Monday, November 30, 2020

The nation breathes a sigh of relief

The title says it all. One of the worst presidents in American history was narrowly defeated and not permitted a second term. If 20,000 votes were changed in AZ, GA and WI, this would not have come to pass. To put things in perspective, only Jimmy Carter did not get re-elected from a similar position in 1980. As we have previously mentioned, the defeats of George H. W. Bush and Herbert Hoover don't count since both followed Republican presidents and therefore represented continuations of the same theme. We have to go all the way back to Benjamin Harrison to see a similar pattern but that's too far over the horizon for consideration.

How did this happen? It should not have been close. With a pandemic raging out of control and "King Lear" at the helm, it should have been a slam dunk for Biden. Instead it was a nail-biter which went down to the wire. Biden ended up winning only 509 of 3143 counties---mostly urban and suburban counties---which is, hands down, the smallest number of counties won by a presidential candidate. All this goes to show that it is really difficult to defeat an incumbent, no matter the situation. But it also points to a much greater schism in present day America and a harbinger of things to come. 

What is that schism exactly? Liberals and progressives find it easy to talk of the "rubes" who---living in echo chambers----have been brainwashed into voting the way they do. They point out, rightly so, that the Republican party has all but abandoned all its principles and is now a party that is just focused on power and obtaining it by almost any means necessary. While there are many things accurate about this perspective, it also leaves out much more than it explains and also hides the fact that liberals and progressives may be guilty of living in their own bubble---one which we should closely examine to discover clues that could lead to healing the schism.

We have previously mentioned that "Spiral Dynamics" offers a great framework to understand present-day America. This election validated the spiral dynamics worldview in spades. It is now extremely clear that individualism (and not whiteness or Christianity or fascism etc.) is on the rocks and is dying. Economic orange (as per spiral dynamics) is driven by supply side economics and is reaching its end stage which is not surprising. But what is more interesting is the death of social orange---something rarely discussed but even more relevant in the age of the pandemic: if I do not listen to authority and do whatever I please, people die which is simply unacceptable. So, we can agree with spiral dynamics and bid adieu to social and economic orange (or individualism and laissez faire capitalism) and wait for something new. 

But, it's not as simple as this. The death of social orange should also mean the death of technocracy since these are correlates. Technocracy after all is the latest attempt to reduce each human being into ever narrower expertise-based atoms. At the same time, the technocracy is speeding up everything else (through automation) making the fragmented and bifurcated human multi-task at a pace that will not stop. Period. We are therefore headed for a soft civil war decade which should first see the death of individualism and laissez faire economics (with the latter already headed to the dustbin thanks to the Great Recession of 2008). But, it should also see the death of the technocracy as the rise of AI leads to a level of speed up and opacity wherein we do not understand our complex systems any more. Technocracy then will lead to a rapid increase in the credentialed class who will have no place to go and in an AI-fueled turbocharged world in which humans won't be able to understand their systems and keep up with the blistering pace set by the machines. This is what's coming and it is not going to be pleasant as we feel the impact of both of these forces at once.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Mahamudra: One Taste

I've been working with George Protos (PointingOut Way) for a while now and he has been very good in pointing out the One Taste state/level in Mahamudra. I'm now going to take a stab at describing this. 

Just as the no self meditation in Mahamudra helps us realize that the self is a construct and the yoga of unelaboration demonstrates that the world is a construct (and that spacetime is a concept), One Taste shows that a separate awareness is a construct and that awareness/phenomena is simultaneous. 

To some extent this is obvious. If emptiness of phenomena shows that phenomena are constructs and emptiness of self shows that the self is a construct, then it's natural to affirm awareness and phenomena as co-present since you cannot have one without the other. However one has to be extremely careful unpacking this state as other traditions like Theravada tend to focus on phenomena only (via the dissolution experience) while Vedanta tends to affirm the pure consciousness event in which no phenomena are present. Mahamudra then sits in the middle (with the metaphor of being the flashlight and not the person carrying it or the illuminated content) adopting a post-tantric non-dual stance. It also refuses to conceptualize this state except to carefully point out a simultaneousness of awareness and content without reifying each one as a separate entity.  

It is important to understand the gains stemming from maintaining One Taste. There's an automatic emptiness wherein anything that arises is not elaborated but tagged as empty upon arising. The impact is that things tend to get taken care of immediately with high energy and without as much attachment (so you do have to be careful doing this in public since taboos could get broken very easily). There's also a brightness and clarity to events as if they are self-illuminated [which makes sense since every event is also simultaneously tagged with awareness and perhaps parodied as "I see god in everything" :-)].

Once again Tashi Namgyal:

 "[T]he meditator realizes [that] the awareness of one flavor manifests itself in diverse forms and how these appearances and existences are of one flavor in primordial evenness. The meditator has achieved insight into the essential nature of one flavor when he discovers the intrinsic identity of every appearance as a self-manifesting objectlessness and evenness in its primordial nature."

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mahamudra: The Yoga of Unelaboration

In a previous blog post, we discussed no self in Mahamudra, taking care to separate out "self as construct" from a more radical no-self of any kind whatsoever concept. Here, we continue with the next stage in Mahamudra which Dan Brown (in his fabulous Pointing Out The Great Way book) calls "the yoga of unelaboration."

The yoga of unelaboration is ostensibly concerned with the ordinary convention of time. Its goal is to see through the observable reality of moment-by-moment arising and passing away of events. In the previous no-self meditation, the ordinary habit of creating a self out of mental phenomena is seen through until no self can be found. In the yoga of unelaboration, the past, present and future as concepts are deconstructed: the past is done with, the future is unborn and the present does not stay. Time, like mind becomes a construct.

I had a lot of difficulty with the yoga of unelaboration and specifically with the emptiness of time practice as summarized above. A second retreat with Dan Brown in the fall of 2019 cleared it up. The yoga of unelaboration (called the nondiscriminatory yoga by Tashi Namgyal) is really about cultivating a perfect mirror in which all phenomenal content is apprehended without any discrimination. There is a shift in perspective away from any "objects" and toward the mind itself in its most natural state: Awareness itself in each and every moment is then realized but without the false identification of any self with that awareness. Emptiness of time then cuts through our habitual tendency to deploy awareness to "move toward or away" from phenomenal content thereby artificially amplifying, diminishing or otherwise distorting them. Take this moment right now: Use your awareness to "move toward" your big toe, apprehending the sensations and then "back away from it." Our habitual tendency is to assume that there is a self using its awareness to move toward and away from sensations. The emptiness of time meditation and the yoga of unelaboration cut through this process. Instead of continuing the narrative of a self that uses its awareness, after a no self state is established, awareness becomes a perfect nondiscriminatory mirror for all phenomenal content. In my case, there's a clear "black mirror" feel of getting behind all content. Furthermore, the content itself often recedes into the distance (but only after a careful process of disentangling awareness from amplified content). Tashi Namgyal, quoting the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, says of this extraordinary awareness:

It is neither dissolving nor arising,
Neither nihilism nor eternity,
Neither going nor coming,
Neither separate nor the same,
Completely detached from all conceptual determination,
It is the perfect quiescence.

The meaning should now be perfectly clear.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The new emerging mainstream consensus

Well the world changed again. After being cooped up for what seemed to be an eternity, we all exploded in rage, anger and well justified fury after George Floyd's murder by Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. The entire world watched that excruciating 8 minute 46 seconds video in which Chauvin kills George Floyd (while keeping one hand in his pocket for most of the time). There is nothing ambiguous or post-modern about the video: it's a clear and present reminder of what Black people face on a daily basis in the streets of America (for example I have a friend who gets pulled over every time he enters SC with FL license plates since apparently a Black person driving a car with FL license plates into SC signifies that he is a drug dealer). Please watch Dave Chappelle's special - 8:46 - on Netflix for what this all means.

What's especially significant about the aftermath of George Floyd's murder is the level of social responsibility shown by Black Lives Matter (BLM) in making sure that the protests didn't get out of hand. There are numerous stories of Black community organizers stopping street violence and opportunistic store looting. Equally strange is the often disproportionate response by the police - using tear gas and unnecessary violence against peaceful protesters. Watching all this, it has become clear that something has shifted in America. BLM is now spearheading the rainbow coalition and any attempts at false equivalence between BLM and the alt-right movement are now laughable. And finally, the non-response of Trump to the covid-19 pandemic coupled with his total inadequacy in understanding and communicating what this moment means to race relations (and much much more) in the US strongly suggests that he is toast. Things could change of course but it really feels like he had his chance and blew it. Of course, one could argue that Trump's fundamental character flaws would never have allowed him to adapt to these changed circumstances and his niece Mary Trump's book does make that claim based on first hand knowledge.

One framework that can be used to perfectly encapsulate what just happened is Spiral Dynamics (SD). Very simplistically, SD draws a three way distinction between blue (traditional/order), orange (modern/prosperous) and green (postmodern/communitarian). There are higher stages like yellow (integrated/inter-dependent) and turquoise (holistic/harmonic) but we don't need them for the purposes of this discussion. For the past 40 years, the US has had a culture war wherein traditional law and order (blue) and modernist business and free enterprise (orange) formed a nexus which ended up marginalizing non-whites, feminists, communitarians and LGBTQ+ people (green). (This is a strong claim but I think it holds up since suburban America is in the main still segregated.) While green values flourished in cities and urban centers, rural America remained staunchly blue/orange. This has resulted in the Republican party regressing to a mainly white and rural party and finally succumbing to a reality TV show grifter who exemplifies the worst of orange (no consequence individualism). Assuming Trump goes down in defeat this year (which is still not a given), we may see something that has never happened before: the rise of a green consensus at the policy level in the US driven by millennials and Gen-Z youth who would have taken the radicalism of the boomers and mainstreamed it. If this happens, we'll witness the emergence of a socially responsible rainbow coalition which handles climate change and healthcare for all going forward. The only fly in the ointment remains the poor white working class which may end up getting marooned on a traditionalist blue/orange island, but provided these folks are capable of dropping their worst instincts (racism, sexism, homo-transphobia and hatred of education), they too will have a seat at the table in the new egalitarian times to come.

Update (2020/07/20): A very interesting development in the past few days is the presence of camouflaged federal agents on the streets of Portland, OR who are "pulling up next to protesters on street corners, then snatching and arresting them with no explanation." Acting DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Chad Wolf has put out a statement condemning "violent anarchists" in Portland who have allegedly held the city "under siege for 47 straight days." This has the look of a trial run which will then be executed in major cities across the US in the next couple of months. Since the vast majority of protests are peaceful, it looks like DHS (under the behest of Trump) will try to gaslight Americans into believing that local law and order has failed and that "federal police" of some unspecified kind is needed to take over the policing of cities. This maneuver is unlikely to work and is in fact more likely to convince a majority of Americans that the Trump administration has completely jumped the shark. These are amazing times.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Storm Before the Calm (Review)

George Friedman (of Geopolitical Futures) has written a timely book - The Storm Before the Calm - which makes clearcut predictions on the 2020s and beyond. He also sets up a framework which is worth examining since the predictions directly follow from it.

Friedman seems to believe in cycles. He sets up two cycles - an institutional one and a socioeconomic one - and these two dovetail to create American history. In the institutional cycle, the US government is formed around 1780, it's relationship to the states is established around 1860, it's management of the economy via unbiased expertise is set up after WWII (1940s) and this institutional era is winding down creating chaos since the next institutional framework is not yet in place. There's also a socioeconomic cycle beginning in 1780. The first cycle lasts until 1830 or so (Andrew Jackson's presidency being the transformative one); the second cycle until 1880 or so (Rutherford B. Hayes being the transformer); the third cycle until 1930 (Roosevelt) and the fourth cycle ending in 1980 (with Reagan). It's the Reagan supply side economics era that is ending right now and following this 50 year socioeconomic cycle formula, Friedman predicts the next era beginning around 2028 or 2032 (at the latest).

We've been very syntactic about all this with no intuition provided. Friedman explains that the technocratic institutional framework (in place since 1945) led to algorithmic decision making (and corresponding convoluted regulatory frameworks) in which intentions of leaders cannot be communicated or quickly carried out any longer (as they will in all likelihood violate policy). He explains that the next institutional framework (after the collapse of the present technocratic one) will be about the government's relationship to itself and in particular will address the flow of intent in institutions. This connects to the hard problem of consciousness and so we'll postpone discussion of this fascinating idea for a later post. tl;dr: In the next institutional framework, the problem of how to quickly communicate the intent of a commander (or CEO, president) in an institution and to violate policy when required will be set up in the next era.

Friedman also points out that the bottom is dropping out of the US socioeconomic structure. Student loan debt is at 1.3T and people without college degrees are hooked on drugs, are jobless, divorced and dying early. They are also the old industrial working class and will decline further in this decade from middle class to the lower middle class. No one cares about them since the Democrats are only into ethnic minorities while the Republicans practice YOYO economics (you're on your own, kid). Friedman explains that this is a consequence of the end of Reaganomics (adopted by both parties) with the next cycle abandoning identity politics and creating strange bedfellows such as Southern racists and African Americans screwed over by trickle down (which didn't). He thinks that the university system will be overhauled (with the creation of an analog to the GI bill after WWII) since the top universities now only cater to the upper middle classes (who can game the system to get their kids into good colleges). He predicts that a technocratic president will be elected in 2020 (probably Biden at this point) and will be the last failed president in this cycle since he will continue implementing failed technocratic policies without realizing the need for a new institutional framework.

All in all, this is an interesting book - despite Friedman's obvious conservative blinders. He cannot bring himself to criticize the Republican party which now comprises grifters, religious nuts and racists. Consequently, he quickly glosses over Trump's failed presidency and moves instead to the next institutional cycle in which the technocracy (comprising of mainly Democrats) is defeated by the children of the white working class (probably Generation Alpha born after 2010). This also causes him to ignore the regressive tax cut of 2017 (a classic failed supply side move by the Republicans) which added to corporate coffers in an era of declining demand. But, despite these, the book is definitely worth picking up, especially due to its positivity (about the 2030s), its clear-headedness regarding the end of the information processing era (driven by Intel etc.) and its contribution to applied consciousness studies via the "flow of intent" problem in institutions.

Update (04/05/2020): Well, the world changed since the last post. Covid-19 will have long lasting ramifications regarding US policy. Quick predictions: (i) Supply side economics is dead; (ii) we will all come together despite our differences due to this extraordinary moment in world history; (iii) there will be a reckoning on Trump's response to the pandemic (regardless of whether he gets re-elected or not); (iv) technocratic expertise is back and (v) Friedman completely misunderstood the time it will take for the problem of "intentions in a complex system" to become widely understood. This will have to wait for the next iteration of the Prophet archetype (Missionary and Boomer generations being previous examples) and probably corresponding to kids born after covid-19 (Gen Alpha?). While experts will study this problem, there won't be any communication of their efforts to the public at large since the Millennials cannot be the vanguard of a social change that champions individual agency.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Hindsight is 2020

We can arbitrarily designate February 3rd, 2020 as the true beginning of this year. The Superbowl is done and dusted. The Iowa caucus is tonight and at the present time, it looks like a Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden duopoly with Michael Bloomberg lurking in the wings.

Forecasting the general election is a hopeless task. If Trump had been a generic Republican, he would be romping home leaving the competition in the dust. Trump is Trump, neither sui generis nor a standard Republican. But, who is Trump exactly from a sociocultural perspective? If you talk to progressives, chances are you'll get the usual fascist analogs which are boring since they don't quite fit. Talking to conservatives is not helpful either since pro-Trump conservatives present a hagiographic picture which is laughably at odds with the facts. I believe that a developmental perspective is required and one that differentiates economic and cultural lines of development.

For the sake of simplicity, let's divide the cultural arena that (western) people inhabit as traditional, Enlightenment, relativistic and dialectical. Before you quibble that people can be found at lower and higher cultural levels (as the Ken Wilber/integral people will surely do), that's not the point. We need a taxonomy to fit traditional, modern, postmodern and holistically inclined people and this is as good as any. This way fundamentalists (but not only fundamentalists) mainly inhabit the traditional tier, post-traditional rationalists (with clear cut distinctions between facts and opinions) inhabit the Enlightenment tier, postmodern (it's all relative) people inhabit the relativistic tier and finally systemic, historically and holistically inclined people occupy the dialectical tier.

Similarly, let's divide the economic arena into union, corporate, green communitarian and creatives. People with almost no control over their economic futures inhabit the union tier, a majority are in the corporate tier (with an enterprise dictating their lives), a smaller fraction are post-corporate and post-union with green communities being their focus and an even smaller minority is self-driven with economic lives dependent on creative output.

With these taxonomies in place, we can now pigeonhole the Trump and Democratic coalitions. The Trump coalition mainly comprises traditionalists and some modernists on the cultural side and mainly corporatists on the economic side. The Democratic coalition comprises modernists and postmodernists on the cultural side and mainly union workers, some corporatists and nearly all green communitarians on the economic side.

Given this socioeconomic backdrop, we turn to the actual economy. While unemployment is around 3.6% and GDP growth in 4Q 2019 around 2.5% (projected), the economy looks to be in pretty good shape until you look closer: the key fact is that 44% of Americans (or about 53 million people) between the ages of 18-64 make less than $20,000 a year. This indicates that the middle class has imploded with a clear separation between the corporate class and the other economic classes. But, unless this economic underbelly gets publicly exposed this year (somehow), the corporate class will hold sway over the perception of the economy, fighting tooth and nail to keep the party going. The cultural picture is also very straightforward: all you need is to focus on the existential threat of global warming and climate change to neatly sever the culture into two non-overlapping segments. But, unless there's a climate "event" of some kind to bring this front and center, it's unlikely to motivate voter turnout which is key this year.

The plain fact of the matter is that the re-election of a president is almost always guaranteed when the first term is from the opposite party (think Obama 2012, Bush 2004, Clinton 1996, Reagan 1984 and Carter 1980 but not Bush 1992 or Hoover 1932). While Trump has a weak coalition and has huge personal flaws, he stands a good chance of being re-elected (based on economic data alone) unless something dies. (Only Jimmy Carter did not get re-elected from a similar position in the past 100 years as Benjamin Harrison's re-election bid was in 1892.) For an economic death, we probably need a black swan event to expose the inequality underbelly highlighted above; similarly we probably need a black swan climate event to expose the traditionalist cultural underbelly. Black swans cannot be predicted in advance since duh, they're black swans. However, it's clear that we are at a late stage in this economic cycle (with supply side economics which began in 1980 almost certainly dead by the end of this decade). Similarly, it's also clear that the boomer generation (average age 60) which is in charge of cultural values will head off into the sunset this decade with millennials (average age 30) taking over as cultural arbiters. Since we're at the cusp of both these transitions, we can confidently say that American culture is ready to blow and consequently, 2020 is going to be one for the ages and a year that we will all remember for a long, long time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Neil Peart (of Rush): A Memoriam

Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart passed away on January 7th, 2020 at the age of 67. He was widely considered to be one of the best rock drummers in the world. I found this New Yorker tribute and this one by Rolling Stone to be among the best.
Other noteworthy tributes include Bret Stephens (New York Times) and Nick Raskulinecz (at Ultimate Guitar). Rushisaband has a comprehensive list.

Rush's Power Windows album brought me out of a depression (in 1985/1986). It was also instrumental in helping navigate the treacherous passage that every (non-Western) immigrant has to take. Marathon and Territories were really helpful. Neil Peart's lyrics could be "on the nose" at times but those two songs in particular, spoke to me. Here's a lyric snippet from The Garden (Clockwork Angels):
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect

So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time

A garden to nurture and protect
While Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Fly by Night, Working Man, 2112 and Spirit of Radio are well known Rush songs, I thought quite a bit about Rush's best tracks [and the criteria included composition, emotion, vocals (ouch) AND playing]. Came up with this list.

Honorable mentions:

And their best cover:

Heart Full Of Soul (the old Yardbirds song)

Update (2020/02/06): Liz Swan (an academic philosopher at the University of Colorado, Boulder) has a great article on Neil Peart in Psychology Today. She especially focuses on Rush's Hemispheres album and in particular, dwells on the importance of "uniting heart and mind in a single perfect sphere." I'd add that the lyrics on Hold Your Fire (a under-appreciated Rush album, at least lyrically) also emphasize the inner world while elaborating on the themes of Hemispheres in a non-mythological way.

But it's Liz Swan's take on consciousness that caught my eye (and what are the odds that a person would be into Rush AND consciousness). She writes "There is a misguided question in contemporary philosophy called “the hard problem” which was conceived in a philosophical vacuum..." and goes on to say "My own personal answer to this question is that we wouldn’t have the privilege of being alive in the 21st century to ask these questions if we hadn’t in fact been in touch with our world qualitatively the whole time." Since I've thought about the hard problem of consciousness since 1996, a response is absolutely required. It's not the case as Liz Swan says that access to our own phenomenology (via being "in touch with our world qualitatively") renders the hard problem moot. The issue is: what is the relationship between phenomenology and physicalism - the most successful modern doctrine of the world and its dynamics. Of course, we have access to experience. But, how do we accommodate experience within the "natural order." That's the hard problem. I (and many others have suggested) that this implies that our understanding of physicalism and what it entails is cracked. But, cracked how? There's no consensus at present. Whether you're a dual aspect theorist, neutral monist, panpsychist, emergentist, cosmo-psychist or cosmo-holist (my view), you have to concede that there's no consensus on that which is absolutely central to existence - experience.