Business Ideas: An Amazon Mailbox

So I ordered a bunch of stuff from Amazon this year and each time it arrived, same thing happened.  My phone rings in the early afternoon and it shows that someone is buzzing at my front door.  Since I’m not home and it doesn’t make much sense to buzz a stranger into my building, I don’t.  Then I get home and magically, there’s a package waiting for me at my front door, inside the building.  I’m not upset… almost a little impressed at their ability to get in.

My building is fairly low-key and everyone keeps to themselves.  I don’t think there’s a significant risk of people stealing my package as it sits in front of my door for a few hours but not everyone is so lucky.  There are countless videos of people stealing package from door steps, including delivery employees.  I’m not actually sure what the rules are around this but we clearly need to find another solution.  Enter the Amazon Mailbox.

The idea is that this box would be larger than your average mail box, so that it’s capable of receiving much larger packages.  I’m not entirely sure what the optimal size would be.  Perhaps a review of the average dimensions of packages shipped would shine some light on that.  There’s a good chance that we’d find a stat like 95% of packages are less than 2’x2’x2′.  If that’s the case, make it just a bit bigger and offer some XL options for those looking to receive larger packages.

So a giant mailbox eh?  Well there should probably be more to it than that.  A big mailbox is just going to be a target for theft if there aren’t any security measures.  I’m thinking a solid lock that can be opened through an NFC panel.  That way a delivery driver can receive a one-time, time-locked code which will allow them to make the delivery.  Once the package is in and the door is closed, you’re back to being the only one with the ‘key’.  If someone somehow manages to get in with a code that they weren’t supposed to, good chance it’ll contain all the metadata necessary to know who it was.

Good enough?  Not quite.  In this age, you probably need a security camera.  Perhaps one built into the actual mailbox with a birds eye lens that gives you full view of your doorway.  If it was motion activated, you could have a recording of every delivery as well as anyone else who was creeping around your front door.  In the mobile age, it would be also be nice to have a notification arrive to your phone when your mailbox has been opened so you can quickly check the footage and make sure everything was straight forward.

So where do these things go?  If you own a home, there’s probably enough real estate at the front of your house to make this work without too many issues.    Maybe it gets bolted to the floor or door.  The problem is that E-comm seems to be most heavily used in areas of high urban density.  The idea of retroactively installing these things in old apartment or condo buildings seems like an uphill battle.  I think there’s good reason to make this a standard in new buildings, but you would probably need some traction first.  Hmm…

I’m genuinely not sure if something like this would work but I’ll put it out there.  What if you created your own PO box?  Rent a space and load it up with as many of these Amazon mailboxes as logistically possible and charge something like $10/mo for a rental fee.  You might even get away with having the place fully automated.  An NFC panel on the front door could let you in while keeping uninvited visitors out.  Load the place up with security cameras and have them tethered into a central security monitoring system with clear instructions around showing up and sorting out the rift-raft when it happens.  If you have any issues, just use your app to start a customer service chat.

I can’t help but want to run the numbers for a sec… Lets say a 1000 sqft location and assume these Amazon mailboxes are 2’x2’x2′.  Without any room to walk, you could place 500 of these on the floor.  Stacked up 6′ high, that’s 1500 mailboxes.  Accommodating for walkways, let’s cut that in half and say 750 mailboxes total.  750 @ $10/month would be $7500/month in income.  Lower than I would’ve liked.  Maybe there’s a way to increase the density here.  Maybe there’s a formula that would leave us with an ideal square footage for a location.  Either way, the overhead would be extremely low if you could avoid having to staff it.  Electric, IT, security… and general corporate overhead.  I found an average rate of $23/sqft for retail.  Applying that here, we’re looking at about $2300/month in rent.  If you could keep monthly overhead for each location under $2500, you have a pretty healthy margin.  That said, 750 mailboxes @ $10/month still only amounts to $90,000 in annual revenue.  Hardly worth the effort for most.  Even with multiple locations, you’d need 12 just to break $1,000,000 in revenue.

But maybe it’s not about modern PO boxes.  Maybe that’s the penetration strategy for being able to manufacture and sell these boxes.  If you could get people using them and excited about their convenience, it’s only a matter of time until people start requesting them in their homes.  If you could get some major property development companies on board, you could have these installed in every new condo tower they build.  If the average building has (guessing) 40 units and these boxes come at a cost of $250 each, that’s a $10,000 for every new building that goes up.  If you get to the point where most new builds include a ecomm-ready mailbox, that would likely build enough traction for these things to go mainstream.  If they go mainstream, e-comm becomes that much more effective (and attractive).  If e-comm gets that much more effective and attractive, that many more people will want to buy these boxes.

All speculative, of course… just an exercise in problem solving 🙂

 

Our Most Sensible Division

I do a lot of thinking in the car.  It’s almost like a shower for me.. very meditative.  Yesterday, I literally pulled over to make a note of this thought.

The western world is clearly divided right now.  Democrats vs. Republicans.  Liberals vs. Conservatives.  Blue vs. Red.  Left vs. Right.  Sometimes it seems downright silly… like division for the sake of division.  I can confidently say that I don’t identify with either side.  One champions a compassionate approach but fails to act intelligently.  One champions an intelligent approach but fails to act compassionately.  Neither seems very interested in accountability or honest conversation.  And neither seems to realize that for one side to win, both must win.

With tribalism continuing to be one of my biggest personal frustrations, I’m motivated to understand it.  When I think about why people choose to be divided, the reasons usually aren’t that hard to find.  More often than not, it seems to be driven by fear.  And that fear tends to be driven by scarcity in some way.  Perhaps a scarcity of resources, opportunity, or safety.  In a position of abundance and security, we are much more likely to extend a helping hand to a stranger.  In a position of scarcity and fear, we only take care of those close to us.  As scarcity and fear increase, that circle gets smaller.

This would suggest that in times of peace and abundance, things like Left vs. Right don’t exist.  Yet the liberal and conservative mindset have existed since well before modern politics.  While the politicians certainly have a hand in playing up that narrative, today, perhaps there’s something else worth exploring here.

Humanity seems to be defined by some mode of evolutionary progress.  If you look at what separates our species from other intelligent animals, it’s the rate at which we’ve progressed.  Genetically, we’re almost identical to chimpanzees but in a more practical sense, we couldn’t be more different.  Comparing humans to all other known life, we seem to have stumbled onto the secret sauce of forward progress.  Yet we have such a hard time agreeing on which direction is forward and what should be considered progress.  Maybe, whatever this secret sauce is, it exists primarily is the collective subconscious.

If I were to guess at what that secret sauce might be, I would say it’s how we’ve evolved to instinctually understand the status quo.  Quite simply, there are those who would prefer to maintain it and those who would prefer to challenge it.  Generally speaking, you’re more interested in maintaining the status quo when you’re happy with your situation and challenging the status quo when you’re unhappy with your situation.  Sounds rather sensible doesn’t it?

I had a Eureka moment yesterday: You can’t challenge a status quo which doesn’t exist.  I’m big on challenging the status quo and I’m no stranger to the frustrations of those who look to maintain it in the face of progress.  Yet I was never dismissive of their value to the bigger picture and I think I now understand why.  The status quo seems to provide the foundation on which forward progress is most likely.  If everyone looked to challenge the status quo, what would they challenge?  Sounds like chaos.  Ironically, maintaining the status quo seems like an exercise in order.  Perhaps forward progress is a fine balance between chaos and order.

When I step back and think about how this perspective applies to modern society, a lot starts to make sense.  The right tends to be defined by their conservative approach – aka maintaining the status quo.  The left tends to be defined by their liberal approach – aka challenging the status quo.  Many of history’s great cultural and political clashes can be distilled down to those who wanted change and those who wanted to keep things the same.  And yet both were and probably are necessary.

One dynamic which ties in here is the dichotomy of intelligence vs. compassion.  I’ve found that the left behaves significantly more compassionately than the right while the right behaves significantly more intelligent than the left.  It has crossed my mind that those who lean more towards intelligence are more likely to find success in their lives, especially in their careers.  This would lead towards greater financial prosperity and a higher quality of life.  If you’re aware that you’re enjoying a higher quality of life than the average, would you not be motivated to maintain the status quo?  Would you not be more motivated to support those around you who have used intelligence as a path to success?  Would you not begin to assume that a path of intelligence is more rewarding than a path of compassion?  But what if you leaned more towards compassion?  What if you were sensitive to the injustices in the world and were motivated to pursue equality and social justice more than income?  And what if you were willing to accept financial disparity for the sake of helping others?  And what if you’re aware that you’re enjoying a lower quality of life than average because of that sacrifice, would you not be motivated to challenge the status quo?

The political division of our species sucks.  It often leads me to think that the best solution is no division at all and that we’re destined to arrive at some variation of a cybernetic hive mind.  Perhaps that’s still the case, but maybe not.  There seem to be some evolutionary divisions which have proven rather practical.  Males and females might be the most classic example.. having evolved a remarkably well balanced partnership over the course of evolution (albeit a little bumpy at the moment).  When it comes to the progress we’ve made over the last 10,000 years though, I might just attribute that to the balanced partnership between those who look to challenge the status quo and those who look to maintain it.

If we could learn to see one another as partners in forward progress instead of obstacles between us and power.. I can’t help but think everything would run a little more smoothly.

 

It’s Not a Disability, It’s a Genetic Variance

Over the last few years, I started realizing how much trouble we were having communicating with one another.  Less so for close friends and family.  Much more so when it comes to discussing ideologies with strangers.  Having failed at so many of these conversations, I may have learned something.  If we want to have more meaningful conversations, we need to do a better job of being honest with one another.  And that includes using the most accurate language available to us.

I hear the word disability tossed around a fair bit.  There now seems to be a disability for everything.  It’s like if you’re anything other than the ‘perfect’ human blueprint, you are somehow lesser.  And this is your disability.

Fuck that.

I read something interesting a few months ago about the victim mentality.  Someone was asked why it had gained in popularity and what made it attractive.  The answer was rather simple:  it was an easy way to be powerful.  The traditional route to power was through hard work and success, and it usually took  years.  In a society that celebrates and protects victims, why invest the time and effort into building yourself up through accountability and responsibility when you could get the same result through claiming your victimhood?  Why put in the long hours and make the hard decisions when you could look for ways in which you’ve been marginalized and call foul?

Disabled?  Why even try?  Why would you want to overcome your challenges?  Why would you want to try and find your gift?  Why not tell the world that you got a raw deal and that it’s their responsibility to make it up to you?

Because of Stephen Hawking and everyone like him.

Put him in a pro football game and I’ll show you someone who is appears severely disabled.  Place him within an academic environment where he can research, study, and share his knowledge… I’ll show you one of the most gifted individuals of the last century.  It’s only a disability when you apply yourself to the wrong task.  That means it’s not a disability, it’s a misalignment.  Your genetic variance needs to be aligned with the right task for you to do what you do best.  I would imagine Gronk would be about as successful at teaching theoretical physics to a group of PhDs as Hawking would be at catching an end-zone pass.

I think it’s about time we start making an effort to understand the situation for what it is.  There are plenty of illnesses which are real.  There are all kinds of foreign substances which can be introduced to your body which will mess your shit up.  That’s where it’s important to understand how to heal the body and bring it back to a sustainable equilibrium.  But I can’t help but think that this is very different from most if not all physical or cognitive ‘disabilities’.  Those aren’t disabilities, those are genetic variances.

