If there is anything that this horrible tragedy can teach us, it’s that a mental model is a precious, precious commodity

Back in the mid 1800s, the mathematics community was wracked by debate over non-Euclidean geometry. Can it exist? What does its imply about existence as we know it? How do you even have a sensible conversation about it? The fervent partisanship of a divided geekdom presaged today’s tabs-versus-spaces debate.

tab-space

Pied Piper is rumored to be working on middle-out indentation

To give a sense of how intense was the debate was, consider Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll designed Wonderland as an cautionary tale of the existential dangers to our very conception of reality of a mathematics unbounded from Euclidean oversight (with the Cheshire Cat symbolizing imaginary numbers which vanish into thin air), much the way The Matrix was a cautionary tale of AI unbounded from human oversight (which adds a whole layer of meta to all those white rabbit references).

What brought the debate decisively to an end was Beltrami-Klein’s constructing a real-world model of non-Euclidean geometry: on the hyperbolic side as a pseudosphere, on the elliptical side as great circles. Once an abstract concept can be overlaid onto a tangible model, its feasibility lies beyond doubt.

The power of models works in the other direction, too. The earliest pioneers of microeconomics developed the model for perfect competition by looking at the salient attributes of an existing market – agriculture – and abstracting out the most salient features.

But what makes models really powerful is that they’re not just passive reflections of the idea, but active tools that can produce new insights and spur action.

The book Freakonomics was basically about constructing new economic theories to explain real-world observations, while conversely, Nudge was about anticipating (and steering) behavior based on attempt to anticipate (and steer) behavior based on theoretical models on information and motivation.

OK, but so what?

So in the first post, I set out a goal of defining “spirituality” with the requirement that it avoid any undefined metaphysical terms.

And in the second post, I developed that definition using a model of the mind as a Google Map, consisting of features both objective and subjective, where “science” vs. “spirituality” is defined as the cultivation of the former vs. latter types of features.

 

The payoff in this post: putting that model of mind-as-Google-Map to work as an actual tool in improving one’s mental health.

Case in point: CBT identifies 10 key types of cognitive distortions or negative automated thoughts (NATs). Having social anxiety disorder, my #1 NAT is catastrophizing. Basically, blowing perceived dangers out of proportion, leading to paralysis, passivity, and stress in real time. Which in turn can lead to rumination, regret, and anger.

starwars

and anger leads to terrible, terrible acting

 

The form of that “danger” can vary from introducing bugs if I migrate a partially-tested code change to awkwardness if I approach a woman without any idea what to say.

In our mind-as-Google-Map model, an analogous situation would be seeing red on the road ahead to the edge of the map – which may be only a few blocks – but assuming it extends forever and will hopelessly derail my changes of ever reaching my destination.

Getting back to the committing code / chatting up scenario, the corrective is to take a step back and put the threat into proper proportion. Running through the worst-case scenario to establish a lower bound is helpful: “if the system breaks, you back out the change and replay any interrupted transactions” or “if she doesn’t return interest she’ll eventually go her own way and never see you again which would have happened anyway“.

newyorker

if only

None of which is terribly surprising, but if you have anxiety issues like me, it’s REALLY hard to remember to do in real-time. And the real-time aspect is important, because the optimal course of action inevitably becomes apparent in hindsight, always it’s too late, and quite often at my next therapy session.

 

Which is where the advantage of the mind-as-Google-Map model comes in. Because the analogous corrective operation in the map is, of course, zooming out.

buttonsBut here’s the kicker: those little “+” and “-” zoom buttons are permanent features of the map. Which means the very act of modeling your problem in terms of the map simultaneously models your solution.

And that raises the odds that you’ll remember to take a step back, put the risk into proper proportion, and act accordingly, at that moment. The Google Maps isn’t quite putting the solution directly into your hands, but at least politely coughing “ahem” and tipping its head in the general vicinity.

As an exercise with my therapist last week, I went through the full list of 10 cognitive distortions defined by David Burns and modeled the solution for each in terms of the mind-as-Google-Map.

  1. catastrophizing (above)
    • distortion: overreacting to a perceived danger
    • problem model: red congestion that extends length of road to edge of screen
    • solution prompt: zoom out button
  2. Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 11.51.43 PMmind reading
    • distortion: assuming others think as you do (or you as they)
    • problem model: projecting subjective map features (position, destination, route) onto other’s screen
    • solution prompt: start/end and path selection screen
  3. black-and-white thinking:
    • distortion: seeing events in all-or-nothing terms (usually nothing)
    • problem model: losing the path or having a bad path in navigation mode
    • solution prompt: auto recalculation of a new path
  4. overgeneralization:
    • distortion: concluding negative outcome based on a limited sample size
    • problem model: taking same journey repeatedly, expecting same results
    • solution prompt: refresh button. Google dynamically recalculates results each time from scratch, and results often differ from one minute to the next
  5. mental filter:
    • distortion: dwelling on negatives without seeing positives
    • problem model: red spots of traffic congestion
    • solution prompt: green spots of low congestion
  6. discounting positives: really the same as mental filter
  7. should statements:
    • distortion: judging what “should” be instead of observing what is
    • problem model: not having a destination, or path to destination, or alternate paths, or projecting yours onto others
    • solution model: see Mind Reading solution prompt
  8.  labeling:
    • distortion: applying normative labels rather than neutral descriptions
    • problem model: running late
    • solution model: just provides ETA
  9.  blame:
    • distortion: taking or assigning undue level of responsibility – focus on perception instead of substance
    • solution prompt: updates accompanied by suggested alternatives
  10. emotional reasoning:
    • distortion: reasoning from how you feel at a given moment
    • didn’t get around to modeling this one – perhaps feeling lost between recalculation? pulling over to side of road while recalculating? or setting out on fresh journey before first getting bearing?

 

At some point I might go a step further in developing this model to correlate:

  • mindfulness => navigation mode vs. bird’s eye view
  • fear => stepping out of accepted boundaries private property, unmapped areas, dirt roads, buildings, switching from car to foot
  • having values, priorities, and goals => compass, path, orientation

 

but at this point I’m really tired and really gotta get back to work.

 

And since that’s a kinda weak note to end this 3 post sequence on, here’s this post’s title reference (jump to 1:41):

 

 

 

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Google Maps but not Religious

 

 

I may work at Apple, but I don’t think even Tim Cook would dispute that Google Maps still superior. Yes we’ve made a lot of progress adding public transport, but the inability to enter an arbitrary starting point for a journey is absurd.

Anyway, it turns out that in addition to being a superior app, Google Maps is a rich metaphor for the human mind, and by extension the basis for my new, non-metaphysical definition of the word “spiritual.”

Let’s take a look at this Google map of California.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.49.18 AM

that’s “the I-5” and don’t you forget it

Most of the features you see on the map correspond to an object out in the real world:

  • blue stuff on the left => Pacific Ocean
  • grey line at bottom => Mexico border
  • orange line going up the middle => I-5
  • green bumps => Sierra Nevada

Within the map that is our mind, analogous features would be basic facts and opinions:

  • “the sky is blue” => blue sky
  • “traffic sucks” => accident up ahead
  • “snow quality is great” => 6 ft fell last month

Of course, a map can only capture a fraction of what’s in the Territory, so this map is missing smaller towns like Fremont and Santa Monica.

Likewise, the map in our head doesn’t bother tracking useless info, such as the license plate number of the car in front of you.

googlestreetcar

remember when Google cars were cool? and then Tesla came along

And of course, Google expends great effort to curate its maps to ensure accuracy by sourcing data and sending out those ridiculous looking camera cars.

Likewise for us, we ensure our map of thoughts and beliefs accurately reflect the real world: that process of curation is called science.

OK, so what’s spirituality?

Take a look at this Google Map again, and notice all the things that don’t correspond to objects out in the real world:

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 12.50.33 PM

although you probably will see Prince’s sign all over Castro

  • labels: nowhere in Cole Valley will you see letters “C-O-L-E-V-A-L-L-E-Y” hovering it
  • scale: you won’t see a “2000ft______” line in the Mission
  • handles: nor a giant “+” or “-” sign near 24th street
  • route: Frederick Street is not actually different in color, brightness, or visibility from adjacent roads

In other words, there are map features which do NOT correspond to anything out in the territory. Let’s call these subjective map elements, in contrast to features that DO correspond to the territory, which we’ll call objective map elements.

