Meditations on Life and Happiness: The “Simple” Triad of Health

A conscious life, to be well-lived, must have a guiding principle. Else, that precious gift of the universe is squandered in a reactive cycle with its environment, and the unique control of a conscious mind – free will – lies unused and wasted.

There are many guiding principles, but one that aligns with the zeitgeist of the 21st century — and indeed with human biology – is thus: seek to maximize happiness. Be vigilant that you do not idle on local maxima, but instead use all the resources around you to seek the highest peak on the invisible, unknowable terrain of the future.

Vigilance and wisdom are also needed to avoid the other trap: throwing away a great thing in pursuit of even greater heights, and in doing so losing sight of the goal: to maximize happiness. This metric is a summation across your entire lived life, and a life spent in miserable pursuit of happiness is a poor life indeed. In this way, life is a calculated gamble. You try to hike along a ridge of success to find the mountain peak of bliss and hope that any descent is merely one side of a narrow mountain ravine; a blip, rather than a steady slope down into the foothills of mediocrity.

It must be noted that there are other guiding principles to choose from. Prosperity for your descendants, maximization of total global welfare, establishing an eternal legacy for your name in history, seeking to live in accordance with your religion. Life is meaningless without assigned value, but any principle will do. Indeed, you could try to live all of them. But maximizing happiness has the added benefit of feeling good – a circular argument, but we must accept that our consciousness runs on an imperfect substrate of hormones and neurotransmitters.

What resources can we harness in the pursuit of bliss? We live in a time of near-boundless knowledge, and one must simply be willing to reach out and grasp it. Happiness is of the mind, and the mind is of the body, so we should first begin with the body. How can the mind thrive if the body is sick?

Scientific research confirms some ancient principles and gives them falsifiable form. Bodily health is surprisingly simple, despite the complexity the body. After all, we have evolved to be healthy in as many situations as possible. Catch enough good sleep, eat and drink properly, and exercise. Following these three straightforward principles yields massive results, yet nearly everybody fails to do it.

Roughly 50% of people report not getting enough sleep. 35% of people report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair”. 67% of people who aren’t getting “good” quality sleep also report “poor” or “only fair” overall health. Getting enough sleep increases your expected lifespan increases by 10 years, and lack of sleep is heavily correlated with mental health issues.

36% of Americans are obese, and 75% of Americans have an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruit, dairy, and healthy oils. Nearly everyone exceeds recommendations for added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat. Only 50% of Americans meet the suggested level for aerobic exercise: 150 minutes of moderate-level exercise a week. That sounds like a lot, but that is only 20 minutes of walking a day, or 10 minutes of running a day. All-cause mortality is 35% lower for these physically active people. Conversely, obesity is a horrible condition that lowers your quality of life across the board.

Yes, these statistics are not rigorous, nor definitive. In addition, there are many difficult-to-change factors that confound execution of the “triad” of sleep, diet, and exercise. Men are more likely to have sleep apnea, and women are more likely to have insomnia. Lower income and less educated people are more likely to have low quality sleep. It is easy to see that this can become a vicious cycle, considering that nearly half of Americans are medically underinsured, and 40% of underinsured individuals report delaying required care. Health problems cause lack of high quality sleep, and not getting enough good sleep hurts the body’s ability to heal. Meanwhile, mental ability and willpower are reduced by lack of sleep, which when combined with health problems makes it difficult to hold a steady, well-paying job. And thus, this theoretical individual remains poor, underinsured, sick, and tired. Being poor sucks.

But even among the educated, liberal techno-elite of West Coast cities, we fail to consistently follow the simple triadic principles. We spend money hand-over-fist on “healthy” food, all while gaining weight. We constantly tell ourselves that we need to hit the gym more often. We may even blame our mental shortcomings on missed sleep the night before. But there is no excuse for squandering the monumental privileges of this life. We are college-educated, we make at least 2 to 3 times as much as the impoverished individual previously described, and we typically have had adequate medical care throughout life. Not only have we been led to water, as the proverbial horse, but we are being met with a deluge; we have been thrown bodily into a pool of clean, delicious water. All we must do is open our mouths and drink. And yet, we don’t.

We stress-eat, or we eat out of boredom. We eat too much of our purported health food because we lack the discipline to stop. We skip sleep to medicate away our profound emptiness of purpose with alcohol and psychoactive drugs, or hyper-stimulating entertainment. We complain that we lack the time to exercise, or moan about the wrist, back, and neck pains that come with our jobs. Instead of seizing the obvious and easy solutions before us, we commit our time, energy, and money to a secular religion of consumption. We fritter our days away praying in sad cathedrals of our own construction: buying the latest iPhone, seeing the latest blockbuster movie, playing the new popular videogame, spending an afternoon scrolling through the endless stimulation of Twitter and Facebook. Better yet, we seek to resolve our guilt by insisting that obesity isn’t a problem and that mental health issues are an inevitable result of a broken social order.

An unhealthy body leads to an unhealthy mind. In the new generation of upper and upper-middle class adults, mental health issues like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and loneliness occur at more than twice the national average rate. These issues then generate new somatic issues like headaches, stomach aches, and body pains.

