializing in some esoteric field of study before their careers even begin. This model obviously rewards generalists and practitioners but it also leaves the door open for specialization - later, as needed and fresher when delivered compared to today's model. Rinse and repeat every twenty years and, I claim, the end result is a much healthier society with healthier, happier people living longer more productive lives.
Lots of interesting business ideas are born at the cross-section of disciplines, not within a single field. We should be welcoming and rewarding polymaths. If we want to succeed in the future, we have to abandon our education system built for the eighteenth century, for the industrial revolution, for mechanization, for memorization, and replace it with one for the information revolution, one based on inter-disciplinary insights. It may have made sense two hundred years ago to educate ourselves once at the beginning of our lives - when life expectancy was forty, not in the next century when it will be over a hundred.
In such a world, to be clear, you would spend the first twenty years of your life learning a craft - be it science or history or economics or medicine. You would then spend your twenties and thirties working in that field - and continue to take classes for further specialization as needed. At age forty, then, you come to a fork in the road. Continue to specialize or flip to another industry, another field of study, another career? Your forties and fifties, I claim, in this model, will be much more productive than what we get today - with the vast majority of people deciding they're stuck in a career they hate for the rest of their lives. It reinvigorates them, I claim, if they are given a chance to pursue another career. Rinse and repeat at sixty and eighty. You get my point. As our average life expectancy increases, it's the only sane option.
Such a system, I claim, would have to abandon the current model of standardized tests and specialized fields of study in its initial iteration. But the first step is to recognize that a rinse and repeat model of education is the right one for our future. Such a model will reduce the teaching of unnecessary minutiae, I claim, and will deliver a more coherent, less specialized model of education in the first twenty years of life. It will do so because it knows it will get a second chance at a subset of those students twenty years later - and maybe even forty years later. And when they come back the second time around, they'll be much more motivated than they were as teenagers and they will have twenty years of experience behind them as well. Let’s face it: Some fields of study just naturally lend themselves to incorporation of past social interactions. It is more fruitful to study, say, psychology or law later in life, as a forty year old than it is to do so as a twenty year old with no life experiences or scars on your back.
Industry would have to collaborate in this model of the universe, accepting people into their employ with perhaps a few fewer TLAs in front of their title. More generalists interested in learning a craft than specialists. In reality, most high tech companies already do this through intern programs that sometimes reach all the way into high school to pick early talent.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
“The testicles of a sparrow are about a millimeter long and weigh about a milligram. (That’s one of the reasons you never hear that someone’s hung like a sparrow.)”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.
“Honeybees warm themselves by contracting the muscles in their thorax. Wood storks cool off by defecating on their own legs. (In very hot weather, wood storks may excrete on their legs as often as once a minute.)”
Elizabeth Kilbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
“Writers don’t prepare for people to read them, so much as they prepare for no one to read them.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates. On Homecomings.
It's been almost a year since I “retired”, so I figure it might be time for a status update. I put that word in quotes because, to be honest, it's only a partial retirement, a semi-retirement, a toe dipped in the water to check conditions before full submersion. I still advise a few startups and spend a bit of time working on my own startup ideas; enough to stay engaged with the industry and, hopefully, also to learn new things in the process, to stay relevant.
The rest of the time I bike, I travel, I spend time with the family, I read, I do things that I never had the time to do when I worked full-time. My days start at five or six a.m. I'm an early riser; who knew? And, yet, thanks to not being saddled with work stress, I sleep well. A state of affairs unheard of just a year ago. At first, I thought this was due to the amount of physical exercise I was getting but I realized later that I slept well even on days that I didn’t get a chance to exercise. The only difference was the level of stress in my daily life compared to when I worked.
At one work related event last week, I ran into an old colleague who also recently “semi-retired”. He sits on half a dozen boards, works a few hours a day, reads like a fiend, and also has found out he likes “taking naps in the early afternoon.” He must have really low stress in his life.
