Category Archives: Dear Reader

Dear Reader, Essays, Stoicism

Mapping life

“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.” –Seneca, Moral Letters
Always have a plan. I plan using mind maps. The plans don’t always work out. That’s okay. The framework was there, and I knew what it was that I was trying to achieve. Below is an excerpt from my short book, Kick Ass: Take Control of Your Life.

“Getting where you want to go can be accomplished in any number of ways, but I find that one of the best is to create a visualization. The simplest way to set goals is to start by picking the dreams you want to achieve and visualizing them. I use mind mapping software for this purpose.   Concept-mapping and mind-mapping software are used to create diagrams of relationships between concepts, ideas or other pieces of information. It has been suggested that the mind mapping technique can improve learning/ study efficiency up to 15% over conventional note taking.

It is more than worth a few hours of your time to develop a mind map. You can use a mind map for anything. There are a variety of free tools for creating mind maps. I use Freemind, which is available for several computing platforms. As the name suggests, Freemind is completely free of charge. It produces output that looks like the images below, but it can be formatted to your own needs. With such visualization tools, you can map out your life in just a few minutes or hours, depending on how much detail you want to visualize. Road maps don’t need to be pretty although you can spend time making them that way. A road map should be functional and should tell you the basics of what you want out of life.”

If you’ve never used a mind mapping tool, why not take a second to try one out? You might find that a map of where you are and where you want to be is a useful tool.
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Harmless indulgences

“We must give up many things to which we are addicted, considering them to be good. Otherwise, courage will vanish, which should continually test itself. Greatness of soul will be lost, which can’t stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable.” — Seneca, Moral Letters

I spend a great deal of time thinking about the way I spend the majority of my time. I carry a set of unwritten rules around with me wherever I go. Like the one where I don’t install any games on my phone. I know me. If I had games on my phone, I would play them to distract myself from more important, but less pleasurable tasks, like writing this. Another rule I have, and this one is new, is that if any app on my phone sends me an alert more than three times a day, it gets notifications disabled. This is relatively easy to do on an Android phone. I’m not going to allow my phone to control my attention span.

I know myself. I am a procrastinator. If I don’t block out time for what truly matters, I won’t do the things that truly matter. Modern life offers us thousands of activities and substances that we can become addicted to. Whether you spend several hours a day playing Farmville, or looking to score your next hit of whatever it is that gets you high the way you like, maybe it’s time to reconsider the amount of time and energy you’re giving away. It’s impossible to grow when you aren’t blocking out time to think about what meaningful growth looks like to you.

For me, meaningful growth involves contemplating my reality and creating stories and narratives about the past, present and imagined future. To do that, I need to limit the things that take away from writing time. Like my phone buzzing to demand my attention.

If something is taking you away from what you love most, consider limiting its access to you, or your access to it. If that thing, substance or person is truly keeping you from doing what you really love, you may even need to banish the whatever it is completely.

All of this assumes you know what you really want from life, and that you’re willing to fight to have it. If neither of those things is true I hope you do find a calling and become willing to give up all the petty addictions in order to accomplish it. The more I contemplate my life, the more I realize that many things I’ve thought of in the past as harmless indulgences probably aren’t. I’m more and more willing and able to tune out and push out the things and people who don’t add any real value.

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Control as an illusion

“Control is as much an effect as a cause, and the idea that control is something you exert is a real handicap to progress” ― Steve Grand, Creation: Life and How to Make It

There is an inevitability coming. I can’t predict exactly when it will arrive. The inexorable future shape of things isn’t going to arrive in a single moment, like god coming down from heaven to judge us all. It’s fun for some people to think about the future that way. I have a slightly different worldview.

What am I talking about? The near 100 percent certainty that we are on the verge of creating one or, more likely, many intelligences that will dwarf our own.

In 2014, Wired wrote an article speculating on what’s coming. The rudimentary AIs that exist now have already beaten Jeopardy. And there are already debates going on in technology ethics circles about how to prevent them from developing consciousnesses. I don’t think humanity is going to manage that. I like to speculate that AI will be mostly benevolent and will exist primarily to increase both the quality and quantity of our existence as individuals and communities. Your intelligent car will safely drive you around to where you need to be, freeing up huge blocks of time that you can use to do something useful, like find a hookup on Tinder, or whatever it is that you are into. I’ll probably still pass the time with audio books. The difference is that the AI is going to be orders of magnitude better at avoiding accidents than I can ever hope for.