Despite personal wealth, despite being well-educated, despite living in a wealthy society, we do not live in an environment conducive to health or happiness. Just as the archetypical impoverished fellow in America is trapped between poor education, low income, bad parenting, bad childhood habits, unhealthy food options, and untreated chronic health conditions, so is the archetypical member of the tech elite trapped by FOMO, social media algorithms, society’s metrics of success, and ubiquitous advertising. Fortunately, we have the good fortune to be able to control our environment.

Is sitting all day at your job giving you back and neck pain? Is staring at a screen destroying your eyesight? Some of that may come with the territory, but much more of it is avoidable. Get up and walk around the office at regular intervals. Get a standing desk. Take a twenty second break to rest your eyes. We’ve heard it all before, and yet we don’t do it.

Perhaps your job won’t allow you to switch between sitting and standing as your body desires, or you are simply too busy to take five minutes to walk around every hour. Ok, so go walk for twenty minutes when you get home. Too tired? Do it anyway. Even that brief exercise will boost your energy levels when done consistently. Better yet, take that walk in the morning, which also helps align your circadian rhythm and improves sleep quality and consistency. Improved sleep will bring more energy and better health, which will make the regular exercise even more invigorating and enjoyable. We’ve heard it all before, yet we don’t do it.

Stop drinking soda, control your insulin cycle. Wean yourself off caffeine to enable a regular sleep schedule and to boost your sleep quality. Limit your alcohol and drug consumption and wean yourself off any chemical sleep aids (including THC and CBD); they near-universally decrease your quality of sleep. Drink more water. We’ve heard it all before, yet we don’t do it. We’ve literally been led to water, yet fail to drink more of it.

If you don’t already pursue a healthier, happier life by implementing these simply practices, dear reader, you probably aren’t going to start as a result of reading this. Many people will agree with the goal of maximizing happiness and agree that all of the things I’ve mentioned are good, healthy habits. People are educated on the necessity of sleep, diet, and exercise. But we live in a local maximum of happiness. Alcohol and drugs feel good, while exercising the discipline to drag your ass out on a 20-minute walk is hard. Enjoying the hyper-stimulation of a movie or videogame feels awesome, while getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep is incredibly boring. Eating good food activates neural pathways that look an awful lot like those activated by good sex. So, why shouldn’t I eat a delicious “healthy” snack that is still packed with more sugar and fat than occurs in any natural food, thereby hyper-stimulating my caveman limbic system?

Well, if your life’s guiding principle is to maximize happiness, and you know for a fact that a glorious peak of bliss lays just across a small gulley of effort, then you should not rest on your small mound of dopamine no matter how high it feels at the time.

Fortunately, in a psychosomatic miracle of free will, we are not bound to continue this unfulfilling trudge. We can exercise conscious discipline and jump the track. We can push slowly but surely on the flywheel of happiness. Soon, a healthy lifestyle will turn from sheltered flame to raging fire, from an endeavor we must actively foster to a pillar of life we can lean on. We must simply make the decision to escape the biological determinism of our current situation and work around our psychological and physical shortcomings. Let’s use our big brains and avoid being controlled by our dumb bodies.

Defining Life

I’ve had this conversation a couple of times recently, because it poses an interesting question: can we create a definition for ‘alive’ that encompasses not only known biological life, but also any theoretical lifeforms we can imagine? This might include alternative biochemistry, artificial life (nanites?), and even digital lifeforms.

Obviously there is an inherent problem in this discussion; we are assuming everyone shares a similar definition of life. However, even a skin-deep probing can reveal divisive philosophical questions. Are computer viruses alive? How about self-replicating structures of dust particles in a plasma? Is the Earth alive? We can’t truly resolve this problem without first clearly setting a boundary for what things are alive and what things aren’t alive. For example, scientists seem to have resolutely decided that biological viruses are not alive. Similarly, its clear to our human sensibilities that a car engine is not alive, even if it is highly advanced and has all sorts of sensors and regulatory mechanisms.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to skip over this roadblock and dive in. Wikipedia gives these criteria for calling something ‘alive’:

  1. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state.
  2. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells.
  3. Metabolism: Converting chemicals and energy to maintain internal organization.
  4. Growth: A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  5. Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment.
  6. Response to stimuli: A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.
  7. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.

There are some good ones in there, but a few need to go. Let’s throw out Organization (this can almost be seen as tautological — things made of cells are alive because they are made of cells — and exclusive of otherwise potential candidates for life), Growth (one can imagine an organism which is artificially constructed, but then maintains itself perfectly, or a mechanical organism that starts life by being constructed externally, and slowly grows smaller as it sacrifices components to stay operational), and Reproduction (again, imagine a constructed organism that cannot reproduce). This leaves Homeostasis, Metabolism, and Adaptation/Response to stimuli.

However, its clear that Metabolism is important: an organism must take something from its environment and consume it to maintain an internal state. Metabolism and Homeostasis are where biological viruses fail the ‘life test’. While some advanced viruses meet the Adaptation and Response to Stimuli (arguably the same thing, just at different scales), no virus can use resources from its environment to perform internal upkeep. It requires the hijacked machinery of a cell to do that.

