Category Archives: Entropy

Tomorrow you will die

Photo Oct 13, 8 46 34 PM

Today I went to a seminar on happiness at the Kadampa Buddhist meditation center in Chelsea. I don’t know that I am a Buddhist, or that I am any religion. But out of the global sampler platter of spiritual practices I have encountered in my 27 years on Earth, I find that Buddhist philosophies make the most sense and offer the most practical advice. I’ve met a lot of monks in a lot of weird places, and they have shown me things through the most subtle gestures, sometimes without even speaking. My curiosities about Buddhism have never pressured me to adopt a delusional belief structure, attempted to rob me, or demanded I adopt the mandates of a patriarchal authority figure, or else. Every time I approach Buddhist practices with questions, its teachers simply encourage me to look inside myself to find the ways by which I can alter my perspective to maintain inner balance.

In this sensation-seeking body in general but especially in this roller coaster of a concrete jungle, I’ll take all the balance I can get.

In 2012 I sat in the main lecture hall at the Being Human conference in San Francisco. When a presenter walked on stage to commence a group meditation, I looked around incredulously and, unwilling to participate in this ritualistic exercise, took out my phone to tweet. Clear my mind? Was that even possible? Consuming mass amounts of information via the internet was my meditation then. Now, possibly out of frustration with the state of information on the internet and the increasingly invasive modes by which it is transmitted, I have found a new appreciation for mental stillness.

Back to the present day in this meditation class, a woman came in late, sat down next to me, proceeded to check her email on her phone and scrawl into a notebook with the loudest pen ever. As I struggled to maintain my concentration atop my annoyance, I felt a karmic poke in the ribs.

So the lecturer, Kadam Morten, proceeded to talk about finding happiness. Where is it? American society would like to have us believe that it is somewhere out there. You can touch it, taste it, feel it, buy it, fuck it, smother yourself in it—oh but not yet. You’re not quite there yet. But, if you keep working and spending and wanting, then maybe you’ll find it. No. According to Morten, happiness is inside of each of us, we only have to learn how to access it so we can find our way back there any time. This involves dumping all the worries and cluttered thoughts and to-do lists from our minds and just being with ourselves internally.

During a guided meditation, he instructed us to think of something that made us happy. At first I panicked because I realized that my happy places and people and moments also made me sad because I am now so far away from them. But then I managed to get back to a place in Michigan, sitting on the end of a pier looking out at a perfectly still lake next to my best friend, our heads resting on each other’s as we sat in silence. And I remember thinking in that moment that I wanted to save it like a file on my computer, to access at will always and forever.

And then he beckoned us to prepare to meditate on death, in the most light and jovial manner I have ever heard anyone approach the topic.

“The impulse to check in with external stimuli has never been stronger,” he said, referencing the entirety of what capitalism immerses us in. “Now is the time to check in with death, and be present in our lives.”

While it is oft considered morbid to think about death and especially to talk about it, Morten made a pretty compelling case for why we should think about it excessively: the fact that we will die is really the only certainty we have in life. ‘Death and taxes…’ whatever—we could all die before it’s time to do taxes. To live life in denial of our mortality is to live disconnected from reality, whereas to embrace death is to live in the moment, he said.

So imagine that tomorrow you will die. What would you do with your day? Would you spend it arguing with someone you loved? Would you spend it watching TV? Reading celebrity gossip? Being a drone?

Nah. You’d do something radical. You’d make a step toward creating the legacy you’re capable of leaving behind. You’d connect with people you love. That’s what I intend to do tomorrow.

Photo Oct 13, 8 45 00 PM

Thanks to Talia Eisenberg for inviting me to explore this peaceful pocket of NYC.

The more things change

I’ve been back in New York for a week now. Walking down Avenue A to the gastro pub where I was to meet Joey, down the familiar streets with not-so-familiar-anymore buildings, I rolled the old phrase along in my brain in a loop: “the more things change the more things stay the same the more things change…” It’s only been a year, but so much is different.

I was 15 minutes early—something else that has changed in the past year—so I took a seat at the bar and drank a water while I read my new copy of Vice Magazine. A few minutes later, a guy came in, exchanged familiarities with the bartender, and took a seat next to me. I continued to read an article about South Sudan. An order of fries came out and landed in front of the guy, who looked super stoked. He ate a few and turned to me:

“Hey, do you want to share these fries with me? I mean, I’m not going to finish them all…”

“Um, sure,” I said. After a year abroad, I couldn’t say no to American French fries, and I’ve never even really liked fries. I told him I hadn’t had them since I’d been back in the USA.

