The Will to Survive

The Will to Survive

We recently saw a black, mangy bird with one leg at a gas station on our way back to Savannah Georgia. It had that wild, crazy look. One of it’s eyes was hazy and it’s feathers were missing in places. It was hard to look at, but it was alive and it wasn’t giving up.

It came up to the car begging for food and my girlfriend told me there’s a bird withbonenleg as she fed it. I strained my neck to look out past her through the passenger window. As soon as I saw how bad of shape it was in, I told her to give it french fries because they are more calorie dense, and it definitely needed as many as it could get.

She had a hard time throwing the food only to that bird, because other healthy birds kept flying in. I think she got it some food, but it flew away and we lost track of it. We waited a few minutes, but had to leave and get to then airport. I felt a twinge of guilt for not waiting a bit longer.

It made me think a lot about life. I felt sad for the bird, but also kind of proud. It was crafty hanging out at a gas station, relying on primates to give it food. I loved it’s fighting spirit, literally a life and death struggle, barely hanging on. It’s strange how we all know when another animal is distressed, not quite achieving homeostasis.

We are all barely hanging on…

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How Do You Define Rich & Poor?

How Do You Define Rich & Poor?

Like any symbol, rich and poor is very hard to define because it has a lot to do with our own perceptions. To me, it appears that we have two delineated groups of people who have shared understandings of what it means to be rich:

  • The Bottom 80% consider the top 20% rich
  • The top 20% consider the top .1% rich (or smaller)

We could break this definition down into an infinite set of categories, but for the purpose of political and philosophical debates, it appears that these shared understandings are good enough to get further in the debate. In reflection to my time living in each of these groups, I will now add my own definitions:

When I lived in the bottom 80%, including the bottom 10%, I considered rich to be:

  • Able to afford all necessities (food, utilities, etc)
  • Can handle an unexpected bill
  • Live in a nice house
  • Have nice cars
  • Can afford travel
  • Can afford buying things which are symbolic of power (jewelry, watches, etc)

As my income increased and put me in the top 20% I started create a set of necessary but insufficient conditions. When all of these conditions are met, I consider you rich:

  • Have made enough transaction decisions, measured in the the tens of thousands, to be very comfortable and logical when making them
  • Have made enough transactions from a total sum perspective, measured in the millions of dollars, to be comfortable and logical when making them
  • Have become completely comfortable making $1000+ decisions
  • Do not have a significant emotional reaction to transactions (either positive or negative)
  • Do not receive more than 10% of your income from W2 earnings
  • Have total net worth capable of sustaining an income of more than $500K US per year

While not all encompassing, I think this definition captures the shared understanding that people display when debating in social media, at parties, etc. While poor people receive an almost ecstasy-like sensation when making large financial transactions, rich people do not. I consider this a critical distinction. Gaining expertise in making financial decisions, like practicing a sport, prepares you for the game. When, you are poor, it is a game of life and death. When you are middle class, you don’t even know that it’s a game. When you are rich, you are playing with full knowledge.

I decided to share my definition of rich because I think I have a unique perspective. I have definitely lived in poverty, but now days most people would probably consider me rich. Even the richest of the rich would understand that I have seen how they live and understand it. The top 1% world wide has assets worth above $770,000 USD (per Investopedia – May 2019). While the average earner in the 1% of the United States earns 1.32M a year (per CNBC – July 2018). Another definition that helps is High Earners, Not Yet Rich (Henrys) coined in 2003, but none of these have ever given me satisfaction when discussing economics, philosophy or politics because they lack the “why” component.

Feel free to use any of these definitions when you are debating rich and poor, but remember to consider that economics is a model, an approximation, used to describe human interactions in a financial context, mostly in the last 500 or so years. It cannot and does not describe why people find things important. Only Anthropology, coincidentally an offshoot of in the London School of Economics, can truly describe the full range of values that humans find in our interactions and culture – even then, only an approximation. Only you can determine the value you place on anything 🙂

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Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data

Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data

Primates and most other animals have a special relation to computers, and in a lot of ways, we’re not as different as we think. One such thing, is how we analyze and use symbols to make discrete judgement.

In the early days of 2D video games, a concept of a Sprite was commonly used to differentiate rendered objects from other elements of the game, like the background. Sprites are nothing more than a group of data displayed on a screen together, but humans perceive them as characters that think and act together as a single object. This concept of Sprites came so natural to those of us who grew up playing these games. Humans easily associate meaning with these sprites, one might even say, predisposed to this sort of logic. For example, a famous sprite was Princess Zelda. She was a character, a “good guy”, a symbol to go down in video game history. Notice, how easily that humans identify the Sprite with the character outside the game.

But video games isn’t the only place we find this grouping logic. Natural language processing (NLP), often grouped with Artificial Intelligence, is a computing technique that displays a similar logic of grouping data. NLP is a computing process by which we attach sentiment (feelings) to entities (things). This association process is often refereed to as “training the model.” We later use the “trained” model to quickly identify entities, and re-associate that same sentiment. A similar process is amazing to watch with my 21 month old girl pointing at everything around her. She is identifying entities. As she gets hurt by one of them (often), or discovers that one is delicious to eat, she develops sentiment towards them. Biological intelligence in action.

Pivoting to the more direct application of symbols to the human psyche, the theory of Symbolic Anthropology was developed in the 1960s. This theory states that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning”.[1] A little understood or talked about byproduct of this theory implies that humans don’t interact with the underlying data, and instead make logical decisions based off of these symbols.

We can see Symbolic Anthropology in action in both Cultural analysis and biological analysis of human survival. For example, humans interact with each other as a Symbol, another person. Thus, most if not all of our logic is based on thousands of generations of selective pressures based on these symbolic views of each other (with sentiment attached). For example, young males do not feel compelled to donate their sperm to a sperm bank to increase their survival advantage, because “sperm bank” and “survival advantage” are not a symbols acted upon by thousands of years of selective pressures.  On the other hand, “cute girl” is a symbol and clearly young men are compelled by their hormones to spend time with and talk to young females.

Stated another way, young men do not sit around and dream about successfully raising primate offspring (defined as reproductive age). Instead, they hang out with young women, have sex and eventually feel the compulsion (or are told) that they need to help successfully raise the offspring. As an aside, there is a temporal component to the acts we take on these symbols, we do not understand the whole game at once.

Think about this the next time you make the flippant comment that “people are acting irrationally” – often, they are acting quite rationally on the symbols which would have played a survival advantage for most of human history. Think even further about how our mammalian ancestors operated on these symbols and survived (or didn’t)…

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Let Me Explain Poverty

Let Me Explain Poverty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up:

  • Your dad goes to jail on your birthday
  • Vietnam veterans smoke pot and party with your dad
  • Your dad hits your mom
  • You hit your dad with a bag of diapers
  • Your mom points a gun at your dad’s face
  • Your parents divorce
  • You move in with your grandmother and uncle
  • You remember the sound of your drunk, angry uncle throwing your grandmother’s cat down the stairs and breaking it’s tooth. He’s mad for who knows what, and you avoid him as much as possible
  • You are hungry toward the end of every month because the food stamps run out
  • You change schools every year, sometimes you go back to schools you have already went to
  • You have barely any friends because you change schools every year
  • Kids steal your stuff because you live in a poor neighborhood
  • During a summer program at the local school, you and your friend get handcuffed to the jungle gym for hours and chased around by older kids. Nobody helps
  • Your electric, gas and phone are off randomly. Friends call, and get the disconnected message – the next day at school, everybody knows your phone is disconnected
  • A kid that hates you, trips you at recess, while you are running full speed, and you have a scab along the ridge of your nose for months. Nothing happens to him
  • One of the kids from school sees you buying milk with food stamps and tells everyone at school. They make fun of you, even though most of them are probably getting food stamps as well
  • You know and understand all of your parents financial struggles
  • You watch your cousin’s cat fly up in the air, land on the ground, and die in convulsions after two kids in an old sedan speed up on purpose to hit it. They are in a gang, so there is no recourse
  • Your mom tries to enter you into a better school where all the kids have more money than you
  • You are too poor to get braces and have huge, bucked teeth
  • At the beginning of each year, the teachers are mad at you because you don’t have the “folder” they told you to buy. You’re too embarrassed to tell them that you are begging your mom every day, but she just doesn’t have the money until…
  • You wear used clothes on the first day of school, everyone knows and laughs
  • You wait for your mom’s income tax return so that you can actually get something that is brand new – you wait and plan for it, scheming, seething with desire. It’s almost sensuous planning for that one moment of pleasure.
  • No girls want to date you
  • All the kids make fun of you because you “are ghetto”
  • They make fun of you because you “talk like you are black”
  • You sit alone at lunch because you barely have any friends
  • You get “jumped in” to a dumb local gang by having four kids “fight” you for five minutes (probably because you are lonely)
  • You get taken hostage by two of the toughest kids at school. They punch you in the face, pour soda on you, and hold you for hours. Eventually, you escape on your bike while they chase you. Your heart pounds.
  • Because you hate school so bad, you miss so much that you fail a semester, then another semester…rinse, repeat
  • You tell the principal about how bad it is and he doesn’t care
  • You tell your guidance counselor and he says you should drop out and join the military because you will never amount to anything
  • You barely graduate high school with a 1.66 grade point average – mostly because you failed so many classes because of absence
  • You know you have no future

Then you:

  • Constantly struggle to keep a car running, so you can get to your job at a grocery store
  • Rebuild the motor on your car to keep it running
  • Have a suspended license because you can’t afford insurance
  • Learn to “act white” as demanded by society
  • Figure out how to get into college anyway
  • Beg your single mom who is depressed and alone to fill out the financial aid forms, always late, and barely ever receive any money
  • Struggle to work in a warehouse loading and unloading trucks while going to college on loans
  • Eventually get a job in computers, as a lab assistant for minimum wage
  • Survive on $20 a week after bills, eating macaroni and cheese, and 99 cent whopper juniors
  • Eventually, you start to know more about computers than some other people
  • You stop dying your hair dumb colors, take off the combat boots & chain wallet, and start interviewing for jobs
  • Eventually, you weasel your way into a real computer job supporting developers, and servers
  • People think you work really hard at work
  • But, you are rough around the edges, and everyone knows it
  • You are not calm and patient, and you speak your mind too much
  • You eventually have an offer at another company to make more money, but your dad and you get into a screaming match because he doesn’t think you should “give up a good thing”
  • 10 years later, you are still going to school
  • People still look at you a little weird because you can’t quite hide it all….

Eventually you:

  • Graduate college with 3.9s and 4.0s every semester
  • Get a job with a major technology company and make more money than you ever believed was possible
  • Learn to speak well, write well, and influence
  • Travel the world
  • Learn to speak three languages
  • Become just another white dude in tech
  • Gain expertise in several different disciplines including engineering, sales, marketing, and product management
  • Work too much and struggle to balance it with life
  • Bring others along for the ride
  • Try to be a good ally
  • Google offers you a job, finally. You turn it down.
  • Gain weight from working too much
  • Are attracted to adventure sports because of baggage in childhood – but it helps you hide it all
  • Freak out and loose all the weight
  • You put on a great show
  • You finally get over the fear of bringing children into this world
  • Even though you have significant expertise, you struggle to figure out whether you have enough life left to start a business and try your hand
  • Try to explain to others that choosing to “take risk” is a luxury

Or

  • You fail at any step of the way and go back to the beginning…
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Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior 

Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior 

This article is part of larger context I have been documenting about my study of Anthropology and Computer Science, and how it changes the way you think. I often think of a person’s actions and personality in the context of three main layers – Biology/Hardware, Culture/Firmware, and Behavior/Software. For example….

Hardware & Biology

I have always thought of Biology as quite similar to hardware. In fact, in the context of evolution, I use the words almost interchangeably. You get new hardware when you purchase a server, and new genotype/phenotype when you are born. In the case of hardware, this might represent the next generation of HP Server, in Biology this is your offspring. Repairs and augmentations can be made, but you ain’t getting new hardware until the next generation comes out. Generations change based on Darwinian evolution – variation and natural selection.

In hardware this means that with each generation, Product Managers and engineers choose what variation is available in a product line, then customer select which ones they want. The servers that sell well often go on generation after generation, whereas the lines that don’t sell are deprecated. If you know hardware, you will know the HP DL380 sold well for years and years producing models from G1 to G10 over a period of nearly 20 years. The complete history is interesting.

In biology, we don’t have so much control over the product lines, at least not ethically, as CRISPR Baby Scandle shows and Eugenics experiments of the early 1900s demonstrate. Instead, we leave the variation to non-deterministic, biological processes – aka sex and procreation. Then, mother nature, through competition decides who lives dies and finds a mate. Your line might succeed for many generations, it might not.

It’s interesting to note that every single one of us living today has a string of roughly 20,000 ancestors which succeeded in producing offspring. Every generation, twenty thousand times in a row, without fail. This is powerful. Long story short, biology and hardware are governed by Darwinian rules of engagement – we live and die, generation by generation.

Firmware & Culture

Firmware is different, it can be updated during the life of a server, albeit with some fiddling around. Historically, you needed special utilities to load the firmware, though the tools are getting easier. Honestly most people only updated it a few times, if ever, during the lifetime of a server.

Culture is similar. It can be changed, but it’s not easy. It requires large groups of people to make a conscious effort, typically involving verbal stories and books. Like firmware though, the tools are getting easier and the velocity of change is probably increasing. Now days cultural change happens through media like TV, movies and even YouTube.

Firmware is different than hardware though. Many of you have probably forgotten about Lamarck’s theory of evolution which competed with Darwin. Lamarck thought that if a Giraffe stretched it’s neck a lot during it’s lifetime, it would get longer (so far so good animals do grow and change). He also believed this “longer neck” could be passed down to it’s children (this ain’t how biology works – contwbtious epigenetics aside). Firmware is similar – updated versions may live on for multiple generations of servers, slowly having bugs fixed and features added over time.

While that doesn’t work with hardware and biology, it does work with culture – it changes during the creatures lifetime and it is passed on to their offspring in the changed state. It is Lamarckian in nature – who’d a thought.

Software & Behavior

The behavior of any specific program or individual can have wild variation specially (between instances – copies of software and individual creatures) and temporally (over the lifetime).

Software can be changed in memory while it’s running (temporal) – some programs self modify. It an also chabge spatially, as people copy and distribute it.

The same is true of individual behaviors, that is to say they change temporally, based on the age of the creature, and spatially, based on who the person is interacting with (style shifting in linguistics).

The study of this individual behavior is more the realm of Psychology than Anthropology, but the survival mechanisms within this individual behavior (Evolutionary Psychology) is of particular interest to the study of human evolution.

Suffice to say software and individuals are quite malleable.

Conclusion

A Server lives and dies in the market place based on the capability of it’s hardware, firmware, and software to function together as a unit which provides business value. Primates such as humans do the same, competing for resources as a single unit containing biology, culture and individual behaviors – the unit lives and dies together. All of the units, tied together as a product or creature is a powerful concept.

Next time you are at a coffee shop, look around – next time you are arguing with somebody on Facebook or Twitter, remember this framework. Each and everyone of us is the product of every generation before us. Every last one of our ancestors produced at least one successful offspring, with one hundred percent success, over the last 330,000 years, using almost identical hardware (brain, arms, legs, back, etc) – generations and generations of firmware – and 20,000 different copies of software. We are pretty amazing creatures, each and every one of us. We often focus on our differences without noticing what we have in common.

While this analogy, like all analogy, is imperfect, I love it because it helps put so many problems in context, quickly.

