On Methods of Thinking and Education

Thinking is something that we all do all the time. But everyone I talk to exhibits no concern and no care for their own personal thinking processes. Forget the obvious issues such as jumping to conclusions, implicit assumptions, illogical association, invalid cause and effect, fallacious reasoning, and other more formal thought misfires which are ubiquitous. I am also referring to the most basic functional processes which we take for granted, and the dramatic cumulative effect such small effects have if you apply them across an entire society.

For example, remembering something. Has it occurred to anyone how prodigiously inefficient the process of recall is? First of all, there is no guarantee of success, and that is a separate issue that needs to be addressed. Also, in order to reliably recount information at a later date with any degree of accuracy, memorization requires a huge amount of time and energy to accomplish a task that should not actually be very difficult. From what I’ve read on the subject of memory, the best tricks we have were created by the ancient Greeks. Are you telling me that our mode of thought has not advanced at all in three thousand years? That we have spent so much effort and energy inventing new gizmos, that not a single erg of creative juice has been directed towards improving our ability to invent new gizmos?

This produces a host of insane problems. Firstly, the education system. It does not take twelve years to master the disciplines covered in American high schools. Unless you’re retarded, it does not take five years to learn how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, and divide. The years where you are most able to continuously absorb new information are instead devoted to inane repetition, and mindless mental drilling into the heads of students who are quite capable of understanding in one or two iterations. Complaints about students being unruly and wild are justified. But they are unruly and wild because they are bored out of their minds!

For example, most universities follow the quarter system. That is to say colleges cover the same material in one quarter that a high school covers in one year. So seniors in high school are instantly sunk up to their necks in a system that proceeds four times as quickly as the one they are used to, and that material is of a much more complex nature than the “fundamental” material they had been working with for years. But college students are notable for their passion in the subjects they study, and they apply a special youthful energy to their jobs as well. They are hardly overwhelmed.

I would be forced to agree with Benjamin Franklin, who originally posited the idea that all the necessary education in the fundamentals necessary to be a functioning member of society can be covered in three years. Not twelve. Three. Benjamin Franklin’s idea outlined a “civic education” for those three years, and the technical education would extend indefinitely past that. I change that to make it strongly resemble the current system, only much faster. And I make a slight modification to add a prequel year of kindergarten/preschool education to provide additional background in reading, writing, and other tools necessary for the other three years such as study skills, mnemonic devices, and a general “how to use your brain” course. So starting school at age 3 or 4, and finishing at approximately 7 or 8. After this, schooling becomes optional provided that the education requirements do not change. They would, but that’s a separate issue. After completing this high school equivalent education, programs in the area allowing for an additional four years of schooling at the same rate as before- an undergraduate level education- could be taken. Upon completing that at about age 12, students could theoretically be ready to head off to college. The difference is, they would have completed a four year college education already.

Does that sound crazy?

Why not begin college when the brain is at its maximum learning capacity? The learning capabilities of the brain begin to decline at around age 20. Homo sapiens’ extended juvenile period is explicitly evolved to enable us to learn at greater speeds for longer. Other large mammalian species are fully mature in most senses within one year, and lose their enhanced malleability of mind.

Those who ask “are students mature enough to leave the house at a younger age?” are sorely misleading themselves. Youth are only “less mature” because of societal pressures to keep them that way, by expectation. Youth among, say, the Bushmen are fully mature at age 13 or so, and given the responsibilities of a man or woman in taking care of the tribe. In modern culture, psychological neoteny is considered the norm. A century ago, children were allowed and even expected to roam around half the countryside. Now, most children are forbidden from leaving the house or the immediate environs- a leash averaging 30 feet. There are disturbing parallels to a parent warning their child not to play with their chemistry set and the label on the side of microwave dinners “CAUTION: package may become hot when heated.” Psychological neoteny is perpetuated on many fronts; the schools, the parents, the workplace, the commercial sector, and the government. Increasing dependence, increasing need for assistance, supersimplification, and increasing periods of education all go hand in hand. Memory difficulty leads to extended, inefficient schooling, which leads to psychological neoteny as students as old as eighteen are treated like children.

The root cause is a single fundamental issue: the difficulty with remembering due to absurdly inefficient memorization processes. If methods, even ones as primitive and cumbersome as the ancient Grecian loci method, were taught in before entering mainstream education, the time required to learn would decrease enormously. Even without it, school should be able to be shortened by a factor of four. With it, or perhaps with the invention of newer, superior methods, it could be shortened still further. If you doubt this is possible, you sorely underestimate the power of the human mind. Look into memory techniques: you will be amazed.