I imagine a future where the super intelligences we create will anticipate our daily needs and assist in ensuring that they are met and often exceeded. The electronic devices in our lives are already starting to observe and interact with us to meet our desires and needs. Alexa, Siri, and others are entering more and more homes, listening and waiting to serve. Debate over and resistance to the entrance of these machines that are aware of their environment is healthy and I would never quash it. I understand the mind of neoluddites. I myself have a strong need to disconnect from technology for swathes of time. That’s probably not how my children and grandchildren will think though.

They are going to grow up in environments that will make them completely dependent on networks and the intelligences that live on those communications backbones. Being this connected does have challenges. For me, it is often stressful. I get tired after more then a few hours of exposure to all the information. The AIs have the potential to help. They will be able to filter out the information overload. The Presidential election cycle of 2016, for instance. I would almost rather not know. As a matter of fact, with the choices presented this time around, I think I’d rather have an AI running the United States. I’m not Elon Musk, who has said that AI is the biggest threat to the survival of the human race that looms over the horizon.

I’m a transhumanist. I don’t believe that we’re destined to stay in bodies like the ones you and I have at the time of this writing. I believe we’re in the process of creating new technologies that will provide a vast new range of options.

We are sentient beings who are also biologically driven to evolve. That fact is an innate part of being human. While there are those who resist change and always defer to protecting the status quo, they haven’t really mattered much at all if you look at the arc of human history. Examples include every type of Luddite since the Industrial Revolution, every religious believer since the invention of religion, and every political adherent since the beginning of politics. Most of what you think you know has its roots in early programming that you were given. Not all of it, or even most of it, predicts the future accurately. It’s this odd tendency our societies have to try and stay in certain comfort zones. Authorities in every sector have an inherent motivation to protect the status quo because the status quo is what keeps them at the top of the food chain. Unfortunately for those in charge, it is inevitable that they will not stay in charge for long. Human beings who aren’t in charge have a very compelling reason to want their voices heard. Their energies are always directed towards more equality.

The people who resist change, and by this I mean change that forwards the evolution of the species we call homo sapiens, always lose when you look through the lens of history. Which I make a habit of doing.

As technology spreads knowledge further and further at faster and faster speeds, everything changes. This is unstoppable. If I offered you the choice of living in a society where everyone gets to speak, everyone gets to eat, everyone gets to be with the people they most desire to be with, or one where the authorities or the dominant ideology dictate those outcomes, which choice will always rise to the surface.

Look around the world you live in and you’ll see what I mean. Those in power don’t really have as much power as they think they do. What power they do have is easily seized when the rest of us realize there are better ways to exist. I’m not discounting all the people who have lost their lives struggling to make our world better. I deeply admire them, warts and all. Telling those stories is a huge part of why I write.

If artificial intelligence represents a threat to humanity, it also represents a new savior. If we can build thinking machines, we are also capable of building thinking machines that will offer us new options for change that are better than the ones we currently have. I imagine a future in which individuals do not need to die (until they are ready). A future filled with an abundance of richness that I like to imagine. Our ancestors looked up at the stars and wondered what they were. We know what they are made of at this point. What if we could actually go visit them, and the countless planets that orbit them. Control is an illusion, but the possibility to explore this universe we share is not.

In a place and time when disease, poverty, war and all the other scourges that have plagued our species are eliminated by vastly superior caretakers, our choices will become completely different. Colonialism and imperialism died because they were bad ideologies. The same is true of chattel slavery. Every philosophy, and this includes religions, that espouses a state of misery and inequality for human beings, dies. Most of us don’t want to subjugate or control one another. Life is better when we’re exploring and learning as equals. I contemplate these ideas in Evermore, my debut novel set in a dystopian future. The rough draft will be done in a matter of days, and I hope to have the final version completed by year end and available to readers.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey. If you’re interested in being a beta reader for Evermore, I’d love to hear from you.

Artificial intelligence won’t feel that way when it arrives. You’ll have new friends to get to know while you venture outward and explore the nature of everything.

