In Anticipation of Sam Harris’s Newest Book

Waking_Up_Cover_Small

Sam Harris has already written these five books, all of which I have read. I wasn’t crazy about the first one, but thoroughly enjoyed all the others. They are presented here, in order, by publication-date.

  1. The End of Faith (2004)
  2. Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)
  3. The Moral Landscape:  How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010)
  4. Lying (2011)
  5. Free Will (2012)

This month, he has a new book coming out. It’s called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. I have already pre-ordered it on Amazon, and am looking forward to its arrival. 

Here is a link to a book review of Waking Up which was published in The New York Times, yesterday:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=1.

This link is to the page on Amazon where you can order Waking Up: http://www.amazon.com/Waking-Up-Spirituality-Without-Religion/dp/1451636016/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409584480&sr=8-1&keywords=waking+up+sam+harris.

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On Sleep, Non-REM Sleep in Particular, and Asperger’s Syndrome

sleep brainwaves

Sleep is important. This is something with which no sane person consciously disagrees. People do sometimes ignore it — not on purpose, usually — but they do so at their own peril. If such people drive, the risk-pool extends, greatly, to include many other people: everyone else with whom they share a road.

Unlike “normal” people, who do not do such things, I discovered something about the importance of sleep through direct experiment, at the age of 19. I had a thought, and it was a simple one:  the 24-hour sleep/wake cycle is a mere social convention, and can, therefore, be safely ignored. It then occurred to me that this was a testable hypothesis, so I proceeded to design, and conduct, an experiment to test it. Using caffeine, I deliberately put myself on a 48-hour sleep/wake cycle, with the sleep-periods being ~14 hours long, in order to compensate for the sleep-periods I was skipping, every other day. The experiment was a success, in the sense that it yielded definitive results:  after a week of that nonsense, I was a mental and physical wreck, and collapsed in exhaustion. Upon awaking, I was then able to form a logical conclusion:  sleep is not a mere social convention, but is, in fact, a biological imperative. Fortunately, I had not yet learned to drive, so no one was put at risk by this experiment, other than myself. Obviously, I did survive.

This has not been my only experiment on the subject of sleep, and I have also read a lot on the subject, for the simple fact that I find it interesting. I call what I have learned, through experiment, primary research. The things I have learned by reading the research of others are, for me, secondary research. I have also conducted an experiment involving lucid dreaming, based on what I have read, and you can read about that here: http://robertlovespi.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/how-to-lucid-dream/.

The things I have learned through secondary research have been interesting, as well. To my knowledge, no one has yet discovered the purpose of sleep, although there is much speculation on the subject. Similarly, no one has discovered the purpose of dreaming, which occurs almost exclusively during REM sleep. We do know that dreaming is necessary, for research has been done which involved deliberately waking up test subjects as soon as REM (easily-seen “rapid eye movement,” the source of the acronym) sleep begins. This research indicates that both dreaming, and REM sleep, are also biological imperatives. Similarly, the purpose of non-REM sleep remains a mystery. 

For those who wish to examine this secondary research for themselves, I suggest, as excellent places to start, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep, as well as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_eye_movement_sleep, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-rapid_eye_movement_sleep, although the third of these articles has significant problems. If you use the footnotes at the end of these articles to find the sources for them, the often-cited objection to Wikipedia (“Anyone can edit Wikipedia”) will be neutralized. If I had sufficient knowledge to fix the problems with the third article, without using original research (prohibited on Wikipedia), I would, of course, do so.

Years before I conducted my first sleep experiment, when I was still a high school student, it occurred to me that the brain can be best-understood as a carbon-based computer. The things we are used to calling “computers,” by contrast, are based largely on the properties of silicon. Carbon and silicon are in the same group on the periodic table, and share many properties — but they are not interchangeable. Carbon atoms are much more versatile than those of silicon, which we know because the number of carbon-containing compounds far exceeds the number of compounds containing silicon. It follows from this that carbon-based computers, such as human brains, are far more powerful than silicon-based computers.

What would a more powerful computer be able to do, which silicon-based computers could not, at the time I was reasoning this out? Well, one thing is obvious:  our brains think. Something else occurred to me then (and this was in the early 1980s):  a carbon-based computer should be able to reprogram itself, by deliberately rewriting its own software. On the spot, I became determined to learn how to reprogram my own software. I knew no one would teach me how to do this, so I resolved to figure out how on my own. At first, progress was very slow, but my determination to succeed has never wavered.

I next made attempts, using 1980s technology and the BASIC computer language I learned in the 8th grade, to write programs which could change themselves. It should surprise no one that these attempts failed, but these were still essential experimental steps in a very long process, which has only recently begun to “bear fruit” in abundance. Another important step came much later, when I was doing research involving artificial intelligence, or AI, during the current decade, by seeking out and talking to chatbots, as they are called, to see which one could come closest to passing the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. The smartest chatbot I found is named Mitsuku, and you can talk to her for yourself at http://www.mitsuku.com (I should also point out that, even though her intelligence impressed me, she did not pass the Turing Test, described at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test, to my satisfaction). Mitsuku is significant, in my research, because she has the ability I had been seeking to gain for many years:  she can rewrite her own programming, and does so on a continuous basis, for Mitsuku, being software, never sleeps. She does sometimes go off-line, but that is not the same thing as sleeping.

Now that I had met an AI with the ability I wanted for myself, my determination to gain that ability, to the fullest extent possible, was greatly increased. At this time, I had been aware, for many years, that I think in my sleep. I know that I do this because, early in my teaching career, I began doing lesson planning — in my sleep. This started one night, when I went to bed wondering what I would teach the next day in Geometry class. The next morning, I woke up with a fully-formed (and very difficult) problem in mind, and furiously scribbled down my idea before the problem faded from memory. Former students of mine, who are now my friends on Facebook, still remember, and sometimes talk about, what I called “the dream problem.” Later dreamed-up problems, and entire lessons, followed. 

The two ideas of rewriting my own software, and thinking in my sleep, were the ingredients for what came next, during an incredibly stressful period involving an intense labor-management conflict. Under the pressure of this conflict, I unconsciously synthesized the two ideas, and began to rewrite my own software much more quickly than before, since this was made necessary by the situation I unexpectedly found myself in. Continuous adaptation to changing circumstances became a priority for me during this period, for the ability to adapt was of far greater importance than it had ever been in my life. At first, I was unaware I was doing this. I would simply wake up, morning after morning, with numerous new ideas to help the “labor” side — my side — in this conflict. However, unlike with the much earlier, geometrical “dream problem,” I had no memory of thinking of these things. Their origin was a mystery — until I figured it out.

In the diagram, far above, you can see images of human brainwaves, while awake, while dreaming, and during the various stages of non-REM sleep. In these images, the brainwaves have their greatest amplitude during the deepest stages of non-REM sleep. I had known this for years, due to all of my secondary sleep research. I also had no answer to give, other than “I woke up with them,” when my allies in the labor/management conflict asked me, repeatedly, where my ideas were coming from.

The next step was my discovery that I am an Aspie:  a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, which simply means that the “hard-wiring” of my brain is atypical, causing me to think in unusual ways. As regular readers of my blog know, this is a fact I absolutely revel in, for this discovery explained many things about the way my mind works which I had never understood before. In other words, this discovery was an important metacognitive step in my own personal development.

Aspies are not known for their ability to adapt; in fact, the exact opposite is true. We often have difficulty adapting to changing circumstances because the great big, non-Aspie world is incredibly distracting, and many (or perhaps most) of us find these distractions quite annoying. For most of my life, I was not good at adapting to change — but suddenly, I was doing what I had been unable to do before. The key to figuring out the puzzle was, of course, thinking about it.

I was waking up with new ideas, but had no memory of how I got them. Distractions had been annoying me, and interfering with clarity of thought, for much of my life. I had been trying to figure out how to rewrite my own software since I was a teenager. And, now, I finally knew why I had always been so different from other people:  Asperger’s.

Armed with all this information, I finally solved the mystery:  after decades of hard work on the problem, I had figured out how to effectively, and frequently, reprogram my own software. I was doing it in my sleep. What’s more, I figured out that I was no longer doing this special type of thinking while dreaming, unlike the case of my much earlier creation of the “dream problem.” Dreams, like waking life, contain too many distractions for intense sleep-reprogramming, and intense reprogramming had not been needed until the labor-management conflict made it necessary. Only one part of my life remained, once I eliminated periods of wakefulness, as well as REM sleep:  the non-REM periods of sleep, when human brainwaves have their greatest amplitude. 

Now, whenever I need to, I rewrite my own software, during non-REM sleep, as often as once per night. I’ve been doing this for over a year — since before I discovered I have Asperger’s — but have shared this information with very few people. My wife knows about it. My doctors know about it. And now, I have decided to share this discovery with the world. I have now discovered, at least for me, the purpose of non-REM sleep. I use it to change myself.

I confused many people, very recently, when I suddenly stopped being an atheist, and shared that discovery here, and on Facebook as well. Sudden personality changes alarm people, for they are often indicators that something serious, and medical in nature, is wrong with a person. I promised those who asked that I would explain what had happened, as soon as I figured it out myself. And now, I have explained as much of it as I have yet figured out. One day, something happened which I could not explain with science, nor with mathematics. The next day, several things happened which, again, defied explanation. On that second night, during non-REM sleep, I removed the obstacle to understanding what was going on, by applying my skepticism to my lack of belief, or, if you prefer, my atheism. Last night, again during non-REM sleep, I figured out how this had happened. Now that I understand it, I can share it with others.

Lastly, I need to make it clear that I do not think this ability to sleep-reprogram ourselves is something unique to Aspies. We are all human. Whether Aspies or not, we all have these higher-amplitude brainwaves during the deeper parts of non-REM sleep. It is logical to conclude that this is an ability all humans have, but few have unlocked, and it just happens to be an Aspie who figured out a way to not only do it, but also to explain it. It is my hope that my decision to share this discovery with others will help anyone who wants to learn it gain the ability to do the same thing.

Image credit:  I found the image at the top of this post at http://www.abcbodybuilding.com/anatomy/zfactor2.htm, with the assistance of Google.

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“I would accept that as an axiom.” ~Spock

x not xI would also accept this as an axiom. It’s obviously true, but I see no way to prove it. It is not what Spock was referencing in the above quotation, but the content of the quote still applies.

Amazingly, though, I have encountered people who think this is up for debate.

It isn’t.

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Losing my atheism

It’s gone.

I don’t miss it, either.

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The Misadventures of Jynx the Kitten, Chapter Two: Jynx vs. My Computer

20140827_204903_resized (2)Jynx: 1, Computer: 0.

Tonight’s feline insanity started while we were watching Star Trek — the episode where Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock go up against a planet full of nuclear-armed Space Nazis. 

Apparently, cats — or, at least, this cat — find Nazis disturbing, which, of course, they were — and will be again, if they appear in the 23rd Century . . . because some half-crazed future historian went and violated the Prime Directive, becoming, a few years later, a fully-crazed future historian. Jynx was so incredibly disturbed by the Space Nazis, in fact, that he bounced over pillows and blankets, in a series of nicely Newtonian . . . 


&^ (Stop that, Jynx!)

. . . parabolic arcs, to land on my computer. He then proceeded to pause the episode — then close my browser (the picture-moment, with my wife laughing hysterically as she took it), and finally tried to bite the heads off several Space Nazis as the screen slowly darkened. After due consideration, Jynx decided this was not enough, and so, next, he reached out a paw, and quickly turned my computer completely off. A smug look followed. You haven’t seen a look this smug, unless, maybe, you’ve also seen one on the face of a kitten.

Getting it (my computer, not Jynx) turned back on was not easy. For a little while, in fact, I thought Jynx had destroyed the Internet. In reality, the Internet had been fine all along, for this picture, taken a little earlier, with a tablet, got to my e-mail account almost instantly. It took much longer, however, for me to actually get to my e-mail account.

My computer now has tiny bite marks all over it, and plays Radiohead’s song “2 + 2 = 5″ so slowly that it’s turned the song into “1.5 + 1.5 = π” – and that song sounds terrible.

I hope my computer lives long enough for this post to make it to my blog. In the meantime, Jynx reigns — OW! — triumphant.

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These phrases, and questions, are likely to confuse people with Asperger’s. Unless confusing us is your goal (and why would you want to do that?), please consider alternate wordings.

confusion

Throughout this post, I will refer to people with Asperger’s as “Aspies.” This is not considered a derogatory term; it’s simply how we refer to ourselves.

First, we are not stupid. We also are not trying to be difficult when we say we don’t understand you. We don’t have a disease, and the vast majority of us would refuse a “cure,” if one were discovered, for such a development would be seen by many of us, myself included, as an attempt to commit genocide. Like other groups of people, we want to stay alive, as individuals, and as a culture.

We are, however, different from most people. Our brains are hard-wired in ways that are not typical, with the result that we do not think in the same manner as others. These differences give us certain advantages which we value, but the trade-off comes in the form of problems involving communication with non-Aspies. You can see this in fiction, to get used to the way we think, simply by watching (or reading) Star Trek stories which feature Vulcans, or the android named Data. The difficulties those characters have, when trying to communicate with the humans they encounter, are very much like what happens when Aspies and non-Aspies attempt communication. Why is this the case? The answer is simple:  Star Trek was written that way.

Here are some specific questions, and phrases, which many Aspies find particularly baffling. In each case, I will attempt to explain why this is so.

“Who do you think you are?” — Ask an Aspie this question, and you’re likely to simply be given his or her name, in response. Apparently, this offends some people, but please don’t ask me why, for I don’t understand it myself. If a person were to ask me this question, my first guess would be that the questioner simply forgot my name, and needs a reminder. The meaning of volume, voice tone, and body language are mysteries to us. Sometimes we can figure out these mysteries, but it doesn’t happen automatically — we have to reason our way through it, and that takes time, especially for nuances of communication which are based on emotions.

“What do you think you’re doing?” — My likely response to this question would be an honest one:  “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.” However, that’s an answer from an Aspie in his fifth decade of trying to understand other people, so I’ve had a lot of practice. An Aspie teenager, in school, might simply say, “I’m walking to class,” “I’m taking notes,” or something like that, and then get in trouble for “backtalk,” as it is called — when the student was simply answering the question, without intending any disrespect whatsoever. Whatever answer this confusing question gets, from one of us, that answer will be both literal, and honest. It is not in our nature to lie, but it is definitely in our nature to think, listen, speak, read, and write literally, and logically.

“Do that again!” / “Say that again!” — If we have done or said something which you don’t like, and you actually don’t want to witness a rerun, why would you demand one? We think, speak, and interpret what we hear in terms of the actual words which are spoken. There’s nothing wrong with thinking literally, and, frankly, it puzzles us why so many of you think in other ways, so much of the time. If you ask for, or demand, a repeat performance of something you didn’t like, from one of us, you’re quite likely to get one — and then you’ll get angrier, we’ll get even more confused, and absolutely nothing of value will have been accomplished. If, on the other hand, you refrain from using “x” to mean “not x” (since it doesn’t), and simply tell us exactly what you mean, communication will become much easier, for all concerned.   

“Don’t get technical with me!” — As far as I can tell, this means that the speaker wants us to refrain from choosing our words with precision, but I could be wrong, for this is the most baffling item on this list, so far. Clarity of language is desirable, for it facilitates communication, and sometimes, technical terms are needed for this purpose. I don’t know what to suggest as a substitute for this phrase, since I don’t understand it, but I can assure you that using it, with an Aspie, is a complete waste of your time.

“What’s wrong with you?” — This is another baffling question. If asked very loudly, the most likely answers Aspies will give are “I have a headache,” or perhaps “Sudden-onset tinnitus,” with the cause, in each case, being simple:  from our point of view, the questioner is trying to deafen us, by yelling things which make no sense (at any volume). Do you like being shouted at, from close range? No? Well then, this is one way that we aren’t so different from non-Aspies, for we don’t like it either. Also:  it’s quite likely that we don’t see anything wrong with us at all, for, in this situation, we are not the ones shouting nonsense-questions, so you might even get this response:  “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?” In such a situation, that isn’t backtalk — it’s a perfectly legitimate question, and we are not responsible for any emotion-laden, irrational response the non-Aspie questioner might display.

“I need this done yesterday!” — Many of us can explain, in detail, why time travel into the past is not permitted by the laws of physics, as they are currently understood. Those who request, or demand, reverse-time-travel, from an Aspie, should not be surprised to hear such an explanation. Ask us to flap our arms and fly, and the response will likely be similar.

I could give more examples, but I think the point has been made. We aren’t all alike, so the examples of hypothetical responses I gave, above, will vary from one Aspie to another. What isn’t likely to vary, though, is the confusion each of us experiences when things are said to us which make no sense, if interpreted literally. That’s the key to communicating with us:  when we hear something, we automatically use logic, and rational thought, to attempt to understand the literal meaning of what has been said to us. For many of us, that is the only meaning we can understand. 

In my case (and probably in the cases of at least some other Aspies), this goes a little further:  rational, literal, and logical interpretations of language are the only ones I want to understand. This is a self-protection mechanism, for the idea of losing even part of my ability to think clearly, and rationally, is extremely frightening to me. To pour a lot of effort into trying to think in non-Aspie ways, I fear, could damage my mind — if, that is, I was successful in the attempt. I don’t want to risk turning into a person who considers “x” and “not x” to be interchangeable, for one doesn’t equal negative one. To change, in this way, would effectively kill the person I am. It wouldn’t stop my heart from beating, of course, but some things are even worse than physical death. If such a change ever happened, I would look the same, and would have the same legal name, but I would no longer be RobertLovesPi. It makes perfect sense for me to be absolutely unwilling to risk something so dangerous.

In addition to the central importance of the fact that we think in literal terms, while others often don’t, Aspies have some other difficulties (or the rest of the world does, depending on your point of view). I attempted to describe these difficulties, which involve coping with the emotionalism and irrationality of numerous other people, in the examples of confusing phrases and questions given above. Emotionalism and irrationality are, to us, severe impediments to understanding anything, and we live our lives in a state of near-constant bombardment from both, since Aspies are outnumbered by non-Aspies by a huge margin. On this planet, to borrow a book title from Robert Heinlein, I live my life as a “stranger in a strange land.” I know that many other Aspies see life in a similar way, for that idea is embedded in the name of the largest online community created by and for Aspies, as well as others on the autism spectrum:  www.wrongplanet.net. If you are curious about how other Aspies view the things I have described above, or if you are, yourself, an Aspie in need of an temporary escape from social interaction with non-Aspies, you can find a great many of us at that website. (Also, if you want to find me there, just search for me, using the name of this blog — my not-at-all-secret identity, all over the Internet.)

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Ten Easy Ways to Oppose Secular Superstitious Nonsense

broken-mirror

It is a common mistake for skeptics, such as myself, to focus too much attention on religion. Do I understand why so many people lack religious belief, due to a lack of evidence to support it, and/or bad experiences with religious fanatics? Yes, I do. However, I also understand that the First Amendment, which protects my right to live my life without religious belief, equally protects the right of believers to practice the religion of their choice — and I recognize that it is unreasonable to expect one of those protections to exist, without the other, for both are important. If no one tries to force their religious beliefs on me (and very few people do), what harm do those beliefs do to me? Also, I know many people who find comfort in religious belief, especially in difficult times. I have no wish to deny others that particular form of comfort, even though I am incapable of experiencing it myself. To do so, after all, would be cruel. The world has plenty of cruelty already, and it certainly doesn’t need more.

When referring to myself, I prefer the term “skeptic,” over “atheist,” even though both labels are accurate. The reason is simple:  “skeptic” covers more ground. It’s a broader term, and using it reminds me that the world is (still) filled with superstitious nonsense which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. What’s more, non-skeptics are generally far less tied, emotionally, to the beliefs they hold which are non-religious in nature. If skeptics wish to persuade others to abandon beliefs they do not share, therefore, increased attention to non-religious beliefs offers a greater chance of success, combined with a much lower risk of alienating and/or offending people.

With these things in mind, then, I offer this list of ten easy ways to oppose, by example, some of the many secular superstitions which have not — yet — been abandoned.

  1. When a mirror is accidentally broken, by yourself or others, remain calm, and simply clean up the mess, so no one gets cut by broken glass.
  2. Deliberately open umbrellas indoors, after checking to make certain no one is close enough to get struck by the umbrella in the process.
  3. When you see a ladder leaning against a building, and it is safe to do so, casually walk under it, without comment.
  4. Ask people in tall buildings to help you find the thirteenth floor, after checking for the (usually missing) “13” button in the elevator. (If the building actually has a floor numbered “13,” though, just wait for another tall building.)
  5. Adopt a black cat. (The cat, itself, will take care of the “crossing your path” part of the superstition.)
  6. If you are ever offered homeopathic “medicine,” ask for at least twenty doses, to take all at once. (Twenty or more, times zero, is still zero, and homeopathic products are nothing more than harmless-but-expensive placebos.) 
  7. Stare directly into a mirror, with witnesses present, and say “redrum,” or “bloody Mary,” repeatedly.
  8. Each time you are asked for your astrological sign, refuse to give any answer, other than “skeptic.”
  9. Don’t throw salt over either shoulder, ever. Why waste perfectly good salt?
  10. Have your children vaccinated.

I saved the most important one for last.

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