Why do The Gods only Talk to Some of Us?

That’s me in the little blue boat… 2019

One of the things that has always bothered me about any developmental theory is that inevitably, it gets coopted by the status-conscious as a way of justifying their ostensible superiority. What happens next is an outflowing of the usual bile from those claiming the mantle of enlightenment — “those people” don’t love, they don’t care, or have feelings. And THEN the next action, at times in history, has been to kill them. Any theory of the übermensch has the dark problem of highlighting human superiority turning into a tool for psychopaths. It’s no surprise to me that Crazy Uncle Friedrich (Nietzsche) would wax operatically about the Spartans, whom I’ve written about before. It makes my mind reel to think people would wax heroic about a nation based on pederasty. Sorry.

I’ve told amalgamated friend Hanzi Freinacht that what we need to do is move to a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.

The Zen Buddhist monks got all these concepts in spades. One of my favorite stories, from Paul Reps’ curated 101 Zen Stories is below, that captures this sentiment.

Soldiers of Humanity

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.

Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”

Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”

The bottom line of all this is that all people (at least those without broken brain circuits) feel things like love and attachment, or sorrow in loss of love. It is unfair to say that a poor person, or a person from a different culture, doesn’t feel some version of love. But the way, and the triggers for that emotion, naturally vary wildly dependent on that person’s background culture, as well as stage of development. I remember reading an account of the Coptic Christian massacre by Daesh/Islamic State in 2015, where IS killed 21 construction workers in the name of revenge for an alleged failed conversion of a Copt woman to Islam. A reporter had traveled to the town in Egypt, where many of the workers were from. Expecting to find a devastated community, instead they found families honored by their sons’ martyred sacrifice. So there is indeed range in human response — but it’s important to understand that the joy and pride were a response to their love. Not an abnegation of it.

Another great example I’ve used to build my empathy, that maps really well to the development of humanity, is understanding the characters in the documentary about the construction and filling behind the Three Gorges Dam — Up the Yangtze , by director Yung Chung. Chung covers the plight of the poorest of the poor — a farmer and his wife living along the banks of the river, and soon to be displaced by the rising flood waters backing up behind the dam. Their material condition is extremely poor — you have to watch the documentary to appreciate it, and I was raised in the hills of Appalachia. Yet there is an obvious bond between the old farmer and his wife. I find myself working to understand their bond — what constitutes, to the wife, the idea that she married well, and as such, serves as a devoted partner to her husband. Instead of doubting that those different from us feel emotion, it’s a useful point of growth.

But back to the main question. If we’re fundamentally all the same, yet different through some lens of personal development, why do the gods only talk to some of us? They certainly don’t talk to me. Is there an evolutionary reason that we can understand why the gods don’t talk to me, but do talk to others, that’s explainable in the four dimensions we have in the here and now?

With a tip of the hat to Carlos Perez, who writes extensively on AI, and recently covered my concept of Structural Memetics as a route toward understanding AI development, I’m obviously not the first person to consider this question. What I’m going to discuss is Julian Jayne’s Theory of the Bicameral Mind. Written in 1978, Jaynes argued that consciousness is a learned behavior, and in the long context of human history, relatively recent. Ulysses of the Odyssey really WAS told what to do by the gods — in particular, the goddess Athena, who was said to resemble him the most in that she was also the goddess prone to tricks.

We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks.1

Ulysses is not the only mythic, or semi-mythic figure trotted out with a thin version of a conscience. He did end up in Dante’s lowest level of the Inferno for a reason. For those of Abrahamic religious persuasion, it’s worthwhile to note that Abraham himself was told to sacrifice his oldest son, Isaac. He was just about to do it until Yahweh issued a stay of execution. In lots of places in the Bible, especially when the Hebrew pastoralists were cruising around in the wilderness, Yahweh does some serious talking. As well as producing some artifacts that have large-scale consequences, like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It is both metaphorically, and oddly enough, v-Memetically fitting that in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, after the Nazis are melted by opening the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to access magic they had no deeper birthright to, the whole Ark is then buried deep in a bureaucratic nightmare of government storehouse. The Legalistic v-Meme can even suffocate the power of Magical Divine Authority.

But back to development. Unlike others, like Kegan and Piaget, I’ve posited two axes for increase of neural complexity — either complicatedness/sophistication, and complexity/evolution.

And here’s the key. In order to evolve, one must develop enough agency through self-examination and development of empathy to self-separate from other’s imposed reality. That means you recognize that other’s interpretations of reality is outside your noggin.

And you then cross-reference your own neural inputs and sensations through your experiences to spin all those parts through a reflecting hippocampus to create autobiographical narratives. That little hippocampus spinning wheel in your limbic system seems to be key in creating those narratives that are assembled from lots of different parts floating around our brain — but most importantly, in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). And certainly one of the threads that gets woven into all this, IF you have this self-separation from other’s emotional reality, is the idea that you have a unique voice in all this — that your free will and agency actually matters, at least a little bit.

So as you go through life, this grounding wire through your PFC feeds important information back into your system as far as both paying attention to your world, as well as the people in your world, realizing they have an important role in creating your own narratives. And as you add people to your world, your grounding feed grows, and grows — through developed empathy.

But what happens if you don’t have that grounding wire through other people, and your PFC? What happens if you don’t have that large network of others’ realizations, as well as a conscience and the time to know yourself?

It IS possible that your brain might get frozen in time, and you just stop growing. But now it’s informative to return to the notion of how other emotions might grow in lieu of an experientially-based relationship. Just like the farmer’s wife, other modes of developed attachment from cultural and other symbolic vocabularies might reinforce your experience. In short, that little voice in your head just might be your God talking to you. With some serious external, cultural reinforcement — like sacrificing your favorite pet goat.

But here’s the key thought. That grounding wire, instead of reaching out into a data-driven world, instead remains locked, self-referentially, through your limbic system. It keeps feeding back the same beliefs over and over into your stories, reinforcing whatever fixed mental models you have. No wonder its turtles all the way down. All you’ve got are those damn turtles.

And as you turn more and more cycles in the old CPU, those thoughts become part of the larger, threaded narrative of your life. And your view of the world becomes a more magical place. Coherence is generated through more and more complicated connections, flowing from the same iconic symbol set. Ravens show up and get hooked to everything. Or owls. Or crosses.

What’s interesting is that the larger irrational perspective might have, historically, fueled innovation and global change, before we were all actually connected with any real information. All you have to do is read a couple of conquistadors’ stories, and you might just start believing that God wanted you to show up on Atahualpa’s (the Incan leader at the time of collapse) doorstep after a major military defeat. Stranger things have been perceived.

And now we can loop back around to some things I’ve said about how social structures low on the empathy scale also are pretty poor in metacognition as well. You don’t get to be a leader of the faith by saying “I don’t know.”

But all of it is one crazy way to innovate — by sailing off across the ocean convinced everything’s just going to be alright. A little blind faith might not be a bad strategy for the holiday football pool – or sailing to the New World in 1492. But it’s a concept worth reconsidering and re-evaluating when it comes to tipping points for global warming.

For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.

What’s the takeaway? At some level, other people in our life help figure out which pathway we’re going to use. If they’re all like us, with the same belief sets and mental models, all we need is that warm fuzzy feeling to feel safe, and our PFC remains relatively dormant. The world doesn’t change much, there isn’t much reckoning for getting stuck, and we also get to tell people that over time, we’re closer to whatever god we’re granted by our church, our family, or NASCAR racing team. And the devil literally take the hindmost if someone attempts to change our mind. A self-referential limbic loop makes that basically impossible, though our thinking will lead to a more sophisticated view of our deity. It becomes our touchstone.

But if folks are different, we have to start paying attention — with cognitive empathy. Which then rakes our PFC into the brouhaha, which gets us wondering, maybe a little, whether we heard them right, or something, so we can connect to them. And so, as we march through our lives, building both consciousness, an independent conscience, and a larger, diverse social network, our PFC gets one helluva workout. And then it has to reckon with all the empty space in there. Which leads to wisdom.

As we relate, so we think. Who woulda thunk?

More Societal Implications of the Obesity Epidemic — Insulin Resistance, Epigenetic Preloading and Obesity Showing Up in Mortality Stats

Braden, outside his favorite sandwich shop in the world — Florence, Italy

A recent article in the Washington Post, by Joel Achenbach, came sliding across my feed, interesting (pathologically) because it is backing up with data one of the predictions I’ve made regarding the appalling state of our overall health. That prediction is that our awful diet that excludes saturated fats, and gives a pass to sugar and refined carbs, is combining with epigenetic preloading of insulin resistance and driving obesity in our young people. This earlier expression of insulin resistance, leads to earlier onset of Type II diabetes, and the incumbent Western diseases that flow from that. And that will lead to an increase in All-Cause mortality at younger and younger ages, leading to an enormous public health crisis.

From the article:

The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was immediately hailed by outside researchers for its comprehensive treatment of a still-enigmatic trend: the reversal of historical patterns in longevity.

Despite spending more on health care than any other country, the United States has seen increasing mortality and falling life expectancy for people age 25 to 64, who should be in the prime of their lives. In contrast, other wealthy nations have generally experienced continued progress in extending longevity. Although earlier research emphasized rising mortality among non-Hispanic whites in the United States, the broad trend detailed in this study cuts across gender, racial and ethnic lines. By age group, the highest relative jump in death rates from 2010 to 2017 — 29 percent — has been among people age 25 to 34.

The scientist in me, ever-cautious (really — I know I am fond of far-reaching predictions, but my brain has been trained!) wants to wait for more data. But the systems thinker in me finds all this shocking. According to the article, 1/3 of the accelerated deaths are in a handful of states — Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. One can look at the obesity maps from the CDC and see that the states affected are almost in the bullseye, though there are other states with roughly equivalent obesity rates. Here’s the map.

Obesity rates by state, 2018, CDC

From the article, it seems like there is little separation between the dark red states and the lighter red states anyway. Why would Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky be the worst for youth all-cause mortality? I’d venture that it’s the combo of stress and obesity that are really teaming up in the Midwest. If you’re fat and happy, or really, less stressed, that might provide some marginal differentiation. But when you can’t support yourself, and you’re a step away from homelessness, the cumulative effects just add up

Not surprisingly, it is dominant in working class people, while those with 4 year college degrees are less affected. According to the CDC website, obesity was highest for those with no college degree (~35%) while those with a college degree rang in ~25%. The university community, ever reaching for more dollars, want to claim responsibility for this benefit. I’d argue it IS true that someone with a college education very likely has access to better information on diet, as well as flexible employment potential. But I know for a fact we don’t teach nutrition to all our students at most universities, and if we did, it would very likely be the messed up, low-fat version still prevalent in the nutrition community.

And then there are articles like this one, in the Chronicle for Higher Education, portraying the situation in the impoverished Bootheel of Missouri, that are deeply depressing. They push a narrative that we need more classical education, rather than job training for skills enhancement, customized for the area. What’s really wild is the documentation, through photos, of the obesity and incumbent diabetes crisis. Though obesity is not even discussed, almost all the photos included in the article show people who are morbidly obese. The kicker is the one healthy person in the story resisted his doctor’s advice and put himself on a de facto ketogenic diet. Nothing in this story really points to higher ed. as the answer to any of the immediate problems these people are having.

The Washington Post article highlights a comment by Prof. Ellen Meara, a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice on the report. The report reveals a broad erosion in health, with no single “smoking gun.”

“There’s something more fundamental about how people are feeling at some level — whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family,” she said. “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”

I’m inclined to cut her some slack for the moralizing, but it still presents the issue as one of moral fiber, instead of a profoundly unhealthy environment. And guns have multiple parts, Prof. Meara.

The article does go on to show a modestly more empathetic view from others inside the academy. Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, whose prior research on the issue highlighted increased suicide rates in these areas, characterized the areas as “a sea of despair.” That seems more apropos.

