Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori

Memento Mori

Thoughts after a long night chatting with James McTavish and Joe Stauttener on Wednesday.

Tempus Fugit, time flies. Our lives are but short instants on this planet, a place to touch those around us, bear children (if we can), build a better world for the next generation, and remember that we all reach the same end. We have the ability to be more than of this world, but to do that we must free ourselves from its chains of bondage. Not only from man, but from ourselves. To worship and praise our bodies but not become slaves to them. No slave truly loves and worships its master, many only obey it grudgingly.

You see, we have one feature animals don’t, we have the ability to resist all of our instinctual urges, no matter how difficult it may be. Sin is not permanent failure, it is the natural expectation of being human. We will sin, there is no way around it. What matters is we are forgiven and can try to do better each week. In the Catholic mass, I find that the three statements of “Mea Culpa – Through my own fault” are a stark reminder of this.

However, in the very same mass, we state that we can be forgiven, and by the end we are. This allows us to go clean into the world for the next week and improve ourselves. Remembering at all times Tempus Fugit.

Some may say it is God’s grace and blessing on us, hence the song Amazing Grace. We can fail in our resistance, but the forgiveness gives us the strength to fight again for self freedom, to be beyond this world.

It is excuse to state that being a slave to your body is somehow freedom. Freedom is not only not being a slave to a person, but not being a slave to anything, including ourselves.  What is worse, once you are a slave to your body, you will forget the most important thing, death will come to us all.

Through remembering death, we can remember that our temporary satisfying of those instinctual urges don’t matter. We become only of this world, and the more we are that, the more we will cease when death arrives.

Memento Mori, remember death.

This is not dark or grim, this is a bright light for anyone who understands it. If you look, you will see those chains, and realize that they can be broken, and we can be more than of this world.

You can actually be free.

Energy creation without constraints is just a bomb in space.

Simplified piston animation.
Simplified piston animation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have found it has become quite vogue to go into long rants about how great everything would be if only there was more freedom and less restrictions. Probably because we live in such a safe time and place in the world, we don’t realize how much the laws and structures around us protect us from risk and harm.

Yet, many seem to feel that we should let the energy of the markets run free, and it will sort itself out.  It is imperative that you don’t constrain or restrict it in any fashion, otherwise you won’t reach the highest levels of productivity. Structures to constrain it will emerge themselves.

Well, at least structures that haven’t already emerged naturally from millenia of political growth and evolution.

I would like to entirely ignore any discussion around the immorality of using social darwinism through the markets for the moment. Instead, let’s take a more pragmatic angle.

I think I understand where the idea behind removing all market interventions comes from. If there is no artificial constraints to the system, then from a game theoretic perspective, the system should achieve an effective Nash Equilibrium where all parties are getting the maximum benefit they can possibly want. While not a social optimum, it has the effect of allocating resources in a fashion which no one person can take responsibility for and is still maximized for a really bastardized version of maximized. As well, structures should form that protect those most capable of producing the maximum capital, similar to how political structures form to protect those with the most power, usually with lots of guns.

What is it maximized for? Generation of value in order to trade and make capital, which can be used to make more value which can be used to make more capital. It’s very similar to a runaway reaction in thermodynamics — heat encourages other molecules to breakdown and release more heat until you have a maximum release of energy in a very rapid period of time. Generate the most value and capital as quickly as possible, and you will be the most successful in a pure capitalist system.

Arguably, generating lots of value can be an end in itself. Yet, that doesn’t make sense to me. What is the point of producing value without any aim as fast as possible? In a similar vein, if you have a runaway energy-producing reaction without any constraints, you simply have a bomb. I guess if you want to blow something up, it’s useful. However, in most circumstances it’s not very productive.

There is a concept I heard while I was working with Stuart Kauffman that I really enjoyed: “enabling constraints.” The idea, ultra-simplified, is that by putting constraints in complex or chaotic systems it is possible for emergent behaviour to be encouraged. You move the chaotic system towards the critical line until it is in an optimal position to produce complex behaviour. One way I visualize it is in the terms of an explosion — Uncontained, an explosion is pretty much useless. Put an explosion into a metal tube and put a piston on one side, you have the start of an engine. A method for turning chaotic and destructive behaviour into something that is productive and useful. A method to derive work from chaotic energy production.

I’ve mulled over this in relation to a variety of societal structures. For example, sports benefit greatly from enabling constraints. There is no baseball or football or hockey without at least some rules. These rules make the sport interesting, and emergent behaviour in the form of strategies exciting to watch. Without any rules, most sports would likely degenerate into some variant of UFC except with hockey sticks, or on a running track. You have to note that even UFC has a cage that constrains the fight to the arena.

In relation to economics, the link seems even more obvious. I generally see value-creation as a form of energy in an economic system. Successful companies work almost like volatile compounds, as described above. In the purest form, they continue to create value as quickly as possible with the only intention of bringing in more capital to allow them to create more value. Yet, if the analogy continues the companies will all continue to produce value quicker and quicker with no structure or creation.

Thankfully, in most modern societies, we have constraints in the system that allow corporations to produce directed value for society as a whole.

Value!

For example, if a company’s only purpose was to maximize profit, then most would just make giant piles of cocaine and heroin and be done with it. No better business than the drug business, once they are hooked you have customers for life, as short as their lives may be. Hence, we have laws in place explicitly there to prevent this destructive form of value-creation.

There are other softer constraints though, for example religion. These are enabling constraints to guide value-creation towards more emergent behaviour that benefit the group as a whole. However, as our society becomes more secular and individualistic, as morality becomes more relativistic, the strength of that constraint is decreased significantly. So, while we have still have independent ideologies, the constraint differs for each individual — having all particles heading in a different directions with no structure is simply chaotic behaviour and wastes a large amount of value creation.

However with enabling constraints, the value creation can cease being chaotic and volatile and instead in some sense be more productive.

To be honest though, I don’t know what constraints would be most effective, how to implement them, or what would work best. I have theories on what would work based on societal structures which have guided growth in society to this point. We are where we are, in safe, more or less clean, and low risk societies because of these structures. I think knocking them down, as we have been, for the utopian thinking of constraint-less capitalism is asking for trouble.

Energy creation with no constraints is simply a bomb in space and value creation with no constraints is just as pointless.

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Don’t give up on yourself, or your stained shirts.

Bleach! (Clorox™)

I’ve had this happen twice for me. I got a stain with some chemical or food compound that everyone universally tells me is impossible to get out. That I need to either accept the stain as is or throw out the shirt. One of the first times was with one of my favourite white shirts when I cut open a glow stick and sprayed the flourescent liquid all over my shirt. The warning even told me this would happen. Pro-tip: don’t cut open a glow stick unless you are ready to be covered in hard to remove glowing liquid.

Now, the shirt got a weird glowing yellow splash on it. It felt that regardless of how much bleach I used or spray wash I put on it, it wasn’t going to come out.

Naturally, I couldn’t wear it anymore until I either fixed it or threw it out. My wife, and my good friend Joe simply told me to just throw it out, but I viewed it as a challenge. It’s a white shirt, the worst that can happen if I use too much bleach is it falls apart (and then gets thrown out) or it gets clean. I may as well condemn it to the trash when it’s actually unfixable, not just a bit dirty.

So, thus began my adventure with getting out stains. After many many washes, using many different techniques (soaking in bleach, coating stain in spray’n’wash™, washing in hot water, washing in cold water, beating it up, etc.), it actually came out. Every time a little more came out, and then suddenly the shirt was clean. I could’ve thrown it out, but because I had faith it could be cleaned or at least wouldn’t throw it out until it was totally destroyed, it actually got cleaned. I saved my dress shirt.

This is actually the shirt. It’s so kawaii!

Sadly, this happened again with a a favourite t-shirt I got in Japan. I think I spilled salsa on it, and didn’t realize it until it was well dried into the shirt. To make matters worse, I had run it through the dryer with the stain still in it.

And… this shirt was coloured and had a cute panda bear design on it. I couldn’t simply use bleach or so I thought, but at the same time, I was determined that I’d rather destroy the shirt (bleach it to white, have it fall apart, etc) before I threw it out. I wasn’t going to condemn it until it was actually destroyed.

Amazingly… it got cleaned after a few dozen washes, and it didn’t fade either.

It was a great feeling, actually. Both times I saved a favourite item, simply by not giving up on it.

These shirts were cleaned about a year ago, but for some odd reason it all came to mind when I heard the gospel reading at mass. The famous one most of us have heard where Jesus saves an adulterer from being stoned to death.

Specifically this line stood out to me:

“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

John 8:10-11

It seems to me that Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t ignore wrongs that people commit, or ignore the fact that we ourselves all have stains. This story is saying for us to not give up on ourselves or others. That we can all be washed clean. He doesn’t say she is without sin, nor does he forgive her sins. He says, “it’s ok, you are worth saving, go forth and try, and don’t get more dirty.”

He saves her from being condemned not for simply being unclean, but because they believed she was uncleanable.

I think we have been called to repentance because we don’t need to wear the stains either. We all are sinners (ie. that famous Catholic guilt), but that doesn’t mean we are all condemned.

So many people give up on getting rid of their habits that, in the end, make their and their friend’s and family’s life worse. Even more seem to think the Catholic guilt that points out these stains somehow makes them worse, that they can’t be cleaned, so why point it out. They get viscerally angry at those who can see the stain and introduce them to the tools that can be used to get out the stain. Yes, sometimes these tools are hard on us, just like bleach and spray’n’wash can be hard on fabric, but it’s possible to get it out. You just need to keep on trying.

And once you get it out, you are actually free and clean. You are actually forgiven.

I think that’s the great feeling so many converts to Catholicism say after their first reconcilliation, that’s the feeling so many Catholics who have lost their way don’t understand anymore.

In today’s easy come, easy go mentality, it’s easy to forget that. It just takes a bit more effort and you can get out the worst stains you can imagine.

And once those stains are out, you’ll have back your favourite thing.

You’ll have back yourself.

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The modern sinner, the modern pharisee

The Pharisees Question Jesus
The Pharisees Question Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a Christian, you may be aware of the gospel reading where Jesus is sharing dinner with various nefarious (and outcast) types. In the words of the Pharisees:

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”

Luke 15:2

They sat on the sidelines and shunned him because they felt the company he kept was unclean. However, he was only obeying the same law that he lays out quite clearly elsewhere in the new testament: “To love your neighbour as yourself.” While Jesus was open to welcoming all types into his circle – sinners, saints, liberals, conservatives, men, women, jews and gentiles. The Pharisees were busy setting up their own silos to isolate themselves from those they felt were sinners; standing on the sidelines insulting those who were more open than them.

These days, with the Internet and global communication, we are exposed to more ideas, peoples and diverse interests than ever before. This is truly an age where we can get to understand varying viewpoints and try to understand and love our neighbours more than ever. Yet, I feel we have degraded back into the days where we find similar minded people, and isolate ourselves from those “sinners” we disagree with. Those who don’t follow our limited set of rules that we have arbitrarily set for ourselves. We’ve become pharisees.

My theory is that because we are able to connect with so many more people, we are also able to connect with more people who share precisely our view of the world. Thus, it is easier for us to find only those we agree with and not have to put in the effort to try and understand those we don’t understand (or even disagree with.) It’s simply easier. You just parrot the same lines that allow you to dislike people among your small social group and then you all feel a bit better about yourselves. You simply block them on Twitter when they state something you disagree with, argue with them during Thanksgiving, dismiss any reasons behind their beliefs or banish them entirely.

Sadly, I must admit that I’ve fallen into this trap from time to time. Yet, what does that gain me? What does that gain us? It’s easy to see that every group has their own “sins” and their own “sinners.”

Some eco-minded folks demean those who shop at Walmart and not Whole Foods as if they were adulterers. Simply not comprehending that for some families that is the only way they can get by week-to-week.

Some fiscal conservatives insult those who require food stamps and government assistance as if they were lepers, claiming some undefined sin has placed them into this category of life.

Some educated liberals insult those who view the world differently than them and have some ideas that actually are quite well founded when you dig down to find why they believe them as if they were blind beggars in the street.

What does this accomplish for us as a society, other than make it harder for us to work towards common goals and still feel good about ourselves because it’s not our fault?

Further segregation, less cooperation, and eventually more crises without any capacity to solve them. If you dismiss anyone who you disagree with as a sinner, you inherently have less knowledge, less manpower and less capacity to work towards a common goal.

To use the Christian reference, Jesus not only could work with sinners, but sat down at the same table and ate with them congenially. How many could sit down at a table with those we disagree with and share a congenial meal? I know I’ve seen enough vicious arguments over family dinners to know it feels like very little these days.

Perhaps though, we should try to change that.

While I cannot speak for other religions, although I believe many have similar constructs. If you are Christian, we have all been invited to the table of plenty; Invited to sit down with sinners and saints, understanding that even though you are also a sinner, you are forgiven; This is precisely how amazing works are accomplished and communities like the 1 billion strong (and growing) Catholic church came to be; not by excluding sinners, but welcoming all with open arms.

For myself, after much frustration from doing the opposite, I have found that the best thing is to try to extend that forgiveness to those you disagree with and even those who have harmed you, listen patiently to what they have to say, and don’t dismiss them as yet another sinner, even if you believe they are wrong.

Even those you disagree with can have many valuable things to say.

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