When I try to think about myself from the perspective of disability, I can see plenty that’s wrong with me.  I get pretty bad pollen allergies every year.  My vision isn’t perfect.  I qualify as dyslexic.  I have a series of lingering sports injuries including chronic lower back pain and metal in my arm.  I have a heavily deviated septum.  My sense of smell sucks.  I binge eat.  And etc. And etc. And etc.  And it’s not like I’m unaware of them.  I’m working on improving the ones I can, and not stressed about the rest.

It’s funny, I’m thinking back to when I grew up and it the was kind of neighborhood where nobody was short on disadvantages.  Everyone was aware of what was making their lives hard.  We didn’t complain or expect someone else to change it though, we just assumed the deck was stacked against us.  What we would do was use that a measure of whose success was worth celebrating.  It wasn’t about who had the greatest accomplishment, it was about who did the most with the least.  I can’t help but be grateful that I was raised with that perspective.

When I think about who I am and what I’ve been given, with the perspective I have today… I see something pretty cool.  All things considered, I think I got a pretty good roll of the genetic dice.  But like anyone else, it’s a mixed bag.  The way my brain is wired allows me to do certain thing exceptionally well while it struggles with others.  Dyslexic?  Why?  Because my brain is wired to do things differently than someone else’s?  And what if I can do these things better than the average person?  Is it a disability?  Who’s to say that my unique genetic variance doesn’t simultaneously display symptoms of dyslexia while allowing my mind to do all kinds of other cool things that others struggle with

We are all our own deviation from the human blueprint.  Each variation of that blueprint comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.  And those advantages and disadvantages wills shift depending on circumstance.  The best thing we can do for ourselves is understand where we have the potential to be exceptional at and apply ourselves to the best of our abilities.   The best thing we can do as a society is to support the discovery of what makes us different, and then to support the pursuit of being our absolute best at it.  Through this, I can see a happier, more productive world.

Whatever it is that you are, there is something you do better than anyone else. If you spend your time doing that, you are not disabled, you are gifted.

Intelligence Vs. Compassion

I’ve done a lot of thinking on these two ideas over the last year or so.  The western world seems rather divided right now.. democrats vs. republicans.. liberals vs. conservatives.. blue vs. red.. left vs. right.  When you consider how much these individuals agree on, the division seems rather silly.  Yet it persists.  I have no doubt that the existing political system and those within it perpetuate this division for their own gain, but there’s something more to it than that.  They didn’t create that division, they’re just the ones exploiting it.  There’s something that exists beneath that.. something biological.

I wrote an entry a while back on thought vs. emotion.  Introspectively, I could tell that they were two different cognitive processes within my brain.  It led me to suspect that they had different roles within the human experience.  I understood that you couldn’t use emotion to do things like solve math problems or learn languages.  I also understood that happiness wasn’t a logical thought.  Seemed rather likely that the thoughtful part of the brain would pursue happiness while the emotional part of the brain allowed you to enjoy it.

Ironically, a few months later, a friend gave me a book for my birthday that discussed this topic.  The book, A General Thoery of Love, was written by a small team of MDs and PhDs in clinical psychology.  To my surprise, the authors were big fans of poetry, love, their families, and all the other soft stuff you might not associate with a scientific mind.  I must say it was done quite well and taught me a great deal about how the mind works.

One of my biggest takeaways was how obvious evolution was in determining the fundamental structure of the human brain.  The base of our brain is referred to as the reptilian brain and  controls things like your vitals and balance.  This also represents our most base instincts.. things relating to survival like the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… reproduction.  What the reptile brain seems to lack though is any sense of compassion.  I was rather surprised to find out that reptiles are known to eat their young.  Apparently the part of the brain that tells us to be kind to our kin didn’t come until afterwards.

After the reptile brain came the limbic brain.  It’s likely that this evolution occurred during the early evolution of mammals.  The theory is that when life made the jump from laying eggs to carrying their young, the brain needed to adapt appropriately.  Mammals were taking a different approach to survival, one which required them to care for their young until they were capable of fending for themselves.  They needed a way to communicate.  They needed to develop a language.  Enter the limbic brain, the emotional center of the human brain today.  The limbic brain was one of facial expressions, touch, sound, and all these other little nuances that allowed mammals to instinctively understand how one another felt.  Not a language in the classic sense, but very much a language nonetheless.

The most recent evolution of the brain is the neocortex.  It would be convenient to say that that the neocortex is unique to humans but it isn’t.  It’s present in great apes, dolphins, elephants, and most other mammals.  What seems to makes humans different is how much of brain’s mass is dedicated to the neocortex and the size of our brain relative to the size of our bodies.  As one might guess, this is the part of the brain is responsible for what we typically consider to be human intelligence: logic, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness.

Effectively, through millions upon millions of years of evolution, our brain has equipped itself for survival, compassion, and intelligence.  In that order.  And yet the vast majority of the human brain is dedicated to its most recent addition: intelligence.  That evolution has happened rather quickly considering how long it took for the other parts of the brain to develop.  Nature rarely does anything by mistake.

I’m grateful for having learned all this because it’s given me a rather useful insight into the difference between thought and emotion.  It’s also shown me how little the general public seems to understand or appreciate how the brain works.  How often will someone talk about how they feel towards something when they’re actually thinking about it?  How often will someone claim to be using their feelings to navigate something abstract?  How often are we asked how we feel when we should be asked what we think?  I suspect there’s something worth observing here.