When I originally read this piece, I definitely filled in the blanks with a more contemptuous view of the academics consulted in the piece. Upon re-reading, they are getting some of it right. The viewpoints offered are still siloed, but there is acknowledgement that at least the dominant symptoms are driving all-cause mortality. Prof. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted the rise in obesity rates among young people, and also said that there would be long-term repercussions. So there is a gradual waking-up that is happening .

But still precious little systems thinking is going on. Each of the experts are on their island in Intellectual Flatland, and aren’t inclined to speculate. I get that — they have professional reputations on the line, and the social structure of the academy, as I’ve written about over and over, is about cautious reliability. And you can’t really tell if the journalist writing the piece knows a lot about the downstream/causal effects of stress and obesity.

Even the basic concept of diet as a metabolic destabilizer — the real phenomenon going on here — is not understood. It’s not surprising. We still count food in terms of meaningless calories, instead of the most powerful medicine we ingest regularly into our systems. The problem with the whole issue of metabolic destabilization is that it drives diseases that are well-recognized, like cancer, with their own pathologies and entire industries set up to treat. Few scientists or physicians are talking about how to prevent cancer in the first place. It’s not that these people are evil — with rare exception (like cigarette smoking) the causal thought just doesn’t occur to them. Like the AIDS virus that destabilized its victims’ immune systems, leading to contracting all sorts of diseases one normally has resistance to, metabolic destabilization runs under the surface of the epidemic. Out of sight, out of mind.

And that, dear readers, is a function of the social structure that is investigating the problem. Medical and dietary research organizations are just not set up to investigate root cause.

While we walk around seemingly perplexed, but safe from an information reliability point of view, stress, obesity, and the insulin resistance that affects it, are locked in a deadly statistical positive feedback loop. We can never run an experiment that can capture with empirical data more than a small snapshot of data. Empiricism is simply not the way to solve this problem — no matter how large the data set.

What is the way to understand this is to posit causal mechanisms, look at case studies, and reward people who look broadly across multiple fields and engage in debate. That is going to require quite a different research organization than currently exists — as well as researchers with broader empathy who can make the complex connections required.

And yeah — there’s probably some of my own confirmation bias in that approach — which is what I do in this piece, linking diet and a growth in authoritarianism. What’s interesting is the author links this to political outcomes as well. The states most affected are swing states looking for reversals of their fortunes, because their people are suffering.

The point of all this is still the same. We better get with dietary modification fast. I thought that it would take until the 2030s to really see some effect. As the data shows, I was wrong. The bell is tolling now. There is no happy note to end this on, either. There is a Perfect Storm scenario in all this that no one is discussing. And it’s this –if younger person effects of all-cause mortality get coupled with the other crisis happening on the other end of the age spectrum — Alzheimers Disease, which some have called Type III diabetes– we will have a compounding civilization-altering event.

Space Aliens or Killer AI Robots? Which ones are gonna get us?

Tamandua, a small anteater, Pantanal, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

I’m listening now to a super-fun book from my Audible account, that’s right up the alley of all kinds of fans of this page. It’s called Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, by Stuart Russell . I highly recommend it. Russell is a full professor at UC-Berkeley, and constructs measured rational arguments about the need for AI regulation, instead of defaulting to his authority, of which, as an internationally famous scholar and Oxford grad, he has plenty. Further, he’s implicitly an evolutionary thinker — his solution for the problem of out-of-control AI is adding some self-doubt to the AI, with a reverential response to individual human preference, which is exactly one v-memetic/value set click up, with different scaffolding, than the current objective-driven AIs that we have out there now.

Caveat: I don’t have the hard-copy — just the audio book — but I do still recommend this book. This piece may get a couple of details wrong, but most of what I’ll write is conceptually pretty solid. I also have not finished the whole book — and may update this piece when that happens.

Russell frames the problem of whether we should worry about super-intelligent AIs, no matter how far out in the future they are, by equivalencing to the question “what if we knew space aliens were going to show up 50 years in the future?” His short answer is this — we better get prepared.

And while I don’t disagree with his premise — he’s RIGHT — we should get prepared — for those that understand the empathetic implications of this work and how Conway’s Law would dictate the structure of an AI, this is not the best way to start the book. Any super-intelligent civilization that finally travels to Earth is expanding the temporal and spatial scales of their own consciousness, as well as mastering maintenance of their personal ecosystem over potentially millions of years, as well hundreds of light-years. More importantly, they are doing this sentient development OUTSIDE our human system.

And since I’ve made the case multiple times that sentience is sentience is sentience, it’s safe to assume that such creatures are far more evolved than we are, and operating from a much more connected, wise and evolved v-Meme/value set. No one’s going to fly interstellar distances to do something as stupid as mine our planet for rare earth metals. Or stop by Earth for a billion-or-so people snack. That’s an egocentric projection out of our own deep Survival value set. For those that want to see all that unpacked, and why you shouldn’t believe people like Stephen Hawking, this is a super-fun piece that I wrote, and don’t cringe when I re-read it. (Not true for everything on this blog!) Short version — interstellar space aliens are already likely enlightened.

But evolutionary AI is an entirely different problem. AI is something we create, and as such, will reflect us, dependent on both the social structure of the group creating the AI, as well as its v-Meme/value set. That’s the implication of Conway’s Law — the design of the system maps to the organization that creates it. And that nasty bit of reasoning, The Intermediate Corollary, that states that social structure maps to knowledge structure before it gets to instantiation in the design, is a bugger when it comes to AI. Like it or not, we intrinsically are going to transfer SOME value set into our AIs. And that value set, whether we understand all the implications or not, without deliberate attempts at growing empathy, is going to be a low empathy solution.

And this is where Russell’s analysis shines. He frames the development of AI around the fact we will create AIs to reach goals, (Performance/Goal-Based value set/v-Meme) and while he doesn’t have an explicit value evolution structure like the work on this blog, he calls out the scaffolding that’s going to mess us up — namely Authoritarian/Egocentric value set concentration by the AI wanting to replicate itself, as well as the fundamental Survival v-Meme/value set desire by the AI to survive. And that needs to worry us. If we build a cognitive engine strong enough to reach certain goal levels, there’s no telling what that AI’s neuroplasticity will come up with as far as that Survival strategy.

We’re already seeing what folks in the aerospace industry call “lack of configuration control” in algorithmic search, which is a form of AI in itself. We often cannot tell exactly why a given search routine does what it does — it just “does” it. Implicit in this is that unspecified dynamics are programmed in, whose results are unanticipated. In the world of aerospace, every structure on an aircraft is supposedly isolated, or exists with defined coupling, to every other part. When unknown coupling between parts produce unpredictable behavior, the plane design is said to “lose configuration control.” It is no different for software systems, and this is a pressing problem as we develop more complex algorithms.

For those that like talking historically about the progress of philosophy, Russell provides (not surprisingly – he’s an Oxford scholar) a lot of details, as he very gingerly places them under the bus. They’re not quite sufficient, and of course, he’s right. I just wrapped up listening to a long discourse on Utilitarianism and how it’s not up-to-snuff. No single philosophy can be, because current philosophy is Authority-driven. And no matter how profound someone can be, if they’re like any normal philosopher, they’re still stuck on Intellectual Flatland, with a limited range of perspectives.

Russell does a fair job of dismissing the various Pollyannas of AI, that say we have nothing to worry about, or that we should worry about the presence of a super-intelligence when it shows up. He criticizes many developers in the AI field actually from a value-set perspective, accusing them of Tribalism! So cool! He’s off by a v-Meme click — it’s actually a mapping into the low-empathy Authoritarian v-Meme/value set, but he correctly dismisses their arguments as belief-based, In-group/Out-group conflicts, and fundamentally not data-driven.

One of the things he kind of alludes to, but a point that needs to be made, is that there’s nothing that says folks that develop AI are the ones that really are best suited to understanding the implications of their work. In fact, we shouldn’t really expect it at all. Experts are going to stack in hierarchies, be it research labs or university campuses, and while they might succeed with very complicated/sophisticated thinking, their silos are still real, and their social system will inevitably fail to develop most of them in the ways of both broad and deep consequential thinking. It’s not that a familiarization with the technology doesn’t matter — certainly understanding current AI techniques and capabilities ground one in the possible/cognitive. But in many ways, they do not open the door to the metacognitive — knowing what you don’t know. If all our researchers were as wise as Sai Wong, the old Chinese man whose horse ran away, we’d be in a better world. Good news, bad news, who knows?

And it’s not like turning to philosophers, or social scientists, is going to necessarily provide answers either. They suffer from the same low evolution/high sophistication thinking that the researchers suffer from.

I’m loathe to criticize Russell’s analysis, because it’s such a good one. But there are some things I hope he considers. Submerged in his own Legalistic hierarchy (albeit an international one!) he does praise rationality, or really perfect logic, as the unachievable, but desirable goal – a rather low value set/v-Meme goal, though he does rescue himself with his solution. Evolution has given us fuzziness and heuristics because that turns out to be a deep Survival strategy, especially for the collective. Having freaks isn’t a bug — it’s a feature, and a way of storing low probability-of-use information.

He also fails to consider that maybe we might generate the ultimate super-intelligence, but we would still be unlikely to listen to it, especially if it required us to do something to facilitate its success. We might be game to help it solve cancer, but when it comes to global warming, or any other complex problem, the same political forces will resist change of our energy infrastructure.

And then there’s the inevitable inability of humans, dependent on their developmental level, to even understand what a super-intelligence might be saying. Sentience is sentience is sentience, and the same ceilings of understanding are going to be in play with humans relating back to the AI itself. Going back to the Space Alien problem, I’m convinced that if a group of friendly aliens showed up, we likely wouldn’t understand their solutions for us except through the lens of magic. And needless to say, I’m not the first person to have that perspective.

One thing to dump into the debate that Russell peripherally alludes to, but is integral to an empathy-oriented analysis, is temporal and spatial range of action. Russell does start talking about the value of altruism, with an example of creating an AI that is so altruistic, it takes off for Somalia to help ostensibly starving people on the other side of the globe. Here’s hoping he takes a look at understanding how an AI might be coupled to a human master, not just in examining preferences, but in optimizing the behavior of itself, with restricted sidebars (we call them laws!) across a person’s social network.

And, of course, Russell doesn’t spend much time understanding networks of agents, and how they might work together. Here’s hoping he reads some of my stuff on structural memetics. The idea of a networked collective intelligence isn’t broached, though it is actually inevitable. Computers in a stand-alone fashion weren’t much. But once we got the Internet, well we all kinda know what happened next.

One framework that Russell doesn’t capture very well is the cognitive/metacognitive risk of powerful AIs. While most of the book directs itself toward wondering and warning about unpredictable, emergent behavior — a very real danger, and one that must be taken seriously — there’s also the problem of deliberate construction of AIs that map value sets that are quite terrible from their creators. And while I absolutely do not want to be dismissive of the threat from the former, I’m more worried about perfecting the technology explicitly that lets small and medium robots go out and hunt people. This is a function of power and money, and we cannot escape our own need to evolve. As the old Bedouin saying goes, “Some people fear the future. But I fear what has already passed.”

So — get his book. I think it’s a great one for a book circle. And weave some of the v-Meme-y, goodness in there. Then you can appreciate the foresight of the author, as well as help us all iterate our deeper concerns as we plunge into this unknown space.

Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics — The First Rule – Pay Attention

Brother Chasing Brother

My wife, a trauma psychologist, and I are collaborating on a new project — a set of short pieces on raising children, that she can translate into Mandarin for both the Taiwanese and Chinese markets. The hook is around raising a child to be an entrepreneur. My own son is one — he’s 21, and didn’t want to go to college. So, after a short stint working for in programming a UAV autopilot, and a brief attendance at L’Ecole 42, he and a buddy punched out and founded what is now Unstoppabledomains.com. They relatively recently closed their Series A round, so they’re on their way. 

His brother, two years younger, is a little more typical, but even he has no problem standing up a small business. I never taught them any of the business stuff — so trust me when I tell you it’s not that.

Will they be successful? They’re doing great! Statistics say 25% of all companies making it this far survive, so we’re still pretty far from a successful exit. But he’s on the journey, and there are numerous things he and his brother did learn along the way that I’ll write about. 

