Formulas for Life

How to Be Happy: 63 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be HappierMost people like to say that their ultimate goal in life is: to be happy. One common formula for attaining happiness is:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

This formula states that your happiness depends on your level of expectations minus the reality you face. In other words, the lower your expectations, or the better your reality, the greater your happiness. Now, how you define a “better” reality is up to you, but this can include your health, family and friends, income, career and material possessions.

Although happiness is desirable, it’s not realistic to be happy all the time. There are times when we’re bored, sad, angry, depressed or frustrated. Ironically, happiness means realizing that you won’t always be happy.

A more realistic state to strive for is something subtler than happiness: contentment. Contentment is not happiness; it’s a state of mind where you view your life positively and are satisfied with what you have now, while at the same time recognizing that you may want more in the future.

Returning to the formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations: if we replace Happiness with Contentment, we get: Contentment = Reality – Expectations

However, this formula doesn’t explain what affects our expectations. For that, we’ll need 4 more formulas.

Formula #1: Expectations = Unacceptance – Acceptance

Acceptance is viewing things, people and events in their current state with no desire to change them. Unacceptance is the opposite; it’s an intolerance for the way things are.

This formula states that the more in life you accept and the fewer things you don’t, the lower your expectations will be, and the greater your contentment.

Things, people and events that you can choose to accept include:

  • your family members, friends, co-workers, and spouses
  • where you live
  • you job, health and age
  • your physical possessions

Most of these you have no control over. The ability to recognize the things you can and cannot control is the basis for the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Contentment is knowing that the only thing you have control over in your life is how you see your life; in other words, believing is seeing.

Formula #2: Expectations = Regret – Hope

Regret and hope are mirror images. Regret is disappointment over the past; hope is optimism for the future. The less regret and more hope you have, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.

Although regret and hope are opposites, one thing they have in common (and which relates to acceptance) is that they involve periods of time you have no control over. We can’t change the past or directly change the future. We can only live in, and therefore change, the present, realizing that the present is the past of the future.

Formula #3: Expectations = Ingratitude – Gratitude

Gratitude (or thankfulness) is one of the most important keys to contentment. Being grateful means not just accepting people and things as they are, but appreciating them as they are. It’s practically impossible for contented people to be ungrateful and for miserable people to be grateful.

The more grateful you are, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.

Formula #4: Expectations = Selfishness – Selflessness

Closely related to gratitude and ingratitude are selfishness and selflessness. Selfishness is thinking only of yourself; selflessness is thinking of others instead of yourself. There’s nothing wrong in thinking for yourself, but if you think only of yourself, you’re selfish. Finding the balance can be challenging: as the sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

The more selfless you are, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.

The Pleasure Principle

In addition to these formulas, there’s another one many people live by, one which directly impedes their contentment: Happiness = Pleasure – Pain

People believe that to be happy, they need to have as much pleasure as possible and avoid pain at all costs. This is due to a misperception that pain and pleasure are opposites; they are not.

Ask any parent what’s the source of their greatest pleasure and they’ll likely answer: “my children”. Then ask them what’s the source of their greatest pain, and, again, they’ll likely answer “my children”.

Every meaningful pleasure in life requires painful efforts, often over years. To have the pleasure of graduating from college or university, you must endure painful years of learning. To have the pleasure of succeeding in a career, you must endure the pain of finding work, followed by years of work, which can often be painful. To have the pleasure of a successful marriage, you must endure the pain of finding a mate, potential break ups and working to improve yourself and your relationship.

This is not “short term pain for long term gain”. It is long term pain for longer term meaningful gain. Therefore, we must discard the Happiness = Pleasure – Pain formula and replace it with a new one.

Call to Action

Knowing that painful actions ultimately lead to contentment, and recognizing that our expectations influence our contentment, we can reveal the final formula.

Formula #5: Contentment =  Painful long term actions3 – Expectations

As the formula indicates, positive painful actions needed to accomplish meaningful pleasures exponentially affect contentment. For example, you may need to take 5 painful long term actions to achieve one of your life’s goals: 53 equals 125; such is the power of action.

You can increase your contentment further by lowering your expectations through having more acceptance, hope, gratitude and selflessness and less unacceptance, regret, ingratitude and selfishness.

Wisdom is knowing the right price to pay in pain to get the right pleasure. The final portion of Hillel’s quote is “And if not now, when?”. This is the ultimate call to action and the only true path to contentment.