If “science” is the cultivation of objective map features, then “spirituality” is the cultivation of subjective map features. And while the goal of the former is to improve accuracy, the goal of the latter is to improve usability.

Next post: putting the Google Maps model of spirituality in practice

PS: Holy shit, I just reduced spirituality to UX. Totally didn’t see that coming

 

 

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Don’t Throw out the Bathwater with the Baby Jesus

<ding> “breath deep through your nose … in … and slowly out …”

Since I moved to SF last month, my therapist suggested I check out meditation sessions at a place called the Shamballah Center. I haven’t actually made it there yet, but I found a similar center in the Panhandle a few blocks from my place, plus a meditation group at work that meets weekly during lunch just above one of our cafeterias.

 

<ding> “feel your stomach expanding with every breath…”

I was a bit ambivalent about getting into meditation. The word “spiritual” in particular bothers me, like its vagueness is deliberately designed to provide the comfort of believing in a higher power and afterlife without explicitly declaring a metaphysic (be it Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever) that would then be vulnerable to questioning.

Still, there’s enough hard data on the benefits of so-called “spiritual” practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude in terms of improved mental health outcomes that I was willing to hold my nose and give it a shot. A peer-reviewed thumbs up from the scientific community carries a lot more weight than anecdotal evidence in my book.

 

<ding> “you are on a beach, facing the rising sun…”

I did meditation throughout my childhood as part of karate, but never for more than a minute at a time so not sure that counts as “real” meditation. I’m really not even sure what it’s supposed to feel like, so I’m not sure afterwards whether I did it correctly or not, or how. Actually, often I’m not even sure whether I was awake the whole time. But I figure I’ll roll with it and eventually get the hang of it.

 

<ding> “the sun is now risen overhead, feel it warming your limbs…”

I’m kinda blase about all the trappings – the chimes, the etherial music, the guy in robes quietly providing us practical instructions on how to breath or things to visualize – but it seems harmless enough. I mostly tune it out, not sure if that’s incorrect or if that’s the point.

 

<ding> “repeat these words: I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”

wait, WTF?

Did he just tell us to say “I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Like I said before, I’ve never liked the word “spiritual.” It’s so vaguely defined, just a hot-swap of “religion” minus the cultural baggage. I’ve been an atheist since I realized at 16 that Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman had more to teach about the human condition than all the pastors I’d met up til then.

And this second part of the mantra, contrast our “spiritual beings” against “a world of form and matter” just felt like doubling down on the metaphysical gibberish. It’s one thing to have to hold my nose at this spiritual stuff in isolation, it’s another thing to rub my face in it. It bothered me, and derailed the remainder of that day’s meditation session.

Which was worrisome, because I didn’t wan’t to abandon meditation just because I couldn’t get past its metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Both because I wanted to continue practicing meditation, and because I didn’t like the idea of being someone who’s so intellectually rigid that I had to make that tradeoff.

Well, what if I could be intellectually flexible enough to not have to make that tradeoff?

What if I could define “spiritual” on my own, purely secular terms? A definition that avoids any trace of religion-by-another-name from slipping in. Such a definition would need to:

  1. address what is out of scope of conventional science and technology
  2. directly impact our mental and emotional well being
  3. exist strictly in the physical real world
  4. offer a narrative at least as robust as metaphysics (souls/god/afterlife)

Next post: the definition I arrived at

 

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Toilet Fail

Toilet Fail

On the SW face of Namsan Mountain is Yongsan Public Library.
Set aside people in the hallway not caring to see straight into the bathroom.
Or the urinals not having dividers.
Or pink generally not being the ideal color scheme for the men’s room.
No, what really makes it great?
The TP roll hanging *OUTSIDE* the stalls.

Yeeeeaaaahhhhhh….

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Awww … My First Hater

I just got lambasted by some reader who followed my link through ExpatHELL.  Apparently he was displeased by the lower level of quality, humor, insight, and/or anti-Korean angst compared to ExpatHELL.

Banger: thank you for the kick in the pants.  Now please go fuck yourself.

That said, I really should get back into the groove of writing …

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It’s YOUR Problem. Now DEAL With It.

My mom recently went to DC to give a lecture on ADHD in the Asian American community.