“What are you reading about, Africa?” he guessed, probably from the image on the page.

“Yeah, about South Sudan.”

“Is it good?”

“Well, I’m a couple thousand words in and the author still hasn’t really told us what the piece is about,” I said, flipping through the earlier pages of text to convey the word count. “But he’s a good story-teller.”

I ate some more of his fries. He asked me what magazine I was reading, if I liked Vice, and when I said I did, he asked if I worked for them. “Sometimes,” I said.

“Oh, so do you write on like a blog, or Medium, or a website, or a bunch of publications?”

“Yeah,” I said. “All of those.” I thought it was funny that he mentioned Medium, and then I realized that it was only funny because I was so far away for so long where people barely knew what Twitter was, let alone Medium, but here I was in New York where people were the most tapped into the media out of everywhere in the world. I told him I started a publication called LadyBits, and that it launched on Medium.

“So are you like a journalist, writer, blogger, media person, thousands of followers, tweeter?”

I laughed. “You pegged me. You’re pretty good at that you know?”

“Hey, this might be a really weird question…” he said, trailing off while he waited for my facial acknowledgement that it was ok to proceed, “but did you by any chance write an article about James Deen and Google Glass?”

I looked at him in disbelief. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

“I thought you looked familiar,” he said. “I was just reading it.”

“Ok, very funny. Did Joey put you up to this? Where is he, tell him he’s late,” I said looking at my watch.

“Who’s Joey? No, I swear I was just reading it on my phone, look:” he powered on his iPhone, opened his browser, and sure enough:

FrenchFriesJamesDeenIt was too weird. I felt like a celebrity.

“Well, hi, I’m Arikia,” I said, extending my hand. He shook it like he was shaking the hand of a celebrity. He asked me about my travels and we chatted for another minute until Joey finally came over and greeted me. He hadn’t recognized me when he came in and had walked right past me to a table. I said goodbye to my new friend, thanked him for the fries, and told him to contact me if he wanted to eat more fries someday and continue our conversation.

Yesterday, I was thinking to myself that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I was back in New York, starting to get a little stressed out, a little cynical, remembering all the struggle and the loneliness and why I left in the first place. I was starting to think that maybe I should have just stayed on my paradise island, threw my computer off the ocean cliff outside my $6-a-night bungalow, and started my life over there. I was wondering why I came back, and if I would ever find connections in New York like I did out there.

But here was this guy, this stranger, looking at me with this expression of awe, and I knew in that moment that things have indeed changed. The New York I came back to is not the same New York I left, because I am not the same Arikia as the one who lived here before. I have been renovated, upgraded if you will, just like computer hardware and the stores along Avenue A. I am a better version of me now. On some weird, metaphysical level, I felt like this bizarre coincidence was New York’s way of accepting me back and embracing me; like the city was saying to me “I want you here, and I’m happy you came back.”

Somebody once said that living in New York City was like being in an abusive relationship with the coolest guy in the world. I’m not so naive to think that I won’t get a black eye here and there, but damn, baby, when it’s good it’s really good.

 

 

 

On exquisite isolation for literary purposes

Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time alone.

I was the youngest person in my class, and therefore the last person to get my driver’s license in November of my junior year. In high school I kept a hand-written list of phone numbers tacked to my bulletin board. Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons I would go down the list, contemplating the likelihood that each number could provide an escape from my teenage prison. Methodically, I would pick up my translucent, purple cordless phone, hold my breath, and dial.

Occasionally a friend would drive over and pick me up, and we would gleefully attempt all the debauchery we could fathom (which usually amounted to no more than a car ride in search of phantom parties casually mentioned in notes passed by boys desperate to impress us). Most nights though, I would sit alone in my room with my books and my TV/VCR combo and my journals.

It was in these moments of agonizing boredom and loneliness that I began to really process the world. It was also in those times that I allowed my mind to spiral into the pits of despair, taunted by the false certainty that everybody else was out doing something exciting and I was the only girl in the world steeped in isolation. Other factors compounded what some might call “normal teen angst” and at times I resigned into pure hopelessness, unable to anticipate the freedom that I now enjoy, certain that I would be alone forever.