See the source image


Movements to insanity

If there’s one name that’s synonymous with chess, it’s Bobby Fischer. Although he was an exceptional player, there were others who could have beat him if they’d been given the chance, but he refused to play them. Why then is Fisher so associated with chess? He’ll certainly be remembered for defeating the Soviets at a game they dominated for decades. However, he’ll also be remembered for the same reason the Titanic is associated with ocean liners and the Challenger with space shuttles: they were all disasters and we tend to remember disasters more than successes.

I recently read Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. The title neatly summarizes the book: a fascinating but ultimately dismal story of a man who was brilliant at chess but little else.

Born in Chicago into a family of modest means and growing up in Brooklyn, Fischer had a troubled upbringing. Abandoned by his father, his mother often struggling to make ends meet, chess became a refuge for him as a child. He quickly rose through the chess ranks, reaching a pinnacle with his historic defeat of his nemesis Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Champion in Reykjavík, Iceland.

With his remarkable success, Fischer instantly became a world-wide celebrity. However, his stubbornness and perfectionism led to his downfall. He rejected many endorsements that today would be worth almost $30 million U.S. Having achieved his dream to be world champion, he’d given no thought to what would happen afterwards. With no clear goal in life, he drifted aimlessly.

Living near poverty and surviving on the kindness of others, in 1992 he played a rematch against Spassky in the former Yugoslavia. The game brought about the wrath of the U.S. government who charged him with breaking the sanctions against Yugoslavia, in place due to the Bosnian War. He was briefly detained in Japan but eventually found refuge in Iceland, which took pity on him and allowed him to settle there.

Most likely schizophrenic, Fischer’s mind continued to deteriorate. His delusional and paranoid antisemitic railings and his joy over the September 11, 2001 attacks were further signs of his disturbed mind. Unfortunately for Fischer, paranoia, often a symptom of schizophrenia, is infused into chess. Each player has no way of knowing what their opponent intends to do. Paranoia is constructive in chess but destructive in the real world.

Other chess players who suffered from mental illness include:

  • Russian Soviet grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi: claimed he played a dead man
  • Polish chess grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein: suffered from schizophrenia; jumped out a window because he thought a fly was chasing him
  • Austrian Chess master Wilhelm Steinitz: claimed to have played God through a wireless connection, and won

Perhaps most similar to Fischer was U.S. chess champion Paul Morphy. Only a few years after winning the world championship in 1858 at age 21, he wandered the streets, aimlessly muttering to himself. Like Fischer, Morphy was probably schizophrenic; was a genius who stopped playing at the height of his career; spent the rest of his life in obscurity, and died relatively young.

The obvious question is: does chess cause mental illness or attract those who have it? The answer may be both. Of course most chess players are mentally sound. However, some people who have difficulty relating to others and who are quirky, obstinate and somewhat autistic may be attracted to the game, viewing it as an escape from the real world.

Quirky individuals have also been attracted to the computer and software industries. Chess and computers have similar qualities: both are logical, abstract, systematic, unemotional entities that do not criticize or judge.

Chess, like computers, is binary. You either win or lose a tournament (although you can win, lose or draw a specific game.) The building blocks of chess (the squares) are black and white. The building blocks of computers are zeroes and ones. There are 64 squares on the chessboard, or 26. All computing storage is also measured in exponents of 2, for example, 1 megabyte equals 220 bytes.

Life, however, is non-binary; it is full of uncertainty and doubt. People who see the world in black and white (as Fischer did), are blind to the many shades of grey in between, and colour blind to all else.

Fischer’s downfall teaches us that technical skill alone is not enough to succeed. Many highly technical people fail because they don’t have the mental skills needed in the business world, including: empathy, social skills, personal communication, the ability to work with others, open-mindedness, positivity, listening ability, professionalism, dependability and flexibility.

These skills are called “soft skills”, in contrast to “hard skills”, the technical skills such as computer programming or accounting. The irony is that for many people, the “hard” skills are easy and the “soft” skills are hard. The way to improve soft skills is no different than improving the hard ones – practice and experience. A person who finds it difficult to interact with others must practice interacting with others. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s through discomfort that we grow.

Fisher died in 2008 from degenerative kidney failure, after earlier refusing medication and treatment. He was 64, one year for each square on the chess board.

