We can not not Believe

IMG_4296One of the most important things I’ve ever learned, is not to get lost in the metaphors of belief.

Before you dismiss beliefs in God or gods or faeries or elves or nature spirits or a belief in a mechanistic universe devoid of any supernatural entities — before dismissing the beliefs of others, recognize that all human perceptions are illusory and false, all of them, pretty much by definition they are not real, they are abstract metaphors attempting to make sense of a world outside of our senses.

If you’re going to dismiss false beliefs, then start with your favorite color, your favorite music, the beauty of a sunset — these are false beliefs. The sun doesn’t set. Color and music exist only in your mind, they have no external reality and there is no scientific basis for what is known as the qualia of these experiences.

We pretend science is mechanistic and yet every scientific breakthrough happened through a creative and playful insight, a creation of a new metaphor that while useful is still as false as all the others.

All of our ambitions and our every “will to power” is as natural and as false as believing in tree spirits. We devise these metaphors in attempt to make sense of the world and ourselves. We are the creators of these perceptions and there is no difference between you as the perceiver and that which you perceive.

But can you stop believing in music and color, can you truly stop believing in magic? Is it even possible not to embrace false beliefs?

Every time you think about “a life worth living” or “doing the right thing”, you are under the delusion of a false belief.

It is impossible to be human without these experiential beliefs.

But it is possible to know that a belief is false and still be uplifted by the power of that belief — it profoundly doesn’t matter that there is no external reality to the beauty you experience listening to music, or watching a sunset, or spending a quiet afternoon with a lover, or appreciating a babbling brook — to be human is to live with and of these metaphors.

The problem with beliefs is not that they are false, all beliefs are false, you may say some are useful and some are not — but even that conjecture of usefulness is itself a false belief (useful to whom? and to what end?).

The problem is when we get lost in the metaphor. The moment you see your beliefs as real, that is the problem — the moment you forget that your perceptions are only perceptions, that is the problem — this is what leads to religious fanaticism and suffering of all kinds; and while it’s natural to have false beliefs, it is wise to live with and of the beauty of beliefs. Believe in music, believe in art, believe in God if it inspires you to be kind, believe in tree spirits if it helps you to feel connected with nature, just don’t get lost in the metaphor, it’s not real, and that’s okay.

Fermi Paradox

In 1950, while walking to lunch, Enrico Fermi and his colleagues were discussing the probability of extraterrestrial life in the cosmos. Fermi and others contended, and logically so, that there must be many forms of life in the cosmos, even intelligent life. Later, during lunch, the conversation shifted to other topics; and then, as the story goes; Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?”

Given the immense size of the visible universe, the quadrillions of star systems, certainly there must be intelligent life that has either visited or colonized- so where is everybody? In other words, where is the evidence?

This is known as the Fermi Paradox.

There are many interesting ways to approach this problem. The Drake Equation has become a useful formula to organize some of the variables. Many of the variables are completely speculative, so there’s not yet an answer, but it can be used as a helpful starting point. For reference, using the Drake equation I estimated a 1.26% probability, per year, of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. That is, every year we might find something, and given what we know so far, I estimated each year we have a 1.26% chance of making the discovery. Speculation at its best!

All the speculation and wishful thinking still runs into this same paradox.

There is much discussion and wonderful speculations concerning this question; many attempt to dispel the various parochial biases (that is, using ourselves as the definition of intelligent life). It is very reasonable to wonder if the entire electromagnetic spectrum (not just distant radio waves) is alive with evidence of advanced civilizations and we simply have not yet understood the message. Perhaps it’s all around us all the time, perhaps the very laws of physics are covered in these messages.

But let’s be honest, that is not what we are hoping to discover– we are looking for life similar to ours, we are looking for the parochial-biased life that looks more like us than our own terrestrial relatives.

We don’t want to find a near omnipotent space sponge that takes thousands of years to say “hello”. We want to find cosmic brothers and sisters and other familial relations that developed independently in the universe. Hell, according to most science fiction, we want them to look attractive… green skin, if it’s sexy.

Just as every star produces heavier elements, we want other planets to produce idealized humanoids, or at least beings that think and communicate as we do.

What a strange way of extending our pathetic anthropic bias onto the cosmos.

It is as egocentric as assuming that we are the center of the universe — it is a perverse and distorted way of putting humanity back into cosmic religious significance; the pompous assumption that life, somehow, leads to human-like intelligence. The truth is quite opposite, it is not humans that are significant to the cosmos, it is the cosmos that is significant to humans. We depend on the cosmos, the cosmos does not depend on us.

Consider all the varied forms of intelligent-life on earth. We can barely recognize the intelligence of other primates, let alone other mammals; and we even have a hard time recognizing the intelligence of our own species, most of the time. For example, we see little intelligence in politics, in television programming, or even in most art and music– most of us discover a rare drop of wisdom in a sea of noise. And yet the earth is exploding constantly in life, and we ignore it while looking up into empty space hoping to find intelligent friends.

But let’s run with our anthropic bias for a minute, let’s not judge, let’s see where it takes us. Maybe the Fermi Paradox can help us forward, if it’s not something we can discover, perhaps it’s what we ourselves can become.

We use radio waves and attempt to find human-like aliens who would also be using radio waves. So far we’ve found no signs of human-like life, and certainly no signs of advanced human-like intelligence- but you need not look very hard to discover the lack of advanced human-like intelligence, consider the following:

When we see unspoiled and untouched land, what do we do? This is the best part of an anthropic bias, we don’t need to ask the Dodo birds, we know exactly what we would do!

If we had the power to create a string of stars that spelled out a message, even a stupid message, we would absolutely do so; imagine what we could build if we could move the stars. If we had the ability, we would illuminate our existence bright and clear for the rest of the universe to see for millions of years… if we could.

If we could we would create a series of dancing pulsars that rhythmically play an endless orchestra, we would do this for no other reason than to state, simply, “we were here”. Everywhere we go, everything we touch, we leave evidence, and the evidence gets brighter and louder the more technologically advanced we become.

At present, we see no alien hieroglyphs in the lonely stars.

We can’t do any of that ourselves, because we don’t yet know how. We do know how to send faint radio waves, we’d turn it up if we knew how. But we easily imagine advanced civilizations that could move stars– the very things we would do if we could, we see no evidence of… we see empty space; untouched snow that no one has stepped in or spoiled in any way.

A beautiful untouched silence, think of what we could do! A blank cosmic canvas.

If we could we would build a bright light to inspire all intelligent life, a beacon; exactly as we do in every environment we touch, we shape it in ways to mark our existence. On dangerous coastlines we shine a bright light. And into this dangerous cosmos where we could easily perish, we ought to build a beacon of hope as an inspiration to all life that intelligence can ascend beyond its own destruction.

Some wonder whether our technology will be our end. We write more doomsday mythology than optimistic future mythology. We are far past the point of turning back, without technology we will perish with certainty. And with technology we might perish by our own hand, and yet that same technology could be used to shine brightly as a constant reminder that it’s possible to survive and flourish; that it’s possible to live peacefully, part of and one with the cosmos itself.

That silly anthropic bias, imagine the alien message that if discovered would solve the Fermi Paradox; imagine the advanced technology, even sexy aliens; what we imagine is a reflection of ourselves and our undying aspirations for what we hope to become. We are shrouded with doomsday mythologies, but our technology is the sliver of hope in this pandoras box of chaos and cosmos.

We can and should light our beacons of hope, we can and should burn brightly into the cosmic night.


“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
~ Carl Sagan

When I was young I would imagine that if the earth were the size of a baseball then perhaps the sun would be the size of a beach-ball and that they’d be about 20-ft (6 meters) apart at that scale. This seems about right, but it turns out to be very VERY wrong. If the earth was the size of a baseball, the sun would be almost 27-ft (8 meters) in diameter, already more than the distance I imagined separated the two. The distance between the baseball-size earth and the 27-ft diameter sun is about a half-mile.

In other words, imagine a ball that’s nearly three stories high, and you’d have to walk a half-mile to find a baseball-sized earth. The baseball:earth scale isn’t practical to construct a model.

But do astronomical models ever meaningful scale? That is, can we construct a scale model of the solar system and some nearby stars? Let’s see what happens.

Scale the earth down to a single grain of sand on the beach. Imagine a normal sandy beach like the one pictured above, and use an an average sand particle of about 1 mm, nothing exceptional.

At this grain-of-sand:earth scale, we would have a softball-size sun about 38-ft (12 meters) away from the grain of sand earth. This model would fit within most actual beaches, except on this beach, there’d only be 31 grains of sand that have been discovered so far (and four pieces of gravel, and a bunch of silt, but we’ll get to that).

Our moon on this scale would be about an inch away from the grain-of-sand earth, it would be an even smaller particle of sand. The furthest human beings have set foot is only one-inch on this beach.

Mars is another grain of sand, and its moons are so small they wouldn’t be visible, too small even to be called silt.

Jupiter would be 161-ft (49 meters) away from the grain-of-sand earth, but Jupiter would be too large to be considered sand, it would appropriately be called gravel. Jupiter would be the size of a small marble. About 50 meters away from the grain-of-sand earth is a marble-size Jupiter. This beach has four marbles revolving around a softball-size sun. Interestingly, there is more sand revolving around the marbles than there is sand revolving around the softball-size sun. Most of the objects on this beach are tiny bits of silt, i.e., particles too small to be considered grains of sand.

The furthest man-made object, the Voyager spacecrafts, would be far too microscopic to be visible on this beach, but these microscopic spacecraft would be almost a mile away from the softball-size sun.

The grain-of-sand-scale model so far is a pretty lonely beach. This beach would go about a mile inland, a vast and open beach with 31 grains of sand, four marbles of gravel, countless silt particles thrown about (most of it would be invisible to the naked eye). The English language has precise words for silt, sand, and gravel; unfortunately, for solar system objects the English language isn’t as discriminating. Astronomically, we lump gravel together with sand and if they happen to be spherical and revolve around a star we call them “planets”. Some grains of sand are not planets only because they revolve around gravel. A bit silly, and if you’ve ever wondered why Pluto isn’t considered a planet, remember that it’s smaller than Earth’s moon, and would barely be visible as a grain of sand on this scale. Debates about Pluto completely miss the point: our knowledge of the solar system is far deeper than “there are 9 planets, no wait, 8 planets”.

Looking at the grain-of-sand earth, this is about the smallest reasonable scale that we can model, and so far this model fills a one-mile radius. We can count 31 grains of sand, four marbles, and bands of silt revolving within a mile-radius around the softball-size sun.

And this is just our solar system, we’re not into the universe, not yet. Let’s venture out to the closest star.

On this grain-of-sand-scale, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be a bit larger than a softball (about 5.3 inches in diameter). And if our lonely beach with a tiny handful of sand, silt, and gravel were in Los Angeles, then you’d have to walk all the way to Tennessee (somewhere between Memphis and Nashville) to get to Alpha Centauri.

Walking from Los Angeles to Tennessee is far but not unreasonable with basic provisions. Unfortunately, at this scale, the speed of light would also be scaled down. We tend to think that the speed of light is fast, but at this grain-of-sand-scale, the speed of light is slower than a sloth. It’s about 0.05 miles-per-hour, about 84 meters-per-hour (277 feet-per-hour). How long would it take a sloth to get from Los Angeles to Nashville? It doesn’t matter, because at this scale the sloth would be faster than light.

84 meters per hour, that’s the speed that light would travel at this tiny scale, and hence it would take over 16 hours to get across the beach (from the sun to the edge of the solar system).

Those Voyager spacecraft, on this grain-of-sand-scale, are traveling less than half-a-centimeter every hour. That is slower than bamboo grows. When you imagine the solar system, realize that these objects are so far apart that both light and gravity are moving at a snails-pace relative to the distances; and that these scaled down objects would move slower than a plant grows. How long would it take a plant to grow from Los Angeles to Nashville?

Let’s look at the night sky, what about the north star, Polaris?

On this grain-of-sand-scale, Polaris is much bigger than the softball-sized sun, it’s about 16-ft (almost 5 meters) in diameter, and it’d be about 321,000 km away … so even at this grain-of-sand-scale, even though we have to go cross-country to get to the nearest softball-size star, for other stars we’d leave the earth. In the case of Polaris we’d almost be to the moon, and we wouldn’t find a softball, we’d find a 16-foot diameter bolder representing Polaris.

And what about the larger objects in our galactic neighborhood, for example, the star Betelgeuse would be over 220-ft (67 meters) in diameter, 474,000 km away from the grain-of-sand earth. On a clear night you may be able to see the Andromeda galaxy, on our grain-of-sand-scale this Andromeda model would be so large as to fill our actual inner solar system, but it’d be 1.8 billion kilometers away. The brightest quasar viewable from earth, 3C 273, on a grain-of-sand scale would be 1.8 trillion kilometers away.

Even at this tiny scale, a model of the solar system fits within a mile-wide beach, but to model our neighboring stars we’d leave earth and our model becomes as large as the thing we’re trying to model.

The problem with scale models of astronomy is that we try to model the physical stuff and forget that the largest and most interesting thing to model is the empty space itself. The size of a solar system, the size of a galaxy; like our lonely beach with 31 particles of sand; it’s mostly empty space.

This is why astronomical models aren’t to scale, the range of size within human intuition is simply too narrow, we have to continually abstract and abstract and can lose our bearings on just how big and how far away these objects are. Fortunately, it is within the poetry of mathematics that we can artfully express these abstractions. Mathematics becomes the language to convey these otherwise non-intuitive concepts, opening the universe to intelligence beyond scaled models.


For this scaling, we’re using the following size descriptors:

  • Silt: 0.002 mm to 0.0625 mm
  • Sand: 0.0625 mm to 2 mm
  • Gravel: 2 mm to 64 mm

To simplify the scaling, imagine the earth is a 1mm grain of sand, this puts the earth:grain-of-sand scale at 12756200000 : 1

Using that scale,

  • A silt particle models any object 25 km to 797 km in diameter
  • A sand particle models any object 797 km to 25,512 km in diameter
  • A piece of gravel models objects up to 816,397 km in diameter

This gives us the following models,

  • Gravel: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune
  • Sand: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Luna, Mars, Ganymede, Titan,
  • Silt: Dysnomia, Chaos, Enceladus, Proteus, Hale-Bopp,

At this scale, the model of the Sun (which is 1.391 million km) is too large for gravel; and scaled down to 4.3 inches is about the size of a softball, but to keep with the metaphor we would call this a Cobble stone.

The Universal Beauty of Mathematics

When I hear someone say, “I hate math” or “I’m bad at math“, I cringe slightly, and respond almost embarrassed, “I like math, it’s quite beautiful“.

I sometimes go on to defend my belief that there is no useful difference between art, math, and science — none. I’ve had this conversation many times with many people.

Is math beautiful?

Most people seem to agree in theory — and I hear (all too common) stories involving painful memories of math classes. As if the beauty in mathematics is out of their reach, perhaps only beautiful to some nerd minority.

I remember my own math classes when I was young, and I cringe again.

The teaching of Mathematics, a language to express the ineffable beauty of existence, is reduced in classrooms everywhere to a painful Pavlovian conditioning of forced computation.

Imagine for a moment, that instead of teaching children to read and write, that we instead forced them to copy (like little drawing machines) printed books but only one letter of the alphabet at a time. Never learning to read, just forcing them to copy all the A’s on page, and then to copy all the B’s, and so on.

So a young student begins with the letter A and painfully fills in A’s on a blank sheet of paper attempting to match them to the A’s they see in a printed book.

Teachers hold up answer sheets to make sure the young students copied all the A’s and copied them to all the right places on their practice page.

This is a very good copy of the A’s,” the teacher will say.

And then as they get older they copy more and more letters, A’s, B’s, C’s and onward. We do not tell them why they are doing this, we do not tell them that these letters have any relation to their spoken language. And whenever a student asks why they have to do this, we tell them, “because I said so“.

Eventually, years later, a student has copied all the way to Z and finally copies entire pages of printed books. This student can now graduate.

As this student graduates she expresses in angst, “I will never need to do this again, I hate letters“. And she is illiterate, and so is most of this imagined society that forces children to copy letters without ever telling them why.

But perhaps this student goes to college, and while in college she decides to learn more about these letters. She takes an advanced class in letter writing.

She wonders if there are more letters to write, maybe new letters that she has never seen before. She has heard that these letters contain beauty, but she cannot possibly understand how.

The class she takes is called “Letter Theory”, and the teacher begins by asking a simple question,

What is a letter?”

How absurd, the student thinks, obviously a letter is what she’s been copying her entire life!

The teacher goes on, “when we put these letters together they form words, like the ones I am speaking now

Shocked, the student exclaims, “certainly not all words are made of letters, there are so few letters and so many words that we speak

The teacher smiles and replies, “all words, all the ideas you have ever heard with your ears, every lecture, every song, all of it, can be expressed using combinations of letters

Years later, the student has learned about grammar, semantics, composition, literature, poetry — and now she finds beauty in the letters that she never understood before.

Letters are amazing, just as numbers are amazing.

Mathematics is the study of beauty, and it is expressed in numbers.

You need not be a great writer to understand and experience beautiful writing, and you need not be a professional scientist or engineer to understand and experience the beauty of numbers.

Imagine if only professional writers learned how to read, that is our current world concerning mathematics.

If you have never experienced the beauty of numbers, understand that your entire education has failed you, and you are mathematically illiterate. Most likely, you have learned only drilled computation, and perhaps touched upon Algebra or Calculus without any explanation of what you were actually doing and, most importantly, why.

If you believe you are bad at the computation that was drilled into you at a young age, you are not alone; if you believe you were good at those computational drills, you are wrong — all humans are bad at computation. All of us. Our greatest computational geniuses are slower and stupider than even the cheapest pocket calculator. We don’t hire humans to be computers, and we don’t hire humans to be printers — fortunately, we are not training humans to be printers, but we are training children to be computers (really slow error prone computers), and we are robbing them of mathematic literacy.

And if you are mathematically illiterate, you are also (necessarily) scientifically illiterate.

This failure to teach math results in widespread illiteracy, and an inability for many people to read and express the beauty of existence, a poetry in numbers that opens our eyes to the infinite beauty of life.

When we stare at the stars and express their beauty in words, we have religious mythologies — and when we stare at the stars and express their beauty in numbers, we have a scientific revolution. For tens of thousands of years humans have had scientifically illiterate explanations for the stars (pinholes in a celestial blanket), but with the language of mathematics those stars became far grander and far more beautiful than anything we could possibly have imagined.

It is in that moment where science, math, and art converge into a unified inquiry — the study of existence, the study of infinite beauty.

Blissful Ego

stardust_cropFirst, some words about Pluto.

I’ve been reading about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s experiences at the Hayden Planetarium and the controversial solar system display that resulted in an international debate on whether or not Pluto is a planet.

With the exception of Tyson, there was little discussion on why we call some things planets and not others. No one was disputing whether Pluto exists, the dispute was whether or not we should label it with the word “planet”.

This boring semantic debate sparked worldwide controversy and renewed the publics interest in astronomy.

The arguments and legislation (yes, legislation) claiming that Pluto is a planet were not only unscientific but completely absurd, irrational, and most interesting of all: emotionally charged.

Wow, all of that over Pluto.

Emotions ran high and ego’s collided, but why would anyone’s ego have a stake in Pluto? If we answer that question, perhaps then we could explain why so many people have such strong feelings about other equally irrational topics.

Let me recap the nearly decade long debate: one day Pluto is a planet and there are nine planets in the solar system, all is good. Over time our knowledge of the solar system increased so profoundly that the belief of “nine planets” is inconsistent with what we now know. Pluto is reclassified.

Pluto is a wonderful example of how people cling irrationally to beliefs despite evidence to the contrary (evidence that gives us a richer and more beautiful view of our universe).

Our ego’s can be dangerous, blinding us to the beauty that awaits discovery. What future discoveries will clash with our current beliefs?

I propose a different foundation of ego. An ego that is not based on any world view, but an ego based on what I call the Bliss of Existence; an open mind and a realization of our connection with all things.

Your ego need not depend on thinking the earth is flat and that we are the center of the universe. Your ego need not depend on an imaginary God that happens to look like an old bearded white man. Your ego does not need to depend on religious beliefs that contradict known science. Your ego does not need to depend on your nationality, nor your social status.

Your ego can depend wholly on the bliss of existence, on the recognition that we are at one participants with and components of a larger cosmic order.

Whether we perceive it scientifically as Neil deGrasse Tyson explains with his “we are star dust” metaphor, or whether we perceive it spiritually (as Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, and Jewish teachings often attempt to convey)– the conclusions are the same and the meaning behind the metaphors is the same.

There was a time when our ego’s were founded in the world view that the earth is flat, lightning is a weapon of Zeus, and Pluto is the ruler of the underworld. An ego based on a static world view is detrimental to human advancement. The unfortunate history of Islamic science, Catholic inquisitions and the evolution/creation debate are clear examples.

If we look back in history we scoff at the views of humans before us, and we admire those individuals that brought about new ways of thinking that reshaped societies. The history of human progress is not owed to any one culture or people– but to the open minded convictions of those brave enough to question the limits of their knowledge.

Whether you are scientist, an athlete, an executive, a doctor, or just some guy or girl … you will be a better scientist, a better athlete, a better executive, and in every way you will have an advantage in anything you do in life — all by separating your ego away from the static world view you were taught in school and replacing it with an open mind and the realization that all things are fundamentally connected.

Can you imagine a world where ideas flow freely without judgment and constraint? Can you imagine the progress, the advances not just in science and medicine, but of culture and art?

Such a world would not be free of problems, but imagine the unity of all people to overcome and survive those problems.

Imagine that every child, everywhere, was taught to value new ideas and critical thinking.

Perhaps in such a world (in a not so distant future) every person is free to travel, to live, and to work anywhere they have the want and skill– world views come and go as easily as our knowledge of the universe expands, and Pluto is still not a planet.

Sierpinski Triangle Feedback Loop

A Sierpinski Triangle fractal can be constructed from non-triangle starting points given infinite iterations, including a rectangular video conference screen that’s just called and answered itself. Finally, my study of fractals at use in the office!

I want all my video conferences to look like this

How does a FOR loop work?

During a recent round of interviews we asked candidates to point out the problem with the following code snippet

for($i = 0; $i < 10; ++$i)
  if ($i = 0)
    print "yes";

This was intended as a simple, spot-the-typo, exercise. The problem is if ($i = 0), should read if ($i == 0)! As is, it's an infinite loop, and the follow up question is to ask if it's infinitely printing "yes" or not.

Relatively easy and straightforward. What happened in the actual interviews was anything but straightforward. Without fail, candidates kept pointing out the pre-increment ++$i. My first thought was to put them back on track, because "no, that has nothing to do with it." Instead I decided to explore.

"Wait, tell me why the pre-increment would be a problem?" I asked curiously.

Every candidate seemed to have a different explanation for why a pre-increment wouldn't work. I would then ask them to walk through the execution of the loop. And this was the mistake that each candidate shared, they didn't know how a standard three-expression for loop worked.

Stubbornly, many would insist that the pre-increment would be run first, before the assignment statement. I would ask, "so the execution order of the three expressions is dependent on the third expression?", hoping they would see the absurdity in such a claim. "Yes," was the confident reply. sigh

"No," I would explain (feeling a little defeated), "the first expression is always executed first and only once, the third expression is only executed after a loop iteration."

I would go on to explain that the pre-increment works perfectly fine. In fact, there is some argument that it is more efficient since it is not creating temporary variables (a post-increment will create a temporary variable to hold the original value that is returned from the statement). Either way, in the context of a three-expression for loop it makes no difference; whichever method lends itself to better readability in your code should be used.

None of the candidates who missed this question were considered for a position.

And what did I learn? That we should use foreach with Iterator objects, and I'm switching to Python!


I was reading about Dual-coding Theory, which states that visual and verbal information is processed on distinct and different cognitive channels. The verbal cues refer to symbolic codes; in other words, arbitrary representations of something (such as reading or listening to a speech). The visual cues are perceptual, that is, a direct representation of what you are seeing.

Dual-coding refers to utilizing both visual and verbal, that is, symbolic as well as perceptual codes. Memory seems to favor the visual channel, and this is known as the picture superiority effect.

Think of watching the presidential debates. The information is symbolic (through words) as well as visual. What we remember tends to favor the visual, which can then act as a voluntary trigger to retrieve the words.

This is an interesting concept, and taken further leads to synesthesia– a rare phenomenon where one cognitive pathway triggers another involuntarily. For example, someone with synesthesia may see numbers in different colors; or see musical notes. And not a voluntary association, but a completely involuntary reaction. The advantages should be obvious, such as encoding symbolic information into long-term memory as easily as a visual information.

I wonder, if with the right training, we could develop in ourselves something like synesthesia; associating visual/perceptual codes to symbolic codes — allowing perceptual representations of abstract concepts.

We tend to do this naturally with metaphoric associations, such as an emotional reaction to an image or sound. I suspect we can take this much further, where we directly leverage perceptual codes to involuntarily trigger any number of symbolic/abstract information (whether emotional, or intellectual, or artistic)

Anchoring and Affect

One of the most interesting and oft-cited cognitive heuristics is the Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic. A fascinating example is the mock auction biased by the last two digits of the participants Social Security number:

Dan Ariely, professor of management science at MIT Sloan School of Management, conducted a mock auction with his MBA students. He asked students to write down the last two digits of their Social Security numbers, and then submit bids on such items as bottles of wine and chocolate. The half of the group with higher two-digit numbers bid “between 60 percent and 120 percent more” on the items, says Ariely. [1]

A similar heuristic is the Affect heuristic. An “affect” in this case is a feeling of “good” or “bad”, a simple emotional response to any stimulus. An interesting examples of an Affect heuristic is the positive correlation between New York City weather and major stock indexes. [2] In other words, the affect of the weather on investors effects asset prices. A not so subtle reminder of how irrational our rational minds behave.

Much has been written about overcoming and compensating these types of cognitive biases. I would like to propose something radically different. Embrace these biases, use them to your advantage! The beauty of these mental heuristics is that even when we are aware of them, we are still victims to these biases. I’ll write more on our bias blindspot in a future essay.

Everything you do, whether you like it or not, is already anchored. Various inputs, including the weather, create an anchored affect and biases every judgment throughout your day. It’s self-centered and lazy to go through life at the whims of the weather, and everyone else’s mood.

Before you go into an important meeting or negotiation, be prepared with an anchor. And not just to anchor other people you are talking to, but anchor yourself! And it’s easy– the anchor need not have any relevance. A positive anchor is anything that makes you happy and provides a “good” affect, and a negative anchor is anything that provides a “bad” effect. This could be a picture you carry, a song in your head, a vivid memory, anything. It doesn’t even need to be in your conscious awareness, so perhaps carefully selected background music might be appropriate while you are working.

The key is to recognize when to employ a positive affect and when to employ a negative. A positive affect is likely not a wise choice if you are negotiating for a low price or trying to assess risk in a project. Likewise a negative affect could be devastating if you are trying to sell an idea or discover something new.


1. http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/3014027
2. http://heuristics.behaviouralfinance.net/affect/Saun93.pdf