Richard’s Blog

A Truth about Happiness

Are you feeling happy? It’s World Happiness Day. Should we feel happier today?

I woke up to the unusual overcast March weather, a little more tired than usual after my Netflix binge last night. I noticed the laundry had not been put out. Then it was down to the list of emails. Where was my happiness going to come from?

With this dedicated day for happiness, I’m now feeling a little guilty that I’ve not found that warm fuzzy feeling of happiness. I’m having to think about where my extra dose of happiness is going to come from.

But I guess there’s one thing we can be happy about.

Apparently, in the World Happiness Report, the United Kingdom has come in 15th place – an improvement from last year by four places. Can it actually be that in the midst our Brexit chaos we are actually happier! What really does cause happiness, then?

Happiness seems to be the universal pursuit we all innately have. Psychologists spend a lot of time trying to discover what creates this sometimes allusive feeling and how we can increasingly make it a greater part of our experience.

A professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, says, “Science has proved that being happy requires a conscious effort. It’s not easy, it takes time.”[1] He then gives us five ways we can make that effort: make a gratitude list, sleep more and better, meditate, spend more time with family and friends, have fewer social networks and more real connections. A good starting list.

But I wonder whether these are sustainable – do they really bring lasting happiness? Or is there a truth we are missing?

One of the most interesting people I have read about is Victor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. He even spent some time in Auschwitz. After he was released, he wrote about his experiences in a bestseller called Man’s Search for Meaning. He describes how even in the most wretched of circumstances, he was still able to experience happiness. How could this be?

He hits on a truth about happiness that we could all learn from. Frankl says, “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”[2] Happiness is experienced as a result of pursuing, not happiness itself, but meaning and purpose. It is meaning and purpose we need to aim for and follow.

So what’s your meaning and purpose?

For me and many of my friends, there’s a happiness we experience from a meaning we pursue. We participate in a religious community (a Christian community). For me, faith in something bigger than me, which brings meaning and purpose to my life and, thus, happiness. But don’t just believe me. This is something the Pew Research Center found to be the case in many countries: “in the U.S. and many other countries around the world, regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness.”[3]

On World Happiness Day, is it worth giving faith a second thought?

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47637378

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/790760-for-success-like-happiness-cannot-be-pursued-it-must-ensue

[3] http://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/31/religions-relationship-to-happiness-civic-engagement-and-health-around-the-world/

[Photo by Michael Dam on Unsplash]

Uniquely Human

The idea of robots and humans living side-by-side is becoming less sci-fi and more of a reality. But what are we to think when we hear of the ‘murder’ of a hitchhiking robot?

Hitchbot was its name – and I use ‘was’ intentionally – because this roaming robot was killed. As part of a project run by Ryerson University, in Toronto, Hitchbot, a scrapyard-looking bot, fitted with GPS, was picked up by members of the public and taken wherever they were going. The bot – with a cake container for a head – became quite popular. But then one day the worst fears of its creators came true. Some unknown person or persons decided to take Hitchbot’s life!

Hitchbot was found with its arms and legs ripped off and head missing. The lead researcher, Dr Frauke Zeller and her team, mourned the loss but were always aware this could be a possible outcome.

But it raises an ethical question: can you actually murder a robot?

The question is a philosophical one and forces us to ask what makes us human in the first place? Certainly, it was an act of vandalism. But murder?

Humans are called Sapiens for a reason. Meaning ‘wise’ in old Latin, it distinguishes humans from other creatures. “But,” I hear you say, “these robots are increasingly intelligent (wise), so what’s the difference?” Good point.

We can connect with them, but can it connect with us?

I think the answer to that is found in this statement by Prof Rosalind Picard, who leads the Affective Computing Lab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “We are made for relationships, even us engineers, and that is such a powerful thing that we fit machines into that.”[1] Yes, we can become attached to people and even robots, but robots don’t have the emotional faculties to reciprocate the same feelings and emotions.

We are sentient beings and they are not.

A robot cannot experience the joy of love or know what it feels like to be happy. You might be able to hug and high-five it, but it will not understand or feel the emotion behind your hug or smile.

Still, someone could argue that increasingly the programme of algorithms can lead AI robots to respond in ways that show they have learnt something about our emotions, like noticing our tone of voice if we are sad (this kind of reciprocal learning is something explored in the up-and-coming film Lifelike). But even here there is something missing: choice. Whereas our little friend Hitchbot was limited by the coding it was programmed with, we humans have the autonomy to choose.

As humans, we choose how we respond to others. We choose to care. Choose to love. Really, love can only exist in the realm of choice. Does it not follow that authentic relationships can only flow out of choice? It’s what makes us human – freewill and agency. This is the sole privilege of a human, and will never be that of a mechanic, algorithm-imprinted piece of metal.