Point of order — I’ll repeat this header for all these pieces. And yes — they are much simpler than most of the typical material on this blog!

The First Rule – Pay Attention

Starting Age – 3

Lifetime Practice

In order for children to be successful in life, let alone entrepreneurism, they must be aware of their surroundings.

But in order for your child to be aware of their surroundings, YOU have to first be aware of your surroundings.  You have to practice.  

How do we practice? Everyday life. The best element to practice on, though, are other people.  And they are available everywhere.  In shopping malls.  On sidewalks. Places where children play. Recognize other people.  Learn, and say their names.  Children will pick up on the notion that you can recognize other people in venues other than just the home.

Give yourself a test – how far do you look around when you sit down in a restaurant?  Practice keeping an awareness distance of 2 meters. Don’t obsess – just look around before you sit down. Play a game.  Ask the child if they saw the person two tables away was wearing a red scarf, or other noticeable item.  Expand the distance as they get older.

With your child, a great place to start learning to pay attention is in the grocery store.  Have your child help you find items you wish to buy. If they make a wrong choice, do not scold the child – instead, take the item, and communicate to the child while you evaluate it.  Take their input, and play-act perhaps a little, that you’re considering their judgment before returning it to the shelf.  Creating them as an agent, and extension of your awareness will feed their desire to look outward.

Learning how to ride a bike is a great opportunity for the child to learn how to self-regulate while under stress and paying attention.  Find a bike path that is uncrowded, and ride at a pace in front of the child not so far that the child feels unsafe, but must look around.  I used to take my two boys chasing me at carefully selected times on city streets, when they were deserted (but the boys didn’t know.)  It was high adventure following their father in a place they had become accustomed to seeing danger, and knowing they were partially responsible for themselves. Chasing a parent in a safe-in-reality, but differential environment for a child teaches coordination with others, as well as situational awareness.  Runs through forests and trees make the child aware of their need to keep up, as well as how they must adapt to changing circumstances. After they follow for a while, make them lead.

Regardless of who comes to your house, if your child is in the vicinity of that purpose, they should greet that person, even if they only immediately exit back to their playtime activities.  The older the child, the more formal and appropriate the greeting.  This is something I notice that we have lost from our protocols. 

Part of paying attention is realizing that there are consequences for not doing so.  One of the rules I implemented early on in my parenting strategies was called ‘Talk the talk – walk the walk.’  One of the ways young boys especially get hurt later in life is playing games of ‘dare’ with other young males.  There is a tree that really shouldn’t be climbed, or a jump into the water that is not safe.  Responding to peer pressure, the young male takes a chance to prove himself to his peers, in an uncontrolled environment, and ends up severely injured or dead.

I realized that the reason this happened to kids was poor emotional self-separation with others in a peer group, as well as no training in evaluating risk.  I was especially concerned with diving, as I had escaped serious injury or possibly death in a diving accident myself when I was 16.  

How did I do this with my boys?  First was understanding the need to interrupt the positive feedback cycle of people daring more and more dangerous things.  The way one does this is actually counterintuitive.  You make a rule where, in a given situation where risk is involved, if the child swears they will do something, you force them to follow through.

This is AFTER, of course, you’ve decided the activity is safe in the first place.  If the child expresses a desire, ask them to evaluate the situation for safety.  “Pay attention” is the first phrase out of my mouth.  If the child then commits, you do not allow them to back out.

If this practice is started when they are very young (I started doing this with my sons at age 5) the jumps are small.  But they will build assessment into their thought process, so when you are NOT there, they will end up in an emotional, ratcheting spiral that could end  in tragedy.

A story – we were floating down the Lower Salmon on a multi-day family raft trip with a close friend of mine, George, that does stand-in as the boys’ uncle.  Conor was 4, and Braden was 6.  There were a series of rapids where the adults consider it safe to swim down through the waves.  Conor had heard us talk about this, and had told us he wanted to jump off the raft and swim through the waves.  I told him that he could consider it, but first, he would have to look at the rapidand make his decision there.  

We approached the rapid. Of course, all was safe.  But the decision was his – I asked him.  “What do you think?”  He said that it looked good.  “Do you want to do it?” I asked.  He said “yes.”  I said “Talk the talk, walk the walk!”  He agreed.

We floated another 100 m downstream.  He was sitting on the edge of the raft.  “I changed my mind,” he said.  George looked at him.  “You know the rules,” he told Conor.  Conor got a long look on his face, and then immediately bailed off the back.  

And there is another deep, inner lesson.  Do not act, or NOT act, out of fear.  Act out of assessment and your rational experience, or others’ rational experience.

When Conor swam the rapids, he had a great experience.  But the lesson was learned.  Now Conor is a high-expert skier, taking big jumps and hucking 30’ cliffs at speed. But he slows down, and assesses unfamiliar terrain.  He does NOTHING on a dare.  It is a lifetime practice to master the First Rule.  But he is on the path.

Very important, as you move into this rule, is understanding children’s developmental limits.  A child below the age of 8 can see mountains, but they cannot truly process mountains – objects past a distance of 20’ are meaningless. Ask a young child about the bug on their shoe.  That is something they can understand.  

Time periods matter. Asking a young child to maintain focus for too long is also cruel.  During all your training, you must pay attention to the child as well!

Through all the practice, you are working on the child’s brain so that you stating the rule is not nagging. It is tied to the child’s larger experience, and triggers a richer set of responses than just “do what you’re told!” You must be creative yourself, though. You must think of situations where it appears that you might lead, but in reality, the child must navigate correctly.

And by doing so, you are laying in the deep foundation of entrepreneurship. You are giving the child the confidence to pay attention to their surroundings, which will be the business environment they find themselves in, and act.

Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics – Introduction

Father and Son, Misool, West Papua

My wife, a trauma psychologist, and I are collaborating on a new project — a set of short pieces on raising children, that she can translate into Mandarin for both the Taiwanese and Chinese markets. The hook is around raising a child to be an entrepreneur. My own son is one — he’s 21, and didn’t want to go to college. So, after a short stint working for in programming a UAV autopilot, and a brief attendance at L’Ecole 42, he and a buddy punched out and founded what is now Unstoppabledomains.com. They relatively recently closed their Series A round, so they’re on their way.