It’s easy to see how chess can drive someone with an underlying mental condition like Fischer over the brink. The first two moves of a game have 400 possible combinations. That number grows exponentially after each move. The total number of possible moves (excluding those that wouldn’t make sense) is 1040, which looks like this:


This number is 10,000 trillion trillion trillion, about the number of atoms in the solar system.

To play chess is to play at the edge of a black hole; to play with infinity; to play, as Wilhelm Steinitz claimed, with God almighty.

State of the World

Step into Liquid is a remarkable 2003 documentary of the worldwide surfing community. Watching surfers as they glide through water is visually stunning. Surfing is so mesmerizing because it transfers the act of movement on solid ground to liquid ground. The surfers appear to be not just on another plane but another planet.

Water is so essential that there are different words for its non-liquid states: solid water is ice, snow and sleet; gaseous water is steam, vapour, mist or fog. There are no other common words that describe something in three states; for example, solid butter and melted butter are both butter.

The three states are everywhere. A situation can be fluid. To experience flow is to be in a state of positive creative energy. A watered down version of something is weaker than the original. Thoughts and memories dissipate like gas until they are solidified through words, drawings, photographs and videos.

Investments are liquid if they can be easily solid. Cash itself is solid, but what it represents, its currency, is not. Aside from the contents of your wallet or purse, money does not exist physically but only as digits in a computer file. However, currency is a solid form of energy. We expend energy through our work. This energy is converted into currency. Therefore currency represents the solid state of our work. Like matter and energy, currency cannot be destroyed but only converted from one form to another: to products and services, or to another currency.

A dependable person is solid; one can be on solid ground, give their solid support or have solid knowledge of something. Someone may be adrift (as though floating through water), wet behind the ears, or drowning in work or debt, making them a real drip, which may get them steamed, and make their talk of changing their ways all gas.

There are other people between solid and liquid. They are flexible: solid enough to be relied upon, but not so solid that they are reluctant to experiment. They go with the flow but if they are too flexible, they become more liquid: they are soft, making it hard for them to give you a solid.

Time is an ever-flowing stream, a prisoner can serve hard time while an event may last three solid hours, although that may be stretching it. (I’m not sure what causes this discrepancy in time’s state but am sure there are solid reasons for it.)  Einstein proved that time is relative. It can be stretched and compressed but we don’t notice it because the distortion is so tiny.

Time is not a liquid because liquids cannot be compressed: if you tried filling more water into a bottle than it could hold, the bottle would overflow or burst. However, you can compress steam into that same bottle. Therefore, time is like a gas; it can be compressed and is something we move through effortlessly.

Einstein also proved that space and time are two facets of the same thing: space-time, the fabric of our universe. Just as time is like a gas, so too is space, again, because we move through it with no resistance.

The world is fluid, while the earth remains solid. Both reside in that complex gaseous mixture of space and time. Such is the state not only of our world but our entire universe.


Chance Connections

Quantum computing is the latest and strangest development in supercomputers – computers that perform incredibly complex tasks. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke mused that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Quantum computing is not magic, but dangerously close. It is based on two bizarre principles: superposition and entanglement.

Superposition involves probabilities. Classical computing is based on the binary system of of 0s and 1s. All computer code and electronic devices run on this system; if you go deep enough into the code, all you will see are 0s and 1s (called bits), and nothing in between. A bit therefore is the smallest unit in a computer program.

Quantum computing uses a special type of bit: a qubit. A qubit, like a bit, can have a value of 0 or 1. But it can also have both these values at the same time. This is superposition – the ability of something to be in more than one state simultaneously. We can’t know what state it is in until we observe it; until then, all we can do is assign a probability of it being in a certain state.

Entanglement is an even more bizarre aspect of quantum computing. It refers to the phenomena that if you were to measure a qubit, it changes what you see in another, no matter how far apart the two are. For example, if you see that the value of one qubit is 0, then the value of another entangled qubit billions of kilometres away becomes 1. There appears to be a mystical force connecting the two particles. Einstein called entanglement “spooky action at a distance”.

Quantum computing sounds like science fiction, but it is not. Companies including IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel have built (or are developing) quantum computers. As with early classical computers from the 1930s and 1940s, quantum computers are beastly machines, with many wires and cables protruding in all directions. Additionally, they must operate at near absolute zero, (the temperature in outer space), about -273°C.

