How to Survive a POTUS

Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve been trying to pick up on the local history, ranging from films like Dirty Harry and Rise of the Planet of the Apes that were set here, to documentaries and audiobooks about local history – especially that of gays and AIDS, of which my knowledge was pretty sparse. From the latter genre And the Band Played On is a particularly excellent – albeit long and depressing – work. Surprisingly, there are very pertinent parallels between the early years of AIDS and Trump today. Granted I haven’t finished the book so my understanding is still incomplete, but check out this rough chronology of stages:

  1. indifference: AIDS initially seemed to only impact those the majority didn’t care for anyway <=> watching Jeb Bush squirm during the Republican primaries
  2. cluelessness: a combination of long incubation period, indirect cause of death, and social taboos against discussing gays and anal sex openly added up to a dearth of reliable information, leading to a lot of noise and heat expended on bunk theories on transmission mechanisms, ranging from tainted poppers, routine household contact, and god’s plague drowning out the signal of reliable forensic data <=> Trump’s assault on the very notion of truth means we have no idea whether he is an evil genius, mentally imbalanced, a grifter in over his head, Bannon and/or Putin’s puppet, or what
  3. OH SHIT: with a 1983 JAMA article claiming AIDS could be transmitted via “routine household contact”, the broader populace suddenly realized it could actually affect them personally <=> election night
  4. panic and overreaction: sanitation workers cleaning up after a gay pride march wearing hazmat suits, nurses refusing to go into AIDS wards <=> current protests, which might be effective but are definitely not sustainable for the next 3 years 11 months
  5. unhelpful precedent: not long before AIDS, in the 70s gay community had helped the CDC overcome another sexually transmitted virus – hepatitis. But the aspect of hep that was most challenging – its long incubation period, on the order of weeks or months – is precisely what made AIDS – with an incubation period of years – a challenge whose difference in degree was sufficient to constitute a difference in kind <=> Bush/Cheney discomfited the beltway by holding court in Crawford, using his folksy charm to appeal to the common man, bypassed the bureaucracy by stovepiping handpicked intelligence, and sneered at the “reality based community.” But where Bush used these tactics to undermine the Democrats, Trump uses them against democracy itself
  6. most important: the turning point in AIDS was understanding it. Even before the virus was positively identified, by 1983 scientists were reasonably confident that the transmission vector was semen and blood. Even after, knowing it was a virus wasn’t useful without a test to discriminate its footprint and behavior

So Now What?

so how do we achieve #6 and reduce DJT, like AIDS, to something manageable, predictable, containable albeit still dagerous?

There’s a lot of posts on FB positing various models for who Trump is and how he thinks. Is he a powerful autocrat or a thin-skinned man-child? Is he a chessmaster or Steve Bannon’s puppet? The next step is to posit tests to discriminate between these scenarios, so that his actions can be filtered into evidence in favor of one or the other, converging towards “I can say X about him with p confidence”

In a word, Bayesianism. A discipline which my grasp of admittedly is limited to theory, but as applied to DJT boils down to:

  • establish the main competing models about how he thinks
  • make advance predictions about possible actions he might make, and how each choice can serve as evidence discriminating between those models
  • monitor his activity and use to update probability of each given model

Sean Spicer could be an interesting trial, what with his highly public role and DJT’s focus on public appearances. Then again, he didn’t want Spicer for the job in the first place, it was at the behest of Priebus it’s unclear whether removal from office would be interpreted as a humiliation or a vindication of his initial gut response.

My take is that it that the prediction markets will come into play. Not because they will necessarily make accurate predictions (they certainly didn’t during the election) but because they will encourage people who today are merely speculating on which mental model applies to translate those models into coherent, consistent predictions, and over time will (hopefully) reward those models which are most accurate.

Obviously a human agent is capable of defying expectations for its own sake in a way that a virus, no matter how complex, never can. Still, it’s an avenue of exploration.





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Arrows and Ink

Is Trump taking a page out of a 2,000 year old classical Chinese romanticized historical novel?

To the Point of Exhaustion

When I was in grade school, every Sunday after church my dad would drive us to a nearby Chinese restaurant for lunch and regale my sisters and I with stories about Sohn Oh Gohng (Sun Wu Kung in Chinese), the monkey king from Journey to the West, widely considered the 3rd greatest work of classical Chinese literature.

Image result for sun wukong cloud

monkey = good; magic monkey = better

At some point around middle school, he deemed me ready to move up the literary ladder to work #1 Three Kingdoms (I guess he figured I could skip past #2 Outlaws of the Marshes, a bit of a shame since I hear it’s really good). I didn’t enjoy 3K as much as J2W – historical drama just doesn’t pack the same punch as a J2W’s brilliant magic monkey who flies, pees in the gods’ wine and stashes a shapeshifting stick in his ear to beat up his younger brother (who is a reincarnated pig). Still, between the interminable parade of loyalty oaths, honorable retreats, and shifting alliances, 3K had its share of memorable stories.

The best bits inevitably involved Zhuge Liang aka Kongming, chief advisor to the honorable but resource-poor Liu Bei. Kongming could always be counted on to come up with a clever strategem to psyche out his opponents, the most iconic example being when he was tasked with gathering 100,000 arrows in 3 days.

On a foggy morning, Kongming took 20 boats loaded up with dummies, hay, and a skeleton crew in armor, halfway across the river towards the enemy encampment, banging their drums and shouting to simulate a battle. The enemy unleashed volley after volley of arrows, which stuck harmlessly into the side of the boats and dummies.

The volleys stopped when the enemy’s supply of arrows ran out, at which point Kongming turned his vessels around and came home, mission accomplished.

I wonder if Trump is pulling a Kongming on the left: putting forth tempting targets specifically for the purpose of eliciting an overreaction, exhausting his opponents’ energy and resources that do only nominal if any damage.

Each time he puts forth some new outrage, we march on the streets. Maybe we even win, and congratulate ourselves on keeping him in check. But each round of protest costs us more in time, energy, and resolve than the inciting move on his part. So we are burning ourselves out sprinting the first 100 yards in a marathon war of attrition.

Now supposing that’s an accurate interpretation of where things are (which of course it might not), what are we to do then? NOT resist? cut straight to the inevitable capitulation? How is that any better than fighting on until the inevitable point of exhaustion?

Painting the Town Red Purple

Last weekend while looking after my nephews, we bought a Wii game called Splatoon, which was the most insanely fun and addictive thing I’ve come across in a long time. This game does to first person shooter genre what Mario Kart did to racing: strips away the pretension of gritty reality in favor of a stylized and innovative gameplay that’s a zillion times more fun.

It is also provides a blueprint for how to restore balance to America.

The blueprint comes specifically from the game’s Turf War multiplayer online mode, in which victory is determined by how much of the map is painted your team’s color by the end of the round. While killing your opponents indirectly affects this metric (due to a burst of paint and lost time) the kill tally doesn’t factor into the final score.

Now what the heck does this game have to do with Trump?

Often, the winning team did not score more kills. Rather, they effectively used fewer of their own players to tie down more of their opponents, leaving a free agent to focus on converting the vacant areas of the map – especially those behind enemy lines.

And this is how progressive America needs to be expending its resources. Protest and resistance have their place, but fights are never won through reactive defense alone. We have to simultaneously seize the initiative, identify and empower sympathetic outposts deep within the red states, and convert Trump’s base of support out from underneath him. Put simply: we have to MOVE IN.

Now how we go about doing so is a whole nuther discussion…

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The Patent Cleric

“Joshua fought the battle of Jericho … Jericho … Jericho…

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho …

and the walls came tumbling down … down .. down …”

For those unfamiliar with the biblical story, Joshua was Moses’s successor who successfully assaults and captures the well-fortified city of Jericho through, allegedly, divine intervention. Basically, he leads his soldiers in a march around the city for 7 days straight, 7 laps on the last day, and has all his trumpets blow simultaneously, at which point the thick defensive walls crumble (and all the inhabitants are summarily executed, but that’s apparently incidental).