Unless you say that living things are part of a virus’s ‘environment’. Then you could argue that in some sense of the word, viruses are alive, because they use resources present in the environment to perform internal upkeep. This raises an important question about context. Indeed, all definitions of life seem to hinge on context. For example, a computer virus’s environment is the computer system. Resources would be computing time and memory, perhaps.

Is a computer virus alive? Advanced viruses can modify their own state (metamorphic code), respond to stimuli (anti-virus, user activity, etc), and metabolize resources from their environment. They also reproduce, although we cut that criterion so the point is moot. If a computer virus meets the requirements for life (albeit unconventionally), then do we have to accept it as a lifeform?

Moreover, there are things we wouldn’t normally call a single entity that fulfill the requirements for life. These are often termed “living systems”. The Earth is a prime example. It has systems that regulate its interior, it absorbs sunlight and that helps fuel the regulatory cycles on the surface. It’s debatable whether the Earth responds to stimuli. Sure, there are feedback loops, but the Earth doesn’t really respond accordingly to changes (say, changes in solar luminosity or meteoric impacts) in order to maintain homeostasis. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example: a decrease in solar radiation produces more ice, lowering albedo, thus lowering albedo further.

So maybe the Earth isn’t alive, but we have to consider nonetheless that systems can be alive. In fact, its questionable whether humans are single organisms. Several pounds of our weight are gut bacteria, independent organisms which share no DNA with us, but on which we rely for survival. We are a system. Call it a colony, call it symbiosis; the entity that is a human is in fact a collection of trillions of ‘independent’ organisms, and yet that entity is also singularly ‘alive’.

Can we trust our initial, gut reaction that tells us what is alive and what isn’t? Moreover, what use is there in classifying life in the first place? We treat cars that are definitely not alive as if they are precious animals with a will of their own, and then squash bugs without a second thought. Is it important to define life at all, rigorous criteria or not?

The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

Map Design

I’ve always been highly interested in creating levels for games. Computer games enchant people with their story, gameplay, and graphics. Some designer created everything I see in it. It would be incredibly fun and rewarding to wield the same power as the game designers.

Ever since I was a little kid, level design has occupied me as much, if not more than, the game itself.
I started out with games that came with easily accessible editors. Strategy games such as the Age of Empires (and Age of Mythology) have drag and drop editors accessible from within the game. Command and Conquer: Generals has an easy-to-use editor, accessible through its root directory. As I grew older I began to experiment with triggers more, crafting a crude story or giving a gratifying gameplay experience.

Most of these maps were for single-player games, with one exception. I would often hang out at my friend’s house and invite he and his siblings to compete in map-making competitions. We would take the turns crafting Super Smash Bros. Brawl maps, with a rather short time limit. The we would play a quick match on it. The best would get saved and played often. I made quite a few enticing designs in those sessions. My levels created unique gameplay situations that weren’t achieved in the default maps.

My attention slowly fixed on a new game. While I had been familiar with Halo: Combat Evolved for a while, it suddenly occurred to me that I could create single-player levels with story as interesting as the game’s campaign. I looked into it and discovered Halo: Custom Edition. I got involved in the community, and tried my hand at non-drag-and-drop map creators. While I didn’t know it at the time, Halo’s utilities are extremely obtuse. I never had much success in creating my own levels, although I experimented with new kinds of enemy formations and scripting on pre-existing custom multiplayer levels, although I met with little success in the latter. I had an entire 5-part campaign planned out, including overhead sketches, concept art, the beginnings of a 3D model (although I was still a newbie at modeling), and enticing characters. Needless to say, it never got off the ground. To this day, I dream about how cool it would have been.

A step up from Brawl, but a step down from Halo, came Halo 3 Forge. Although it was purely multi-player and was not very powerful, Forge let me create a blend of the epic Brawl maps I had forged and the Halo campaign I had brawled with. I would Forge until my friends got tired with me (I am a PC gamer to the heart, and don’t own any consoles). The recent Halo: Reach called me back to that, although the Reach Forge was so much more powerful that I never had the time to truly explore it.

After Halo, I discovered the Orange Box. Boy, did that open up a whole new world to me. I soon after discovered the Source SDK and began to explore the glorious world of Source map-making. To this day I have a campaign planned out for Half-Life 2 that follows a rebel operative as he subverts Combine operations in the American heartland. The only thing that disappointed me about HL2 was the limited capacity for storytelling (no first-person dialogue, cutscenes, or interaction). TF2, on the other hand, tells a great story, despite being purely multi-player. I am in the starting stages of figuring out how to bring a single-player story experience to TF2.

In addition to Source, Steam let me find Crysis. The Sandbox2 editor truly lives up to its name. I spent hours in that editor, sculpting tropical islands and scripting helicopter fights, beach assaults, and stealth insertions. The great thing about Sandbox2 is that it was extremely to pick up, requiring only a few tutorials from someone like Xanthochori. Crysis 2 with Sandbox3 was disappointingly more complex.

To check out some videos of maps I’ve made and other videos (I’m also into video production), see my YouTube channel.