The potential applications of quantum computing are limitless. Because of their quantum nature, they will be billions of times more powerful than the most powerful supercomputers today. They will be able to solve problems or create applications that traditional computers simply cannot, including:

  • artificial intelligence & machine learning – systems that can think, reason, and make rational judgments and recommendations, including medical diagnoses, farming and energy efficiency
  • molecular modeling in chemistry and physics
  • cryptography – creating unbreakable online security
  • financial applications including investments,stock market and economic analyses
  • weather forecasting

To recap, qubits (the building blocks of quantum computing):

  • exist in many states simultaneously (superposition)
  • are mysteriously connected together (entanglement)

Because quantum computing is attempting to discover the underlying principles of reality, it follows that these two principles should reflect reality, that is, existence should also be based on the fact that things:

  • exist in many states simultaneously
  • are mysteriously connected together (even when far apart)

At first glance, this seems absurd. Our everyday experience tells us that things exist in one state, and that if you change something, it’s not going to change something else, especially if it is far away.

But if we look closer, we can see that these are the same principles upon which the greatest and most pervasive technological innovation is based. It’s the technology that has changed the world more rapidly than almost anything else. It’s the technology that has toppled governments and powerful leaders, established friendships, solved mysteries while creating new ones and caused untold heartbreak, joy, sadness and everything in between. It’s the technology that you are using right now: the Internet. While the Internet does not represent all reality, it has come to represent and directly influence a large portion of it. It has become, quite literally, the “new reality”.

Related image

On the Internet, the same website appears differently for each user, depending on the device they are using. On certain sites, different information appears. For example, travel sites will present different prices depending on a user’s location, computer, previous queries and so on. This is superposition: the ability of the same thing to exist in different states.

Online, we are all connected, regardless of distance. When you do anything online (make a purchase, send a message, check your banking transactions, and so on), it makes no difference where you perform this action. Cyberbullying is based on the premise that sending a hurtful email or text has the same effect whether the sender is 5 metres from the receiver or 5,000 km. An action in one area affects another area – there are are no distances online.

It’s therefore no surprise that IBM has developed an online quantum computer. That is, a computer that is based on the principles of superposition and entanglement now exists on a platform that is based on superposition and entanglement.

The answer to the age-old question what is reality appears close at hand: probabilities and connections. The question now is what will happen after we’ve built computers that are millions of times more intelligent than us?

Will it lead to a utopia where all of the world’s problems are solved by benevolent machines? Or will we end up in an Orwellian nightmare, where heartless machines enslave humanity, or, worst still, we use machines to enslave others?

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Place your bets…


It’s All Relative

Related imageI left England with my family arriving in Canada at the tender age of 6. As a result, I have no English accent, but do have a Canadian one. Accents are strange things: they exist only because of their relative nature. A foreign accent is only heard when someone leaves one country for another. British people do not hear a British accent when they speak with each other; to them, their voices sound normal; it is we Canadians who have the accent.

The perception of things not as they are by themselves, but in relation to other things is ingrained into our very being. It is the foundation of fairness and equality, concepts that shape our world.

Related imageEven a monkey knows what’s fair. In an experiment, five monkeys were given different food amounts as a reward for completing the same task. When one monkey saw that she had received a smaller reward than another monkey, she became enraged and threw the food at the lab worker conducting the experiment.

You could easily conduct a similar experiment with people, but make it even simpler. In a room of ten people, walk up to each person and give the first nine of them $10 for no reason. Then give the last person $5. How do you think that person will feel? It doesn’t matter that they got free money; the person will be angry that they did not get the same as everyone else.

The striving for fairness can lead to other absurd situations. It is not uncommon for government workers in one city to demand the same salaries as workers living in other cities. For example, policemen in one city will often demand the same salary as policemen in another, even though the job requirements and cost of living are different. As a result, salaries continually spiral upward as governments acquiesce to each group.

Students at most liberal universities are extremely sensitive to the notion of fairness. They gladly participate in demonstrations railing against “the top one-percenters” who they view as a pampered class that has stolen money from the other 99%, and demand various forms of wealth distribution. While they have some valid points, any professor teaching a class of these students could crush most of their arguments with this simple question:

“Since you all believe in wealth redistribution, at the end of this course, do you agree that everyone should be assigned the same grade that will be the average grade of the entire class?”

Related imageThe idea of relative value permeates our entertainment. ‘3%’ is Netflix science fiction drama set in a divided future world. In the poorer part of town, people live in poverty and misery. However, each year, they are given a one-time chance to participate in “The Process”, a series of physical and mental challenges. The top 3% of candidates are allowed to move to The Offshore, a paradise where all their needs are met. It is the conflict between the haves and have-nots that make it a fascinating series.

The theme of fairness appears throughout literature: H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine describes the future world of the Eloi race, who live in comfort above ground, and the Morlocks, a savage race that lives underground. George Orwell’s 1984 describes an elite class ruling over impoverished masses in a future dystopia.

Class struggle is a study in relativism. The poor and oppressed struggle to be better off because they know that a “better off” exists relative to their current state. This is why totalitarian countries such as North Korea work so hard to block access to outside information. The “Dear Leader ”knows that if his oppressed citizens believe the rest of the world is the same (or worse) than their country, they will not agitate for change. “Unfair” must have a “fair” to begin with.

Ultimately, relative value is about geography. The irony is that most Westerners protesting against the 1% are actually part of the 1%. They don’t realize this because they are looking at the top 1% annual income earners in their country, which for Canada is $235,000. But why compare only to the country you live in?

According the Global Rich List, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness of global inequality, if you make $42,000 Canadian, you are in the top 1% of the world’s income.

Because you can always change the size of the group that you are comparing yourself to, and thereby change your percentage ranking, relative value is meaningless. If people spent as much time and energy comparing themselves to those less fortunate than those more fortunate, the amount of happiness in the world would increase. Unfortunately, the number of people who perform this comparison is only about 1%.

No time for facts

Related image

Physics strives to get it together, from the incomprehensibly tiny to the unimaginably enormous. Physicists are seeking to unify two major models of the universe: general relativity and quantum theory, in a grand quest for a Theory of Everything.

General relativity is the study of the very large: planets, solar systems and galaxies. Quantum theory is the study of the very small: subatomic particles, and particles within those particles called quarks.

The problem is that the laws for one of these areas don’t work in the other. The main conflict is that general relativity says that you can predict the behaviour of an object, whereas quantum theory says you cannot, that the best you can do is predict the probability of its behaviour. It’s as though there are two completely different civilizations within the same country, each with their own laws, yet somehow living together in harmony.

Related imageThe closest physics has come to a grand unified theory is string theory, which states that everything is made up of tiny vibrating strings of energy that exist in ten dimensions. The way that a string vibrates determines the type of particle it is, from an electron to a gravity particle. It’s a terrific theory; there’s just one little problem – there’s no way to prove it. This is because strings, if they even exist, are far too small to be detected. If an atom were enlarged to the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree.

Image result for destroyed clockThere is, however, another Theory of Everything proposed by British astrophysicist Julian Barbour. He believes, incredibly, that there is no such thing as time, that instead we live in an eternal series of moments he calls “nows”. As Barbour states: “If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.” There is no past and future, just the present;  time is an illusion. Removing time from the equations allows you to unify the two theories. Like string theory, this theory of timeless physics is fascinating and impossible to prove.

The world of information faces a similar unification challenge. As with physics, there are two types of information: small and large.

Small information includes all facts such as:

  • a person’s name
  • how to fix a computer
  • where New York City is located
  • your phone number
  • when you have to go to the dentist

Large information is comprised of all philosophy and wisdom including explanations of:

  • why we exist
  • our purpose in life
  • good and evil
  • right and wrong
  • whether God exists
  • what is love
  • whether there is a soul
  • what is reality
  • what happens after we die
  • the best way to lead a happy, meaningful life

As with physics, these two worlds of information appear completely incompatible. How could knowing how to tie one’s shoes have anything to do with knowing our purpose in life?

Related image

The solution is to apply Barbour’s view and remove the time component from information. If you could know all the facts in your life at the same time, you would gain wisdom. What converts a fact into wisdom is the point in time that you gained knowledge of the fact.

To understand this further, we know that in life, often things don’t go the way we want, for example:

  • you’re stuck in traffic and late for a job interview
  • the person you want to date is not interested in you
  • someone is keeping you waiting

These are all facts, all small pieces of information.

Other facts are:

  • you didn’t get the job, but later got a much better one
  • you weren’t able to go out with the person you wanted to, but ended up with someone else who was a better fit
  • because someone kept you waiting, you avoided a car crash

1The only difference between these two sets of facts is time. Now imagine if there was no time, and that you knew all these facts simultaneously. You would gain a much larger piece of information, which is that a negative event can actually be positive.

