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Learning

Pale Blue Dot

January 8, 2017 — by Casey Allen0

I was reminded today of this image and accompanying narration by Carl Sagan. The image is a photograph of Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles). Without doubt a great distance for us to comprehend, but in the realm of astronomical distances, this is just outside of our solar system – practically still in the same cosmic neighborhood. However, in the photo the Earth occupies less than one pixel. Especially together with the poetic narration of Sagan, it’s difficult to not feel humbled by this image of our tiny home.

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

Learning

An Introduction To Provisional Knowledge

October 15, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

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At the time of writing, the United States is less than a month away from electing a new president. It doesn’t take much knowledge of politics to see that this election is extremely contentious – both in terms of of the candidates and the rhetoric surrounding their campaigns. Without commenting too much on the actual politics, I would like to use this time in our country’s history to illustrate a need for developing a sense of provisional knowledge.

Strong opinions are ubiquitous in our society and definitely in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These opinions are often presented to us as facts. Facts which are meant to either affirm our own opinions or change our beliefs to align with the presenter. Here is an example from the Presidential Campaign: In August, Donald Trump tweeted the followingscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-12-17-05 “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on!”  It’s a catchy tweet, and Trump has used similar statements about crime as a part of his platform in the race. The danger here, however, is that what Mr. Trump said was undeniably false. Most categories of crime have been on a steady decline since the early 1990’s. However, if the viewer of that tweet didn’t follow up on this statement, they may accept it as fact and therefore have the belief that inner-city crime is reaching record levels.

Moving away from politics and towards the field of ethics (I’m using this term broadly to describe the concept of right and wrong conduct), I am going to assume that as conscientious humans, our goal is to have accurate beliefs. That is, we want our beliefs to reflect facts about the world around us so that our own personal reality is an accurate one. This is useful to us because our opinions are tied to our morals and our concepts of ethical behavior.

What I would like to suggest is that the best way to have accurate beliefs (upon which you can form your own opinions, morals, values, etc) is through provisional knowledge. I believe that the scientific method provides an excellent picture of this principle. bartolomeu_velho_1568For example, during much of history the accepted astronomical model was geocentric (with the Earth at the center of the universe and the other planets and stars moving around it). It wasn’t until the 16th century that a German astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus presented a mathematical heliocentric model (where the Sun is at the center of our solar system, with the other planets orbiting around it). Shortly afterwards, this heliocentric model was confirmed through observation and further refined by other scientists. Today it would seem silly to use any other model for our solar system. And this is the power of provisional knowledge (and science itself) – it does not purport that it’s beliefs are the ultimate and accurate picture of reality to be followed until the end of time. It instead asserts that it’s knowledge is the best we have at this time. Given new, more accurate information, it will always change and adapt. In this way it is truly a method, and not dogmatic belief.

I believe this is how we should treat our own opinions and beliefs. The strength of our opinions should be in direct proportion to our confidence in the knowledge of the subjects to which they relate. It’s okay to not have a strong opinion on something you are not well informed on. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”. It’s okay to admit that your opinion is provisional – that you have formed it from the information you have been given. And it’s definitely okay (and I would say it is a moral responsibility) to change either the strength or the nature of your opinion when new information is presented to you.

Especially in times like this one surrounding our presidential election, I believe that advocating for provisional knowledge is important. The election and accompanying media-hype tend to advocate for the opposite. It’s therefore incumbent upon us to be people of reason and measure who avoid polarization and dogmatism. There is obviously a lot to say on this subject. It’s one that I am passionate about and that I will likely write more about in the future. For now though, I would like to leave you with this one point to consider – It is often difficult for us to examine our own beliefs. It’s at the heart of introspection and it makes us feel vulnerable. But I will assert that if our goal is to be the best, most moral people we can be, then we must do just this. We must consider our knowledge and beliefs to be provisional and be open to changing them when new, more accurate information is presented to us.

Learning

Happy Autumnal Equinox

September 22, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

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Astronomy is one of my hobbies and I enjoy celebrating celestial events. For me, it’s a great way to keep my life in perspective and to continually renew my sense of wonder about life and our minuscule part that we play in the universe. I also find it incredible that humans have have used celestial events to measure the seasons for thousands of years – most of them doing this strictly by observation, without knowledge of fundamental traits such as the heliocentricity of our solar system.

Today marks a celestial phenomenon that happens twice each year: the equinox. The equinox is a way to mark the changing of the seasons, in the case of today’s equinox it’s the end of summer and the beginning of fall for the northern hemisphere as well as the start of spring for the Southern Hemisphere.

earth-modelThe reason for the name “equinox” has to do with the geographical position (GP) of the sun. The suns GP is the location on Earth where the sun is directly overhead. This position changes in latitude throughout the year, moving from its highest latitude at the Tropic of Cancer to its lowest latitude at the Tropic of Capricorn. On the equinox, the GP of the sun is directly over Earth’s equator. The length of daytime and nighttime are approximately equal on this day.

I suppose this is all a very circuitous way of saying “happy first day of fall!”

Learning

Three Lessons for the Digital Age I Learned From Studying Buddhism

September 6, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

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This is an article I wrote for Medium a couple years back. I’m usually not much for self-help type articles with clickbait titles, although there is no denying their popularity on the interwebs. However, I think in this case, my level of expertise on the subject really hit the sweet spot for this type of article, so I decided to run with it. Enjoy!

Recently I spent an evening with a friend at the Zen Center in Detroit, Michigan where she is a student. Having done a bit of studying about Buddhism, I was excited to learn from someone who was actually living the Buddhist life. My friend gave me a tour of the center, we sat for an hour long meditation, and then ate dinner together at a Japanese-style low table. After dinner I was struck with what a pleasant and uncomplicated day it had been. I began to realize that Buddhism holds within itself many antidotes to the conditions which have become endemic of modern society. We have all become familiar with these ailments, at least to some extent – finding it difficult focus long enough to do things we used to enjoy such as to read a book or even carrying on an in-depth conversation without checking our phones, feeling a constant sense of urgency and need to search for the next distraction. Despite being more connected to the outside world, experiencing a feeling of loneliness and of being misunderstood or uncared for. Sitting down in front of a computer only to realize hours later that you have been browsing for so long that you don’t remember why you got on the internet in the first place. 

1. There is a lot of richness in the present moment. Think about the last time you walked somewhere. My guess is that, even if it was a short walk, you probably had your cellphone in hand. Maybe you tried to call a friend to fill the time. Maybe you checked your Facebook, then posted a picture on Instagram. Or if you are like me, as a last resort, maybe you just kind of flipped through the apps on your phone searching restlessly for something to occupy your time. As a society, we have become increasingly uncomfortable with phone lookersthe present moment. We try rather successfully to escape it through a constant bombardment of notifications, messages, apps, etc. The Buddhist principle of mindfulness tells us that we are escaping the most important moments of our lives. Mindfulness has started to gain some traction in the U.S. over the last few years – there was the recent Time magazine cover story, loads of new books and apps, and even recent promotion by large corporations as a way to foster increased productivity and focus. 

In essence, mindfulness means to have a full awareness of the present moment. To practice mindfulness is to take a break from the busyness that has become our modi operandi and to focus only on the present. This can take the form of a sitting meditation or it can just mean eliminating distractions for a few moments to enjoy whatever it is you are doing right now. In fact, I would say that the most important point of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at any time, in any situation. All that has to be done is to give full attention to the task that is being done. Take again the walking example. Perhaps you’re walking to your car after leaving work. Instead of checking your phone, try focusing your attention on “just walking.” Feel your shoes making contact with the ground. Notice how your legs feel as they carry you forward. Feel any breeze or sensation of wind against your skin and clothes. It’s deceptively difficult. Watch your breath as it naturally changes to the pace of your steps. At first your brain will probably protest and your thoughts will drift to something more “exciting.” Just gently bring your attention back to the aspects of walking. Once you have practiced this a bit and get used to “just walking” you will see how much richness there is in the details of walking. You will begin to notice aspects that perhaps you never saw before. It is exciting to see life through new eyes, with the renewed wonder of a child. Being content with the present is a fundamental part of happiness, and one that our addiction to technology can strip from us by creating endless distractions that we perceive as important. Practicing mindfulness is a way of retraining your brain to focus and become more comfortable with the life that surrounds you.


2. We are all connected.
A message of kindness. The Buddhist teachings say that all beings on Earth are interconnected. flowerThich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and educator, relates this concept in a way that is easily understood: “…looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away. You don’t have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow. So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element. And earth, and gardener…if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower.”  
At the Zen Center when greeting another person it is customary to bow towards them. This is a way of saying “I respect you and see a part of myself in you.” I think the more standard way to look at the world is a dichotomy of “us and them.” We emotionally distance ourselves from strangers, people we don’t like, and problems that are not directly affecting us. Inter-being is a twist on the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It means not just to treat, but to view others as an extension of yourself. It’s the ultimate call for the kindness of humanity, both towards each other and also the environment in which we inhabit. Perhaps spoken to humanity, the message of interconnectedness feels like a platitude. But considered individually, it’s a call for personal change and for deep consideration about the nature of our realities.

3. Use teachings as a guide, not as ultimate truth. The Buddha said to use his teachings as you would a raft. Use them to aid you in getting to the other side of the pond, or in other words, as a means to an end. He didn’t want anything that he said to be taken for dogma that was written in stone and could not be reinterpreted or changed. This is a powerful lesson for the importance of critical thinking in the digital age. It’s so easy to find an “expert” opinion on a subject. Just check YouTube for a video tutorial, Wikipedia for a textual lesson, or Google to instantly see millions of search results from all over the web. There are obvious benefits to this – the wealth of information at our fingertips would have been unfathomable in any era of history. The negative aspect though is that we are losing our ability to think for ourselves, to think critically and deeply, forming our own opinions. To me, this teaching of the Buddha contrasts beautifully to the teachings of the Abrahamic that many of us are more familiar with. The ability to think and reason for ourselves is the most powerful tool we have to make forward progress both outwardly through technology and scientific advancement and inwardly through our own moral endeavors. In his book Walden, Heney David Thoreau wrote about cultivating these abilities “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.” 

Seagull mindfulnessIn studying Buddhist teachings, I am struck by the relevance of what I have read. I am not advocating that all people should become Buddhist. I am, however, promoting more deep thought about our social mores and ethical beliefs. We are often so steeped in our collective ethos that for positive change to occur, we must learn to be observant of our most basic assumptions. It is this type of thought and observation that makes Buddhism so important to our society.

Learning

One Weird Trick For Watching Less TV

August 18, 2016 — by Casian

If you want to watch tv don't come to my house. Mine broke. This is a throwback from 2010 when Ian and I were roommates. We were in college and working as low paid corporate pilots. During dinner one evening we were talking about the things we valued in life. We highly valued both productivity and great experiences. Looking across the room at our TV, we realized that it had never provided us with either of those things, yet it cost $100 per month to keep around. A decision was quickly made - it had to go.