I spend two to three hours a day, pretty much every single day, exercising. In my case, that means biking up the mountain. Having destroyed every joint in my body through decades of running long distances, having suffered through lower back surgery and years of related physical pain, I have settled on biking as a much more “reasonable” sport, one that can be enjoyed every day without doing as much damage to your body. I even tried to argue with my wife that, three hours a day times seven days being over twenty hours a week, my time in the saddle should practically count as a part-time job in and of itself. She just rolled her eyes. Whatever keeps me out of the house and out of her hair, I guess.
Another joyous outcome is the number of hours I can spend reading. I've always been a bookworm but I haven't read this much since I was a teenager! And I'm loving it. There is still nothing in the world better than losing yourself in a good book. And thanks to Amazon, there's always a fresh batch of them on my bedside table.
I've also spent quite a bit of time with friends and family. “Quite a bit of time”, in my case, meaning any non-zero positive integer. It's amazing how easy it is in 21st century America to lose yourself in your work, in your online social life, and maybe your immediate family. Spending time with friends and family takes time. And who has time for that after a dozen hours at the office?
One of the most enjoyable events of the past year was a month we spent traveling in Europe with friends and family. The best part was not having to check email every day, not having to jump on conference calls every night, not having to rush back home to attend a meeting. There is definitely something to be said for the slower pace of life that most other cultures enjoy and that American society has abandoned in favor of efficiency and economic advancement.
The truth of the matter, I've come to realize, is that I hate the act of travel. The planes, the jet lag, the hotel rooms, living out of suitcases. I've been on so many trips in my life that the novelty has long since worn off. I still fantasize about and rhapsodize about off-the-beaten-track destinations but we've made the act of traveling itself so stressful that it completely negates any positive feelings we may experience when we finally get to the destination. At times like these, I am thankful that our memories are imperfect and tend to romanticize the distant past.
In the same vein of travel and family, my parents are visiting with us. They spend most of the time living in the old country and come to the US once every two or three years for loooong visits - four to six months spent traveling around the US, staying with their siblings, children, in-laws, nieces and nephews: their extended family. The Islamic revolution of 1979 tore that extended family apart and its members have spent the past forty years living drastically different lives across multiple continents.
I found myself spending many hours talking to my parents over the past few weeks, mostly my dad. Hours that would have been spent at work in a meeting or hunched over a laptop during their prior visits. The sad truth is that we inhabit two different universes and there is nothing we can do to reconcile those two worlds. Here are two octogenarian cancer survivors who don't speak a word of English, have never used a computer (despite our half-hearted attempts), don't have an email address or a credit card. I love them as my parents but I find, increasingly, that I have very little in common with them. That, perhaps, is the saddest part of the story. Having spent roughly forty years of my life away from them, and doing so in a world that has been moving away from theirs at light speed, hasn't helped.
I'm sorry to say my parents have never known what I actually work on. Sure, they know I work on computers. They even know the names of some of the companies I’ve worked for. Microsoft, SGI, Cisco. But push one level deeper and they would be lost. Operating systems? Cloud? Storage? Security? Networking? Applications? Disks? Memory? CPU? Bits? Bytes? Where do even I begin to explain my world to them? I might as well be talking in Chinese. Facebook? Emojis? Texting? Streaming? Netflix? These concepts don't even exist in their universe. Try having a conversation with any such elderly person about the cloud, social media, or pretty much anything in our digital universe and you'll see what I mean. Do so with someone living most of their lives in a third world country and you'll grok my point even more clearly. Try doing so in a language different from the one in which you learned the concepts and you'll have an even better appreciation for my dilemma.
Part of the problem is that our physical world has also moved online while theirs is still brick and mortar. Their daily concerns are so different from ours. They go to the corner grocery store while we order our fruits on Amazon. They stand in line at the bank to cash checks while we snap a photo of the check we want to deposit. They religiously call friends and family on a regular basis just to check in, even if they really have nothing to say. They get on the plane and travel for eighteen freaking hours to come see us in person. Meanwhile, we limit our personal contacts with friends and family to Facebook shares and Instagram likes, maybe an email or a text message if we really have something important to say.
Our spoken languages are almost as foreign. And I'm not talking about the words or the grammar, I'm talking about the concepts expressed by those languages. I happen to be perfectly fluent in Farsi as it was the first language I ever learned. Yet, put a book or newspaper article in front of me that was published in Iran in the past forty years and I would struggle to read it. Not because I can't read the words. Not because I can't figure out the grammar. But because the concepts are foreign to me. The names of the people are meaningless. The historical events don’t ring a bell. I don’t have this problem with older books, ones published before the revolution. Only with newer books; not because the words are different but because the concepts are.