You may also gain the wisdom that:

  • More important than what happens to us in life is how we react to it.
  • Worrying about something does not help.
  • Everything happens for a reason, even though it may not be obvious at the time what the reason is.

People often lament: If only I had known then what I know now. A fact becomes important when we become aware of it in relation to something else. A person gains wisdom by making mistakes and learning from them, or by seeing others make mistakes and avoiding them.

Wisdom, therefore, is the knowledge and interpretation of facts outside of time. This is why certain ideas, such as love, goodness, charity, mercy, justice and fairness are considered timeless.

World on fire


Life, The Algorithm


In a most remarkable product demonstration, Google unveiled their improved artificial intelligence (AI) application, Google Assistant. In the demo, the application phones up a hairdresser and, using uncannily natural-sounding speech, peppered with “uhms”, is able to book an appointment by conversing with the hairdresser. In doing so, Google Assistant appears to pass the Turing Test, developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing in 1950. This test postulates that if a person can’t tell whether they are communicating with a human or a machine, then the machine has passed the test and therefore “thinks”.

In the demo, it is a machine that (or perhaps who?) is calling the business to book the appointment, and the individual answering the phone is human. However, this could easily be reversed, so that it is a person who is calling the business, and the machine answering for the business.

This raises an interesting question: what if it there was a machine at both ends of the conversation, that is, one Google Assistant calling another? If the AI engine running both assistants is advanced enough, they could, in theory, carry on a meaningful conversation. Although this might seem like the ultimate AI prize, there’s a much simpler solution: using a website to book an appointment. Granted, it doesn’t have all the nuances of a regular conversation, but if the goal is simply to book an appointment, then the user’s computer simply has to connect with the business’s.

Image result for industrial revolutionThis use of advanced AI is part of a larger phenomena: the degree to which our daily tasks have been automated or performed by others. Up to a mere 200 years ago, people made and repaired what they needed, including clothes, tools, furniture, and machinery, and often grew their own food. The industrial and agricultural revolutions changed all that. Goods could be mass-manufactured more efficiently and at a lower cost. Food could be grown on a mass scale. We’ve moved away from a society in which individuals made their possessions to one in which we let others do this for us.

As recently as the 1960s, many people maintained and fixed their cars; most people today leave this to a mechanic. We have outsourced nearly everything. Although we have gained much in quality, price and selection, in the process, we have lost many practical skills.

This trend continues as more and more processes are automated or simplified. Coffee makers that use pre-packaged pods are easier to use than regular coffee makers. However, it would be a sad thing if entire generation did not know how to brew coffee the regular way. Even brewing coffee “the regular way” still involves using a machine that others have made and that we cannot fix, powered by electricity that we do not generate, using beans that we can neither grow or process ourselves, and water that is automatically pumped into our home using an infrastructure that we cannot maintain. The parts that make up the parts that make up still larger parts are designed and built by others.

At its heart, Google Assistant uses algorithms, sets of sequential rules or instructions that solve a problem. A simple example is converting Celsius to Fahrenheit: multiply by 9, divide by 5, and then add 32. The algorithms used by software applications are, of course, millions of times more complex than this example, because they use millions of lines of code.

See the source imageAlgorithms are incredibly omnipresent. They are used extensively by online retailers (such as Amazon) to recommend purchases for us based on our previous purchases and browsing habits. Facebook uses them to track our activity and then sell that data to others, often with dire results. Algorithms are also used in two of the most important decisions a person can make: whom they love (in dating applications) and where they work (in résumé and interview screening applications).

Algorithms have even used to determine how likely a criminal defendant is to re-offend based on attributes such as race, gender, age, neigbourhood and past criminal record. But is it ethical for a judge to use an algorithm to determine the length of a sentence? This happened in the case of Eric Loomis, who received a six year prison sentence in part due to a report the judge received based on a software algorithm.

Society is facing the same trade-off that it faced 200 years ago as it moved from personal to mass manufacturing: convenience and comfort versus knowledge and independence. As we relinquish more and more power to machines and let algorithms make more of our decisions, we achieve more comfort but less freedom. We are, bit by (computer) bit, quietly choosing to live in a massive hotel. It’s pleasant, you don’t have to do much, but it does not prepare us for life.

For in life, there is often sadness, pain and hardship. There is no algorithm that tells us how to deal with these things, nor will there ever be.