Maybe there’s a bigger question still: where did this choice come from? Where do you get freewill and agency from? Were we programmed?

Some would suggest that freewill can only come from a place of equal freewill. Surely, freedom can only beget freedom. So, is being human, in fact, a reflection of a place where equal freewill and agency exists?

If so, is that where God comes in?

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47090174

 

Why the web is on a ‘downward plunge’

“Downward plunge” was the way the creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, this week described where it was heading. Interviewed by the BBC to mark 30 years since the proposal for the web was made, Sir Tim said that unless there is a global change of course the web is heading for a “dysfunctional future.”[1]

Watching your creation being used for the wrong reasons must be like seeing your own child choose a destructive lifestyle. But like any parent, Sir Tim is optimistic that we can turn things around. After all, he believes it was used as a force for good for the first 15 years. However, today the web appears in the balance as a force for good or bad.

With 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day[2], no wonder Sir Tim says, “I’m very concerned about nastiness and misinformation spreading.”[3] And the nastiness of the web is something I have witnessed first-hand.

The mainstream secondary school where I work was hacked, with both students and teachers sent emails with links to pornographic sites. This wasn’t just a breach of security, it was a violation of the innocence of youth. Fortunately, our school were able to deal with it in time. But these breaches are happening more often. Last February a school in Dorset had their students GCSE coursework stolen and then used as a ransom[4] (the situation is on-going).

And with the increase of misinformation, manipulation and fake news, we are seeing the weaponization of knowledge. One question we face is how do we use knowledge? Some even say it was a question that existed at the dawn of civilisation.

One of the most well-known stories about how civilisation started involves the same predicament we have now with the web. It is a story about knowledge and how it should be used. It’s a story that might shed some light on why we are facing this problem.

Whatever you think about the story of Adam and Eve in a Middle-eastern Garden called Eden, it contains some ancient wisdom that speaks into the conversation we are having about the web. The story goes like this:

Our two innocent progenitors of humankind – Adam and Eve – had to make a choice. The choice concerned how they wanted to live their lives. They needed to decide what was right and wrong, what was good and evil. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But when they did, God explained, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.[5] The use of knowledge – what we thought was right and wrong – was going to be solely the decision of humans.

There was a problem though, the same that exists with the web today, do we always know that knowledge is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ or how to use such knowledge?

The choice Adam and Eve made was based on the same idea behind the web, “a free and open web would empower its users,”[6] explains Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Fundamentally, the Eden story is about empowering humans with knowledge – to decide what is good and evil, right and wrong? The problems we now see with the web bring into question whether we can do it all by ourselves. Is our judgement enough?

Knowledge on one level may be morally neutral but how it is used depends on our morality – what we deem as right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. Maybe the problem lies in whether human judgement is the optimum standard in knowing right and wrong. Is there a better standard for knowing right and wrong?

In the Eden story there was something else on offer: the knowledge of God. Later in the Bible story, God is described as love – to know God is to know what love is. The implication is, with a better understanding of who God is we will see more clearly what’s right and wrong.

And so, if we navigate the web – our uploading and consumption – with greater love, we will make better choices – our judgement will be based on a better standard. Maybe this is the global change of course we need to save the future of the web.

Get in touch and share what you think.

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/05/21/how-much-data-do-we-create-every-day-the-mind-blowing-stats-everyone-should-read/#19643c3b60ba

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-47551331

[4] Ibid

[5] The Bible, Genesis chapter 2 and 3 (NIV).

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

Storing Music as DNA

Music is powerful. It can take us places emotionally in an instant.

I’m old enough to remember my first cassette player – now tapes are the kind of things you are more likely to see on the movie Back to the Future. Then came along CD’s and my first Walkman. But now you can fit four thousand songs in your pocket on your iPod! Innovation never rests on its laurels…

The latest form to store music is in paint!

Yes, in this technologically advanced world, there are still things that can make me go, ‘wow!’ and this music-into-paint-thing is one of them.

Massive Attack, the British music group with their atmospheric down-tempo Trip-hop vibe, are the first to have their album Mezzanine changed into genetic information and stored in cans of spray paint. If you were to pick up a can, you would literally be spraying their music.

From the digital music file they took pairs of 0’s and 1’s and then changed them into the DNA code A, C, T, and G (A=00, T=01, C=10, G=11). But these new strands of DNA are synthetic which makes up the paint.

And if you wanted to listen to the music again, you can take the synthetic DNA and translate the music back into digital form…which only takes 17 hours! That’s a lot of buffering!

Whether notes on a musical score, digital 0s and 1s, or DNA code, this information is highly organised. You simply don’t just get Massive Attack or Mozart music by throwing some crotchet and quavers at a page. Nor do you get organised information in the form of DNA into a spray can or a living cell without something more going on than just chance.

