Friday, 5 May 2017

Will ye go, lassie go

"Will ye go, lassie go" is a traditional folk song. It's the first song I worked on with my singing teacher, about nine months ago now.

It's a lovely song. The words for this arrangement are approximately:

Oh the summertime is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?
And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?
I will build my love a bower
Near yon' pure crystal fountain
And on it I will place
All the flowers of the mountain
Will ye go, Lassie go?
And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?
If my true love e’er should leave me
I would surely find another
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?
And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?
Oh the autumn time is coming
And the leaves are gently falling
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

The Supreme Joy

"What could possibly be more fun?"

Victor Hugo once said:
"The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves"
As lovely as that sounds I think he got it perfectly, completely and exactly wrong. The supreme joy, greater even than knowing you are loved, is the capacity to love. In the end, the question of whether or not we are loved fades into irrelevance in the sheer delight of the knowledge that we can love, for as we love we manifest God who is love, and what could possibly be better than that?

Similarly it has been said that the ultimate question we must all face is "did we know that we were loved?". Again, I think this is perfectly, completely and exactly wrong. In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus describes two groups of people who faced the ultimate (literally) question. The second group had simply got on with loving in practise. And it turned out they'd been loving Jesus, the personhood of love, all along. His friend and they didn't even know it.

The ultimate question for us all, as posed by Jesus, is not "did you know you were loved?", but "did you love?". As always, John puts it far better than I could. How can we know if we know God? 1 John 4:7 "All who love are born of God and know God".

"James 1:27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you."

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Teaching Python

I've been teaching Python Mastery, an advanced Python course, working on US East Coast time (teaching from 3pm to 11pm UK time) to nineteen HP engineers across three different time zones.

I do so enjoy teaching advanced Python. Once I get into the swing of it, which has happened today, I actually feel like an expert. I don't say that to blow my own trumpet, everyone has topics on which they are an expert, but it is such a nice feeling.

There is a Victorian saying of which I'm fond. I'm afraid it's expressed in a sexist way, because Victorians, but it's universally applicable.
"A true gentleman knows something about everything and everything about something."
For me the something about which I know everything (give or take) is the Python programming language. It's fun to feel like I know what I'm talking about, to be able to handle almost any question that is likely to be asked, and to be talking about it to people who want to hear.

The trouble with software engineering as a job (and the challenge - both the frustration and the reason it is worth doing) is that you are rarely dealing with just the programming language. Any task of engineering involves building or working on systems that interoperate and communicate with other systems, and those systems themselves are likely to be comprised of tens of thousands or even millions of lines of code.

Even if you fully understand your code and your system (unlikely of itself), it runs on a modern operating system which is a huge and bewildering beast, it talks on a network, talks to a database (yet another huge and bewildering beast - and if it's not huge and bewildering then it likely isn't any good), a message queue and so on and so forth.

So just as your system communicates and interoperates with other systems specialised for tasks it can't do itself, in order to work on a system *you* need to be able to communicate and interoperate with other people who have specialised knowledge that you don't have. Trying to be an island is a fool's errand.

And in case you hadn't guessed, despite considering myself an expert in quite an important area of the programming I love to do, in the job I've just started with Red Hat I'm still at the "bewildered by the mountain of knowledge I don't have" stage. I'm working on a large system, that itself works with and is comprised of many large systems. And it will be a while before that feeling of blank incomprehension fades.

Fortunately I've started enough new programming jobs to know that the feeling always fades. It happens gradually, and then one day, a few months in and without even noticing it has happened, you start a task and realise you know how to do it. That's such a good feeling.

"There's a bit of the divine in all of us. The bit of God in me is the core of who I am. The God in me is the best of who I am and who I'm meant to be." -- Morgan Freeman, The Story of God

Wade in the Water

This is a song I've been working on with my music teacher. This is me coming back to it after a month's break over the Easter holiday, but as we're not likely to work on it for much longer I thought I'd record it now.

"We exist in the imagination of God. "In him we live and breathe and have our being." Creative life, the outbreathing of the divine."

Monday, 24 April 2017

Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell

"Most people live lives of quiet desperation" -- Thoreau
A sad, sad thing has happened in this Foord household in recent weeks. We've purchased a TV license and adverts have become a thing in our lives. I detest their lies, but I'll admit that some adverts can be mildly entertaining.