The Pursuit of No-Mind

Though I am a westerner, Zen’s fundamental tenet is still a fascinating one. The idea that the only way to have a pure and perfect mind is to maintain a state of no-mind. This is not to say you should be a zombie. It means you should approach the world each day as a child, uncritical and accepting. My own personal philosophy incorporates the philosophy of rationalism to this child-mind. Imagine how you would think towards solving a problem if you had no past basis to distort your perspective. This is also not to say you should forget the past, since you need historical backing to aid your reasoning, but utterly shutting out disruptive effects that knowledge of the past would have on your thinking, such as “you can’t do that because we’ve always done it this way.” If you were a perfectly rational child, capable of assessing with utter objectivity this strange world you now find yourself in, what would you think? If presented with a problem which needs to be solved, and being presented with all the necessary information, how would such a philosopher-child resolve it? The converse of this state would be the pure bureaucrat, assessing through glasses so tinted he is virtually blind, and incapable of reason except insofar as his aim could be supported by bending it from truth and backing it with outright fabrication.

I dislike using the word child, as it runs counter to the maturity necessary for a perfectly rational mind to function. In order to be perfectly rational, you need to accept your own unimportance except in terms of your own consciousness, and your position as an observer (and damn is that another post). If you can’t do that, your thinking will be limited by the self-viewpoint. In any case, the child comparison is effective at capturing one facet of the state I am attempting to elucidate. The state I’m referring to is difficult to describe, so I have to do it one facet at a time, resolving one contradiction after another into the middle ground that is not the center. I am by no means experiencing zen reason, but I reason that such a state is the target of an intelligent, rational being which wishes, as such a being must, to become more intelligent and rational in order to better solve the problems it faces. So my target becomes this state, and the closer I get to it, the better.

So now I’ll lodge a little zen koan/Stoic quote combo in the back of your brain:

Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them. If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.” – – – Epictetus

The Theoretical Distributist Society

Distributism is the idea that the best economic situation possible is where the productive property of society is diffuse across as many people in that society as possible. Where communism concentrates all the productive property in the government, allowing no citizens to own productive property, capitalism puts virtually all the productive property in the hands of the rich. Both of these have their issues. Communism’s are the more notorious, such as factories ordered to produce 100,000 shoes who slash their expenses making all left shoes and pocket identical subsidies anyway because they met their contract to the letter. Capitalism’s dark side manifests itself in several subtler and easy-to-ignore ways. Firstly, the case study in disaster capitalism: the Great Depression. Second: corporations and all their baggage. If you are not familiar with the evils of large corporations, then you either live in a cave or are in a coma. Look it up.

The ideal distributist society may never arrive, but the concepts invoked by thinking on it are well worth implementing. The most fundamental ideal of distributism is perfect competition. In economic terms, this translates into a situation where no company has the power to act unilaterally in terms unfavorable to their customers. For example, beginning from a state of competitive equilibrium, no company can arbitrarily raise its prices because all the other companies would continue on with the regular prices, and the rogue company would be put out of business unless it set itself straight.

Consider a theoretical society derived from a fundamental tenet shift: the society’s productive property is distributed as much as possible. The first difference between this society and the modern one is the prevalence of small businesses. Another difference is the shift in perspective from the emphasis on liquid assets or capital, and productive property and the goods it produces. This makes possible the stateless society, since the entire rationale behind the state is to compensate for powerful entities in favor of the weaker ones by electing a more powerful entity intended to control them.

Firstly small businesses are quite simply more efficient than large ones. Small businesses can provide better services because they can micromanage at virtually no cost. This translates into the common hunt for the “local coffee house” when you’re overseas, because it’s just better than Starbucks, and cheaper to boot. However, that local coffee house obviously can’t directly compete with Starbucks in its current situation, since Starbucks services the entire planet. Though the local joint outcompetes the colossus in a small area, Starbucks is the more successful organism due to sheer tout. Even in the corporate-dominated world today, small businesses still account for 95%+ of the economic revenue.

Secondly, small businesses employ far more people, and not just at minimum wage. Small businesses that need to employ many people for marginal jobs will pay minimum wage, it’s true, but then so does WalMart. However, among small businesses, if there was enough competition for labor to warrant increasing wages then wages would rise. The same industry sector filled with competing small businesses produces many times more jobs, and even higher demand for jobs than the number of jobs should allow. A city filled with small competing coffee houses produces many more jobs than a city with only a host of Starbucks. This is because in a state of competition the market becomes saturated with small businesses until it looks to any potential startup that it is not possible to make money in that industry. For a huge corporation, it’s just inefficient to fill up a region to that extent, and they only place enough to maximize their profits. Despite all this, the greatest difference between a corporate economy and a distributist economy is a switch to the other side of the labor coin: instead of a demand for jobs, there is a demand for labor. Instead of the workers scrabbling to find a company willing to pay them, the companies are scrabbling to find people willing to work for them. Higher wages, better benefits, anything to get the manpower needed to run the business and make money. There are so many of them that if you don’t like one’s offer, just find another with a package you like better. Corporations have the reverse effect; WalMart can hire at whatever terms they want, and if they are dissatisfied for any reason, they can throw that worker out and let the next one in line have their spot.