This is one reason why some question whether life could have created itself. The human genome has 3 billion codes (base pairs). That’s a lot of information to organise. The simplest self-replicating organism called Mycoplasma genitalium has 580,000 base pairs. The kind of information you need for life to exist is a real problem for those who study the origins of life. When famous atheist Richard Dawkins appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and was asked about one thing he would love to know, Dawkins replied, “the origin of life is something we don’t know anything about…I would love to know how life got started.”[1]

He’s not the only one. Maybe you too have questioned it. So did the scientist who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA. When reflecting on this immense library of information Dr. Francis Crick concluded, “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”[2]

For some, this is why God won’t go away. We need an organiser, an intelligence, someone to create the paint and put it in the can! What do you think?

Notes:

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-luUdhDPyI

[2] Francis A. Crick, Life Itself. Published by Simon & Schuster, 1981, page 88.

A New Kind of Matchmaker

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch.”[1]

These words are spoken from the lips of a woman who longs for the ‘right’ husband. It’s a song from Fiddler on the Roof, a play about how three Jewish daughters came to find the men they love in ways which challenged the cultural and religious norms of their day. They went over the head of the village Matchmaker! Times were changing; the way people did relationships was changing.

And the way people do relationships today is changing, too. Gone are the days of the Matchmakers…or have they?

For us in the West, the idea of a Matchmaker meddling in our romantic affairs is laughable, if not a violation of our individualist tendencies. But before we laugh at the Matchmaker notion as a relic of a bygone century, are we missing something? Have we not just passed the matchmaking magic onto another agent: algorithms?

Has Yenta, the Matchmaker from the play, morphed into another form, namely, dating data? Data crunching by the dating apps and websites means that the algorithms produced from your searches and preferences are feeding the matches that are thrust onto your phone and computer screens. Is this arrangement by algorithm?!

Although algorithms may be a new kind of Matchmaker, love is always surprising. It can appear in places where the ‘Matchmakers’ may never have thought to look. Which got me thinking, is there a better way? How can we know we’re choosing the right one? After all, many marriages end in divorce, and many partnerships end in separation.

We all know there’s no way to be 100% certain our marriage or partnership will last the whole hog, as they say. Most have to accept the cold comfort of this old-fashioned saying, “live with me, then you will know me!” If only we could see into the future?! As a 35-year-old single man, can I reduce the odds of failure in a deep, intimate, life-long relationship?

Before I answer that question, a little background on me first. My parents divorced when I was a teen. We were a happy family, but this event shocked my idealistic concept of marriage into sharp recession. It made me super cautious about who I choose to date. Although very happy single, one consequence meant I’ve spent most of my adult life single – finding and knowing the ‘right’ person to the degree I will know we will be together for life is hard. I have also been acquainted with the heartbreak of having to give up love, too. It hurts.

Yes, we’ve heard it before: a marriage or partnership requires a bit of give and take, a bit of flexibility from both people, a willingness to work together through good and bad times. But is there any other wisdom we can use to navigate the high seas of uncertainty? For me the answer is, yes, and I found it in an unusual place. It is wisdom that comes not from a matchmaker or dating app but from an encouraging insight about the Christian God and the help he can provide. It is said about God that, “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”[2]

What that means is God, whether you believe in him or not, knows what motivates us, knows our thoughts, our inner most needs and desires. Being human, I can’t look at another person’s heart in the same way. So I can’t have that absolute certainty that my marriage or partnership will last until death do us part, although that is the kind of relationship I seek. Maybe that uncertainty and fear has held me back, maybe that fear holds you back?

So I have made a decision to pray and ask this God who knows the heart to look at my heart and lead me to the right lifetime partner. I am asking him to remove any fears and doubts and to let me know in my heart that this person is the right one for me. When I meet her, I know she will not be wearing a sign saying, “I am the one!” But I am going to trust God to show me in a way I understand that I am making the right decision in asking this (eventual) ‘one’ to marry me. Although at some point I will also have to step out on faith and take the risk because exclusively choosing someone is always a risk.

Maybe if you have reached this time in your life when you would like to be married or living with someone, yet nothing seems to be happening, and you are not meeting the right person, maybe you would consider doing the same.

Some might say this is a strange source of help. Maybe. But surely no more than putting your trust in horoscopes, Tarot cards, algorithms, the unpredictability of Tinder’s swipe right, or our very own Jewish Matchmaker, Yenta. So why not ask God for help?

Written in collaboration with Keith Hartrick, editor of ‘Richard’s Blog’.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59Hj7bp38f8

[2] The Bible, 1 Samuel 16:7

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