Our cultures have drifted apart, too. They know nothing about the music I listen to and I've long abandoned theirs. They watch Turkish soap operas while I listen to John Oliver and quote Seinfeld. They lived through a war while I went to school and built a life half way around the world, in a different universe. They see Donald Trump as a maniac. I see Donald Trump as a maniac. Okay, maybe we agree on one thing.
I'm sorry if this sounds insensitive. I don't mean it to be. It's just that, however painful it might be to admit, we inhabit different universes. It's so much harder to find common points of interest when there are so few points of intersection - in our histories, in our daily lives, in our worlds, in our world views. I don't mean to imply that my world is better than theirs or vice versa, just that they are almost inconceivably different, almost irreconcilably apart. And every day that goes by, they become even more so.
So those hours of conversation with my parents are not spent talking about technology or business or the markets or even politics. They often revolve around their “end games”: how we can help if (when) the end comes for each of them. It's been a sad visit. Enough said.
Back to the topic at hand: semi-retirement it is. I'm not sure what I'd do with full retirement anyway. I'd have too much time on my hands - and no one wants to hear about a retired geezer biking up the mountain six hours a day!
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
I wrote this blog a few years ago when I was still CTO at VMware. I didn't realize it was published on the web by VMware until someone sent me this link today. The last paragraph is a sales pitch for VMware products so I've deleted it below but the rest is a fairly honest assessment of the cloud and its impact on infrastructure that I still stand by.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
“Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
James Baldwin. I am not Your Negro.
“In the 300 years of the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course, of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions, to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.”
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
“Hans: As Gandhi said... An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
Billy: No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left? No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left? All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush. Gandhi was wrong. It’s just that no one has the guts to come out and say it.”
Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. Seven Psychopaths.
We humans do have a sixth sense but, despite popular belief, it’s not ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). In fact, I would argue that ESP is simply a small subset of our broader instinct. Our true sixth sense is our sense of fiction, our innate ability to weave narratives at every opportunity, our penchant for asking “what if” at every turn, our willingness to create or participate in stories that may or may not be rooted in the physical world around us. We’re the only species capable of keeping thousands of such complex scenarios in our mind, each a fiction that we personally or collectively believe in. Other species are capable of rudimentary deception (chimps can “lie” about where they hid a banana, for example) but we're the only species who absolutely wallows in fiction in practically every part of our lives – so much so that we’re surrounded by it at almost every moment, often without even consciously recognizing it.
That fiction may be Harry Potter or Game of Thrones but those are obvious examples and momentary diversions. The more common stories are the ones we live in all day and night – our common beliefs. The best analysis of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen is from Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. We believe in soccer and basketball teams: concepts that have no basis in physical reality but are nonetheless “religiously” pursued by millions of people. Think about it: what exactly is the definition of the NFL team, The Oakland Raiders? It’s a moniker we apply to a group of men and watch every Sunday on television. The members of the team change every year, the team manager changes once every few years, the owners change once a decade or so, the team jersey and insignia are redesigned whenever ratings sag, the rules they follow are not only arbitrary but can also be changed by a committee at their whim, even the city they are supposed to represent changes on an infrequent basis. Remember The Los Angeles Raiders? Yup. Same team – for a few years. So what exactly is The Oakland Raiders or the NBA, for that matter?
What exactly do we mean when we say “I love the Oakland Raiders?” You can make the same declaration about roses, about Mt. Fuji, about cocker spaniels, and about the moon – with one big difference. The latter are all physical objects that have a fixed definition that could be recognized, if not verbalized, by even an animal. Pretty much everything else we ever talk about or believe in is made up, a fiction, a story that we tell ourselves and others. Including the Oakland Raiders. And religion and society and government and currencies and borders and corporations and brands. Everything on this new list is just a figment of our collective imagination – something that homo sapiens dreamed up. It’s amazing to think about the world around us through this lens; it frees us of many of the prejudices that we take for granted. I call us homo theatricales – we not only make up the stories, we also star in the shows.