His brother, two years younger, is a little more typical, but even he has no problem standing up a small business. I never taught them any of the business stuff — so trust me when I tell you it’s not that.

Will they be successful? They’re doing great! Statistics say 25% of all companies making it this far survive, so we’re still pretty far from a successful exit. But he’s on the journey, and there are numerous things he and his brother did learn along the way that I’ll write about.

So, without further ado, here we go! This is the introduction of a multi-part series.

Raising the Entrepreneurial Child

With the rapidly changing global economy, there are lots of conversations going on now on how to raise one’s child to succeed in the new, entrepreneurial economy.  I am lucky enough to have a unique vantage point on how to do this.  I have run a large entrepreneurial engineering clinic at the university level for over 25 years, as well as raising both of my own sons to be entrepreneurs.  

Whether they are “successful” entrepreneurs, I leave you to judge.  They are a bit young for final analysis – one is 21 and the CTO of a cryptocurrency/blockchain start-up, and recently closed his Series A round. He now supervises about 11 programmers both locally and remotely.  My second son is a bit more traditional – doing well in college, but also has run a series of smaller (much smaller!) ventures, including a car detailing business, as well as a boutique tennis shoe resale operation. 

The three principles I will start our discussion with are not just the key to raising an entrepreneurial child.  They are also key to raising a child that will love you, and care for you in your old age.  But raising such a child will also require you to do work on yourself, as your behavior must serve as the gold standard example that the child will emulate.  If you expect to raise a child that is much better a person than you, without doing the work on yourself, it may happen.  But the odds are much lower.

The three principles that we will elaborate on in this class is teaching your child the following:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. You are responsible for yourself.
  3. You are responsible for others.

The idea behind these three basic principles is that you will raise your child first to be aware of his/her surroundings, so they are equipped with awareness.  Secondly, you will teach the child to process external events within the context of taking care of themselves, and their own safety. Finally, you will expand the child’s ability to see others and seek to understand THEIR needs outside of their own interests.

How does this fit into the idea of raising the entrepreneurial child?

  1.  The child that is aware of their surroundings, will grow into an adult who is also aware of their responsibilities and their environment, and will see and seek opportunities for starting a business.
  2. The child that can take care of themselves knows how little they actually need for their well-being, so when they go through the difficult part of launching a business, they know they can survive the tough times, because they have persevered through similar experiences in their childhood.  They also know how to self-regulate so they can run the long race necessary to launch a business.
  3. The child that can take care of others will, of course, be a loving and caring child to their family.  But by mastering this skill, they will also develop empathy to read customers, and maintain a customer base – a vital skill for any entrepreneur.  Far too often, young entrepreneurs fall in love with their ideas, instead of thinking how to adapt their ideas to a business model.  A child that learns to take care of others does not sit passively by and waits to be told what to do.  A child that can take care of others reads others’ needs, and adapts their business model to the current situation. Plus, a child that has been paying attention AND taught to take care of others will look outward into the world for opportunities that will generate a successful company.  You must have both characteristics to succeed.

These are the three principles.  As you can see, they are not just principles to make money.  When properly exercised, they will make the child a successful business person.  But they will also make them a successful husband, or wife, and bring blessings into the family far beyond money.

Turning Correlation into Causation – How Deeper Knowledge and Insight is Generated

My chief writing partner – Mac

Correlation implying causation — as we’ve heard it 1000 times, don’t believe it. And it’s true — DON’T believe it. Well, at first glance. It’s so easy to come up with funny examples — all you really have to do is match one upward (or downward) trend with another, and if the rate of change/slope/timescale for the change is the same, ta-da! Instant high correlation! Buzzfeed walks through some funny ones in that link above, like the increase in global average temperature being indexed to an increasing pirate shortage.

You can lay these examples out at your next round of drinking games and speculate exactly WHY decreasing numbers of pirates might be behind Anthropogenic Global Warming (not enough shipping sunk?) but hopefully, you’ll maintain some healthy level of skepticism and scrutiny.

Before we sink into the deeper knowledge AND empathy structure analysis here is the most basic rule-of-thumb behind deciding if correlation actually IMPLIES causation — identifying a physical mechanism or dynamic that involves both topics. You’ve got to at least get to Legalistic/Algorithmic value set to have a hope of understanding a real connection. Is one of these really what mathematicians call an independent variable of another?

This is really an offshoot of the fun parlor game I just recommended above. But it does involve synthesizing knowledge from outside the field, and really takes apart the conspiratorial thinking relatively quickly. Does organic food cause autism? Can you link a mechanism in the brain that causes autism to some lack of pesticide consumption? Or can you draw two or three causal links that takes you from your incipient need to eat pesticides to protect your unborn children from autism? If you can’t, well, you have to STFU.

There’s a deeper way to understand correlation vs. causation, though, and it gets us back to the Knowledge Structure stack, and one of the core concepts of this blog — Reliability vs. Validity. Pure correlation consists of taking two different data streams, with attached temporal/spatial scales (or some other independent index — look, gang, don’t ‘gotcha’ an old digital signal processing expert with that shit!) and then, well, correlating them.

If you need the math to feel comfortable, well, start here! Do not be denied!

But that’s the end of the math for us. Let’s get down to business.

Correlation, as expressed above, is itself an algorithm that poops out a number that shows how well two data streams match. Let’s just post the Knowledge Structure understanding that flows from social structure below so you can remind yourself of where all this flows from, empathy- and human interaction-wise.

Basic Social Structure/Knowledge Structure Diagram

Someone walks into your office with two columns of numbers. You have no idea where those two columns came from — they’re just two columns.

So… you accept the Authority of the person trotting into your life with these two columns of numbers that they actually mean something. Susie says “I’ve been doing research on pirates and Anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and there’s some extremely disturbing trends I’ve observed in the data. From my vantage point, we better start recruiting pirates stat!”