Joshua, Jericho, trumpets, walls

Joshua is one of the most fun stories in the bible because it’s one of the few where the Hebrews kick ass. 90% of the rest of the bible is spent bouncing from one calamity to another: slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, conquered by the Caesar, etc. But Joshua is 100% “smiting of enemies” style whupping. The god and trumpet and walls enhanced the fascination, but a story in which the team we are meant to identify with kicks butt would have resonated regardless.

Back in Korea, after my startup fizzled out, and after I jumped ship from another guy’s startup, but before I got laid off and ultimately booted out of the country (wasn’t a great 2 years in my life), I found myself working at an ed-tech company in the marketing team (a job for which literally my only qualification was that I speak English).

I’d suggested to my boss that we try selling our education services to Korean churches.

Our product was an Android tablet app for running interactive classrooms, a lot like Nearpod and the recently defunct Amplify. We were looking for markets to sell it beyond the company’s own hagwons (after-school English language school, of which it had some 200 branches). Our focus was the lucrative US market, but with competition cutthroat and the market so encumbered by both red tape and the once-a-year sales cycle, it was a long shot. So I suggested to my boss we try an aim for an alternative market, one that is based in Korea and yet possibly highly lucrative: Korean churches.

I needed to put together a biblical-themed lesson book quickly, and Joshua came immediately to mind, and the only other story that might be comparably compelling for a kids multimedia book might have been creation, which would have been way too much effort to develop. So Joshua it would be: then step 1 was to reread the story.

And that’s where things got interesting – chapter 2 verses 1-3, to be exact. Joshua sends in a pair of spies who hide at the home of a prostitute named Rahab. In exchange for the shelter, the spies agree to spare her from the slaughter (marking her house with a red cord out her window, speculated to be the origin of red-light districts).

The first interesting thing is that, if viewed through a secular lens, the spies were obviously on an espionage mission to sabotage the gates. Which in turn suggests that Joshua’s marching around town were simply antics to distract the defending army away from their sabotage.


and the krauts came tumbling down

It’s a misdirection campaign – one on par with the British building a fake army at Calais to divert Hitler’s attention from Normandy (maybe even more ballsy since Joshua committed actual units to a maneuver that served no practical purpose on the battlefield, not just inflatable tanks).

But the really kicker is how they hid this lesson in plain sight. I mean, imagine you’re a member of the priesthood charged with the maintaining the sacred texts. Your society is decentralized so the books are the main way of preserving institutional knowledge over time. Your military is not as powerful as your many hostile neighbors, so covert ops is exactly the kind of tip you want to ensure future generations receive.

The problem is, it’s also one that would be dangerous if it fell into your numerous, powerful, enemies’ hands. So what to do? You dress it up as a miracle (of a god who distinctly favors your side, no less) so it never occurs to your enemies that they could reproduce the same results. The only people who will bother actually reading the text in full are your own people, who if they work in the military will immediately recognize the significance of Rahab*.

Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue

a notable artifact to emerge from the patent office

In other words, narrating Jericho as a “miracle” was itself a disinformation campaign. Which holds true of the scriptures/bible in general: a way of hiding valuable, practical knowledge in plain sight to prevent enemy tribes from benefitting. Camouflaging your precious brain child in grimy bathwater in the hopes your enemies will overlook its value and toss it out.

In other words, monotheism played the same role that the patent office does today. It provides a culture an incentive to innovate – nutrition (kosher), ethics, meditation, literacy, covert warfare – without fear that the ideas will be copied by freeloading neighbors.

As a skeptical humanist, this is the most positive case I can think of that recognizes the value of religion at a point in the past while still maintaining its anachronistic status today. Religion was a driver for innovation back before the patent office/IP law existed, but to the extent that the latter does exist now, the former is that much less necessary.

Incidentally, this realization has lessened my hostility to faith as well. Because insofar as, yes, religion is an anachronism, so is the patent office – look at all the calls for its reforms today. Yes it’s outlived its usefulness, but it did serve a useful purpose at one point in the past.