Related image

In our image

See the source imageIs a ship which has had all its parts replaced over many years still the same ship? This question is explored in Theseus’s paradox which asks whether something remains the same even if all of its components have changed. Other examples include an axe that’s had several handles and blades and a broom that’s had several heads and handles.

Moving from things to people:

  • The rock groups Yes, Heart and Blood, Sweat & Tears do not have any of their original band members – are they the same band?
  • Canada’s landscape and population have vastly changed its founding in 1867; is it the same country as it was back then?

It all depends on how you define “the same”. If you mean “something containing all of the original components”, then these things are not the same. However, if you mean “with the same general identity or name”, then these things are the same. The paradox is that both these things can be true. Canada as an idea never changes; Canada as a thing always changes.

With human beings, the question becomes even murkier. Most of the cells in the human body are replaced every 7 to 15 years. Is someone the same person they were 15 years ago? The answer may be found in our technology.

Image result for computer memoryLike human memory, computer memory is also ethereal. It is stored as a complex set of magnetic charges, which in turn represent the binary code that drives the system. The entire system is dynamic. Magnetic charges are continually moved around so that each time you use the device, the layout and order of the memory changes. However, from the user’s perspective, it is still the same device, and nothing has changed. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because the whole is constant regards of where and what those parts are. Therefore, even though from a material perspective the device has changed, from a perceptual perspective it has not. Perception overrides materialism.

The same is true in people. We don’t define ourselves solely as physical beings but also as spiritual ones, with a soul we are born with that never changes. Even though physically we’re not same as we were years ago, spiritually and emotionally, we know we are the same. It is this knowledge that keeps us sane. People who perceive their soul (or personality) as changing are often diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. It is as though the hard drive in their brain is being regularly replaced with another.

It is no coincidence that the essence of our existence is also in our technology. Those of faith believe God created mankind in his own image. Mankind, in turn, inspired by this, has created machines in his. Perhaps this is why the the entire contents of a hard drive, DVD, or CD is called a disk image.

Related image


Binary Worlds

Related image

“There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

— Unknown

This joke is best appreciated by geeky math-lovers. 10 is actually the binary representation of the number 2. This cheeky statement is a good application of the principle that you must know your audience when developing content.

Related imageBinary code is comprised solely of zeros and ones. The performance artist Laurie Anderson muses that while no-one wants to be a zero, everyone wants to be number one, and that there’s not much range between these two for everyone else. We should therefore get rid of the value judgements associated with these numbers, especially considering that the world runs on binary code which is made up entirely of, you guessed it, zeros and ones. Almost all electronic devices, from computers, to smartphones, to TVs, ovens and cars are programmed using binary code.

Information is binary, and not just because it’s stored on a computer. It is because either the user understands the information, or they do not. If they don’t understand even one of the steps in a 7 step procedure, they don’t understand the procedure. Each step in the procedure is a link in a chain, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Just as a school course can be a pass/fail type (with no numeric or letter grade), every piece of information goes through a pass/fail test in the reader’s mind.

Related imageOne of the most dangerous activities on earth is leaving the earth: space travel. For this endeavour, NASA takes a binary approach. Before a launch can proceed, the flight director asks each department manager (guidance, surgeon, control, and so on) their status. Each manager replies by saying go or no-go; they never say “almost go”.

Now the opposite of binary is analogue, and it is analogue that is the source of much grief.  For while binary represents certainty, analogue represents uncertainty.

Anything that works intermittently is analogue. Cars that sometimes don’t start. Computers or phones that are buggy. Locks that sometimes stick. If something works all the time, we use it. If it never works, we discard it. But if it occasionally works, this is the analogue of never-ending frustration. It occupies a special place in hell where something works just well enough to keep it, but not badly enough to discard it.

But that’s not the half of it, for binary applies not only to devices and systems but to people. A person either marries their partner or they do not; a defendant is either guilty or not guilty; a politician either wins or loses an election.

The only thing worse than a negative outcome is an unsure one. Uncertainty, with all its angst, fear and misery, has no time limit. Breaking up is better than the endless unsurety of potential marriage; guilt better than the dreaded uncertainty of guilt; losing an election better than the turmoil and chaos of an inconclusive result. A painful resolution is less painful than no resolution. Closure ranks above all; there’s no room for ajar.

As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” This is the ultimate binary expression.