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Computer Science & Anthropology

Computer Science & Anthropology

Anthropology and Computer Science don’t typically seem like they would have a lot of overlap, but they do. Each focuses on how discrete units change temporally and spacially. One focuses on human evolution, the other on engineering – one on statistics, the other on digital logic. In Anthropology, at least in the US, we study a lot of Biology, Linguistics and culture. We learn and practice methods of setting up experiments, testing and critquing, theory, reading and critiquing hundreds of papers. In Computer Science, we learn software engineering and algorithms, writing hundreds of hundreds of functions and programs, constructing software and debugging.

Studying Anthropology and Computer Science leaves a person with a strange view of the world. Everything around them seems to have predictable patterns – humans, machines, and the interactions of both. You see patterns in everything. You see patterns most other people don’t recognize – and you can make better decisions quicker. In fact it leads you to frustration when debating other people.

Thinking in this way, has led to the development of some personal theories, ideas and best practices. These theories relate to a lot of things that Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Eric Weinstein talk about. All of these people are extremely intelligent and very educated, yet I just don’t hear them frame these questions in the way that I think about them – in the frame of evolution.

I’ve developed a few theories and a few best practices that help me slice and dice arguments very quickly, and I can honestly say have helped me immensely in my personal and professional life. The plan is to flesh each of these out in follow on blog entries.

Theories, Analogies, and Best Practices

  • Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior – hardware is like biology, it is difficult to change – really it can’t be changed much until the next generation comes out. Firmware is like Culture, it can be reprogrammed, but it takes special tools and is often hard to test, and hard predict the results of an upgrade. Software is like the individual behaviour of a nuclear family – mother, father, and offspring. It’s the most easily changed, and also has great variation between instances.
  • Culture and Religion – Pools of Symbols – we know that humans operate on symbols, so it would make sense that these symbols would be pooled together in archetype and provide Darwinian survival generation after generation, like genes in a gene pool. Religion and architype feel so profound because they really are. If all there is relative value, these are pools of relative value.
  • Developmental Biology, Culture, and Behavior – we know that time has a profound effect on Biological development, why wouldn’t it have the same effect on Culture and individual behavior?
  • Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data – We don’t operate on the underlying data, we operate on the symbols. I have seen this many a smart person to bad conclusions about evolution and human behavior.
  • Thinking of Things in Terms of 330,000 Years – for the vast majority of Human history, the smartest person in a group of 20-30 people was the one who led. Grouping symbols in emotionally engaging ways helps a group survive. Hence, the religious leader in any group was also the academic leader, and most likely the physical leader as well. It’s only in the last 10,000 or so years that this began to change. I always struggled to explain why intelligent people could believe in God, until I had this epiphany. I am not religious.
  • Thinking of Things in Terms of 25,000 Generations – when my daughter was born, I had the epiphany that her eyes, ears, voice, nose, arm length, gate, attitude and even intellect was the permutation of 25,000 generations of ancestors. The vast majority of her is probably made up of duplication of traits in ancestors, but there is also probably just a hair of new variation.
  • Thinking of Things in Terms of The Nearly Neutral Theory – things don’t have to be survivally advantageous to fix themselves in the genome, nor in culture, nor in individual behavior. They just can’t be so deleterious as to remove the individual from the gene pool. Hence, we witness all kinds of irrational behavior
  • Absolute and Relative Value in the Context of Human Evolution – there is no such thing as absolute value in evolution, everything is based on probability. Relative value helps construct everything around us and give meaning to life. I think it’s why Jordan Peterson’s theory about accepting responsibility actually makes people happier.

Strangely, when you study Anthropology and Computer Science you get comfortable with crossing the threshold between digital and analog, logical and statistical. Anthropology uses a lot of statistical testing, whereas computer science uses a lot of digital logic testing.

Nonetheless, they both focus on how things change temporally and specially. There are even second order equations in both, like developmental biology and self modifying programs.

But, you must also take care not to mix the two where it is unethical. In software it is ethical to be ruthless with your software changes, the same is not true when dealing with individuals who experience the world and suffer.

I hope you have a chance to dissect some of my articles, and critique some of these ideas.

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