As someone who prioritizes thoughtfulness, logic, and truth, I’m probably more easily frustrated by this dynamic than others.  As a result, I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit and have noticed something worth sharing.  Throughout the course of recorded history, I’ve noticed a shift from emotional to intelligent.  I’m unsure if it’s a result of an ongoing biological evolution in the brain, or a gradual appreciation for what intelligence allows us to do.  Realistically, it’s probably both.  If I were to guess, natural selection favors intelligence.

Religion might be the easiest example here.  Religion has existed in some shape or form for about as long as human civilization.  Our brains are programmed to identify patterns, and once we do, we can’t help but use our imaginations to assign meaning to them.  As soon as we were able to recognize the significance of things like the sun and stars, we couldn’t help but try to tie them into one grand narrative.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why religion is such a complex topic.. perhaps in some way, it serves as a chronology of intelligence vs. compassion.

There was a point where religion was about community and worship.. this general idea that if you were kind and compassionate to each other, your god would be kind and compassionate to you.  Over time, intelligence allowed us to realize that if we were kind and compassionate to each other, that was probably all we needed.  In that time, god went from an individual who was supposed to be loved or feared, to something much more abstract.  Since then, religion has become less about worship and more about philosophical teachings relating to morality.  Unfortunately for these religions, they often attributed their teachings to the word of god rather than what they most likely were: a reflection of how humanity understood morality at that point in history.  As a result, we were put in a position where humanity’s collective understanding of morality was evolving and god’s wasn’t.  How could that be.  Something wasn’t right.

As the centuries went by, the intellectual crowd kept coming up with better and better reasons to stray from religion.  The politics, the corruption, the lack of evidence, the logical fallacies, the tribalism… it just looked like a big pile of nope.  Even the renaiisance experienced a big shift from religion to the sciences.  And now, in the 21st century, religion looks to be as irrelevant as ever.  The world’s brightest minds are notoriously non-religious.  The vast majority of people STEM careers are non-religious.  The vast majority of business and industry leaders are non-religious.  The vast majority of recognized philosophers are non-religious.  The only leaders that I can think of who tend to be religious are political leaders.  As their actions tend to show, it’s a function of votes and job security more than loyalty to the cause.

The better we get at using the intelligent part of our brain, the better we get at discerning the difference between real and not real.  As we get better at discerning between real and not real, truth and reality become increasingly important to us.  As truth and reality become increasing important to us, the fictions of religion becomes much less attractive.  While I think this movement away from religion is justified if not an essential part of our evolution, we should be mindful not to throw away the baby with the bath water.  Religion was among the first establishments to champion the ideas of kindness, community, and morality.  Those ideas are worth bringing with us to where ever we go next.

When I think about where we are now and where we go next, I can’t help but think that computers are rather central to the conversation.  When I think about how computers were designed from the beginning, I can’t help but think that they were designed as an extension of our neocortex.  Computers are logical by nature.  If a program has a line of code which contains a logical fallacy, it creates an error.  And while our computers inch towards levels of artificial intelligence that rival our own, there’s an obvious absence of emotion or survival instincts.  This idea that one of humanity’s most significant creations is an extension of one of our most significant evolutionary advantages…. doesn’t strike me as a coincidence.

I’ve been thinking about writing a book for a couple year now.  It’s working title is the Vulcan Republic.  The idea is a mash-up between Plato’s Republic and the Vulcan philosophies from Star Trek.  One takes place in the past, using logic in search of how one would create a Utopian society.  The other takes place in the future where a species just like humanity embraced logic and created that utopia.  Considering the path that we’ve taken over the course of our evolution, is this so unlikely?  Is it so far fetched that intelligence is our guiding star?

MBTI helped me understand how strong the division is between thinkers and feelers.  I know this all too well as the feelers tend to get upset with me for thinking too much and feeling too little.  But then I ask them why I should feel more and think less, and they don’t have a reason.  They just feel that way.  As it turns out, the part of the brain that knows why things happen is the thinking part.  And unfortunately for me, there are statistically more feelers than thinkers.  But I suspect this is changing.  I suspect that every generation, on average, has been more thoughtful than their parents’ generation.  I expect that computers will help kids to learn and embrace logic faster that previous generations.  I expect that the kids growing up today will respond to the highly emotional conversations around current events by learning to be more thoughtful and sensible in the way they discuss ideas with one another.

That’s a future that excites me.  But it doesn’t excite everyone.  The more emotional crowd aren’t always the biggest fan of computers, logic, or intelligence.  I’m often faced with situations where they consider these things to be threatening.  They’ll use words like empty, cold, or robotic.  They seem to assume that intelligence and compassion are binary, that it’s one or the other.  To that point, I think they’re wrong.  I think that we could all be reminded of a simple truth: The most intelligent decision someone can make is a compassionate decision, and the most compassionate decision someone can make is an intelligent decision.

Intelligence and compassion tend to operate like a map and compass.  Intelligence is a tool that helps you read the terrain and understand the most effective way to move from point A to point B.  Compassion is like a compass which might not tell you much about where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but it’ll always give you a sense of direction.  Too often, people will lead with unintelligent compassion, resulting in good intentions but progress in the wrong direction.  Watching the social justice warriors embolden the conservative crowd reminded me of this.  But at the same time, there are those who lead with intelligence and a lack of compassion which lead to productive actions which are counter-productive to humanity’s collective goals.  You don’t have to look much further than Thanos or any bond villain to see how that plays out.  I suspect that for real progress, we need to embrace both, and understand that when we are at our best, they are one and the same.

Nature rarely does anything by mistake… Survive.  Be compassionate.  Be intelligent.

 

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 3)

This marks my third attempt at trying to tackle a subject that I started over a month ago.  Part of me feels like it was a failure that I couldn’t do this in one try.  Another part of me feels a bit foolish for thinking I could create any semblance of a summary on the topic (regardless of attempts).  And yet another part of me appreciates that I took a crack at it and for having learned a few things along the way.