Image result for Yoda

The Documentation of a Lifetime

The recent passing of my father resulted in many things. A funeral, speeches that tried to summarize his life (as if one can summarize a life within a few minutes), burial, grief and mourning. It also resulted in one of the largest, most complex and challenging documentation projects I have ever encountered.

My father was a brilliant man, university educated, successful, intelligent, a great speaker, and also extremely organized. He left behind various papers contained in two 2-drawer filing cabinets, two small lockboxes, and a couple of cardboard boxes. The paperwork included various legal, insurance, tax and financial information, bills and statements, and other assorted papers. I estimated there was about 3,000 pieces of paper in total; a literal tsunami of documentation.

Now, to be fair, it was somewhat organized. Items were placed in drawers marked for the lawyer and the accountant. However, when I began actually reviewing the papers, I discovered that the collection was sheer chaos.

The main problem was that there were many papers which did not need to be retained. These included bills and statements that were many years old and therefore had no value. In addition, there were many of the informational inserts and brochures that come with statements which are generally quite useless. You can find the information within these either online or through a phone call. I estimated that I discarded almost 95% of all the papers, filling several garbage bags.

The remaining papers had to be meticulously examined and properly filed. I purchased several cardboard banker’s boxes and a box of 100 legal-size file folders and began organizing the papers into individual folders, such as: Banking, Insurance, Investments, Utility Bills, Legal, Tax, and so on. The entire process took about three full days. I had to reverse-engineer what my father was thinking, and then organize the papers accordingly.

However, that was not the end of the project. For the purpose of organizing all these papers was so that that my mother could bring them to her various professionals (her lawyer, financial advisor and accountant) and be able to easily supply them the required documents. Organizing the documentation was not enough. I also had to create an entire set of electronic documents that described these paper documents, how to manage them, questions to ask her professionals, important things to do and so on. I also created documents of a more personal nature, including links to the various obituaries and speeches, and inspirational information, a sort of “Widow’s Toolkit”. It sounds strange, but my mother found it helpful.

However, this is not not the end of this documentation project. My mother and I will continue to work together so that when the time comes, all of her paperwork and information will be in order. Never again do I want to go through the pain of organizing a mountain of information after a parent has died. It is an unbearably tedious and painful task.

Therefore, everyone, no matter what age, should organize all the information that is important in their life. This includes:

  1. A to do list describing everything that needs to be done upon your death.
  2. A list with phone numbers of all your important contacts including your lawyer, accountant, financial advisor, spiritual leader (priest, rabbi, imam, and so on) and your primary doctor.
  3. Information about all your bank accounts, credit cards and financial investments.
  4. Documents for your lawyer – your will, marriage, birth certificate, passport, health card, and power of attorney in this folder
  5. Life insurance information, policies and amounts
  6. Tax documents for your accountant – these include old tax returns and related documents, which you must keep for 7 years
  7. A living will describing how you want to be treated if you are terminally ill, instructions for your funeral, and any parting words for your loved ones
  8. Your home and auto and insurance policies
  9. Logins and passwords – these should be stored in a password protected document and should include not only your online passwords, but passwords for your phone, tablet, computers and any of your other devices that require a password
  10. Info about your Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, or any other pensions you have
  11. Health plan information
  12. A list of all calling cards, rewards cards, memberships and subscriptions
  13. Documents related to your property: the house sale, deed, mortgage, assessment, letters of sale, and land survey
  14. If you have pre-planned your funeral (which is advisable to do to spare your family a financial and emotional burden), information about the funeral home and the package you have selected
  15. TV, phone, realty tax, hydro, gas and other utility bills
  16. Miscellaneous documents
  17. Warranties and any other important bills

Any financial, banking, insurance, legal, tax and other important information should include:

  • the name of the institution
  • the account number(s)
  • the balance of the account (if applicable)
  • the name and phone number of the primary contact

Organize the printed documents in a clear, easy to follow file folder system, with the folders in alphabetical order. At the start of every year, discard any documents you don’t need.

Maintain as much information as you can in a single password-protected Word document, then give your loved ones that password! Review this document every year (perhaps on your birthday) to ensure it’s up to date.

By documenting your life, you’ll ensure that your relatives will not have to go through the pain, frustration and anguish of having to sort through, decipher and decode this mountain of information.

In doing so, you’ll finally solve life’s ultimate documentation problem. And don’t you want to enter heaven with all your docs organized?