The Beach Again?

Yeah, sorry: I can't help myself. But every time, I'm amazed.

Trouville beach in May.
"Life is Beautiful" in seashells.

It's incredible that the tide wrote a message in French so clearly when it receded. Nature is amazing!

The Stagemaster: Second Step

Received this week at a particularly opportune time (if only I believed in signs):

Certificate of Deposit of my screenplay at the Library of Congress.

Written in six months, left to rest for almost five years, and recently found the right ending before registering it at the Library of Congress. "The Stagemaster" is a screenplay for a dramatic comedy set in Great Britain, written in English and I am now able to start sharing it. English-speaking contacts are welcome.

What is Reactivity (And Why It Might not be Good for You)

In business, of course, it's a quality. We want it everywhere.

In essence, reactivity is the ability to analyze and react to a situation that is outside the scope of what was originally planned. When you've devised a plan that obviously isn't working anymore ("is it normal for the basement to flood like this?"), you have to be able to put aside outdated solutions ("so we don't turn the power back on?") to initiate actions that are more in line with the reality of the problem ("maybe we should tell the kids to come back upstairs?").

So if you're asked this question in a job interview: yes, you're reactive. Thoroughly.

In Eastern philosophy, it's a more mixed quality. Becoming less reactive is even a measure of progress: a Buddhist who is not proud of his behavior would say "Sorry, I was being reactive" or "I was acting from a place of reactivity."

In that context, reactivity is acting immediately on the basis of one's thoughts and emotions. Without buffering, without temporizing, without giving them a chance to evolve.

For Buddhists, thoughts and emotions are transient. Like everything else in this world, psychic contents appear, take their course, and then disappear. The wisdom lies in observing this dance without getting trapped by each passing mood.

Often, Buddhists tell us, we give too much credit to our thoughts. We imagine that every idea is the mental representation of an underlying reality; that every emotion that points inside is the consequence of something that happens outside; that there is a 1:1 ratio between the physical world and our image of it. In this view, it is crucial to act without delay since thoughts are reality - or are, at least, extremely faithful ambassadors of it.

Except that a modicum of introspection quickly puts this idea to shame.

When not artificially entertained, thoughts... pass. Emotions pass. Everything passes. And usually very independently of the reality to which they were thought to be attached.

In fact, the same reality can present itself very differently throughout the day: disturbing in the morning, indifferent at noon, more motivating in the evening. Three perceptions for the same object. But to witness this change (what Buddhists refer to as impermanence or anitya), one must not have acted hastily in the morning. By jumping into action right away (being reactive), we don't give ourselves the chance to see that first emotion disappear in favor of the next one, and then the next one, and so on, revealing the essentially ephemeral nature of our psychic contents.

This is especially important because, as Acharya Prashant writes in Advait in Everyday Life (don't let the cover fool you, this book is a treasure trove): the seed and the fruit of action are one.

In other words: action initiated in anger will only bring more anger. The enterprise built on fear will only lead to more fear. The emotion at the source of the action will be the emotion at the end of the action, no matter how successful the project is.

Think about it: do you know many millionaires who quit business after their first big score? Politicians who don't want more power once they reach the first office? Mafiosi who give up violence once the first rivals are eliminated? Far from neutralizing it, action validates and encourages the original emotion.

Conclusion: action is rarely the right solution for dealing with unwanted emotions.

Transforming the external world will not end this sadness. Accepting or rejecting this deal will not neutralize that anguish. Using verbal or physical violence will not stop this anger. On the contrary: this decision may ultimately exacerbate the negative emotions and problematic thoughts it was supposed to stop.

So what to do?

This is both the paradox and the solution: there is nothing to do. If you don't artificially nurture them with a desire for action, the thoughts arise and disappear on their own, without anything required of you. For, as the other said:

"Whatever has the nature to appear, will also disappear." 
-- Buddha

So: when I'm worried, sad or anxious, first I deal with the emotion - by doing nothing - and then, only then, I act. But often, at this point, action is no longer necessary. Which leaves me time to write all these bullshit articles.

Poll of the Day

- Is seafood conscious? - Asshole!

I found a treasure trove of containment drawings in a misplaced folder. You are not out of the woods.

Be Bored! (Essence of Productivity)

When I find the time, I'll write a recap article about my approach to productivity and how far I've come in this area.

Contrary to what I used to think, productivity is not the art of doing more ("Here, I have a free hour between sports and my cooking class, I'm going to learn the trumpet!"). Productivity is the search for an alignment between who we are - what we believe in, what we want in life, what is important to us - and the way we spend our time every day. Too often, the hours, days and years are consumed by routine, urgency and fatigue. We end up on autopilot in service of a job, the grind, or personal goals that are no longer current.

Finding an overall direction of our own and then ensuring that this direction infuses every minute of every day is what productivity is all about.

But since I don't have time - irony! - I'm going to share this video from Pursuit of Wonder, a channel I used to follow back when I was on youtube a lot. If you skip the beginning sponsors, you'll get a glimpse of a philosophy that I share: the importance of emptiness, of idleness, of boredom.

It's a channel I recommend. I like the topics they choose - philosophical essays rooted in stoicism, Zen and bordering on science fiction - I like the guy's hypnotic voice, I like the simple but clear illustrations.

Other videos that I liked: in a somewhat science fiction genre, there was The Machine. As a moral tale of sorts, there was The Nova Effect. And a bit more like a story: Every person is one choice away from everything changing. Enjoy.

I don't know what to read... Oh Yes! (Biblical Monsters, Capitalism and End of Life)

I've decided not to renew my subscription to the New York Times and New Yorker to see how it feels. Not to get stuck in my reading habits and discover new avenues.

So recently, I've found myself a bit lost at certain key moments when I usually pull out my phone. (Lunch break: check. Extended bathroom break: check. Before going to bed: check.) A bit like when I stopped Facebook & Co: what did I do before? What was I reading before my cell phone consumed my life?

I thought about subscribing to free newsletters. Found nothing conclusive.

And then by chance, I stumbled upon a trove.

I stumbled upon (via this Lex Fridman podcast) this incredible article Meditations on Moloch.

Moloch is a biblical monster that Allen Ginsberg used in a famous poem (in English here, in French there, it starts in the second part) to describe what is wrong with the world. Many think he's describing capitalism, but that's just it: in Meditations on Moloch, the author unpacks the poem and shows that there's something much darker hidden behind it.

Moloch is the race to the bottom that everyone is forced to participate in even when they know it's bad for everyone. It is the need to abandon deeply human values to gain competitive advantages that will leave us behind if we don't do what others are doing. It is that force that pushes toward survival ("the state of subsistence," he says) rather than life and that, once this transitional period of abundance is over, will enslave us all.

And in this extremely well-written, very long article, packed with examples and references, he unveils an absolutely Lovecraftian vision of the world in which humans are at the mercy of ancestral monsters that battle each other. And one of them, the one that is probably winning: Moloch.

It made me think a lot about human nature, about our times, and about what lies ahead for us, especially in terms of energy contraction in the age of Artificial Intelligence - one of the monsters that could be working for us or against us.

The article grabbed me so much that I went to look around a bit. The author calls himself Scott Alexander, he's a psychiatrist by trade and...he's written so much! Like hundreds of posts. I read three or four of them at random and was overwhelmed by the detail, the intelligence, the originality.

For example, if you're in the mood and really want to be aware of your mere mortal condition, you can read Who by very slow decay which talks about how doctors deal with the end of life - which is a bit like How doctors die that I wrote about a long time ago and that he mentions. (Coincidentally, what made me click on the article: "Who by very slow decay" is a line from the Leonard Cohen song "Who by Fire" that I discovered last week.)

Even better: when you go to his blog, he's got a long list of links to other authors who keep equally packed blogs: economics, science, rationality, etc... Only geeky subjects that interest me. And his pet peeve, the thread that ties his articles together, is effective altruism which he explains extremely well.

Conclusion: you have to clear your mind to discover something new.


Blood Bird

Another dead-end hobby of mine: generative art. I program in c with the Cairo library to make little drawings. I do this some Sunday afternoons instead of tinkering.

Generative art: you can see a bird in it, can't you?

Here: testing a new noise function to control the brush. I didn't intend to share it but the result surprised me and since I haven't published anything for a week...

In the long run, I'd like to use this technique in animation to illustrate some video essays.

Because yes, that's the advantage: once a first drawing is done, it's easy to fiddle with some parameters to create very evocative psychedelic animations.

The Elephant (and Dragon) Paradox

The challenge starts like this:

Don't think of elephants!

Bam! Too late. You lost.

You imagined an elephant. Or Dumbo. Or any other pachyderm related to your personal culture. Maybe you imagined an entire herd of them. Shame.

In psychology, this exercise serves to demonstrate that we don't always choose our thoughts. An idea can be planted in your brain without your consent, just as thousands of thoughts are planted every day by those around you, by the media, by the outside world. You have less control over your mind than you think.

But over the past few years, I've been learning to develop an immunity.

Let's be clear: if you talk to me about elephants, I'm going to think about elephants, just like everyone else. But if we had a contest and there was a machine to measure this kind of thing, you'd see that I'm able to stop thinking about it much faster than you.

That's my superpower: not thinking about elephants for too long.

It may sound trivial (dumb?) but this ability allows you me live happier. To have less anxiety, easier social relationships, to be lighter in general. But before I explain why, let me show you how. Because it's very simple.

To stop thinking about elephants, all you have to do is:

  1. Allow yourself to think about elephants,
  2. Accept being interrupted,
  3. Never celebrate.

I'll explain.

The first step is counterintuitive: if you're trying to stop yourself from thinking about elephants, you examine every thought to make sure it doesn't contain any. You see the paradox: it is the process of checking that sustains the idea. Even if you manage to move on, it's the comparison that brings back the elephant.

To get around this trap, the goal is to accept the next idea whatever it is, without judgment or comparison. Elephant? Fine. Tiger? Car? Cheese? Great. Everyone is welcome. This is what I call "accepting to be interrupted": by removing the anti-pachyderm customs and unconditionally receiving what comes, one restores the natural thread of thought, the famous "stream of consciousness" which, when not held back, never lingers too long on the same subject.

The third step is decisive:

Not celebrating means not verifying if you've succeeded. And therefore not to rejoice in a possible victory. For the same paradox would come into play: to certify this victory, you owould have to compare the current thought with the forbidden thought. And bam: here comes the elephant again.

That is the real meaning of "moving on": no longer maintaining the memory that we avoid. Not comparing the present with the past we no longer want. Accepting to be somewhere else, entirely.

Why does this make life easier? Because what works for elephants works for anxiety, for jealousy, for anger. For example, here's my three-step recipe for getting rid of anxiety:

  1. Allow yourself to be anxious,
  2. Accept to be interrupted by another emotion,
  3. Don't celebrate the disappearance of anxiety.

Again, the last step is key: after the battle, you'd like to rejoice in the death of the dragon. Shout that there was a monster here that you've defeated. But merely pronouncing its name makes it come back. Wherever you look for angst - even to check that it's gone - you always find a little.

Hence the importance of moving on and not looking back.

After that, it all depends on what you're looking for in life: to exist as the Great Dragon Slayer in a world infested with them? Or live as a peaceful nobody in a world where they don't exist? For both are possible, and the choice is entirely up to you.