Saturday, August 9, 2014

Favorite Quotes from Socrates: An Examined Life

I recently reread this quote by Socrates, Greek philosopher and teacher of Plato. It's one of my all-time favorites:

“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

In my life I've tried to surround myself with people who question things and are serious about improving "who they are." Still, I know more than a few people who live unexamined lives, who are willing consumers of whatever the culture dishes up.

Marble bust of Socrates - Louvre
While we think of Socrates as one of the great minds of human history, in his own time only his students and a few close friends appreciated his wisdom. Those in power in Athens resented his unconventional views and his sarcasm. Ultimately, he was found guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth and was sentenced to death. His friends believed they could free him, but Socrates refused. His rationale is revealing:
  • He believed escaping would indicate that he was afraid of death, and he believed that a philosopher should not be.
  • He felt there was no profit in escaping. He would be seen as an iconoclast and provoke the wrath of authorities wherever he went.
  • As a citizen of Athens, he had agreed to accept the city's laws. He felt that violating this social contract would be an unprincipled act.
  • If he let his friends help him escape, he would be putting them in danger of punishment.
Besides, he felt he was ready to die. He had had enough of the world.

I wonder if someday I'll feel that I've "had enough of the world." It's certainly a troubled world, nearly as primitive as the one Socrates lived in. But I'm not there yet.

A few more of my favorite quotes from Socrates:

"The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."

"The perfect human being is all human beings put together, it is a collective, it is all of us together that make perfection.

"Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue - to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak.”

"Know thyself."

"Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

"In life, there is only one good--knowledge. One evil--ignorance.”

"Wisdom begins in wonder."

Words spoken 2,500 years ago, still fresh and appropriate today.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Amazing Unprecedented Plumber

Moving into our new home, we discovered that many aspects of it had been neglected during the previous owners' eight-year residence. One area was the bathroom sinks and toilets. As one of our final upgrades, we called the plumber to clear the sink drains and replace old hardware in the toilets. I assisted by getting rid of the gunk that had accumulated on the stoppers and in the drain pipes. It was...never mind...too nasty to describe.

The plumber was an interesting fellow in his mid-thirties. Even though he spoke with a speech impediment, he talked nonstop during the hour he was in the house. He told me that when he was 15, he accidentally received a powerful electric shock that almost killed him. As a result, he has been bipolar ever since. He was even institutionalized for a while, in which he struggled to survive the treatment of the staff and other residents.

But he also developed an uncanny ability to solve visual-spatial problems. He found that he could disassemble and reassemble anything - furniture, appliances, even a car. "To me, they're like puzzles," he said with a smile. I observed his abilities first-hand as he quickly did what I discovered earlier I could not do.

He told me that his employers and colleagues were perplexed and intimidated by the paradox of his superior abilities and the outward impression of mental inadequacy. He didn't respond well to the resulting unfairness and mistreatment, which made it hard for him to cultivate good working relationships.

My impression of him was that despite any mental disabilities he may have, he is more intelligent than many of the people I encounter every day.

And at the end of the hour, our plumbing was in like-new condition.

The time I spent with this outgoing mechanical prodigy caused me to remember an important fact: Each of the billions of human beings that have lived on Earth is unique. Each path, each journey is unprecedented. Each human brain is wired differently.

And an important principle: to create authentic relationships, we need to exercise tolerance, patience, and compassion.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Interstellar Space Travel - Humanity's Opportunity to Get Real

Space travel!

Astronauts, men on the moon, space stations, spacecraft that have visited all the planets - even asteroids and comets. One spacecraft has even left our solar system. It’s as if science fiction has become science fact. It almost seems that we can do anything in space if we put our minds to it. It seems so easy—I think too easy—to go from appreciating these achievements to dreams of sending explorers to the other planets and beyond.

Artist: WeeYak. More cool images at 
Interstellar space travel!

Not a new term. With hundreds of great sci-fi movies under our belt, we use this phrase as if it’s already a foregone conclusion, even just around the corner. Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are now loudly, even boastfully encouraging this perspective.

As for the first big step  - a manned mission to Mars - none of the problems that challenge this project have been solved.

Outer space is deadly. Beyond the protective shielding of Earth’s atmosphere and electromagnetic field, which protect us from solar radiation and cosmic radiation, astronauts will need a way to protect themselves during the flight. Current spacecraft shielding doesn't give enough protection to prevent permanent cell damage.

Human beings evolved to survive and thrive only in the kind gravity, atmospheric pressure, and temperature range found on Earth’s surface. Space suits can compensate for temperature and pressure extremes. But time spent in zero gravity during the months of the journey or working in the low gravity on Mars will have progressively detrimental effects on every part of the body—bones, muscles, lungs, heart and brain. Without a solution, astronauts will be crippled upon return to Earth, if indeed they could handle the trip back.

It’s one thing to spend a couple months aboard the ISS, with the huge sight of planet Earth outside the window. But a flight to Mars would be quite different, where views of Earth would shrink to a pinpoint. There are the unique, untested social and psychological issues related to spending years in space in the cramped cabins of the spacecraft and Mars living quarters.

And did I mention air, water, and food? Solutions for these problems of extended time away from Earth are easier to address, and scientists are working on them.

People in the space industry talk glibly about interstellar space travel being “the destiny of the human race,” as if going to Mars is only the first step. But there are problems that almost never get mentioned.

The Distance Problem – When you look up at the night sky you can see Mars, a pinpoint of light among the stars. It would be natural to think, "If we can go to Mars, we can go to the stars." But that's because you haven't done the math.

Alpha Proxima, the star closest to our solar system, is about 25 trillion miles away. This distance is so vast that the human mind can't understand it. Scientists created the concept of light-years (the distance light travels in a year) to make it easier to comprehend incomprehensible distances.

Speed of Light = 186,000 miles per second
= 670,000,000 miles per hour
= 5,900,000,000 miles per year
1 light-year = 5.9 trillion miles

Current propulsion systems achieve about 50,000 mph - pretty speedy by Earth standards. But at that velocity, it would take more than 50,000 years to arrive at the nearest star. So travel to stars will require much faster spacecraft. But even if a spacecraft could be built to travel 10 million mph, which is about 1.5% the speed of light, the travel times are still absurdly long.

At 10 million mph it would take 67 years, or about 3 generations of human beings to go just 1 light year. A journey to Alpha Proxima, is 4 light-years away – 268 years (12 generations of human beings) traveling at 10 million mph.

A news report about a newly-found exoplanet in a star's habitable zone described it as “only 100 light years away.” Yes, the farthest reaches of our Milky Way galaxy are 1,000 times that distant, so compared to the size of our galaxy, 100 light years is relatively close. But traveling at 10 million mph, it would take 6,700 years (300 generations) to travel "only 100 light-years."

The Impact Energy Problem – Space is far from empty. Asteroids, rocks, ice fragments, dust, gas—there’s lots of stuff in the so-called “void.” And no one knows where all this stuff is. Running into even the tiniest objects while traveling at enormous speeds can create awesome effects at impact.

The faster a spacecraft goes, the higher the probability that it will run into something. And the greater the speed, the greater the kinetic energy that will be produced at impact. Traveling at 10 million mph, even the impact of a single microscopic grain of space dust could destroy a space ship. Unimaginable shielding—something as dense and bulky as a sizeable asteroid—would be needed.

When scientists talk excitedly about exotic propulsion system concepts, they never mention the problem of impacts at very high speeds.

The Propulsion Energy Problem – How much energy would it take to propel a vehicle with that kind of shielding at 10 million mph? Answer: It would take a major portion of all the energy produced everywhere on Earth in one year.

Imagination is a wonderful thing. So is our potential for achievement. But these challenges are more than daunting. When you do the math and consider the realities of the cosmos, interstellar space travel seems pointless and impractical. No, impossible. The problems are insurmountable. It's never going to happen. In the best-case scenario, our glorious species won't even try.

So the biggest challenge isn't shielding or speed. Considering how our minds have been conditioned by science fantasy, our biggest challenge is to get real. The ultimate drama isn't whether human beings will "reach the stars." It's whether we're intelligent and wise enough as a species to get down-to-earth and face facts and focus our ability to create somewhere else, to stop killing each other and figure out how to preserve Earth's limited resources.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Are We Alone? The Ultimate Answer...

NASA image
Are we alone in the universe? It's a frequent question asked these days in excited, enthusiastic science articles about our universe. Does intelligent life exist out there somewhere?

SETI would like to know. NASA would like to know. Now that thousands of planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars, scientists and engineers are working to launch bigger and better telescopes to sense evidence of life on some of these worlds.

What is intelligent life? The most perfect example of an Earth-like planet is Earth itself. Does intelligent life exist there?

Here on Earth, the most intelligent species is assumed to be homo sapiens - human beings.

Throughout history, humans have been busy killing other humans because they have a different religious faith.

Today, they abuse and kill people because they're female.

Because they're a different race.

Or a different nationality.

Because they want to seize control of precious resources.

They kill each other in order to sell addictive poisons to other human beings.

In the modern world, they lie to each other day and night, to make money.

They break the law and hurt people every chance they get to make money.

Greed and self-interest rule most areas of human civilization.

Humans wildly promote myriad forms of superstition.

They abhor the truth and are drawn to escapist nonsense.

Humans are willfully polluting the oceans, threatening the food chain.

They're destroying huge areas of forests that used to pump oxygen into the atmosphere, thinking there will be no negative consequence.

They're polluting the air we breathe.

They're pushing animal and plant species into extinction.

They're altering the climate without remorse.

Human beings are slowly but relentlessly rendering the only home they'll ever have - planet Earth - unfit for human life.

They dream of being a multi-world species in case they ruin the precious world they already have, when there are no such worlds to go to - and if there were, no way to get there.

So I have to ask, is this what we mean by intelligent life?

Were the dinosaurs an example of intelligent life? Is this the kind of intelligence we hope to find on distant worlds? Millions of years before there were human beings, dinosaurs dominated the planet. The only reason mammals, and eventually humans, were able to evolve and exist today is because of a freak accident. 65 million years ago a mile-wide asteroid crashed into the Earth and wiped out all the dinosaurs along with 75% of all plant and animal species. If this asteroid had missed, perhaps the dinosaurs would still reign today, and humans wouldn't have evolved.

I wouldn't be writing this post on my blog.

Intelligent human beings have been on the planet for only about 100,000 years - a blink of an eye in Earth history. Science as we know it has existed only about 500 years. We could easily render Earth unfit for human life, and that would be the end of that brief story.

If this is what is meant by intelligent life, then maybe it doesn't mean much to find it elsewhere in our galaxy. Or if it does exist, then maybe intelligent life isn't such a wonderful thing. Maybe intelligence as humans think of it is like a sinister virus.

So if the question is, "Are we alone?" Maybe the honest, realistic answer is, "What difference does it make?" Or "Who cares?"

What are we going to do? Commit shocking amounts of the world's resources to build a starship that will take thousands of years to travel unimaginable distances to find out?

If the surviving generations of these space explorers were ever able to return to Earth to deliver the answer, likely they would find a ruined planet with no human beings living on it.

"Are we alone in the universe?" It's the wrong question.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Magic Key to Changing a Harmful Behavior Pattern

Last week, on two separate occasions I spent time with some guy friends. They were very different people, but with one striking similarity: both were significantly overweight and had diabetes issues. And even though they had tried, they hadn't been able to change the eating habits that caused their health problems.

Changing a behavior pattern is hard.

The reason is that if you repeat a behavior enough times, the brain cells involved in the behavior will connect into a physical circuit. Over time, your brain will literally wire itself to make any repeated behavior - whether beneficial or harmful - an easy, unconscious automatic pattern.

How do you change a habit like that, when the brain has wired itself to produce it? Like I said, it's hard.

But even though it's hard, people do break bad habits all the time.

But you really gotta wanna.

Yes, motivation is helpful, but that's not the secret. Even though strong motivation is crucial, there's more to it than that. There's a magic key to changing a behavior pattern.

It starts with understanding how successfully changing a behavior pattern works. The process has four phases.

1. Unconscious incompetence. Your habitual way of doing something is harmful, but you aren't aware that it's causing problems or that there's a better way.

2. Conscious incompetence. Somehow you're made aware that what you're doing is causing problems. The issues that are a consequence of your behavior become obvious. Maybe they cause pain or discomfort. Maybe someone gives you feedback - holds a mirror up to your behavior. You haven't committed to change yet, but you're not blissfully unaware anymore.

3. Conscious competence. You've learned what you should be doing and you're making an effort to change. This effort has to be a conscious decision, because the new way isn't a habit yet. This is challenging because the old way is still an ingrained habit. And because the old way is physically wired in your brain, it won't just unconnect itself and go away, no matter how much you wish it would. The trick is to repeat the new behavior so many times that your brain wires itself for a new, more rewarding habit.

But you're not there yet. So when you're not consciously paying attention to what you're doing, the old habit kicks in automatically. Frustration, regret and discouragement usually follow. I call this the "crunch point," because when it happens most people give up and relax back into their old ways.

4. Unconscious competence. If instead of giving up, you push past your lapses and consciously try again, after a while your success rate will improve. You'll still have occasional lapses, but if you don't give up, if you keep trying, eventually your brain will wire itself for the new habit. This means that doing the right thing will begin to kick in automatically without a conscious effort on your part.

The "secret" is actually quite simple, but it works like magic. It's this: even though your failures are disheartening, don't give up. Keep trying to make that conscious choice to do what you've committed to do. Understand that lapses are an inevitable part of the process and that each time you repeat the behavior, it will make that conscious decision easier, and your success rate will improve.

It will probably take time, but if you don't give up, if you persist past your failures and keep trying, eventually the new pattern will start happening automatically. And you'll become one of the millions of people who've changed a bad habit.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .