Could technology supplant meditation?

My first-ever Vipassana meditation was in Amsterdam. Sitting on a little pillow, our teacher told us that the key to Vipassana meditation is to observe your own thoughts without attachment.

In the following weeks, I invited several friends to those Vipassana sessions. After 90 minutes of meditation, we’d go for a drink and wonder: what happens to your brain when you meditate?

In his TED-talk, Mathieu Ricard answers this question. He shows pictures of Buddhist monks lying inside big fMRI machines. The monks are subjects in a research study to understand the influence of meditation on the structure of the brain. The research showed that the brain structure changes through meditation: monks show more neural activity when they look at images that raise our sense of empathy.

meditationvpain

After seeing this image, I wondered if a Buddhist monk would agree to use a technology that instantly creates the effect of meditation, without the many years of practice it typically takes to create a truly tranquil mind. In the last month, I learned that the first signs of such a technology exist. Called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS); it’s so simple that you can build a setup for less than $50.

I first learned about tDCS in The Economist’s Technology Quarterly, and by listening to a fascinating podcast by Radiolab. In the episode, a journalist for New Scientist explains how her performance in a military simulation game improved from sub-standard to perfect, simply by running a bit of electricity through her brain. (She participated in a military training simulation; her goal was to survive a danger situation in Afghanistan. Without tDCS, she shot 3 out of 20; with tDCS, she hit all targets.) When she performed the exercise without the brain stimulation, she felt extremely stressed; when she used tDCS, time seemed to slow down, decisions were much simpler, and, at the end of the game, the journalist asked the supervisor why they had skipped the hard part of the simulation. Effectively, tDCS creates an effect that meditation can create too: it brings you into a state of focus—letting go of doubts, worries, and peripheral thoughts.

What could this mean for our future? Will baseball-caps provide electric shocks to our brain to keep us in a constant state of “flow”? Is it possible to keep the brain in a constant high; or would our neural cells set the electric current as the new normal, requiring a higher power-flow? If technology can create a focused mind, would a monk use it, or would using it fail to complete the deeper goal of non-attachment?

###

(After I listened to this episode, I ordered a tDCS device myself. I’m very curious to see what it does.)

Advertisements

3 cool tools to learn how computers work

1. Kano: a $150 kit to build your own computer. Kano ships you a beautiful package with a Raspberry Pi, a case, a small speaker, a keyboard with trackpad, and a WiFi module. Using Pi’s linux operating system, you can download existing games, or build your own.

2. littleBits – a library of magnetic electronic blocks that allow you to create and invent. littleBits is an ever-growing library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets so you can invent anything without the need to solder or connect wires. LittleBits’ library has 60 modules, including temperature sensors, microphones, buttons, motors and many more.

3. arduino is an open-source electronics platform that provides the raw material for anyone making interactive projects. At MIT, several of my friends used arduinos to prototype their solution. After teaching at MIT’s medialab India Design Initiative, I was so interested that I bought an arduino as part of a SparkFun kit. I used the kit to build several designs, and then I created my own thermostat. It wasn’t connected to my heating system, but the output (a light) would switch on if the boiler had to switch on.

The thermostat I built with my arduino-kit. When the temperature would be below the setpoint (21 C), the output (an LED, in this example), would switch on.

The thermostat I built with my arduino-kit. When the temperature would be below the setpoint (21 C), the output (an LED, in this example), would switch on.

###

Do you want to understand the basics of computers? Get Danny Hillis’ terrific book “The Pattern on the Stone”. The book details through clear examples how computers work, without going into unnecessary details and all the time nurturing curiosity.

Medialab in Mumbai

MIT performance capture group

I returned yesterday from Mumbai to Amsterdam. I had the honour of being one of the teachers at the MIT Medialab India Initiative. We brought together 350 Indian college students, with backgrounds in engineering and design, with the goal to design and build solutions for a better (Indian) future. It was without doubt the most rewarding teaching experience I have ever had. Why?

There was no competition between student groups (in fact, computer science students from one group would regularly sit for an hour with another group who had no coders); all students were fully engaged in participation; every single student tried things he had never done before (from programming an arduino to printing a PCB); and we had so much fun.

In fact, I was able to learn new things myself: how to build a circuit with no other materials than paper, copper wire, a battery and an LED; how to solder and how to get a group of 20 young males to dance.

The 34 students in my group created 8 prototypes within 2 days of building. See the presentation below, and be inspired.

###

If you’re interested in how the workshop was led, please reach out for the curriculum.

A brainstorm on collaborative consumption

Brainstorm

Many of the things on our planet are not used efficiently. Cars stand idle in parking places and unemployed young people are waiting for interesting work. How can we use this wasted potential by creating transparency in what’s available (supply) and what’s needed (demand)?

Yesterday’s brainstorm started with this question. Soon the conversation shifted to other questions:

  • Can we go beyond looking for inefficiencies towards thinking of different sharing systems?
  • If there were to be an open source template for sharing platforms, would people use it?

Below is a collection of the summary of our conversation; the ideas that were born and further food for discussions.

Trends that enable collaborative consumption:

Drivers_Collaborative_Consumption

Takeaways: 

Multiple functions per object increase possible value. When your apartment can serve as a dinner-room, fitness studio and professional kitchen, you can capture different value streams (see Graham Hill’s NYC apartment, courtesy of Nils Beers). When your factory can produce different models of cars in stead of one model, you can utilize the factory much more efficiently (listen to NPR’s radio show on the NUMMI factory).

There is a tension between increased collaborative consumption (i.e. posting of what you want and what you have to offer) and privacy.

To think about next time:

  • What is the role for people who do not work jobs anymore but are capable to do physical, intellectual or emotional work?
    • Distribute research questions to individuals – citizen science v2
    • Take care of children
    • Beta testing software (maybe even debugging?)
  • How would you control the motion of people around our globe if you had an astronaut’s perspective?

Three cool ideas:

  1. Eindstanden krant: a newspaper that reports on final outcomes only
  2. Micropayments to manage the flow of people around a city (remember picking up and dropping people in Roller Coaster tycoon?)
  3. In stead of firing people when a company faces a shortage of work, lend people to other companies (this is standard practice with many soccer teams)

Deal with whatever life brings you

Image

Creative Commons masha_k_sh

Worth reading every morning:

“Each separate being in the universe, returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.

Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you.”

Better decisions: 1. expand your options

The choices we make determine who we become. If that is so, don’t you wish you could make better decisions? This blog is the first in a series or posts on “making better decisions”. 

Why am I interested in making better decisions?

Most of our recent human history we have lived in hunter-gatherer societies (from 200,000 up to about 10,000 years ago). Our environment consisted of (1) limited resources and (2) danger lurking around each corner. People with an aversion for loss and a tendency for fear had a natural advantage in this environment. Evolution equipped us with behavioral tendencies such as gluttony and greed (“Eat as much as you can, we may not catch anything the next few days”); stereotyping (“Does he belong to our tribe or not?”) and a desire to fit into social groups (Imagine being an outcast in the middle of the jungle). Our environment today is very different: we have abundant resources and very limited danger.

Because of the shift in environment, some of the behavioral tendencies we have developed do not serve us  today. I believe that we can make better decisions by observing our own behavioral tendencies and to weed out the tendencies that don’t work in our favor.

The form of the series. 

In a number of posts, I will share ways that I try to improve my decisions. This post is the first.

Image

Tip #1: Expand considered options

“Good morning sir, what will it be for you today? We have tasty fried eggs, our french toast is often praised, and we have coffee, tea or orange juice to drink.”

Just another morning in a typical Midwestern diner – just another choice to make. We make choices every day, ranging from the trivial (“what will I eat for lunch?”) to the important (“what will I pursue in my life?”).

To choose, you need options – at the very least you need the option to do or not to do. In a restaurant, your list of considered options may be limited to the menu handed to you by the waiter. Our choice from the list of considered options is influenced by resources (how much money can I spend?); senses (do I feel like omelet, fresh fruit or french toast?) and beliefs (is it healthy to eat meat?).

In the restaurant, you may perceive that your choices are limited to the items on the menu. This idea is false: you could decide to go to the coffee shop next door; you could decide to pick up a loaf of bread in the grocery store; or you could choose to eat free lunch at the office and save money for your holidays. I have resisted the temptation to buy chocolate milk in many of the gas stations on my bicycle trip by thinking of the other things I could spend my money on.

Creativity is essential in expanding your options. Are you a recent graduate looking for a job? Do not limit your choice by the choices of past graduates and peers. Expand your options by brainstorming (1) the work done by people you follow online or your personal heroes and (2) by listing all types of work you have previously enjoyed – from design to organizing to writing.

Whenever I feel “stuck” in a next professional step, creating a list of “things I’d love to do” allows me to look beyond the limited number of paths walked by so many before (consulting, investment banking, big engineering firm).

Book review: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography

Image

Written 250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is surprisingly easy to read. In today’s world, Franklin would be a mix between Tim O’Reilly and Tim Ferris. Franklin operated a printing company through which he influenced public opinion; he founded organizations as a fire brigade and a university and he actively tried to change the way he acted through smart exercises and habits. I found it valuable to read his autobiography because Franklin was on a relentless pursuit to become a better person. In his own words:

“I grew convinced that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I formed written resolutions which still remain in my journal book to practice them ever while I lived.”

I wrote about one exercise to nurture your virtues in a post one year ago. Below are some of the thoughts flowing from his book.

# Study voraciously

Franklin took all the time he could to read. At sixteen Franklin became vegetarian, so he could eat a light lunch at his office, saving money and time to read more books.

# Changing someone else’s opinion

Socrates’ method of inquiry – as documented in Xenophobon’s book – is a tool to let other people rethink their beliefs or opinion on a subject by mastering the art of questioning. Franklin also taught himself to avoid argument. When he disagreed with someone, he would put his remark in the form of a question “Do you not think that the issue can be seen from another perspective?”. The point he makes is phrased by Alexander Pope as:

“Men should be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot”

# Build relationships

Benjamin Franklin was recommended by two Governors for his work. “This was the second governor who had done me the honor to take notice of me; which, to a poor boy like me, was very pleasing.”

# An exercise to learn to write 

Franklin learned to write by sending in pieces to his brother’s printing press under the name of an invented elderly lady. Franklin describes one exercise he used to improve his writing: Take a piece of work that you think is well-written and copy the essence of every sentence. Put the notes to the side for a few days. Then, pick up the notes and try to recreate the original essay from the notes. Compare your paper to the original, and observe where and how the author of the original created different sentences.

# Stick to your principles

A friend who travelled alongside Franklin from NYC to Philadelphia was drunk and did not want to row when it was his turn to take the oars. Franklin insisted he would, because he saw every man on the team as equal. Here, Franklin was a man of principle – not bending to suit a friend who drank.

# Work with the best

When Franklin arrived in England, under the false conviction that the Governor had set up meetings for him with printers, he had to look for something else to do. He was advised to work with experienced printers in the UK; training with whom would allow him to set up his own shop afterwards.

# Learn to say no to requests

When he speaks about a governor who did not keep his promise. “It was a habit he had acquired. He wished to please everybody; and, having little to give, he gave expectations. He was otherwise an ingenious, sensible man […]”

# Think independently 

At the time Franklin started work in a printing press in England, the workmen at the printing press would drink beer during the working day, supposing they needed the beer for nutrition. Franklin reasoned that the nutritional value of 6 pints of beer could be no more than a loaf of bread, because:

“The strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made.”

Franklin did not drink beer and was a better worker and wealthier man as a result.

# Be ethical in your work

Franklin refused to print advertisements or letters that spoke negatively of others.

“I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse.”

When his customers would claim “freedom of press”, Franklin would respond by saying that he would print the article for them, but that he would not distribute such a piece.

# Find smart ways to learn

When Franklin wanted to learn Italian, he found another student with whom he would play chess. The winner of a game was allowed to impose a language-learning task on the other.

Franklin also created a “club of mutual improvement” called the junto. The group would meet every week to discuss questions on morality, politics or science. 

# Turn enemies into friends

One man spoke against Benjamin Franklin. In stead of attacking him, or writing him a nasty letter, or even asking “Why did you attack me?”, Franklin tried a different tactic: he asked the man to use something he deeply cared about. Franklin asked to borrow a book, which the man highly treasured.

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Try to think in opportunities when someone reproaches you – try to tickle their interests.

# Spread ideas through writing

Franklin used the written word as a method for spreading his ideas. He would come up with a solution to a social problem – for instance, an Academy to reduce the levels of illiteracy in Philadelphia – write a convincing essay, share it with friends to receive feedback, and publish it into local newspapers. This is no different from the method Elon Musk uses today to spread the idea of the Hyperloop.

Glancing over the different lessons learned, Franklin’s autobiography could easily fit into a business-book section.

Which world do you live in?

Image

There are always a few who are not content to spend their lives indoors. Simply knowing there is something unknown beyond their reach makes them acutely restless. They have to see what lies outside – if only, as Mallory said of Everest, “because it’s there”.

This is true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore not mountains or jungles but consciousness itself: whose real drive, we might say, is not so much to know the unknown as to know the knower. 

The earliest books we know today that contain the experiences of these explorers of consciousness are the Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita. Eknath Easwaran has delivered a terrific job in translating all three books for Western readers, not only translating, but also adding brief introductions to every chapter of the books. 

The Upanishads are […] so varied that we feel some unknown collectors must have tossed into a jumble all the photos, postcards and letters from this world that they could find, without any regard for source or circumstance. […] they form a kind of ecstatic slideshow – snapshots of towering peaks of consciousness taken at various times by different observers.

 

The Dhammapada is a collection [of] sayings of the Buddha. If the Upanishads are like slides, the Dhammapada seems more like a field guide. [The author] urges us that it is our destiny as human beings to make this journey [of consciousness] ourselves. Everything else is secondary.

 

The Bhagavad Gita gives us a map and guidebook. It gives a systematic overview of the territory, shows various approaches to the summit with their benefits and pitfalls, offers recommendations, tells us what to pack and what to leave behind. It asks and answers the questions that you or I might ask – questions not about philosophy or mysticism, but about how to life effectively in a world of challenge and change.

The Upanishads, Dhammapada and Bhagavad Gita insist that the wider world of consciousness is our native land. We are meant to explore, to seek, to push the limits of our potential as human beings. The world of the senses is just a base camp: we are meant to be as much at home in consciousness as in the world of physical reality.

 

Do you take time to explore the world of consciousness?

Podcast review: 5 talks that will inspire you

Image

Listening to interviews and talks is a great way to trigger a process of reflections and ideas. Below are 5 podcasts that I have recently listened to and I recommend. 

1. Thupten Jinpa (Dalai Lama’s translator) on working with the Dalai Lama. On Being Podcast.

“What are opposing characteristics in normal human beings, you tend to see them converging in him [the Dalai Lama].”

People who are pious and self-disciplined are often intolerant to people who do not live up to their standards. Thupten Jinpa explains that the Dalai Lama gets up at 3.30am every day, but does not judge others. Similarly, he says that the Dalai Lama is very humble but tremendously self-confident. An example for each of us to be. 

2. Seth Godin on the Art of noticing. On Being Podcast. 

I receive a daily email from Seth’s blog. Regularly – at least once per week – his writing triggers a reflection or new idea in my head. In this interview with Krista Tippett, Seth emphasizes the idea that there is no “mass market” and that every product, service or story in fact must be tailored to a tribe or an individual. He suggests that the best way to become an expert is to pick a craft, build things, share them with 10 friends and observe which products are shared by friends with others. 

3. Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) on being an example (and surfing). Stanford Center for Social Innovation. 

Great talk – Yvon has his own way of thinking and is a very humorous speaker. “How many really beautiful people do you know are squandering away?”. During the question and answer session, after the interview, someone in the audience asks how Yvon will target the Walmart customer that can not afford Patagonia-prodcuts. Yvon answers that he can not offer his products at Walmart-price – because his quality is too expensive. What’s interesting is that Yvon believes that he can change the way mass market companies will change they way they do business if a small company like Patagonia shows what’s possible in terms of manufacturing for a small company. 

4. Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly media) speaking to a class of Stanford undergraduates on creating more value than you capture. Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner. 

In this talk, Tim speaks about different trends in technology start-ups. He also explains what he does as an editor, author and investor: “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”

If you like this talk, listen also to Tim O’Reilly’s talk at the Long Now Foundation. 

5. Michael Pollan speaks about three ways to change our food system at the Long Now Foundation. Seminars About Long Term Thinking (SALT).

First, Michael Pollan explains that the issues in the food industry weave together many other problems: fossil energy scarcity, climate change, aridity and phosphor cycles. Then, he states three ways the food system can get off of oil – or in his own words “to solarize food”. Good talk, charismatic speaker. 

Please share the stories, talks or interviews that have changed the way you act!

Firewood for warriors

Image

In full battle, the warrior feels strongest. When we fight the good fight – when we work to realize causes we deeply care about – we shine light, we radiate heat, we inspire people around us.

Projects you deeply care about are like logs of firewood for your personal campfire. Without firewood, the campfire dies. Without a cause, the warrior becomes an ordinary human.

When your fire flickers or is about to die, feed it a log. Pick up a cause worth fighting for. 

“Als het vuur gedoofd is, dan komen de wolven”