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May highlights: introducing our interns

We’re incredibly fortunate to have three amazing human beings join us as interns this month — literally doubling the size of QRI (at least for May and part of June).

Andrew is a rising junior at Harvard, studying CS and making some amazing media. We brought him in to create an explainer video for QRI (announcement soon!) but honestly I’ve been even more impressed by his organizational, strategic, and leadership skills. Don’t be surprised if Andrew ends up running the place in a few years.

Quintin just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, and has been enormously helpful as a jack-of-all-trades: web design, non-profit operations, outreach strategy, pitch decks, and about a million other things. It seems fair to say that “behind every successful organization, there is a Quintin Frerichs.”

Kenneth is a rising senior at Harvard, perhaps best known for his TED talk about wearable technologies and Alzheimers. We have him doing a deep dive on the fundamental nature of phenomenological flow (as Andrés says, “it’s about time!”) and I’ve been very impressed by the breadth of his research strategy and perseverance in the face of terrifying ontological complexity.

With this extra capacity, we’ve been able to firm up key organizational details and start some new exploratory projects.

Generally speaking, most organizations are talent-limited. The quality of this summer’s interns has shown me that QRI is not talent-limited: there are really great, world-class people eager to work in the QRI paradigm. However, we are seriously funding-limited. If you want to support our mission, one of the most effective ways is to donate to QRI (now officially tax deductible).

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


QRI April highlights: internships, memeplexes, hackathons, unannounced projects

We had a rather intense April- the month started with a dinner with Scott Aaronson and some other QRI supporters in Austin. A few days later I (Mike) broke my arm during a friendly bout of arm-wrestling; in mid-month we started holding regular SF hackathons for an unannounced project, and most recently we’ve been getting ready for three(!) great interns joining QRI in mid-May.


Andrés unloads a massive fictionalized look at society’s memeplexes in Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2). His core goal is to identify ‘full-stack’ philosophical narratives that are ‘alive’ — ways of seeing the world which present a clear and internally coherent picture of what the universe’s ‘grand plot’ (and what humanity’s purpose) is, and which are mimetically viable enough in today’s culture that they are actively being worked on.

Or more specifically- which philosophical grand narratives might be ‘hip enough’ that they might plausibly form the basis of a future Burning Man theme camp.


Meanwhile, Romeo attempts a fresh essentialization of one of the original full-stack philosophical narratives with Translating the Buddha:

“The issue, as it seems to me, is that almost every text you read on Buddhism does not attempt to do the actual work of translation. It seems that the first transmission of Buddhism to the west reified a bunch of translations of terms, such as concentration, equanimity, tranquility, mindfulness, suffering, etc. Works since then have mostly stuck to rearranging these words in different combinations and referencing the same metaphors that have been in use since the time of the Buddha.

So, putting my money where my mouth is, I want to try to produce a translation of what I see as the core causal loop that causes progress on the Buddha’s path. I’m attempting this because I believe the core causal loop is actually quite small. The Buddha had a tougher task because he had to explain causation, locus of control, and other critical concepts to farmers from scratch.

You have physical sensations in the course of life. Your nervous system reacts to these sensations with high or low valence (positive, negative, neutral) and arousal (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activation), your mind reacts to these now-emotion-laden sensations with activity (mental image, mental talk) out of which you then build stories to make sense of your situation.

The key insight that drives everything is the knowledge that this system isn’t wired up efficiently. Importantly: I don’t mean this in a normative way. Like you should wire it the way I say just because, but in the ‘this type of circuit only needs 20 nand gates, why are there 60 and why is it shunting excess voltage into the anger circuits over there that have nothing to do with this computation?’ way. Regardless of possible arguments over an ultimately ‘correct’ way to wire everything, there are very low hanging fruit in terms of improvements that will help you effectively pursue *any* other goal you set your mind to.

The miswired central nervous system story gives us simple answers to things like trauma (extreme levels of miswiring of things into fear and freeze responses), why stuff like yoga and exercise help (general CNS health, probably capacitance/fuse breaker improvements), why psychotherapy sometimes but not always activates childhood memories and the significance of that, and why practitioners claim they have a much better life but can’t always explain why (they perform the same actions but with much less internal resistance).