For over a month now, I’ve been asking myself why truth and reality matter.  I’ve been reading other peoples’ interpretations of the matter.  I’ve watched TED talks on it.  I’ve talked to friends about it.  And I’ve even revisited uncomfortable conversations where this was the theme.  I keep coming back to the same thing:

If truth and reality don’t matter, what does?

That’s the answer that popped immediately into my head the first time I asked it.  I thought it was a novel response, but also a bit of a cop out.  Answering a question with a question is always a bit cheeky and I was looking for something a bit more concrete anyways.  But I kept coming back to that.  Finally, I thought to explore that direction a bit further.  And as is usually the case, while in the shower, I made progress.

It comes down to this frustration of mine.  When people feel that we’re all entitled to our own truth and our own reality… that we don’t all share a truth and a reality… I lose the ability to connect with them.  The example that comes to mind first is talking to religious fundamentalists about the age of the earth.  The scientific consensus is 4.5 billion years old while various religious texts suggest only a few thousand years old.  If you were to approach one of these individuals and suggest that the earth might be much older than they believe, they might tell you that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.  If you were to provide them with evidence which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying that god put that there to test their faith.  If you were to provide them with logic which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying god put you there to challenge their faith.  No matter what you might do or say, it only confirms their narrative.  Rather than continuing to try and understand the reality which we all live in, that person has committed to their tribe’s interpretation… one in which I struggle to find common ground.

I suspect this theme is well understood by those who work at mental health institutions with more extreme disorders.  When someone shares a reality with you, there’s an alignment.  With an alignment, things like communication, empathy, intuition, and chemistry are possible;  and can even become effortless.  When that alignment is absent.. I’m picturing a therapist trying to communicate with someone who has severe dementia.  They exist in two different worlds.  Both have a genuine belief that their world is real, but the two exist in vastly different interpretations of the same reality.

Without a shared reality, we lose the ability to connect with one another.  If we were chess pieces, reality would be our chess board.  If you’ve decided that you’re a checker, we’ve likely lost the ability to interact in a meaningful way.  And if too many people start to think they’re playing checkers, we lose the ability to play chess.  Chaos.

But how do we know we’re chess pieces and not checkers?  Isn’t it important to explore alternative explanations?  Is that not a primary purpose of freedom?

The hard truth is that we’ll probably never know for certain whether we’re playing chess or checkers.  The way in which our minds sense, interpret, and then hallucinate our realities, there always exists the potential that this is all a grand dream (or a simulation being run by advanced aliens).  And the hard truth we must accept is that this possibility will always exist and we must understand it to move forward.  Yes it’s a possibility, but one which has only ever existed in theory.  Everything we’ve ever observed would suggest that our reality is real.  Technically it is still an assumption, but it’s the assumption that all other assumptions are built on.  If we can’t agree on this, nothing else that we might agree on would have any basis in reality (because we couldn’t first agree on reality).

I often look at the universe through the lens of building blocks.  Matter has building blocks.  Math and physics have building blocks.  Even logic has building blocks.  When I’m thinking about connecting with old friends, things are seamless.  The building blocks of trust and familiarity are already there.  If I presented a new idea, it would be received fairly.  If the information was good and the logic was sound, my friends would look at that as an opportunity to learn and expand their understanding of the universe.  If it was bad information and faulty logic, they would make fun of me relentlessly.  Either way, this requires us to understand that we all live in our own interpretation of a shared reality.  What truly exists in my reality also exists in theirs and vice versa.  None of our interpretations are entirely accurate or complete, but some interpretations are more accurate and more complete than others.

If I were to try and have a conversation with strangers in which I was challenging their beliefs, one would hope that we would still agree on the basics.  Basics like the laws of physics, the value of logic, and that we all exist within a shared reality.  I would go so far as to say that if we all had a deep understanding of each, we’d be far more constructive in resolving conflicts and learning about the world around us.  Unfortunately, that’s not often the case.  Instead, I’ve found that people prefer to maintain their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or reason.  And that’s where you start migrating away from the reality which we all exist in and start to build walls around the interpretation of reality you’ve created for yourself.  While potentially harmless at times, I can’t help but think that this, as a way of life, is deeply counter-productive to humanity’s goals.

 

I think I’ve made a case for why reality matters, but truth isn’t necessarily the same thing.  I’ve been grappling with the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Coming up with definitions we can all agree on is important to conversations like these.. otherwise we’re using the same words but talking about different things.  It’s important to have that common ground.  While there are nuanced differences between a universal truth and a true statement, I think that from the right perspective, they’re both the same.

A true statement would be something to the effect of looking down at your shoes, seeing red shoes, and then saying that you are wearing red shoes.  But what if your shoes weren’t red?  What if you had a genetic variance that caused you to see your green shoes as red?  You would see red, meaning that it was a true statement.  But if everyone else saw green, are the shoes not green?  I think this is the nuance between a true statement and a universal truth.  A true statement is an honest recollection of your interpretation of our shared reality while a universal truth is something which is true for everyone, whether or not they realize it.  And I can’t help but think that they are still the same thing.  Something to the effect of when someone makes an inaccurate ‘true statement’, it’s an act which occurs in reality.  If something occurs in reality, that action is true to everyone; ergo, the statement is false but the action is true.

And perhaps therein lies the monumentally confusing feat we’ve been struggling with.  With all of our genetic and cognitive differences, we’re bound to interpret our shared reality differently from one another.  It’s like we’re photographers, all taking pictures of the same scene.  While only one scene exists, we’ll produce a variety of pictures.  Some will be a difference of perspective, some will be a difference of equipment, some will be a difference of technique, and some will come up with their own wacky shit.  That’s not just OK, that should be encouraged.  But we must remind ourselves that our pictures are not the scene.  Our pictures are glimpses of the scene, just as the worlds which our minds project are only glimpses of the world we all live in.