Currently it is accepted as the norm that there will be more people than jobs, and that is just lunacy. As long as there are people who are not employed, there is an economic opportunity in employing them because it is possible to pay them to produce something of value. It is a sure sign of a corporate economy when they choose not to employ those people because they have “enough,” just like destroying produce while people starved during the Great Depression because they wanted to keep the prices up. This produced a system where nobody could afford food so they would work at any price just to survive. This is the extreme side of the job demand spectrum, where unemployment was just rampant, and in spite of great wealth everywhere in the nation, millions died of starvation and malnutrition.

Now I’ll elaborate on some applied distributism. Let’s allow for a market, let’s call it the Blue Market, where instead of trading on the value of a company you trade directly in the productive property it uses. To make this system manageable, one company would need to sell very few shares compared to the current stock market; even the largest (still not even close to current sized) companies wouldn’t issue more than a couple thousand shares. Now the point of the stock market is to enable companies to raise the capital needed to start a venture. The standard of using huge companies has produced the norm of selling vast numbers of shares, where each isn’t worth very much.

Let’s allow for a new company that grows apples, and issues 100 shares on the Blue Market. Holding one of those shares entitles the bearer to 1% of the productive property owned by that company, and thus 1% of the product that property is used to make. 100 enterprising individuals purchase one share apiece for perhaps $500. This gives this apple company $50,000 with which to purchase fertile apple-growing land and the apparatus needed to get as many apples as possible from that land. When the land actually ends up producing apples, the shareholders are entitled to their fair fraction of the proceeds. I’m just inventing this number since I don’t know how far $50,000 will go in apple production, but let’s say it makes 100,000 apples per year.  This results in each shareholder getting 1,000 apples each year they hold the share. Where stockholders drive companies to obsessively spiking their stock prices and all the problems the stock market creates as a result, such as pump-and-dump strategies, buyouts, etc. etc.  The  apple grower’s shareholders only want the company to produce as many apples as physically possible. They are then directly entitled to the product.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they get it in the mail, they might just allow the company to hold it for them until they can find a buyer and then ship it directly from the company to the person who would like to buy them, probably a grocery store or some such company. Keep in mind that there will be many small grocery stores competing for many sources of apples, since one apple grower translates into many apple sellers. More sellers than buyers means prices are low. However, each one knows how much their apples are “worth” and may be unprepared to take a loss on their apples. Our apple vendors spent $500 to get their $1,000 apples, so each one is worth $0.50 to them.  Of course, they may hang onto their share until next year and expect, at some probability, to receive another 1,000 apples (perhaps more), and adjust their prices this year accordingly.

There are many intriguing possibilities of distributism, such as its effects in creating an “artisan society” and how perfectly it meshes with the ideas of creating a stateless society. In fact, the stateless society is referring to distributed government utilizing dispute resolution organizations, and it produces a far more efficient system than centralized government. And the distributed economy is a necessary element in the picture painted by Stefan Molyneux, where perfect competition prevents any agent from acting unilaterally. The converse is where, for example, a specific DRO obtains the power to act unilaterally, such as providing unfavorable terms with negligible consequences to business.

What is Life?

Ah, the classical question. There are an infinite number of ways to answer it, and many of them make absolutely no sense. I have thought about it much and, with the arrogance of any philosopher sharing his thoughts, I believe I have the answer.

Before diving into the Universe and life, I would like to present a slightly different perspective on the Universe which is useful for considering many aspects of it. The Universe is essentially information. A given set of particles’ types and locations can be represented by encoding it as information. Information has a number of salient features; namely, complexity and order. Information of no complexity and no order is either nonexistent, or perfect noise. For example, the sequence of odd numbers up to 203 is a mildly complex sequence, but it has enough order to reduce it to 2x – 1 where 1 <= x <= 102 as a mathematical equation. A good example of information with some complexity and some order is a deck of cards. There are 52 cards so it has some complexity, but there is order in a deck of cards, so it is possible to “compress” the deck of cards down to a set of patterns. This eliminates the need to explicitly declare every last one of the 52 cards. For example, there are the 13 ranks in the 4 suits. The 13 ranks will compress even further, as they are 2 through 10 consecutively, followed by Jack, Queen, King, and Ace (which, I suppose, could compress further due to status associations or whatnot). The four suits will not compress, and the only way to represent them without losing any information is to outrightly list them: clubs, diamonds, spades, and hearts.