You don’t really know Susie very well. She seems nice enough, and she DOES have the official title of Data Collection Master, given to her (ostensibly) after a long process of certification/education. So, you take that AGW and Pirate data and feed it into your Excel spreadsheet Algorithm— you ARE, after all, titled Data Analyst Master — and poop out a near perfect correlation of the two streams. All this “makes sense” to you. After all, Susie has an impressive title. And so do you.

You have no reason to believe that Susie has fudged the data (let’s get rid of the psychopathic distortion angle here.) She’s acting in good faith, and so are you. If she walks in with the same data, and asks you to analyze it, you’ll get the same answer. Both of you know how to create a data set, and analyze it.

What this means is that the analysis is REPEATABLE — as well as RELIABLE. That sounds pretty good. But that’s what both social structures are known for. REPEATABLE and RELIABLE sounds good to scientists. They don’t want to hear that the data can change its mind. This knowledge structure maps well to their social structures, and as such, everything makes sense.

But the problem with the social structures producing the data (as we’ve represented it) is that they are CLOSED systems. You’re inside the organization making/recording the data, or you aren’t. Someone can’t just walk through the door and start handing you Pirate population numbers, or records of AGW temperature. Which means, in our theoretical example, the data is not GROUNDED outside the implied experience of either Susie or yourself. It’s subject to your beliefs (Pirates are a GREAT solution for AGW!) and really not much else. And like as not, both the data streams were also collected INDEPENDENTLY. The Pirate Census organization went out and counted pirates. The AGW recorded ocean temperature equally separately.

What that means is someone can walk through the door and potentially influence you (they might show some pirate atrocity that might cause you to re-think your earlier support of increasing the number of pirates!) and it might gross you out enough to change the result. Or something else — you might see the data and remember your Correlation Organization binds you to a code of honor that says you’ll just push the buttons and give Susie back the magic number. There are many potential scenarios.

But if we want CAUSATION, we’re going to have to walk up the Knowledge Structures, that emerge from Relational Structures that are also valid. Above our heads are four relevant Knowledge Structures, all of which might complicate things, but in the process of doing that complexifying, will increase (or decrease) the VALIDITY of the conclusion.

Causation might be established by a high Performance observer in the field, noting that when a pirate ship sails through a bay, the ocean temperature drops. Such an observer would be more believable if they were trained, say, in pirate identification and census, or in ocean temperature measurement. They would be more believable because, once again, they would be a more RELIABLE observer. The process of pirate observation certification would certainly help — even as it comes from the lower Value Sets/Relational Structures. But it’s the boots on the ground and watching the connected phenomena happen that would lend to better appreciation of causation. That observer would use their own judgment (hence the need for agency, and a functional heuristic) on how to interpret various data streams to position their Pirate Observation Ship (POS!) and their temperature probes to establish a meaningful connection.

And if there were a larger Community of POS-s , they could increase both reliability and validity. Or they could blend a different set of perspectives to lend credence to the correlation.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that additive perspectives matter. When you go out and interview people, you have to integrate their personal experience into our larger understanding of how pirates and ocean temperature function. When I think about Nora Bateson’s “Warm Data” construct, these two levels fall into that category. Often we can’t get to a generalized equation relating overall ocean temperature to lack of pirate passage. But we can combine the testimonials of lots of people to get at some aggregate sense of the truth. (“Arrr, we were just hoisting’ the Jolly Roger when the temperature in the ocean dropped 5 degrees!”)

What the next two levels of social structure offer — Global Systemic, and Global Holistic — are Knowledge Structure constructions that are now far more overarching than Warm Data, or anything we’re collecting from grounded heuristics of varying validity, with different observers. We’re either getting a methodical system laid out to actually validate our correlation (Global Systemic) or an overarching set of mathematical equations (like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) that can tell us what ocean temperature and pirate density is around the globe — and matches the data – true Global Holistic thinking. The Holy Grail of Pirate effects on climate.

——————————–

Let’s do a more simple comparison (that’s real!) to show how all this actually matters. Let’s say I have three scientists together at a conference. They’re all specialists in measuring the force of gravity. But let’s pretend they haven’t figured out anything BUT how to measure downward force on an object falling to the Earth. No Newton’s Law – which is pretty close to Global Holistic — we use it to calculate spacecraft trajectories to Jupiter, after all!

All our scientists are in Legalistic Hierarchies, which means that they have access to methodically collecting data as part of their core knowledge structure. They all belong to the Downward Force Measuring Society, and have been trained to follow exquisite procedures to come up with their results. No agency required! And no relational trust either. So no empathy.

Scientist #1 stands up, and says “We’ve been doing a fine job measuring this downward force on balls in our lab in East Skeezix, NY! Our test objects are accelerating toward the ground at 9.81 m/s2 consistently!”

Scientist #2 stands up, and says “We ALSO have been doing a tremendous job measuring gravity in West Windy, OK! We as well have been dropping small balls, and have recorded an acceleration of 9.81 M/s2 consistently!”

Scientist #3 stands up, and says “I’ll bet if you drop a ball over in the Walmart parking lot on the other side of town, you’ll record an acceleration of 9.81 m/s2 as well!”

What do the other scientists say? Stuck in the lower value sets/social structures, they pronounce “You CAN’T say that. You DIDN’T make the measurement!”

Reductionist science at its finest.

The series ‘Genius’ in the first season covers the life of Albert Einstein, and the episodes I watched actually cover the various conflicts in the Value Sets pretty well. The German empiricists were not so far off from the gravity scientists above when Einstein announced his Theory of Relativity. Compounding the hatred was the fact that Einstein was Jewish, and the Nazis were coming to power. That certainly didn’t help.

And it was none other than Einstein’s mentor, Max Planck, that said, science advances one funeral at a time. Mostly — or from large, connected communities, or the vanishingly rare heads of singular geniuses. And, let’s face it. Most of us are not Einsteins.


What’s the takeaway? We establish RELIABILITY with the lower social structures. We establish VALIDITY through grounding with the outside world with the higher social structures. And we had better have a method that supplants our innate tendency to jump to a conclusion that supports our beliefs. Understanding the role of case studies, as well as larger deep theory helps us to make sure we fill in the blanks in both arenas.

And the core of valid case studies, or trusting the right people? Empathetic development. It always comes back to that.

What’s the potential for future peril that we might see, if we can’t get this lesson? The disconnected example I used above – pirates and AGW seems pretty silly. The problem is that AI is moving rapidly into the space where seemingly distant outcomes can be supported convincingly by pretty sophisticated analyses. Advanced biometric analyses of faces (which are heavily race-dependent!) are now possible. Similar correlative mechanisms are being used to identify potential shop-lifters and such. One can see relatively quickly that a deeper understanding of this whole correlation vs. causation is going to be at the root of a lot of ground wars in lots of our society. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to evolve a deeper understanding of how faces work before we identify the superficial characteristics associated with race and ethnicity.

Uggh!

Understanding College Students’ Mental Health — Dr. Gregg Henriques

Howler Monkey Family Meeting, Pantanal, Brazil

I’m on a list serve, founded by friend and author, Daniel Goertz, of The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology. For the most part, the posts are esoterica from philosophers mostly outside the academy — which makes it somewhat interesting, in that Integral domains are covered. But every now and then, some material gets posted that I think really gives deep insight into the problems the world is facing. This guest blog post is one of those posts. Written by Dr. Gregg Henriques, who also writes on ‘Theory of Everything’ kinds of subject matter (he’s the author of the Tree of Knowledge framework for attempting to unify psychology) drilling down into how our young people’s minds are changing is vital as we course-correct through this deeply turbulent societal time. Gregg’s work is somewhere between more surface-level psychology and my own deep, system-y stuff.

So… without further ado — here’s Gregg’s piece.


Understanding College Student Mental Health

Given my writings on the college student mental health crisis (see here, here, and here), I am often asked, “What is really going on with the increases in demands for services and reports of serious mental health challenges?” and “If it is a real problem, what can we do about it?”

Here is the short story, at least for the USA:

We are seeing a dramatic increase in demand for services on college campuses. A big portion of this increase is almost certainly a function of a change in attitude about the meaning of therapy and being in distress. That is, it used to be that folks were much more reticent about acknowledging distress and seeking therapy, and now they are much more open about both. Indeed, I think this is a major change that is driving the increases in demand. In other words, in the past many people did have lots of emotional trauma that was basically denied, crushed, avoided, etc. Over the past 20 years, the mental health industry and culture have opened their hearts so to speak to this pain.

That is the good news. Unfortunately, there is more to the story. I think the data are clear that definitely are seeing real increases in mental health problems, most significantly in the area of anxiety, depression, and self-harm/suicidality. My view is that our society went from being unhealthily repressed 50 years ago to opening up sensitivity to injury and negative feelings. However, we opened up those doors without also cultivating anti-fragile, stoic, character building virtues. In other words, we fostered much greater access of vulnerable feelings, but did not help foster adaptive regulation. Instead, we have tended to simply validate the experience of threat and victimization and assert that everyone had a “right” to be protected without being clear about how to be a responsible adult who was adaptively regulated in a mature way. Not only that, but as Jonathan Haidt and others note, we have become obsessed with safety (what they call “safetyism”) in a way that cultivates a sensitivity to injury that leaves folks who have neurotic temperaments to be essentially “raw nerves”. I have heard a number of people claim that millennials are “spoiled.” I think it is more that they are overprotected by helicopter and snowplow parents and an unspoken philosophy of safetyism. In such parenting contexts, the victimized response of the child is reinforced, which can breed a toxic sensitivity. 

Finally, it must be acknowledged that parenting philosophy is only a piece of the puzzle. A strong case can be made that our fractured society, broken educational system, information overload, screen addictions, and disconnect from nature is breeding a massive feeling of alienation, perhaps especially in this generation. I view the “mental health crisis” as one of the great meta-crises facing us in the 21st Century.

Given that, let’s move to the second question: “What can be done to address this issue?” First, I believe that society needs some significant evolution in terms of both what we value and how we relate to each other. As this blog notes, I think we are facing a “meaning crisis” and are deeply confused about shared notions of what is good and true. In terms of college students, this means that education should be more focused on developing depth and character virtues and philosophies of the good life. Consistent with this blog’s mission, I believe that we should also be fostering empathy and values clarification across multiple levels of analysis.

More specifically for college students, I believe we need to raise awareness about mental health challenges in general and foster accessible narratives for dealing with them. For example, see this blog that provides an overview and this follow-up blog on addressing the issues and maintaining mental health. I also think colleges should cultivate the development of well-being centers, like this one found at George Mason University. And, I think psychologists should be working on assessment protocols that provide students a coherent map of their well-being and offer them guided interventions that foster healthy emotional and character development. For example, I developed an integrated approach to psychological mindfulness called CALM MO, that teaches individuals to become more reflective and responsive rather than reactive, and how to cultivate a “Metacognitive Observer (the MO; also stands for “modus operandi) that is Curious, Accepting, Loving-Compassionate, and Motivated toward Valued States of Being. A recent dissertation showed this was an effective 90 minute workshop. In addition, I have been involved in courses on well-being and adjustment that empirically demonstrated improvement in key domains.

The bottom line is that the world is changing. Fast. We need to be aware of the impact changes are having on our mental health and perhaps especially the mental health of our youth and we need integrative and empathetic models that foster emotional and relational health, optimal identity development, and a growth toward virtue attitude.

Dr. Gregg Henriques is Professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University in the APA-Accredited Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology, where he formerly served as program director. Dr. Henriques received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Vermont and did his post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Dr. Aaron T. Beck. He teaches courses in psychotherapy integration, personality theory, personality assessment, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and engages in clinical supervision. Dr. Henriques’ primary area of scholarly interest is in theory development, having authored many professional publications on theory and practice and the book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology. He regularly shares his ideas about philosophy, psychological theory, psychotherapy, and politics in a popular Psychology Today blog called Theory of Knowledge, and he has started a Theory of Knowledge Society. He also studies depression, personality disorders, character functioning and well-being, and is working to develop a more unified approach to psychotherapy. He is an APA Fellow (Division 24; Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) and a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia.