Less Than Scratch

Book Review, Sort of: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman
April 7, 2009, 11:56 am
Filed under: Education

Before I begin, two disclaimers:

  • This review is not going to be objective at all.
  • I will not be able to do this book and its ideas justice.

That said, let’s begin.

Stuart Kauffman’s latest book, Reinventing the Sacred, really struck a chord with me. In it, Kauffman makes the point that reductionism isn’t the only answer. In fact, reductionism–that everything is reducible to physics–has caused rifts betwen the realms of science and the humanities and religion. Reductionism tends to suck the sacredness out of life. In physics, there are only happenings, the actions that occur have no meaning, no value. However, our lives have meaning. We have ethics and assign value to parts of our existence. Kauffman explains how because of this, our culture, our humanity, are emergent phenomena that are beyond the known laws of nature.

Of course, Kauffman provides scientific and philosophical evidence to support his case, and does so in very clear, understandable language. Any attempt on my part to recreate his points would be disastrous, especially since I had to return the book to the library before writing this. He even touches on the fact that some physicists are beginning to realize that reductionism might not solve every issue, including reconciling the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

The overarching point of Kauffman’s book, however, is that it is time we redefined our view of the universe. Kauffman wants us to embrace the unending creativity that is the development of complex evolving systems such as the biosphere, our economy, or our culture. He even goes so far as to suggest that we redefine the term God to mean this creative emergent force. I had previously been unable to shake the feeling of dread in thinking that universe was complete deterministic. It stripped the meaning, the beauty, out of all life if everything was cause and effect. Kauffman’s point gave me an avenue for embracing emergence and science without facing the void I once did.

Another goal of Kauffman’s work is to bridge the gap between science and the humanities. As he notes, the humanities are often discarded as the softer sciences. Kauffman points out that there are similar characteristics between all complex evolving systems, from the biosphere and evolution to the economy and human culture.

Kauffman also hopes to develop a global ethic–one that would connect different religions. This seems like quite the tall order. He hopes the shift in perception could help us to develop a better global economy and environment. Kauffman admits, though, that there are many that will not easily stray from their belief of God as the creator. It is a romantic notion, nonetheless.

One of the more subtle points Kauffman makes that resonated with me in particular is about how we live our lives. The future is unknowable. We never know what is coming next, from great windfalls to disasters. We can’t even begin to predict all of the possibilities. Yet, we live as though we know. Everyday we make a best guess and work toward a particular goal, adapting and changing as necessary. We don’t live in fear, we move forward not knowing where the next step will take us. To me, this is nothing short of amazing. It would seem so easy to get caught up in worry and fear, but as a society, we don’t. We progress, we adapt, we don’t stop moving forward. There definitely seems to be a life lesson in there somewhere.

Overall, this book is fantastic. It touches on a wide range of subjects from evolution to the economy, to consciousness, and all in a very accessible way (except for some quantum mechanics that was a little over my head). Most importantly, it carries a hopeful message. This book has rekindled my interest in the study of complexity and I want to be a part of the change Kauffman calls for. It’s given me a new sense of direction. Continue reading


Lessons Learned: Listen to Your Body
April 5, 2009, 11:47 pm
Filed under: Fitness and Health

It got up to 80F today and I went running during the hottest part of the day. I even tried to up my running to walking ratio by another minute. Bad ideas all around.

The combination of the temperature and pushing myself even more caused me to start to overheat. I ended up walking for the majority of my “run”. I didn’t even come close to what I had planned (although I did finish the distance). Each time I would start running and find myself getting out of breath, I would think back to a time in summer gym in high school where I overworked myself and triggered the worst migraine of my life. Fortunately, running today, I didn’t overdo it and cause a migraine. Instead, I listened to my body. Rather than trying to stick to an unreasonable pace, I let myself walk… a lot. My heart rate still stayed up and I still went the distance, but I didn’t kill myself.

Just because things didn’t go quite as planned, I’m still happy with the run. Today was a good reminder that I’m not indestructible and to take things slowly. I certainly don’t want to over-train and injure myself–I’d be working backward. It’s too easy to get caught up in the arbitrary goals we set for ourselves. Physically we work too hard and mentally we feel defeated when we don’t meet them. So today I learned my lesson: listen to my body. And for that matter, also listen to common sense. I now know not to run when the sun’s at its hottest and to be more realistic in my workout expectations. Finally, I know not to lose momentum if I can’t meet the expectations I do set. I’m still out there, I’m still working, and I’m still making progress.

On a side note, I did have an awesome run where everything went as planned on Friday. You can read more about that here (scroll to bottom of page).

Overcoming Fears
April 2, 2009, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Self

I can jump out of airplanes at 12,000 feet, drive across country by myself, and I used to have a pet snake. When people ask me the phobia question, I’m usually at a loss. However, I’ve come to realize I have a fear of looking stupid. In terms of reasonable fears, this one falls pretty low on the totem pole. Looking stupid isn’t going to kill me. I’m not going to be kidnapped or lost forever, and I’m certainly not going to be attacked by wild animals. The worst thing this fear can do is cause slight embarrassment. Often, it doesn’t even do that–I imagine situations to be far worse then they actually are.

The reason for this mini-confession today is that I recently made some strides in overcoming this fear: I went running in the park. For most, this is no difficult feat. For myself, this was a huge step because of the potential of looking stupid. Firstly, I am very unfamiliar with the layout of the park. I don’t know where the paths are; I don’t know where the parking is. The thought of driving around repeatedly trying to find either of these things certainly means I’m going to look stupid. And as such, I kept putting off going. Also, my running abilities are still very… under-developed? Without a doubt there would be other people there, all running faster than me, scoffing at my snail-like pace and frequent walk breaks. I had plenty of excuses not to go.

Yesterday, my logical brain took over and the next thing I knew I was in running attire on my way to the park. In about three weeks I’m going to start running at the park weekly, so I may as well start to get used to it. I arrived at the (rather large) park and began driving through. To my dismay I saw plenty of people running and still had no idea where to park to get on a path. I had almost decided to give up when I saw a small lot right next to a path. I pulled over, parked, got out and stretched. Finally, I hopped on the path and began running.

As soon as I started jogging, my tensions started to ease. Most of the people I passed didn’t pay me any attention. Everyone was out doing their own thing. Some were running, some walking, and I even saw a woman riding a horse! As I relaxed, I enjoyed the scenery–all that green space, right in the middle of Los Angeles. My run was even productive (despite some very sore hips today). The whole experience made me love LA a little bit more. I’m very excited to head back on Friday.

All of this has me wondering: what other things have I been missing out on for fear of looking stupid? I know acting scares me, especially improv and comedy. Don’t even ask me to play charades. Maybe I should take an improv class to force myself out of my comfort zone. I know there’s several places in LA I have yet to venture to because of a fear of being an outsider (and consequently looking stupid). Deep down I would probably go unnoticed, everyone would just do their own thing like at the park. But the fear keeps me from going. I’ll just have to start adding these things to my todo list. Even writing and posting to the internet has all kind of potential for me to look stupid. So, here I am, working through it.

I do have another fear (although fear may not be the best word) that I’ll touch on briefly. Whenever I start something new, I have a fear that I won’t do it 100% correctly. This is particularly prevalent with things such as exercise. I want to develop good fitness habits but don’t know where to begin. For a long time, I just didn’t begin. Somehow I figured if I couldn’t do it right, it wasn’t worth doing at all. Then, if I started to look for information, I became overwhelmed. There’s so much information available that it’s easy to procrastinate further. Recently I found myself getting into that rut, so I decided it’s better to do something than nothing at all, even if it isn’t perfect. Go outside and walk, or jog. Lift some weights. Write something for the blog. Just do something, even if it isn’t the greatest. Perfection be damned. Once I start the habits, then I can begin to refine them. So from now on, I’m going to do more and think less. I’ve found it’s the thinking that usually gets me in trouble.

What about you, do you have any goofy fears or anxieties that are you keeping you back? What are you doing to work through them?

Health Maintenance
April 1, 2009, 9:28 pm
Filed under: Fitness and Health

When it comes to car maintenance, I spare no expense.  “I need a new air filter?  Go for it.  I need a radiator flush as well?  Clean ‘er out.”  Am I being had some of the time?  Probably.  But I’d rather do too much than not enough.  I think I’m particularly concerned because my car is a lease.  I don’t want to mess up someone else’s vehicle (and have to pay for it).  And the thought of stalling out on the side of the road, engine smoking, because I couldn’t find 20 minutes to get an oil change scares me.

Now, despite all my concerns for preventative car maintenance, when it comes to my health I’ve been seriously lacking. I recently discovered that I haven’t been to my primary care doctor or the optometrist in about 2 years. Considering this, I need to thank my lucky stars that I’ve been in good health for the majority of that time. I know one reason I haven’t been exactly vigilant with my health is due to no health insurance. It’s no excuse, but it certainly makes it harder to make the appointments I should when I know it’ll cost me five times as much. Insurance aside, often I ignore these things because there seems to be nothing wrong. Out of sight, out of mind. At least with my car, there’s a sticker on my windshield reminding me of my next maintenance check. With health issues, often we don’t think about it until it’s too late and something serious has happened.

Recently, my stock of emergency inhalers ran dry. These inhalers are for sudden asthma attacks, but more so for preventing any breathing difficulty during exercise (I’m lucky that my asthma has become milder as I’ve gotten older). So if I wanted to keep exercising, I needed to replenish my prescription. I called my old primary care doctor in Ohio to see if I could cheat and just have them write me a new prescription. It was then that I was informed that I hadn’t been there for two years and no, they couldn’t write one. This meant I would get to venture to an Urgent Care clinic (no primary care physician yet now that I’ve moved to CA). A 2 hour wait and almost $200 later, I have a fresh stock of emergency inhalers. Using this momentum, I decided to order more contacts. I had run out about a month ago but was relying on my glasses until the job situation improved. Unfortunately, that prescription had also expired as I had been equally as lax about seeing the optometrist as I had my primary care doctor. $200 and an eye appointment later, I have a year supply of contacts en route to my apartment.

Without insurance, these costs add up quickly. I have learned my lesson and am in the process of obtaining my own insurance policy. $54 a month is certainly cheaper than $200 in one day. Though I suspect having insurance will do more than just protect me in case of an emergency. I’ll be more likely to keep up with regular checkups–you get so many a year so I may as well use them. Also, I’ll simply have piece of mind knowing I have safeguards in place.

Another thing that brought my health to my attention is that I’m going to begin marathon training at the end of this month. All exercise programs say to consult your doctor before beginning them and I’ve always decidedly ignored that warning. Now, though, maybe due to the extreme nature of the marathon, I’m more keen to follow this advice and talk to a doctor. Also, I’m going to be putting myself in a position where I have an increased likelihood of injuring myself or having asthma issues. It’d be nice to have a doctor’s appointment that isn’t mostly playing catch-up on my medical history should something like this arise.

Overall, keeping up with health maintenance will help to prevent costly health disasters in the future. Not only could any avoidable health emergencies be expensive, they could have long-lasting, detrimental effects as well. In terms of logistics, maybe I should start keeping a notebook of my own health history of sorts. When I recently tried to fill out a health insurance application, I realized I have a terrible memory and sense of time. If I just had a notebook with everything in it, things would have been much easier. Is this something people do? Or do I just have a bad memory when it comes to these things? Any thoughts would be appreciated.