Now let’s turn the same lens to a different scene. What does it mean for hooligans in Britain to kill each other over a Manchester United game or for terrorists from the Middle East to kill Christians for their beliefs or for a gunman to take up an AK-47 and walk into a crowded square because IRA? Every single one of those constructs, those sets of beliefs, is a figment of our imagination. If you don’t believe me, let’s look at countries. Think about the “line in the sand” that separates our modern nations. Step over this line through the accident of birth and, suddenly, villages that are separated by a mere five miles are mortal enemies. The proverbial “line in the sand” is just one example of such a fiction. Not a physical line in the sand, mind you. It's just a line somebody drew on a piece of paper about a hundred years ago, roughly speaking, for most countries. But it’s good enough for us to kill each other over.
Most of what we believe in - nations, corporations, religions, gold as a valuable metal, money as a piece of paper that has real value - these are all fictions we have created for ourselves as a species. It is what sustains us, it is what distinguishes us. It is, unfortunately, also what separates us – what turns us into competing bands.
So, I have to ask: if we all agree there is really no line in the sand separating, say, Israel and Lebanon, if we agree that such an imaginary line shouldn't mean the inhabitants on one side are “Arabs” and the guys on the other side are “Jews”, forever and ever - and, oh by the way, we just made up that line a hundred years ago; if we agree that a piece of paper, even when adorned with fancy colors and markings, a unit of currency, does not really have any intrinsic value of its own that would lead you to hand over a car or a jacket over for, that its only value is an index into a database of international monetary exchange rates - so we know that a dollar is worth 1.24762 Euros - even though both are nothing but pieces of brightly colored paper backed by a “promise”, a fiction that exists nowhere but in our collective consciousness; if we understand all this, then why are we so adamant that our side is right - when all the rules are imaginary? Why are we convinced that Catholics are right and Muslims are wrong, or vice versa? The very concepts and teachings of both religions are nothing but the collective beliefs of a group of people. Nothing more and nothing less. Why are we so adamant that North and South Korea are enemies, when neither of those countries - those ideologies - even existed a hundred years ago? They exist nowhere but on paper and in our minds.
Almost everything we get worked up about these days - nationalities, religions, sports teams, financial markets - are nothing but figments of our collective imagination. If you think of it that way, it's much easier to let go of the dogma, the irrational belief that my side is right and your side is wrong - and I don't care which side of the argument you're on, nor do I care which argument we're talking about.
If you think of it this way, furthermore, our sixth sense being our ability to spin yarns and create fictional scenarios in which we live - be they at the personal level, at the corporate level, or at the international level - then the idea of the sixth sense being ESP also starts to make sense. Extra Sensory Perception is nothing but us spinning yarns, making up stories about things, belief in an extra-sensory experience that simply does not exist. I claim every case of reported ESP is nothing but someone creating - or following - a fictional narrative. That doesn't mean they're lying. In their minds, they believe everything they are seeing. Our confirmation biases are too strong for that to not happen.
The lesson? Question your beliefs. Don’t follow them blindly. They are often nothing but fictions, stories that we have weaved for ourselves. As a species, we're damn good at doing that.
That democrats are assholes or that republicans are idiots, that moving a couple of kilometers across a border dramatically changes people’s belief systems and outlook on life, that Manchester United is better than Real Madrid because Ronaldo - these are all fictions in our heads. I don't even know if that last sentence made any sense because I don't follow soccer. I just know Ronaldo is the name of a character in that universe, that narrative - and the other two are “teams” that may or may not be rivals.
The next time you get all worked up about something, anything, ask yourself: Could I explain this to a member of another species – any species. Ask any passing elephant or gorilla if they are citizens of Namibia or Botswana and you will see my point. Or try to give a ten dollar bill to a chimpanzee for his bananas. Good luck. We are the only species that believes these things. They are figments of our imagination - and, as such, malleable. If we only allow ourselves to be a bit more flexible on our “beliefs”.
So what does it mean to get all bent out of shape over an imaginary line in the sand? Or a religion for that matter?
These are all fictions. We are all the same. Get over yourself.