*Incidentally, brilliant bonus tidbit of wisdom: when sending spies into a hostile city, have them hang out at the brothel –

  1. least suspicious place for out-of-towners to be seen
  2. great source of intel from off-duty soldiers
  3. low loyal to the local government


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A Secular Missionary Movement

If there’s one upside to this freakish election, it is having exposed the cultural divide between the America that has largely recovered from the Great Recession (as exemplified by the tech boom in SF) and the America left behind: 7 million men – that’s one in nine men between 25 and 54 – no longer even looking for work, 40% on painkillers (NYTimes).

The winner of this election will not bridge this divide: Hillary because nobody trusts her, and Trump because he’s never done anything that doesn’t benefit him.

But that’s not really relevant anyway, since culture isn’t something that changes by fiat from a distant leader on high. Culture is changed from the bottom-up, through a diffuse network of agents who operate up close and face-to-face.

Anyone who works in software already knows this. Agile development, articulated 15 years ago, has often met with resistance to culture change. The key to overcoming that resistance is most often the guidance of a Tech Evangelists, giving workshops and demos, posting tips and advice, nudging each individual team team along towards eventual adoption and realization of the benefits:

And that’s what America is going to need after this election: a 21st century Missionary movement. By which I mean people literally picking up and moving from the comfort of their hipster enclaves in SF, NYC, LA, Seattle, Portland, and Austin, etc and moving to small towns in Appalachia and the South.

Where the missionaries of earlier eras proselytized the twin gospels of Christianity and democracy*, these new missionaries will spread a new set of values:

  • diversity: dispel the myth of a PC conspiracy to elevate minorities at the expense of whites, but as win-win deepening of perspective

  • rationality/scientific literacy: how to evaluate and filter conflicting information, to offset our increasingly hyperbolic media and greater access to primary sources
  • mindfulness/meditation: a better treatment for chronic pain than opiods (JAMA)
  • agency: a path out of “learned helplessness” towards a sense of control over one’s destiny (Hillbilly Elegy)
  • family counseling to reduce domestic violence
  • coupled with infrastructure investment: solar, telecom, transportation, local produce

It won’t be easy.

Scattering a population into towns that are economically depressed, drug riddled, and politically hostile takes a lot of support: logistical, financial, and emotional. It’s not coincidence that the driving force behind past missions were churches, which could provide all three (especially the latter) and to a lesser degree government, such as Teach For America and Americorp.

Obviously most churches disqualify for this kind of outreach, hostile as they are to so much of modernity. More subtly, TFA and Americorp – valuable though they are valuable to our nation – are also unsuitable, oriented the wrong way with respect to government dependency vs. individual agency. Plus, working within government is fraught with too much red tape and bureaucracy.

So what then, if not church or government? Well, in line with the spirit of diversity, there are a number of possible directions**:

  • meditationyoga studios: especially embedded in schools (CNN) as an alternative to police (CNN) for achieving discipline
  • Maker clubs to learn tech hands on through affordable Raspberry Pis
  • Korean-style after-school tutoring academies, which are gaining in popularity in California
  • Gordon Ramsay/Michelle Obama-style nutrition programs
  • local chapters of club networks such as improv (iO Theater), public speaking (Toastmasters) and humanism (Oasis, UU church)
  • Martial arts and boxing gyms: the template being Cutty Wise in The Wire, who upon release from prison starts a boxing school to keep kids out of the drug trade

Anyway, The common thread is learning, which makes sense: it’s easier to convey an abstract idea (the value of diversity) off the back of a concrete one (the value of being able to punch with either hand).

But the focus on education taps into another important consideration: access to government funding. For private tutoring, the NCLB law provided subsidies, with several states having variations of the same. For other types of programs, there are TANF grants, though the latter is a bit tricky***. Outside the education space, the ARC is probably the place to go for support, especially infrastructure-heavy projects, and Kickstarter to raise seed funds for building and equipment.