The non-living Universe is chaos; perfect noise. That is to say, any emergent order is the product of fundamental laws which do not reduce any further. Consider the background universe in terms of randomly encoded information. Beginning from chaos, basic laws eventually form a pattern which results in extenuating patterns. For example, a random conglomeration of matter somewhere in the universe draws more matter to itself, and this new, larger body draws still more matter to itself until you have stars, and then those stars follow simple nuclear laws and produce more diverse particles, they then explode and the gravity well cycle occurs again, only this time with diversified matter able to produce planets as well, etc. etc. Because these patterns are the product of fundamental laws, they are not alive. A rock in space is governed by fundamental laws only, and is affected by its environment, without any ability to control itself or its environment.

Now, on some planet somewhere in the Universe, let us call it Earth, a random conglomeration of acids somewhere in the ancient ocean exhibits the remarkable property of being able to reproduce itself. This is not a property of the fundamental laws of the universe, but an emergent order from its special arrangement. Though it’s not far above those fundamental laws, it exhibits a complexity a class above that of the rock. The microbe is a self-replicating pattern which converts the ambient random noise into further order which is also capable of replicating itself. It’s quite beautiful if you think about it.

The complexity involved in a system such as Earth’s fully developed ecosystem, continuously converting the matter of the ocean and the land into growing living patterns using only the power of the sun, is incredible. Also, the system itself is always growing more ordered, usually necessitating more complexity, but sometimes there is a watershed where an increase in order makes the system dramatically simpler. And to top the growing tower of life off, the system is always scaling the rungs and finding new levels of order to fill with patterns. First was the purely biological, when genes were the only method of encoding the information of life. Then, a system of encoding information in individuals evolved which now manifests itself in its most refined form as the human brain. The brain exhibits the incredible property of being able to understand itself, but that’s a different post. More importantly, the brain is capable of growing the information of life at an exponentially faster rate than genetic evolution. And the brain is better suited to creating the next stage of development. In fact, the brain had hardly been developed for two million years before we arrive at the cusp of the next stage: computers.

Development has taken the place of evolution simply because it is so much faster. And once computers have been developed to the point that they can control themselves and their environment to an equal extent as the human brain, it will be a matter of years before biological humans are obsolete as the cutting edge of life in the same way microbes are now. One human being produces more order and incorporates more information into the aggregate system of Life than all the microbes that have ever lived (that may be a stretch, just based on the sheer number of microbes…. but it makes the point). Not to say that microbes aren’t important, since 80% of the biomass of Earth is microbes. And that isn’t to say that human beings won’t be important once computers become “alive.” I would go so far as to say that once computers are alive, they will be humans.

In any case, I am getting off track into the idea of the future of life. The question this post was meant to address was “what is life?” The answer that I find to that question, at least right now, is that life is a self-replicating pattern which through a “supernatural transmutation” converts inanimate information into information that is alive.

On The Stateless Society

I recently discovered Freedomain Radio, and it’s been an interesting experience digging through Stefan’s podcasts. First off, the man is brilliant, and I have absolutely no qualms with his treatment of a number of issues. In fact, his thoughts on a stateless society inspired this post, and many hours of thought on my part. I have concluded that I disagree with him on many counts, but I respect him as a real republican, unlike the corrupt neoconservative jackals attempting to pass themselves off as Republicans.

Republican derives its name from Republic, and in many ways what Stefan advocates is the “perfect republic” where individuals align themselves to agencies called DRO’s (Dispute Resolution Offices) rather than politicians, and market forces rule in place of policy decisions. Instead of voting for the candidate who (supposedly) would provide the best policy if elected, a person chooses to use the service of the DRO which is, right then, supplying the best services.

Though the idea is brilliant, and I laud Stefan greatly for thinking so clearly about these issues, and coming up with what is damn close to a practical utopia, I don’t think he’s thought through every last implication. I will only enunciate the first point in this post, and if there is a response I’ll throw some more fuel on the fire.

Capitalism’s greatest strength is also its greatest flaw; it creates an evolutionary system. Evolution will strive to fill every niche and solve every problem, and take advantage of every opportunity to produce a more “fit” entity. The problem with government-moderated capitalism is that one tack that those entities so adapted can take is to control the government. Put some money in, more money comes out. Because this money was taken from taxpayers by coercion, it’s a more or less “free” source of income for companies capable of grabbing it. Because this strategy is obviously so effective, many corporations grab at it. Other systems which end up getting twisted to benefit those with the power to twist them are the stock market, the court system, the penal system, etc. etc.

However, this same evolutionary problem is presented with a stateless society, but with a different environment. In a stateless society, large corporations will still have the incredible power of monetary domination. We’ll go back to 1934, with no hope of salvation, because corporations can freely form monopolies, provide unacceptably base quality products, and freely mandate the price of labor and goods. And though it is true for most products that you could stop buying from “evil” corporations, what are you going to do for food? And then there’s the slight issue of standardized money. Though I will agree that at some point a “currency company” will achieve dominance, providing a unified currency, what then? They are open to being paid off by other corporations to control the printing of more currency. There are many similar issues, but these are the largest.