Logic is how we find truth.  Truth is how we find reality.  And perhaps finding reality is a good start to understanding our place within it.

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 2)

I take small breaks from writing here and there, but this one was different.  I had written the first half of this entry with the intention of writing the second half shortly after.  I struggled though.  The rest of my life continued to bombard me with questions about what I thought truth and reality were.  I wanted to be sure before I wrote anything else.  I’m still not.  But fuck writers block…

 

Last night, I was hanging out with one of my favorite people who happens to be going through some of the same challenges I’m going through.  She came from a more conservative background, earned a business degree, worked in insurance for a while and eventually came to realize that there was a more liberal side to life that she had been missing out on.  She’s now a yoga teacher who recently competed her schooling on holistic nutrition.  She made the transition from the corporate crowd to what she calls the ‘woo woo’ crowd.  It seemed like she was pretty happy about how it was all going.. peace and love to everyone.  What could be wrong with that?

She dove in head first.  She was greeted by sisterly love, magic, wonder, positivity, gratitude and all kinds of good vibes.  From what I understand, it can be a very nice place.  But she started to struggle a bit during some of the teachings when things got a bit religious.  Ironically, much of this ‘new-age’ crowd borrows from ancient practices.  From crystal healing, to chakras, to rituals that largely sound like witchcraft.  At one point, she was at a yoga course which taught her to save the blood from her menstruation and pour it by a tree in a counter-clockwise fashion under a full moon.  I might have gotten some of that wrong, but the point stands.

She told me that some of this was starting to feel a bit ‘witchy’.  Something wasn’t sitting right.. and like that itch that you just can’t seem to scratch, she started asking questions.  Some of those questions were directed at her peers.  Some were directed towards me.  As the weeks have gone by, we’ve both been trying to reconcile the spiritual with the scientific realm.

We know that science exists because science is simply the practice of accurately explaining our reality.  If spirituality also exists, and exists within our reality, it can also be explained through science.  Again, just because it’s possible to explain something through science doesn’t necessarily mean that we have those answers today.  I think there’s something powerful to the idea that spirituality can be explained through science.  Perhaps this separates those of us who are looking for the truth from those who aren’t.

When I think about the idea of science explaining spirituality, I think of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  Reading that book is the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.  It laid out the facts of the universe in such an eloquent way that you couldn’t help but feel a connection to everything else that has ever existed – A ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Simple facts like there being more bacteria cells in your body than human cells can make you question who you really are.  Suggesting that the same breath of air you’re taking now contains molecules of air which were breathed by the likes of Napoleon, Beethoven, and Lincoln reminds us of how interconnected our planet is.  And knowing that we are stardust brought to life… provides all the beauty, wonder, and magic that I need to feel good about my place in the universe.

What were to happen if I were to bring these ideas to someone who was fundamentally religious?  Would they keep an open mind?  Would they engage in a genuine conversation in pursuit of the truth?  If what was discussed made sense to them, would they consider changing their beliefs?

Probably not.

The scientific community has become fairly accustomed to writing off the religious crowd as unreasonable when it comes to challenging their beliefs.  They might be reasonable in other areas of their lives, but their beliefs are their beliefs.

Never in my life did I consider myself to be religious.  I spent most of my high school and university years considering myself an atheist.  Eventually, I realized that despite all the knowledge and understanding that humans have acquired over the years, we were still in no position to determine whether or not ‘god’ is or was real.  As far as I’m concerned, we’ve still yet to come up with a definition of god that we would all agree on.  I liked this perspective though.  It left the unknown within the realm of the unknown.  No undue assumptions.. no beliefs.. just an appreciation of what we know and a sense of curiosity and excitement for what we may learn next.  Add in a learned appreciation for a metaphorical understanding of the universe, and I started calling myself spiritual.

What I knew of the spirit was that while it may have no weight, emit no energy, or cease to exist when our physical bodies die, it was an intangible representation of what made us unique within the universe.  Perhaps there was a connection to the realm of philosophy.  That was an element of myself which I was glad to explore.

As the idea of spirituality started to grow outside of the religious crowd, I was happy.  Being able to understand what’s beyond what we can see and touch is important.  I was very much looking forward to connecting with these individuals and having these conversations.  While I’m glad to have this perspective and share it with those who would listen, I seem to be the odd one out in the world of spirituality.  As I’m starting to learn, spirituality has evolved into its own brand of religion.

When I think of the ‘spiritual crowd’, I’m starting to see them as a counter-balance of the religious right.  Both can be a rather delightful crowd of people, especially if they consider you to be part of their tribe.  But the further you go into the fringes of these demographics, the more radical their viewpoints become.  Hmm… maybe that’s what I’m up against.

One of the more extreme views of the left seems to be postmodernism.  As much as I’ve read, I’m still having a hard time defining it.  Perhaps that’s the point.  In the world of postmodernism, nothing is real.  And if nothing is real, logic and reason can’t really exist.  And if logic and reason don’t exist, truth becomes subjective.

…. And everyone lives their own truth.

There it is.

 

Originally part 2 was going to be my explanation of why truth and reality matters but it looks like I’m going to make this a trilogy.

 

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 1)

Over the last few months, I’ve been bumping heads with the co-founders of my company.  Since I joined, the business has grown beyond their skill-set.  We’re now at the stage where we’re looking to clarify roles and responsibilities and it’s looking like I’ll receive the role of CEO after we close this capital raise.  In that transition though, it’s been challenging for the co-founders to navigate what it means to give up control of their business, for the sake of a better business.

A couple months ago, we brought in an executive coach to help sort things out.  Part of that process was a series of 1 on 1 interviews.  During mine, we touched on something that keeps coming up in my life.  Figured it was time to write about it.

One of the co-founders is a bit ‘woo woo’.  She’s an awesome person in so many ways and we get along far more than we butt heads… but we do butt heads.  As she would say, science and logic can’t explain everything.  As I would say, any true explanation is inherently scientific and logical.  I was hoping the executive coach would help bridge this gap.

When I did the 1 on 1 interview with the coach, I told her that I wished our co-founder would have a stronger appreciation for logic and my affinity for it.  I told her that logic in its purest form was the pursuit of truth.  She replied, “well that may be the case, but everyone lives their own truth.”  I paused for a moment, having heard that a few times before.  Something about living your own truth sounds noble, and righteous, and harmless.  But it didn’t sound very logical.  I asked her to elaborate.  She said, “My favorite color is blue.  That’s my truth.  No matter what you or anyone else may think or feel, that is true to me.”  Without thinking, I replied, “But if it’s only true for that person and nobody else, how true is it?”  She replied that this was going to become a very philosophical conversation very quickly and that we should probably get back on track.  I can’t help but think that we need to start making the time for these conversations.

I’ve given a considerable amount of thought to this idea of living your own truth and her example of someone’s favorite color.  I’ve always weighed it against the concept of truth from Plato’s Republic which behaves as a great illuminator.  One seems subjective while the other seems objective.  I was always under the impression that the truth was inherently objective…

When considering the example of someone’s favorite color, I think the word truth might be a misnomer.  Someone can say that their favorite color is yellow and for that to be a true statement, but does that make it a truth?  Maybe this is the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Or maybe there isn’t as much of a difference as I thought.  When someone declares that they have a favorite color, as long as it is in fact their favorite color, that’s not only a true statement but a universal truth.  No matter where you are in the universe or how you might look at it, that person has a singular preference towards a certain color.  I guess where I struggle is in suggesting an equivalency for the truth that is someone’s favorite color, and the truth that 1 + 1 = 2.  Technically speaking, both are true.  But one of these is a rather arbitrary statement of someone’s preference while the other is a fundamental building block of how we understand our shared reality.  I don’t think it’s fair to refer to them both as ‘truths’.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of hallucinating your reality.  It was novel at first, but once I gave it more thought, it made so much sense.  Your body receives sensory input from our senses and our brain does its best to make sense of it.  It’s why certain types of brain damage can drastically change someone’s perception of reality.  It’s why hallucinogenics can change your perception of reality.  It’s how cognitive differences can change your perception of reality.  It’s why simple bias can change your perception of reality.  Your favorite color, in this context, has nothing to do with the qualities or value of that color, and everything to do with your perception of it.

I like the acknowledgement of everyone hallucinating their own reality because it really does remind us that our understanding of reality is only as good as our ability to perceive it.  It helps make sense of a wide range of perspectives and how cognitive differences can lead to honest, yet flawed interpretations.  There are several cognitive disorders which cause people to hallucinate things which only exist in their reality.  Is that a truth?  If that hallucination only exists in their reality and nobody else’s, is it fair to refer to this as a reality?  There’s a lot of validity to the old saying, ‘perception is reality’, but maybe this is where we need to work a bit more on understanding the difference between reality and our perception of it.

Perhaps truth and reality should be synonymous.  From my perspective, what’s true is  real and what’s real is true.  And that’s separate from perception.  What’s real is the shared reality we all perceive and look to understand.  That’s inclusive of what each individual’s interpretation of it may be.  But that doesn’t mean that someone’s interpretation of our shared reality creates our shared reality.  That would be like saying that because someone’s favorite color is blue, that blue is a superior color.  Yet I run into this all the time.

A few weeks ago, I was at our office with the co-founders and they brought in some special rocks.  They had talked about crystal therapy before and I was skeptical but never went out of my way to rain on their parade.  When they brought them out, they started talking about the energy they could feel from the rocks.  Then they asked if I would like to try.  I said sure, why not.  I followed their directions, tried to sense something, and got nothing.  I was told that I probably just didn’t have what it takes to sense that energy.  I laughed it off and we moved on.

Afterwards, I reflected on why I didn’t take crystal therapy seriously.  Generally speaking, it was because it wasn’t prevalent in western medicine.  I assumed that studies had been conducted and no verifiable evidence was found.  I had also seen more than one debunking show where someone went into a crystal healing session and came out rolling their eyes.  But in this day and age, it’s not enough to rely on the opinions of others.  For all the progress that western medicine has made, it’s deeply flawed in many ways.  It’s no longer reasonable to assume that something is without merit just because western doctors haven’t adopted it.  Reflecting on it now, that was probably never an intelligent assumption to make.

In this day and age, the world of information is at your finger-tips and it’s important to do the research ourselves.  So I did.

I found a study where a group was given crystals, were asked to meditate, and report back on any positive effects they may have experienced.  What they didn’t know is that some of the crystals were real and some were fake.  People reporting on things like tingling sensations, warmth from the rock, or a general improvement in their well-being had no correlation with whether they were holding a genuine crystal or a fake.  There was however a strong correlation between those who believed that crystal therapy was real and the perceived positive effects.  That strikes me as a rather simple, yet reasonable explanation.

Here’s where things get interesting though.  If perception is reality, and their bias towards the validity of crystal healing allowed them to perceive an improved well-being, is that not valid in some way?  Your state of mind can be one of the most powerful factors in promoting healing within the body.  If crystal therapy induces that positive state of mind, and that positive state of mind helps to heal the body, would it be fair to at least consider the crystals to be a catalyst?

This perspective seems to be the most reasonable of those that support this mode of healing but I can’t help but think that this also demonstrates the reality of crystal healing: its a practice designed to deliver placebo effects.  The scientific community and western medicine are quick to dismiss placebo effects when it comes to determining the efficacy of medicine.  Perhaps they’re right to do so.  I think it’s important to recognize the body’s ability to heal itself and to study this element of the human design to its furthest reaches.  That said, I don’t think that healing practices which have only demonstrated placebo effects under controlled conditions should be promoting themselves as ancient, mystical, new-age medicine.

I find it curious that everyone acknowledges snake oil as being a ‘fake medicine’ and that we should avoid recommending it to friends or family for its benefits.  If snake oil was able to act as a catalyst for the sake of delivering placebo effects, would that change things?  And if we can place crystal therapy in the same category as snake oil, why would the ‘woo woo’ crowd be so quick to embrace one yet so quick to condemn the other?

Yesterday, my co-founders showed up to our morning meeting and one of them brought out a pair of rocks which had been infused with ‘quantum energy’.  Admittedly, quantum physics seems to be beyond my intelligence so I hadn’t a clue what it meant.  That said, I was still skeptical that someone had ‘infused’ quantum energy into a pair of rocks that looked like they had been picked up at the beach.  They both held the rocks and said they didn’t feel anything from them, and joked that infusing rocks with quantum energy seemed a bit silly.  They offered the rocks over to me and I declined… something to the effect of “No… no… I”m good.”  And maybe that’s where I should’ve left it.  But I didn’t.

I told them about the study I had read after they brought those rocks out the last time.  I said that its very difficult for me to think that something like this is real when the science behind it would strongly suggest otherwise.  They reacted as if it was a personal attack.  Their responses included, “Not everything can be explained by science”, “I know what I know and nothing that you can say will change my mind”, “well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?”, “well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”   It was like being in the twilight zone.  Worse yet, I never seem to have a chance to actually have this conversation with them.  They’re always quick to say this is unproductive and we should get back to the meeting.  When I suggest setting some time aside to discuss this stuff, they tell me that they’re too busy for that right now.  Maybe I should just let them live in their reality while I live in mine?  That doesn’t seem right either.

“Not everything can be explained with science” is a curious perspective.  As far as I know, science is the practice of explaining things.  That’s not to say that science can explain everything here and now.  Our understanding of the universe is in its infancy.  So much so that every time we make a big discovery, we illuminate that much of the unknown.  But that doesn’t change that every true explanation of our reality is inherently scientific just as every true answer to the question ‘why’, is inherently logical.

“I know what I know and nothing can change my mind.”  I suppose this should’ve been a red flag.  Anytime someone says that their mind cannot be changed, you’re dealing with someone with a closed-mind.  I wish I knew how to open those minds.

“Well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?” I responded with psychology.  I’ve seen mentalists break down the techniques that they use to work their craft and it’s absolutely fascinating.  Those who seem to be the best at this have a remarkable understanding for how the human mind works.  What I didn’t say though, is if someone had the ability to talk to the dead or read minds, why aren’t they putting those talents to better use?  If someone legitimately had those skills, it doesn’t make sense that they would be doing palm readings for $100 a pop or doing shows in Vegas.  If your intention was to make the world a better place, there are plenty of unsolved murders which the police could use a hand with.  If your intentions were to make money, the stock market would be low-hanging fruit.  This idea that psychics have applied their talents outside of these endeavors seems a bit convenient for me.

“Well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”  She has a point.  In theory, science and religion are supposed to exist at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  In practice, it’s much less so.  I find that people often believe in science, that is, they accept it as true without understanding it.  Too often, I see scientific studies with poor methodology coming to questionable conclusions.  Yet to the untrained eye, this science is just as valid as any other.  That’s just not true, and I can’t help but think that this misunderstanding is a catastrophic failure of the educational system.  When you get people to believe in science the way they believe in religion, science becomes vulnerable to the same control mechanisms that exist in religion.

Earlier this week, a mining magnate from Australia was discovered to have been a primary source of funding for scientific studies aimed at denying climate change.  Last week a study funded by the dairy industry was released outlining that dairy was once again good for you.  We don’t have to go all that far back to remember the tobacco companies funding tobacco studies that suggested that tobacco was perfectly healthy.  Perhaps the individuals conducting these studies were scientists in title, but I have a hard time seeing them as scientists in spirit.  They were given a narrative to confirm and that’s not how science works.  Science comes from a place of skepticism.  You look to connect the dots to help explain how the universe works, and once you have a working theory, you do everything you can to disprove it.  Once you’ve done that, then your peers look for different and perhaps more creative ways to disprove it.  And if your theory is still standing after all that effort, the science community grants you a scientific consensus that says ‘yes, this is probably the best explanation available’.  But even then, your theories will be continue to be tested as our knowledge of that subject and the tools available to analyze it evolves.  The idea of this approach being applied to any religion seems absolutely foreign… as it should be.  Religion requires belief and faith.  Science requires understanding and skepticism.

I would be surprised if someone hadn’t come up with this before me, but I’m rather proud of it.  I can draw a rather simple line between science and religion.  Belief is to religion as understanding is to science.  To take that a step further, when you present new information to someone who believes something, they’ll adjust that information to fit their existing beliefs.  If you present new information to someone who looks to understand something, they’ll adjust their understanding to accommodate the new information.  When someone believes in something, there’s often nothing you can say or show them that will change their mind.  When someone looks to understand something, the only thing you need to show them to change their mind is evidence.

Sometimes I consider that belief is some sort of default of human cognition.  You have a certain perspective of the world, you feel more comfortable around information that confirms that perspective, so you seek it out and adopt it.  If your goal is to seek out information which confirms your view of the world, why would you apply the rigor of the scientific method? Why would you work so hard to prove your perspective to be untrue?  My answer is simple. it’s because truth and reality matter.  In part 2, I’ll try to answer why.