For many years we subsisted on Netflix, Amazon video and a mountainous collection of DVDs that inexorably grows beyond any human capacity to ever watch them all but not beyond my unbounded desire to own all the things and know all the things. As with all areas of human endeavour, films (like books and music) present an to-all-intents-and-purposes infinite field of fun, informative and edidying, even seemingly essential, stuff that I could-and-possibly-even-should-but-never-actually-would watch.

Our lives are full enough. As I'm oh so fond of saying, the only thing worse than a busy life is all the alternatives. Years ago I decided that I had consumed enough of other people's creativity and I wanted to create myself. So we don't actually watch much television. Delia and I usually have one TV series that we watch together, on the rare evenings when we have dispatched the children to bed early enough that exhaustion has not fully overcome one or both of us. It took us a few *years* to watch enough of Gilmore Girls before it became clear they'd run out of actual things to say and we got bored enough to turn to something else, promising each other we'd come back and finish the final series soon whilst secretly acknowledging to ourselves that would never happen. 

Despite this Irina, our now six year old daughter, wanted to watch CBeebies and Delia wanted to be able to flick through channels idly relieved from the burden of choice. So I capitulated, and we now have broadcast television.

The world hasn't ended and I'll even begrudgingly admit to enjoying endless David Attenborough on Eden and discovering "Forged in Fire" on The History Channel - a gameshow type program pitting sword makers against one another and judging their work on strength, beauty and capacity to cut and maim.

Last night I even watched three TV programs in a row. I'd probably have to go back decades to the last time that happened Even counting nights of lonely horror in hotel rooms for programming conferences in far off lands I have rarely stooped to such an orgy of entertainment.

All three shows I would recommend, which I guess is the real reason for this post. "Genius" is a docu-drama (even using the word is nearly as much a horror as admitting to enjoying one) on the life of Albert Einstein. Fascinating, I just hope it's mostly true to life and they aren't lieing to me in the name of entertainment. The first episode was plausible and fits what little I already knew.

This was followed by "The Story of God", as told by Morgan Freeman. A man with gorgeously sonorous voice, but somewhat sullied reputation, now largely reinstated in my eyes by the sensitivity of his exploration and how genuine and human he comes across.

And finally "Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell", a look at the history of Auschwitz through two different scrapbooks of photos. The first a collection of photos from one of the commanders, which commits the almost unforgivable sin of humanizing the Nazis. Realising the horrors of that place, the pit of the worst of human capacity, was a merely human creation is such a hard thing to face. The second scrapbook catalogued the arrival and fate of the Jews, accompanied and explained by the narration of a survivor.

When the show came on I nearly switched it off. I know enough of the holocaust, and it has touched and shaped my own family. (See "A Jewish Love Story".)

But, perhaps mostly out of stubbornness, I won't turn away from the horror. I won't pretend it doesn't exist, or claim that it's dealt with and I have no part in it. So I watched.

Hannah Arendt, in her examination of the rise of totalitarianism, said that the way the Nazis could commit such horrors whilst still holding on (at least outwardly) to the appearance of their own humanity (as evidenced in the laughing photos) was the dehumanization of their victims. If the Jews and homosexuals and gypsies weren't really people then they could switch off empathy and laugh and smile and kill.

The very worst thing, personally, is that I can understand.  If you can totally switch off your view of "the other" as a real person, then how fascinating to see how the human body responds to pain and other horrors. How useful. And how then possible to let out, and enjoy, all your darkest, deepest desires - entirely contained and walled off on subjects who matter not in the slightest because they aren't real. And then you can pet your dog and enjoy blueberries with the pretty, laughing Nazi girls, a mere ten miles from the death camp.

So something of that horror is in me, because it is in all humanity. We did it. And I won't run from it, shut it out, stay blind and mute to the worst of what I am. I repudiate it utterly, I want nothing of it. But I will face it, I will find it in myself, not push it away and wall it off. I will touch the darkness in me, and cry over it. God help me.

"My driving desire is the powerful psychological release I find in the active adoration of love. I long to worship, I love to worship."

Friday, 21 April 2017

Mysticism, Freedom and the Human Will

Chaos is creative potential.
The full key to self-actualisaton (personal growth or whatever you want to call it) is will. This is the freedom that Christianity talks of, a free will capable of making choices and effecting change. Freeing up our capacity to love.

Throughout the ages philosophers have recognised the importance of the human will. For example:
Epictetus: You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower.
Schopenhauer: the world as will and representation
Alphonse Constance: magic is the product of will and imagination
Nietzsche: will to power
Crowley: Love is the law, love under will
Schweitzer: I am life which wills to live
Fankl: will to meaning
Both Buddhism and Jungian psychology see the human psyche (soul) as being extraordinarily deep, but mostly unconscious. Most of who we are, most of our capacity to effect change, is not present in our conscious mind. So our actions are driven by forces and desires that we don't understand, whilst our conscious mind rationalises our decisions so that the ego can maintain its illusion of control. (For what it's worth, the rationalisation of decisions after they have been made has been verified by modern empirical psychology.) Compulsive behaviour and neuroses are the clearest examples of "unconscious drives". In "Doors of Perception" Aldous Huxley argues that our limited awareness, our filtered perception of reality, is an evolutionary mechanism for survival. Complete awareness of all our sensory input (including self-awareness) would debilitate our ability to function in a competitive world.

Our worldview, how we choose to see the world, is one of the ways we filter reality. We reject information that doesn't fit our worldview and seek out information that reinforces it (confirmation bias), allowing us to only have to deal with a small (and safer) proportion of reality.

So in Buddhism, the goal of meditation (and for Jung the goal of psychoanalysis) is to permit our awareness (mindfulness) into the totality of who we are - to become fully conscious of the unconscious self. To really see and accept ourselves. In the process Buddhism says that we will come to understand that what we view as "self" is largely (or even totally) the product of ego, and that who we are is in fact not so separate from the rest of the world we find ourselves in. We are merely a small part of everything.

In becoming aware we become free to choose. In becoming conscious our will is freed from the self-repression (self-rejection a pushing away and deliberate - but through habit unconscious - blindness to what goes on inside us). This is why being willing to face who we are, to take responsibility for ourselves and to stop blaming others, is so essential to finding true freedom. This is full self-acceptance.

As we become more aware of ourselves, as our capacity for action increases and we become more free, we become "bigger people". There is more of us around than there was.

This understanding that awareness brings freedom is why to the Buddhist right living, right understanding and right teaching are all the same thing.

But remember, the only theory worth a damn is the theory of the practise. What does it mean about how we live to understand that freedom means a free will?

It means to take control of who we are and responsibility for what we do, and to put ourselves into what we do rather than being dragged around by habit and routine. We can still do the same things (but we can also be free to stop), but choose to do them. Don't let them be someone else's choice about how you live.

It is through habit that things become unconscious. Look at how a child learns to walk, every nuance of every step is a wobbly and conscious action. So deliberate, and so hard! Yet through practise we barely think about it at all, the thought processes involved in balance and avoiding obstacles have become completely unconscious. It's the same with, for example, learning to drive. At first turning a corner (check your mirrors, change gear, slow down, indicate) is a bewildering plethora of actions to perform simultaneously. After a while you develop an "autopilot", and do it with barely a (conscious) thought. In fact the thought processes and decision making are still there, we're just not consciously aware of them. It's still us. There's no-one else to blame for the actions of the parts of ourselves that we don't see or feel.

So it is our habits that bind us. Our habits of destructive thought patterns and destructive behaviour for example. Step off the vicious cycle and onto the virtuous cycle.

Through deliberate action you can train your subconscious, train your "autopilot" into good habits. Choose to love all the time, and what initially takes deliberate effort becomes habit. Make decisions, do things you're afraid of, step out of routine, do unfamiliar things, choose to live. Face yourself, accepting yourself with compassion (by understanding your motives and reasons) but not turning away from the reality of who you are and what you've done. Choose to love, love under will.

By facing yourself you can master yourself.

One silly example (and I'm full of silly examples) of how I've been doing this in practise is that over the last few years I've been trying to make myself ambidextrous. I saw that my children, early on in life, used both hands almost equally with a very slight preference for one hand. Gradually that slight preference meant that they became more skillful with that hand, so the preference was reinforced - it was easier to do something with the hand they had used more often. I realised that my left hand was almost entirely useless for many common actions, and not as strong, simply because I didn't use it through habit. I started to deliberately choose to use my left hand for everything I could. Actions that had previously been completely unconscious, like stirring a cup of tea, suddenly became difficult and I was very aware of them. As an interesting side-effect I was forced to live more in the moment, putting more conscious effort and will into things I used to do completely passively. A very interesting experiment. Over time the conscious effort required to choose my left hand and arm is fading and it is becoming more natural. I haven't switched for hand-writing yet though, my writing is barely legible with my right hand!

So we can choose to change, by changing our habits. At this point Christians may protest and argue that it is God who changes us. Well yes, but the freedom God wants us to have is a freed will. So God doesn't make our choices for us. God (and I will shortly provide an understanding of God that the atheist may not object to) brings us an awareness of our weaknesses and habits, that awareness is the capacity to change. We must still choose to change.

For me the defining heart of Christian mysticism is Moses meeting God in the wilderness. The burning bush, the fire that burns but does not consume. Moses asks God his name, and in mysticism a true name reveals true nature (c.f. "he has given us a new name"). God's answer is YHVH, Yahweh, Jehovah. I Am. God is consciousness, pure being, pure existence.

So the eye of consciousness is the eye of God.
1 Search me, O God, my actions try,
And let my life appear
As seen by Thine all-searching eye—
To mine my ways make clear.

2 Search all my sense, and know my heart
Who only canst make known,
And let the deep, the hidden part
To me be fully shown.

3 Throw light into the darkened cells,
Where passion reigns within;
Quicken my conscience till it feels
The loathsomeness of sin.

4 Search all my thoughts, the secret springs,
The motives that control;
The chambers where polluted things
Hold empire o’er the soul.

5 Search, till Thy fiery glance has cast
Its holy light through all,
And I by grace am brought at last
Before Thy face to fall.

6 Thus prostrate I shall learn of Thee,
What now I feebly prove,
That God alone in Christ can be
Unutterable love.

Francise Bottome (approx 1872)
Suspend your disbelief for a moment, if you can, and imagine singing that song with genuine passion. And further imagine that the the God you've found and believe in is in fact pure consciousness and the essence of life itself. That you love and adore it with all your heart and open up the core of who you are to it with reverence and respect, even some fear. That you invite it in, to reach into and search out the depths of your being, determined to face who you are and believing you can find purity of life in it. Now wouldn't that be a fine and honest thing. 

I take a different look at what will is in: Soul, spirit and will.

Christians wondering how I see Jesus fitting into all this may be interested in my article "Theodicy and the Problem of Evil".

"Strive not to know but to be. Turn your intelligence not into understanding but into being."

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Are we living in a computer simulation?

Evolution is the key to understanding our nature.
Are we living in a computer simulation and not the "real world"?

So the argument goes, once computers become sophisticated enough to simulate entire worlds, then lots of worlds will exist. Therefore, if there are many, many worlds, the chances of you happening to exist in "the real one" and not a simulation are very small.

I actually think the best answer to the idea that we might be living in a simulation comes from Wolfram. He was talking about weather predicting but it holds just as true for world creation. He points out that to fully simulate any system (e.g. a weather system) you need to simulate the quantum level, and that requires a simulation model exactly as complex as the system being simulated, and therefore at least as physically big as the system being simulated. This is because you can't simulate quantum systems with a smaller quantum system. If you could you would be relying on more subtle interactions, that also happen in the real system (and affect it) and therefore you would also need these in the simulation and can't use them to create the simulation.

So to simulate a universe requires something at least as big as a universe. The way round this is to cheat and not simulate all of the universe, but then you must have a universe with inconsistent physical laws (since some of the observable effects are not genuinely calculated but "fudged"). As far as we can tell our universe runs on consistent (but chaotic) laws, and is therefore probably not simulated.

The conclusion is that you can only fully simulate a closed system, because a simulation is a closed system. This is also, coincidentally, why weather forecasting will always suck.

However, David Cassandra Mertz asks:
"What if the real universe ribs much faster than the simulations, and we live in a timeshare slice of the simulator?"
This does seem possible and quantized time might be an indication that this is the case. Potentially in "the real world" the speed of light is much higher, so the real quanta of time is smaller. A slower speed of light also makes the observable universe smaller - allowing a smaller universe to be simulated within the real one. However, it seems unlikely you'd have the physical space and energy to create "many worlds" this way.

As an interesting aside, computing speed doesn't matter. Time is only experienced by reality in frames (quanta) of the time it takes light to travel the shortest quantum distance, determined by Planck's constant. The unit of Planck Time is approximately 5.39 × 10−44 s. So even if it takes an hour, or a hundred years, for your computer to evaluate each frame the simulated world will still experience each frame sequentially and it will feel like "real time". The problem is physical space for state storage. Storing the state of a quantum system takes at least as much space as the "real" quantum system, you can't store the state (electronically, digitally or otherwise) in a smaller space. So to simulate a universe it requires a universe.

In the sense that reality is the product of collapsed probability waveforms, not resolved until observed (lazily evaluated), it could be said that the universe is already a simulation of itself. Every universe created (within the probably-not-real multiverse) is a new simulation.

"Imagine the best of all possible worlds. Now apply your will to making it happen. Magic is the product of will and imagination."