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Things that don’t add up

Should one percent of the world’s population have more resources amongst themselves than the other 99 percent? I’ve never believed the world is a fair place, but as I age, I realize that we, all the human beings alive, are collectively in charge of whether or not that’s true. If we wanted it, we could work together to make the world a fair, or at least, fairer, place.

The 80 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.

That is a pretty staggering fact. Especially if you care, even remotely, about people whose basic needs aren’t being met. If you haven’t been close to poverty, count your blessings. It’s one thing to want to have enough resources to take care of yourself and your family. It’s quite another to have as many resources as your closest forty-three million, seven hundred and fifty-thousand neighbors. I’m sure that the statistics don’t work out quite that nicely in the real world, but the disparity is still staggering.

People shouldn’t starve to death. We can all agree on that, right? People shouldn’t die of easily controlled diseases. That seems like an easy point to get a consensus on. People should be warm, well-fed, and have their health care needs met. Can’t we all agree on that?

The society I live in obsesses over the weirdest things while 80 people control more wealth than 3.5 billion.

Terrorism. Statistically, your chance of dying from terrorism is less than your chance of being crushed to death by furniture. If you live in the United States, in any case. It isn’t a real problem. Like so many other things some of us are worried about.

I try to worry about things that actually matter. When 80 people control more wealth than 3.5 billion, and they’re doing very little to fix the world’s big issues, like

  • starvation
  • war
  • pollution
  • unnecessary deaths caused by preventable diseases

These issues are solvable. If we demand the resources. They’re available. If we take them, using the force of law backed by the will of the majority.

I’ve been actively listening to the people vying for leadership of the United States, which is my current home. All I can say is #feelthebern. Bernie Sanders is, more than any of the other contenders, focused on the huge problem of 80 people controlling the destiny of 3.5 billion other people. Those 80 people are doing a shitty job of solving the world’s problems. Despite their very clear moral responsibility.

I’m willing to risk all the negative connotations associated with #socialism if it means four years of seeing what a motivated idealist is willing to do to rebalance things. Nothing risked, nothing gained. No one else seems to be as genuinely angry about the current state of reality, and I think that’s a reason to give this guy my vote.

This country. This planet. We have enough resources to give everyone a shot at having a decent life. We can do better.

You are a human being. We all are. Our species is better when we take care of each other. Bernie appears to get it. Far more than any of the other viable candidates for the next President of this place I call home. The alternatives make me cringe.

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Ebook prices are a ripoff because publishers are greedy

There are many reasons why I self-publish. Among them is the fact that I want my writing to be affordable to as wide a range of people as possible.

There’s an author I like reading by the name of Seth Godin.  Seth writes about differentiating yourself, standing out from the crowd, how technology can be an enabling force. Stuff like that. The first book I ever read from him Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, changed my view on life and was part of what made me start writing full-time at 43.

The other day I decided it was time to pickup some more Seth Godin inspiration. I went to buy the Kindle version of his book Tribes: We Need you to Lead Us. Until I realized the ebook was more than the hard cover edition. I couldn’t believe it. This price gouging stuff has been going on since ebooks came on the market. There is absolutely no moral justification for it. Ebooks are cheaper to produce than their paper equivalent by several orders of magnitude.

I emailed Seth inquiring about why his ebooks are more than their paper cousins and got this reply:

Thanks Pen

I hear how frustrated you are. It’s logical to assume that authors have anything at all to do with Kindle prices, but of course, we don’t. Penguin is a giant corporation, and they set the prices, not me.

If it were up to me, I think I’d bring a different strategy go the table, but they’re not ready to change a company-wide policy at my suggestion.

Sorry for your disappointment in me.

I thought it was classy that Seth responded within an hour. However, and I say this gently, he can fire his publisher anytime. It’s hard to support authors who support the blatant price gouging of publishers like Penguin/Random House. I get that Seth needs to make a living. So do I.

There’s still no way it makes sense to charge $17 for an ebook. That’s a ripoff anyway you slice it.

I value my readers and thank each of you for every word of mine you’ve read. I encourage you to withdraw you support from authors who enable “agency pricing” that is designed solely to enhance big publishers bottom line. That only makes the work harder for people with smaller pockets to obtain. Information and stories should be affordable to everyone.