Beyond straight funding, these missionaries will need a network of support – perhaps piggybacking off existing groups such as Oasis, or perhaps something entirely new. Either way, a forum for those out in the field to interact with each other and with their home communities to share structure, personnel, ideas, resources, and morale. The latter being most important: like missionaries throughout history, some may be met by the locals as welcome guests, but others surely with hostility. The language of civil war having already entered our discourse today (Post), it’s a small step to lash out against carpetbaggers and scalawags tomorrow. This is an uphill fight in which we’re not allowed to hit back.

So there we have it: a vision for a new breed of Missionary. A migration by the thousands out of the coastal hubs into the towns and counties of Appalachia and the South that made Trumpism possible. Dotting the landscape with an assortment of startups teaching everything from algebra to improv, Java to jiu-jitsu, boxing to yoga. Subsidized by TANF and NCLB grants and supported by a network both of their peers and those back home. Evangelizing the benefits of diversity, rationality, startup/risk taking, and mindfulness.

So let’s make this happen, and ensure the circus show of the 2016 never happens again.

the title of this post was revised from A New Missionary Movement to A Secular Missionary Movement

* full disclosure: I’m atheist. But as my sister pointed out, the dominant faith in this country isn’t Christianity, but American Exceptionalism. The distinction between which is an entire discussion unto itself (and happens to be the subject of my last post)

**upon further consideration, it might make sense to operate a single, consolidated community center offering any/all of the above services. That aligns with the template of traditional missions where a single building would serve as church, school, and hospital. It would certainly be more efficient, both in terms of cost of site and also pooling talent and outreach, magnify impact and outreach, and allow continuity as participants rotate in and out.

***TANF was born of Bill Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it”, due to the public’s distaste for direct cash assistance for the poor. The preference was for education and consultation programs, but those gradually shifted towards middle class beneficiaries (Slate). While this is clearly a misallocation of resources away from their intended beneficiaries, the reality is that direct cash assistance remains unpalatable so the best we can hope is to redirect funds towards education programs that at least target the needy.

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E Deo Pluribus

This is the long version of a petition I submitted to but haven’t yet started circulating since I need to trim it down



This petition iterates on past attempts to modify the pledge of allegiance with a simple yet significant change of tack: instead of removing under God, replace it with from many.

  • I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, from many, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Learning from the Past

Past attempts to roll back “under God” reflected a failure to appreciate the consensus self-conception of America.

First, the 1954 addition was motivated by a desire to make a statement. That we did not merely passively exist as a nation, but actively stood for something. In other words, it was first and foremost a declaration of American exceptionalism, with faith a distant second. To roll back that faith is hard enough, piling American exceptionalism on top of it all but impossible.

Second, Americans find it easier to back away from a negative when accompanied by a different step towards a greater positive:

  • when the states balked to ratify the Constitution, the Founding Fathers didn’t simply edit the document inline but formalized the amendment mechanism and enshrined the Bill of Rights
  • as the civil war drew to a close, Lincoln didn’t simply outlaw slavery but positively proclaimed black freedom and equality through the 14th amendment
  • as the returns from its missions diminished, NASA retreated from lunar landings only to leapfrog to Mars
  • Apple’s 1998 released of the iMac controversially removed the floppy drive, superseded by new USB ports (OK this one’s a bit frivolous, but still illustrates the principle)

Simply put, turning the clock backwards to 1954 is not how America rolls.

Finally, the framing of the debate as a rolling back of religion (and especially Christianity) flies in the face of precedent set byLincoln at Gettysburg and needlessly antagonizes a significant demographic. Lincoln himself, who fought for goals far more noble and less abstract, knew there was never a cause so lofty as to excuse dumb politics.

The solution, then, is to make the removal of “under God” secondary to addition of something superior:

  • I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, from many, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Why Those Specific Words

The phrase “from many, one” comes directly from the Great Seal of the United States: “E Plurubus Unum“. As the only words on the front of the Great Seal, approved way back in 1776 by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, they literally carry the Founding Fathers seal of approval.

Moreover, they cut directly to the heart of what makes America exceptional. In every generation, the new wave of immigrants would threaten to tear the cultural fabric apart:

In each case, the process of wrestling with these forces made our country stronger, not weaker. Today, Appalachians now call themselves “real Americans,” and when’s the last time you heard someone express anxieties about greasy eye-talians, Irish loyalty to the Pope, or treasonous Japanese? The American paradox is that indivisibility rests on a foundation of fragmentation.

Finally, the difference between removing vs. replacing the words “under God” is subtle yet immensely significant. Removal puts the religious on the defensive, who react like they are under attack. Whether that is the intent is irrelevant, in politics what matters is how one feels. Whereas replacement does not undermine the integrity of religion in America, it simply posits something even more integral. God hasn’t been demoted, just eclipsed. The pledge doesn’t mention him for the same reason it doesn’t mention baseball or mom’s apple pie. Still all-American, just not the most American.

Why Now?

The nation is on the brink of a transformational election. In Drumpf we have an unpredictable and serially underestimated demagogue, campaigning on an explicitly anti-immigration platform appealing to white nativism, within striking distance of the White House.

Some would say now is the worst possible moment to risk inflaming the culture war with a petition like this one. And that would would be true for most any other similar petition, but this particular one aspires not to inflame, but to resolve some of the tension underlying the culture wars.

The 2 books most valuable in understanding how our democracy came to its current fragile state are The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance*. Both illuminate – Levin from the outside, Vance from inside – how the social and economic cohesion of the post-war era broke down over the subsequent decades. While this fragmentation has opened greater opportunity for many, it has left less educated whites in Appalachia a sense of despair, leavened only by nostalgia for the “good old days”. Levin in particular makes clear that those days not only cannot return, but that they shouldn’t – plurality is not a threat, but an asset.

If this perspective were universally recognized, the steam would dissipate right out of Drumpf’s campaign. Unfortunately it requires respectful yet direct engagement of his supporters, which accusations of bullying – regardless of accuracy – simply doesn’t do. If anything, it invites contempt among the types of voters who respond to dominance. It hasn’t even won over suburban white women.

Amending the pledge does not threaten Christians to relinquish their values, but challenges them to recognize ours. It uses the very words of the Founding Fathers to directly yet respectfully challenge those who called themselves the Tea Party on their own terms.

Will this sway diehard Drumpf supporters? Probably not. But might it swing those who would only vote for him to spite Hillary that it’s not she, but we whom she represents – plural, innovative, looking ahead – that always have, and will again, make America great.


Note: Preparing for Pushback

You can’t make everybody happy, and this is proposal is likely to draw more than its share of fire. There are some who will never change their belief, but we can at least brace against certain lines of attack:

  • the straw man: “under God” shouldn’t change because it doesn’t violate the establishment clause. Correct: it doesn’t – and is not cited here as a reason for the change. The reason is that religion is peripheral to what makes America great, whereas our plurality is central.
  • the zero-sum gamers: many will question the value of plurality, skeptical that it is code for shifting power from one group to another. The answer is literally staring you in the mirror: your eyes. Neither the left nor right eye are better than the other, nor should be. Only by virtue of their differentiated coexistence is 3D depth perception possible, demonstrating that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • the historians: yes, the original focus of the word “many” was the 13 colonies/states, not the “many” types of people living therein. That said, the phrase was originally lifted from The Gentlemen’s Magazine, which collected articles from many sources into one periodical. So yeah, if the reference can shift from publications to states, then it can shift again to people.
  • the translators: the motto E Pluribus Unum is often translated as “out of many, one” rather than “from many, one” This is really just a matter of flow – if we’re gonna swap out words, let’s at least preserve the existing cadence. For similar reasons, “one nation, from many” is less disruptive than “from many, one nation”
  • the grammarians: the wording “one country, from many, …” may sound like it means “composed of many sub-territories” rather than “from a variety of ethnicities/languages/cultures/religions/lifestyles” etc. I’ll concede this is slightly awkward, but it’s intended meaning isn’t that much of a stretch. It’s certainly not as confusing as the Star Spangled Banner – “Jose can you see by the donzerly light”

*Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates is also essential reading for this election, but its focus of humanizing black America and their plight of fear puts it outside the scope of this discussion

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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.


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.


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“.


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):




Posted in Uncategorized

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.


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



Posted in Uncategorized