So I wrote, and I poured all my anger toward my oppressors, my disbelief at the lack of justice in the world, my innocent but burning desires into the blank pages that I would hide in the deepest crevices of my 100 square-foot bedroom. My mother would periodically hunt them down and read them, then use their contents as evidence for why I should sit and stew in loneliness for my own protection. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she would say. One day after I discovered this violation I burned an entire journal and buried the ashes in the backyard (since igniting any type of flame, including the stove, was an offense punishable by further imprisonment). “Never write anything you don’t want other people to read,” she would taunt me, dismissing my outrage. Even at age fifteen my insomniac habits were fully-formed and I would stay up all night writing fictional tales of the life I imagined I was supposed to be living at the moment while catering to an imaginary audience of nosy and sadistic adults.

When I left home for college at seventeen, my writing habits stayed with me. I would pour over journals with all the bottled-up intensity of a shaken jar of kombucha, reflecting on my youth and disregarding all lessons of discretion my mother had advised. The only person I cared about reading what I wrote was her because she was the only person with the ability to censor me in the pre-production phase of writing. After a few successful stints with literary pseudonyms, I finally decided to live my life as an open book (which isn’t to say that I don’t have my secrets but they’re only secrets because I haven’t gotten around to writing about them yet).

I never set out to be a writer. It’s always just been something that I’ve compulsively done. But now that I am a writer, I won’t permit those moments of torturous youth to have been in vain. Though I am now surrounded by friends who gladly remedy my slightest twinge of loneliness with the greatest of adventures, I make it a point to isolate myself every now and then, mining that past agony and tapping into it only so much as to benefit my current productivity. It’s taken a while to hone it, and I’m sure I haven’t yet completely, but I’m getting closer. I think that soon I’ll be able to control it entirely, whereas once it controlled me. It’s washing over me now, and it’s divine.

The I Ching For Dummies

I was over at my Belarusian friend’s apartment after doing yoga, drinking kale smoothies and talking about self-improvement, and we started talking about our childhoods. I told her some of the highlights of mine, about my fractured relationship with my mom, and she looked at me and said: “You say that Americans complain a lot even though they don’t have real problems, but I don’t know what’s worse — living next to Chernobyl or growing up like that.”

ichingSo she started telling me about the I Ching, AKA the Book of Changes, a text based on ancient Chinese teaching which I guess is the equivalent of the bible in terms of how people study it and use it to guide their lives, though it has nothing to with a god. She said that perhaps it could help my mom shed some of her negativity if she read it. I told her I didn’t think she would be receptive to anything that wasn’t Tea Party propaganda, but she brought it out and started flipping through it to show me. It was thicker than the DSM and had so many lessons in it that you were supposed to roll dice to determine which lesson you would read daily. I don’t know what kind of face I made when I saw it but she’s very perceptive, so she went and retrieved a much smaller book. She handed it to me with a smirk and said in her thick Eastern European accent, “Ok how about this? This is like the I Ching for dummies version.” Now we were talking. I flipped it over and read the back of it:

Universal laws govern everything. Several of the laws form a path that leads to the achievement of goals. In every case, those who follow the path to the end achieve their goals, overcome their fears and get what they want. Most importantly, they discover who they are in relationship to the Universe. The perceive a brand new Universe – a treasure chest. Whatever you do now, whatever you now believe, whatever your current circumstance may be, you are perfectly equipped and fully capable of fulfilling your needs and desires. You can have what you want. This book will direct you along the path and create within you a new self image.

I told her I was still skeptical that my mom could be helped by anything or anyone, but she told me to take it and read it myself because maybe it would help me. I opened it and felt better after reading the author Wu Wei’s comment before the book even started: “Because you are reading this, be aware that the Universe, in its complete awareness, has brought you together with what you need. It means you are ready.” So when I packed my bag to go into the city that night, I opted for the I Ching over the The Bell Jar.

I’ve never, ever been religious. I dismissed the idea of Santa flat out as soon as I heard the notion that he was watching me all the time, along with the other supernatural entities. I’ve also never considered myself “spiritual”. To me this word was associated with those southern baptist churches where the people pretend to have seizures because the “spirit” is inside of them and hallelujah and what not. After a few pages of this book though, I finally realized what all the new-agey hipsters in Brooklyn meant when they talked about “The Path” aka “The Path to Spiritual Enlightenment”. Upon this realization, I supposed I was alright with being “on it”.

Not to get too existential about all of this, but reflecting about this in terms of authoritarian symbolism where God is a mentally contained father figure, it’s not surprising I didn’t take well to monotheistic religion with all of its baked-in paternalism, not having a father and all. Now being 26 and considering this Taoist idea of the Universe being an all-seeing, all-knowing entity that produces us and constantly surrounds us, comforting us and steering our destiny for our personal benefit if we are obedient to the teachings of the human sentinels that deliver its messages — it kind of feels like how I would imagine it feels when loving parents hug you.

It’s always been logic and rationalism and reason in my mind, and ultimately, solitude. I’ve always been sort of jealous of people who can delude themselves into thinking that some supreme being is watching over them, taking care of them and making their decisions for them about how to live. But I’ve always said I’d rather be uncomfortable than deluded. Is it delusional to think that the universe cares about me? The author of this I Ching reader basically admits that it is, and says things like “think about a task you failed to complete in the past and imagine yourself completing it. Then imagine yourself completing it and think about it again, knowing you completed it. Even though you didn’t, if you tell yourself you did enough you’ll have peace of mind.” Is delusion the path to happiness, and if so can it be learned? Should it be?

Ok ok, so I’m on-board with making peace with the past. But here’s the thing that will take some serious concentration. This book tries to teach you to not be phased by upsetting things by telling yourself that everything is perfect because you’re here now, on this path leading you to better things despite the seemingly unpleasant things that happened in the past, because it couldn’t have happened any other way. This was the universe’s plan for you all along, so why get upset when bad things happen in the future, because the universe has your back like it always has?

I see what they’re doing here. I get it. It’s unproductive to be mad and dwell on fucked up things because it will only make things cascade into worseness. But like, the guy playing some stupid Zynga game at full volume next to me in the coffee shop today while I was trying to work? I suppose Wu Wei would look at him and think he was perfect! He’d probably thank him and then thank the universe for putting him on the stool right next to him. My first thought? “Excuse me, but I’m trying to follow the path to spiritual enlightenment here and you’re in my fucking way, so please move.”

Am I doing this right?

Not yet, but hugs from the universe feel nice so I guess I’ll keep trying.

I wanna be a cyborg

Last year I wrote an article for The Atlantic Tech called “I Am a Cyborg and I Want My Google Implant Already.” The article includes an excerpt where I precociously-but-charmingly (I hope) butt into an interview between my awesome then-boss Nate Silver and Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian, who is an incredibly good-humored man, to prod Hal about the possibility of a Google brain implant.

Little did I know that the very next day following its publication, Atlantic editor James Bennet would ask Erik Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, about my article and Hal’s enthusiasm towards the implant at the Washington Ideas Forum.

From a recap of the session by Derek Thompson:

The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

Ha. Well there goes that idea. Vetoed. I was a bit discouraged until some Italian journalists decided that my advocacy for the creation of a Google Brain implant qualified me for their Top 100 Global Thinkers list. You can find me at number 99, right above Cesare Geronzi, who Time Magazine has dubbed “Italy’s most powerful banker.”

I think it’s all hilarious, and have made the signature on my Nexus One “Sent via my Google Implant” to commemorate this snowball of an article. Anyways, I thought this post should probably live on in my blog:

 

Sep 30 2010, The Atlantic Tech:

About nine months ago, I sat in a conference room at Google Headquarters in Mountain View with my boss, Nate Silver, and the company’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, talking about the Google of 2020.

The previous night, Nate and I had been hanging out with one of my childhood friends in downtown San Francisco, brainstorming questions to ask Hal in our interview the following day.

I’d been working with Nate as his research assistant on a book project that examines forecasting and prediction in a variety of different fields. Going off on a tangent, we conceived of the concept of a Google Singularity — an event where the amount of information known by Google surpasses the amount of information it’s possible to know. I laughed as Nate drew a graph on a piece of my friend’s Hello Kitty stationary illustrating the theoretical point where this event would occur.

In the interview the following day, after a good 45 minutes of serious discussion about Google’s search algorithms and new projects going on in the company, Nate brought up the Google Singularity. Hal got a kick out of this concept, and we mused about the things the future of Google might produce, one such thing being a “Google implant” that would allow one to browse the Web simply by thinking.

Nate: What will Google look like in 2020?
Hal: Now you Google things on your computer — of course. And you Google things on your phone. That’s the next stage. And I believe — people may laugh — but I think there will be an implant. So you’ll have it there, and I won’t say it’s necessarily Google, I’ll say the Web, it will access the Web of information.
Arikia: Sign me up when that happens.
Hal: You want your implant?
Arikia: I want it now.
[laughter]
Hal: Yeah! Right, see? There are a lot of people that say that. I think you will be continuously connected to the Web in 2020. You’ll be able to pull information in, information out, you’ll be able to record information. And you can do all these things now; you’re recording this conversation and you can play it back later.
Nate: Sure. But you think that soon, by 2020?
Hal: 2020! That’s away 10 years! Look at where we are and look at where we were 10 years ago. Google’s only 10 years old. So uh, yeah, I think so. We’ll certainly have some kind of implant interface by then, in my opinion.
Nate: Will it require surgery? Or will it require some kind of earpiece that you can… I don’t know…
Hal: I don’t know either.
Nate: Are there people at the firm working on that?
Hal: Not that I know of. Although there are people always working on user interfaces, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was thinking about it. There are people working on things that display text on your glasses.

After that, the conversation veered to topics like The Cloud, Steve Mann and real-time search. As Nate always does when an interview is wrapping up, he invited me to ask any questions I may have been sitting on. So I asked Hal: “Are you going to get the implant?”

“The implant!” He exclaimed good-naturedly. “Yes, I want an implant! And we’ll see if it will be the Google implant.”

Just to be clear: This in no way indicates that a Google implant is in, or anywhere near production. But the demand for enhanced cyborgification is being driven by technophiles everywhere. Kevin Kelly recently wrote that “our minds are being rewired by our culture” (Domesticated Cyborgs, 9/6/2010), and for some people like me who grew up in the post-Internet boom era, they already have been.

I got my first computer and Internet connection in 1994 when I was eight years old, so my growing mind learned to navigate the physical world and the online world simultaneously. Some mental processes that were critical to previous generations are obsolete to mine. Bulk memorization is the new manual labor; navigating user interfaces is what counts. Acknowledging the way the Internet has shaped my brain during development in these respects, I would consider myself a cyborg already.

By the time I finished elementary school, writing letters to communicate across great distances was an archaic practice. When I graduated middle school, pirating music on Napster was the norm; to purchase was a fool’s errand. At the beginning of high school, it still may have been standard practice to manually look up the answer to a burning question (or simply be content without knowing the answer). Internet connection speeds and search algorithms improved steadily over the next four years such that when I graduated in the class of 2004, having to wait longer than a minute to retrieve an answer was an unbearable annoyance and only happened on road trips or nature walks. The summer before my freshman year of college was the year the Facebook was released to a select 15 universities, and almost every single relationship formed in the subsequent four years was prefaced by a flood of intimate personal information.

Now, I am always connected to the Web. The rare exceptions to the rule cause excruciating anxiety. I work online. I play online. I have sex online. I sleep with my smartphone at the foot of my bed and wake up every few hours to check my email in my sleep (something I like to call dreamailing).

But it’s not enough connectivity. I crave an existence where batteries never die, wireless connections never fail, and the time between asking a question and having the answer is approximately zero. If I could be jacked in at every waking hour of the day, I would, and I think a lot of my peers would do the same. So Hal, please hurry up with that Google implant. We’re getting antsy.

 

Wanted: Mildly sadistic editor with egg timer

In my 11th grade AP English class, we used to begin every day with an exercise in response writing. Mrs. Smith would write a word, phrase, or provocative quote on the black board and set an egg timer for three minutes. In those three minutes we had to write a “journal entry” in a notebook solely dedicated to those exercises. The deal was, we could write about anything, and she would never read our journals. She would just flip through the pages a few times throughout the semester and check them off to make sure we’d actually been writing while the timer was running.

The point of this exercise was to build up confidence in our ability to churn out content. It was a skill that was highly necessary on the standardized tests we were all constantly preparing for, but I had a hunch that Mrs. Smith had other reasons for her assignment as well. After all, this was the teacher who one day, after we had all gotten situated and were waiting quietly for class to begin, blared Barbara Streisand’s “People” on the CD player, to our horror, to break us of the habit of using the word repetitively as a subject (people think this, people do that, etc..). She once broke the sacred “teachers don’t swear” rule to illustrate her opinion of how the word “fuck” was the epitome of classlessness and that there was always a better word choice. She tended to go to extremes to drill important lessons into our heads.

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