One of her colleagues in the audience sent her the following article:

http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/

The piece started with an intriguing question:

What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

which was predicated on a very thought-provoking observation:

“But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it.”

At this point, I was ready for the article to start talking about during or after college these guys find that their lives simply stall, or at best plateau.  The cause?  The abrupt removal of parental pressure keeping accelerator pressed to the floor and of academic structure keeping the steering wheel straight.  Without these, these men find themselves coasting along directionless at best, stalled and/or lost at worst.

Instead, the article swerved towards listing the typical complaints of the “traditional Asian” household:

“When you grow up in a[n Asian] home,” he says, “you don’t talk. You shut up and listen to what your parents tell you to do.”

and ultimately devolves into just another victimization narrative:

Huang had a rough twenties, bumping repeatedly against the Bamboo Ceiling. In college, editors at the Orlando Sentinel invited him to write about sports for the paper. But when he visited the offices, “the editor came in and goes, ‘Oh, no.’ And his exact words: ‘You can’t write with that face.’ ” Later, in film class at Columbia, he wrote a script about an Asian-American hot-dog vendor obsessed with his small penis. “The screenwriting teacher was like, ‘I love this. You have a lot of Woody Allen in you. But do you think you could change it to Jewish characters?’ ” Still later, after graduating from Cardozo School of Law, he took a corporate job, where other associates would frequently say, “You have a lot of opinions for an Asian guy.”

How disappointing.

What could have been a searing, soul-searching introspection turned instead a litany of cliche grievances:

  • blame your parents
  • blame university racial quotas
  • blame the white-alpha-male paradigm
  • blame anybody but yourself

Bitch, bitch, bitch.  Whine, whine, whine.  Bitch-moan, bitch-moan, bitch-moan.

Of all the characters in the article – the author included – the only one who demonstrated any agency over his environment was the pick-up artist.

Where Are They Now?

A more interesting angle – or at least, the one I was expecting – would have been to play it like an E! True Hollywood Story profile.  You know, where they take former child stars who faded from the limelight as adults, showing how they dissipated into alcohol and memories of faded glory. Think Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone or Haley Joel Osment from The 6th Sense but with SAT scores instead of Oscar nominations.

“These bright starlets showed so much promise as children – where are they now?”

For instance, the version from my life might have charted my descent from high school 2nd degree black belt karate instructor with some stupid number of AP classes to college where, absent parental pressure, I failed class after class until I found myself on academic probation.

Then jumping forward 8 years, finding myself adrift in London: overweight, overworked, stressed and depressed from a job where I was promoted to Vice President at a company whose business I didn’t understand and in an industry that was slowly imploding.

Both phenomena can be traced to the sudden loss of drive (parental pressure) and direction (academic linearity).  And I agree with the article that this trajectory is probably common among Asian American males.

But where I disagree with the article is in deflecting the blame on these external factors: parents, colleagues, female norms of attractiveness, etc.  I’m not saying these aren’t real factors, but that they’re irrelevant.  The article is denying ownership of these problems, which in turn denies agency to fix it.

In my case, I was sick of my job, sick of my city, and sick of my life in London.  But when I acknowledged that this job/city/life were mine and mine alone, I recognized the option of walking away from it all.  Which is what I did: quit my job, went backpacking for a year, and blogged the shit out of it.

Solutions are possible only insofar as one takes ownership of the problem.

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Red Lights, Big City Feedback

A reader who came across my site via Andrew Sullivan pushes back against my initial post:

These are dubious generalizations to say the least. The rate of participation in prostitution is actually about the same in every society in the world, give or take – the differences are minor. Women are not engaging in the sex business because they cannot get unionized jobs ( obviously men can’t get them either ) and the economic imbalances between genders are in any case universal and explain nothing at all; and no, Korea actually is nothing like a Middle Eastern “emir” ( whatever that means ) when it comes to the position of women. Korean women are among the wealthiest, best educated and longest-living humans on earth. Men, meanwhile, go to prostitutes everywhere on earth, and at about the same rates and they probably always will. Disallowing photos on job applications is not going to change that one iota. They go to prostitutes in massive numbers in Sweden too but I wouldn’t want to spin a sociology out of that. In all, I have to wonder how well you actually know Korea, or any other Asian country. Your assumptions seem massively orientated towards British and American ones, but I may be wrong. By the way, there is a huge hook-up culture in Korea, actually, as there is in every Asian country – way more than in the West, in my humble experience. Again, that doesn’t mean anything. But I can’t quite see why anyone would think American sexual culture is “normal” and Korea’s is “pathological.”

Hi Lawrence,
Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response.  This is a valuable opportunity to explore both the issues and my underlying thinking process.

Let’s start with the easy part: there’s no question that everything on my original post that comes under the Conclusion header is pure speculation on my part.  I apply no technical rigor, statistical measurements of correlation, no regression analysis to prove causality.  It certainly wouldn’t pass muster in academia or journalism.

Perhaps conclusion itself is a misleading word choice.  It’s really just a narrative woven to make sense of the data points listed above the conclusion section: plastic surgery, child sex trafficking, girls working abroad, economic gender gap, and marital laws.

I will say in my defense that most of those individual data points are backed by links to other sources.  If your questioning extends as far as that, then this might become a bigger discussion than I suspect.

But I’m guessing that’s not the core issue.  Given that my so-called conclusion is really just a narrative of my own device, stitched together out of individual data points that might be valid but have no particular reason to be interpreted in such a way, what gives me the right to make such brazen, unsubstantiated claims in the first place?

I’ll admit that in a vacuum I would have none.

But I live in Korea right now.

And there does exist here a different, widely accepted narrative with regards to sex and prostitution.  That narrative is that they are a big problem and growing in severity, and that the roots trace back to some combination of the following:

  1. the American military presence
  2. English teachers from abroad corrupting young girls
  3. middle aged men who will never change their ways
  4. the young not knowing the hardship of war

In turn, the only courses of action being pursued in Korea are:

  • a lot of hand-wringing in the newspapers
  • scapegoating of foreigners via arbitrary hiring regulations (e.g. HIV testing)
  • symbolic but ineffectual cracking down of red light districts by the police
  • waiting it out in hopes that factors 1-3 decline faster than 4 rises

What is missing is any recognition that there is any economic or legal component to the problem, and consequently that any concrete actions can be taken right now to ameliorate the situation.

Will banning photos from resumes really do much to shift the ground?  Substantively, not really – even before you take into account the workarounds that LinkedIn and Facebook give.

But the intent is to change the current narrative in Korea that self-righteous indignation, ineffectual gestures, and passivity are the only options available.

Now of course, it’s not fair to expect you, or anyone else who came across my blog via Andrew Sullivan to have known all this background.

So I guess this is a case of my having succumbed to the Illusion of Transparency (I recently started reading LessWrong.org and it’s changed my life).  I knew that my conclusion narrative didn’t meet any absolute standards of rigor but were nonetheless better than the existing ones floating about in Korea.  I just should have made that clear up front instead of expecting a reader coming in cold to understand all that subtext.

One last comment on your comments on Asian hook-up culture.  Perhaps it is more rampant than in the west, as you argue – though I’d like to see some data backing this up.  If you’re asking me to simply accept your anecdotes as a Swede who’s perhaps done some backpacking in Asia, I’m not sure why that allows you to discount my anecdotes as a Korea-American who’s done some backpacking and now lives here.

But anyway, in my email to Andrew Sullivan, I never said that there is no hook-up culture, just that it has not been normalized.  In the west, people get laid with their eyes open.  In Korea, girls are expected to live with their parents, who maintain an unrealistic expectation of their daughter’s pristine status.  So if they’re even going to the club just to dance and drink with their friends, they’re already deep across the line of acceptable behavior.  Therefore the taboos against, say unprotected sex in the alley with a random stranger is not as great of a leap.

As an aside, you’re correct that I have a US (born) and UK (naturalized) bias, and I wouldn’t be surprised if sex is healthier in Sweden by comparison.  I’m just saying that the Korean polarization between the sheltered doll waiting at home til marriage and the hard-drinking party girl is one of the most toxic environments I’ve ever seen.

And before you ask, no I’m saying this out of single male cynicism or bitterness: I’m in a healthy relationship with a Korean-American girl who has lived here for 3 years and who has numerous Korean friends who attest to the unhealthy attitudes here about sex.

Be thankful you’re living in the country that you are.

I’m thankful I’ve found the person that I’m with.

 

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