So then why all the rest of this crap?

Well, besides my post on why practitioners make so many metaphysical claims, it’s also just that there’s a lot of idiosyncrasy in first unwiring a randomly wired CNS and then rewiring it in arbitrary order. Especially when you don’t really know that that’s what you’re doing as you’re doing it and your mindlessness teacher is a bit clueless as well (though may still have good pragmatic advice despite bad epistemics.)”

I may have had a broken arm, but wasn’t going to miss the hackathon.

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


QRI in March: lineages, video interviews, building Utopia

This month saw a lot of work on clarifying our core research lineages, the existing threads of research we’ve woven together to create our unique approach. We’ve now expanded our list to eight, and sorted them into three categories: formalism, self-organized systems, and phenomenology. Here’s the lead-in to the self-organized systems section:

Traditionally, neuroscience has been concerned with cataloguing the brain, e.g. collecting discrete observations about anatomy, observed cyclic patterns (EEG frequencies), and cell types and neurotransmitters, and trying to match these facts with functional stories. However, it’s increasingly clear that these sorts of neat stories about localized function are artifacts of the tools we’re using to look at the brain, not of the brain’s underlying computational structure.

What’s the alternative? Instead of centering our exploration on the sorts of raw data our tools are able to gather, we can approach the brain as a self-organizing system, something which uses a few core principles to both build and regulate itself. As such, if we can reverse-engineer these core principles and use what tools we have to validatethese bottom-up models, we can both understand the internal logic of the brain’s algorithms- the how and why the brain does what it does- as well as find more elegant intervention points for altering it.

I’m really proud of the list as a coherent description of where the “QRI research platform” comes from, as well as being a quick way people can get up to speed on what we’re doing. (read more)


Earlier this month, my colleague Andrés and I were interviewed by Allen Saakyan for his Simulation youtube series:

I also did a video interview with Adam Ford about Templeton Foundation’s new “Advancing Research into Consciousness” program.

Also this month, Andrés had a nice description of how phenomenological experimentation can help test hypotheses about pain and pleasure in The Resonance and Vibration of [Phenomenal] Objects:

Let’s examine the phenomenology described under the theoretical paradigms developed at the Qualia Research Institute. Some core paradigms are Qualia Formalism (“every conscious experience corresponds to a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the phenomenology of the experience”), Valence Structuralism (“pain and pleasure are structural features of the mathematical object that corresponds to an experience such that they can be read off from this object with the appropriate mathematical analysis”), and the Symmetry Theory of Valence (“the mathematical feature that corresponds to pain and pleasure are the object’s symmetry and anti-symmetry, namely, its invariance upon the transformations the object is undergoing”). Whereas Qualia Formalism is a necessary assumption to make in order to make any progress on the science of consciousness (cf. Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply), Valence Structuralism and the Symmetry Theory of Valence are currently still mere hypotheses whose truth will be determined empirically by testing the predictions they generate. For now, we rely on strong, but admittedly circumstantial, pieces of evidence. The phenomenology reported of the connection between harmony and bliss in heaven worlds is one of these pieces of evidence. But can we do better?

Just as the best way to figure out how a videogame engine works is to break it with corner cases, to find how your brain builds your world-simulation, overloading the simulation with difficult-to-render elements is highly useful. … With regards to the connection between symmetry and pleasure, the free-wheeling hallucination state is a prime place to conduct high-quality phenomenological research. In particular, R tells us that you can study how different objects generate (are resonant with) particular moods, sounds, and tactile feelings. …

Thus, at least according to these observations, the emotional valence of our world-simulation is both related to the number of active invariant degrees of freedom along which transformations are taking place and the amount of energy entrapped in such spaces. …

We believe that understanding the underlying mathematical basis of valence will be ground-breaking, and analyzing these reports is a really important step in this direction. It will allow us to make sense of the syntax of bliss, and thus aid us in the task of paradise engineering.


Finally, Andrés opines on Nick Bostrom’s famous Letter from Utopia:

Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your possible futures. …

I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose it for yourself. … What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real. You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take place only if folks turn up.

Bostrom essentially makes two points:

  1. The future could be much better than the present. Much better.

  2. People actually have to build this future; it won’t necessarily happen by default.

The World Transhumanist Association’s initial vision revolved around building a ‘Triple S’ civilization: Superintelligence, Superlongevity, Superhappiness. In most future-oriented communities, the quest for (artificial) intelligence has taken front-and-center, with superlongevity relegated to the fringes and superhappiness long forgotten.

A core goal of QRI is to bring superhappiness back into our stories, goals, and concrete plans for the future.

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


QRI February News: Small Conference in Thailand, Future Memeplexes, Cause X

Last month had a couple notable posts by Andres, including Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (1/2) – As Andres describes it, 

What follows is the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?”

There are surprisingly few such ‘full-stack’ worldviews around, and fewer still being actively worked on. Andres’s post essentially uses Burning Man as a frame for exploring which interesting ‘living memeplexes’ are out there. 

A core goal for QRI is to build the best such ‘full-stack’ worldview, one that combines the best parts of existing memeplexes with the clarity and rigor of math and the richness of phenomenology, all wrapped in a story that tells humanity what we are, and what we’re here to do.


Andres also organized and wrote up Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be? – The idea of “Cause X” comes from Will MacAskill’s keynote at EAG2016. As Will phrased it,

It seems very unlikely if we’ve discovered all of the moral problems today. It seems very unlikely that we are the generation that figured it all out. Given this, what we should be thinking about is: What are the sorts of major moral problems that in several hundred years we’ll look back and think, “Wow, we were barbarians!”? What are the major issues that we haven’t even conceptualized today?

I will refer to this as Cause X.

I think you could argue that one of the most import aims of the effective altruism community is to discover this Cause X; to discover a cause that’s one of the most important moral problems of our time, but that we haven’t even clearly conceptualized yet. Cause X might be an idea that today seems laughable, but will seem obvious in the future just as ideas like animal welfare or existential risk were laughable 200 years ago. Or perhaps Cause X will be something that we are aware of today, but for bad reasons, we deprioritized.

Perhaps the most exciting or interesting way in which the EA community could have a huge positive impact on the world is if we can drive forward moral progress and figure out the problems, the Cause X, that we’re not even aware of today.

The two presentations tied for first place in our informal community vote were Natália Mendonça with “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (slides) and an anonymous presenter representing Enthea with “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. We’re currently discussing plans to host another contest along these lines at a larger venue.


Finally, I spent a good chunk of last month co-organizing Meditation and Science Jam 2019 in Koh Phangan, Thailand, along with a couple of amazing Russians, Ivanna Evtukhova and Anastasia Bawari. Here’s a video of the first hour of my talk, and myslides; another post on this to come soon.

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


QRI roundup – January

Slightly delayed round-up this month; a lot going on. Notable content releases:

Romeo wrote a fantastic piece on “Why do contemplative practitioners make so many metaphysical claims?” Here are the first and last paragraphs:

To paraphrase Culadasa: awakening is a set of special insights that lead to drastically reduced suffering. This seems straightforward enough, and might lead one to question, if this is the case, why the vast landscape of teachers and practitioners making what seem to be some fairly wild claims about reality? Even if it is the case that these claims are some combination of mistaken, pedagogical in intention, reframes of more mundane points using unfortunate language etc, it would still raise the concern that these practices are, de facto, making their practitioners less connected with reality and decent epistemic standards in their mental models and communication with others. What gives?

Everything gets easier if you understand this to be an investigation of the map and not the territory. Making claims about reality based on the fact that your cartographic tools have changed is silly. In polishing the lens of our perception we see that it has a lot more scratches than we thought. And notice that we introduce new scratches on a regular basis, including in our efforts to polish it. “Isn’t this also an example of belief?” the astute reader might ask. This is explained in the Pali Canon when the Buddha explains reaching the point that the 7 factors of enlightenment themselves are the last remaining things to be seen though. Dissolving your cartographic tools is the last thing you do on your way out.

Much more there.

Meanwhile, Andrés noted that geneticists are sort of dropping the ball on studying the genetic component of hedonic set-point (the idea that each person has a natural ‘range’ of mood) and suggests much more could be done:

Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.

In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligence; BGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).

Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*.  Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).

Andrés was also interviewed on The Simulation; lots of interesting topics covered:

[video]

Finally, QRI is co-organizing a private conference on the neuroscience of meditation on Koh Phangan, Thailand, Feb 7th-10th; pictures and possibly video to follow. If you happen to be in the area, do ping me (mike at qualiaresearchinstitute dot org) and I’ll see if I can get you in. For a taste of some of the speakers/content I’d recommend Anthony Markwell’s vipassana talks and my recent article on the Neuroscience of Meditation.

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


Recent QRI Highlights – December 2018

Three major pieces of content this month, two of them meditation-related-

Andrés lays out a detailed theory of phenomenological time in The Pseudo-Time Arrow: Explaining Phenomenal Time With Implicit Causal Structures In Networks Of Local Binding:

What is time? When people ask this question it is often hard to tell what they are talking about. … Is one talking about the experience of time? Or is one talking about the physical nature of time? What sort of answer would satisfy the listener? … Time distortion experiences deepen the mystery; the existence of exotic ways of experiencing time challenges the view that we perceive the passage of physical time directly. …

Modern physics has made enormous strides in pinning down what physical time is. As we will see, one can reduce time to causality networks, and causality to patterns of conditional statistical independence. Yet in the realm of experience the issue of time remains much more elusive.

In this article we provide a simple explanatory framework that accounts for both the experience of time and its relation to physical time. We then sketch out how this framework can be used to account for exotic experiences of time. We end with some thoughts pertaining the connection between the experience of time and valence (the pleasure-pain axis), which may explain why exotic experiences of the passage of time are frequently intensely emotional in nature.

Andrés’s core theme is that the same mathematical concept that physics has used to explain the passage of physical time, statistical conditional independence (a way to determine the ‘flow’ of causality by looking at which events influence which other events), can also be used to explain the experience of the passage of time. In support of this idea, the possible permutations of how networks could be arranged in this way map intuitively to various ‘exotic’ experiences of time (e.g., flow states & time dilation, time loops, ‘moments of eternity,’ etc). I believe this is a substantial contribution to the field of psychophysics.


I attended a seven-day vipassana meditation retreat last month, which provided the seed for The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models. An excerpt:

Neural annealing: Annealing involves heating a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure of the metal to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down, letting new patterns crystallize. This releases the internal stresses of the material, and is often used to restore ductility (plasticity and toughness) on metals that have been ‘cold-worked’ and have become very hard and brittle— in a sense, annealing is a ‘reset switch’ which allows metals to go back to a more pristine, natural state after being bent or stressed. I suspect this is a useful metaphor for brains, in that they can become hard and brittle over time with a build-up of internal stresses, and these stresses can be released by periodically entering high-energy states where a more natural neural microstructure can reemerge. … successfully entering meditative flow may be one of the most reliable ways to reach these high-energy brain states.

There’s much more there, including a formal definition of love.

Romeo describes “a few things I wish I had encountered or known to ask about early on” about meditation in Orientation on the Contemplative Path:

“4. Will meditation solve my problem with X? One of the major problems in the spiritual community is unsupported claims that this or that practice is a panacea. Most people understand that claims that breath work will solve cancer are bogus, but claims about solving depression, anxiety, OCD, etc have at least a modicum of believable anecdotes surrounding them. But meditation should be thought of in terms similar to CBT, it will give you some extra tools and perceptual clarity around negative patterns. It won’t magically eliminate the work you have to do to tinker with those patterns and implement better patterns. It does have a tendency to make that work feel less aversive. After a while you’ll notice a pattern where it’s the younger teachers claiming their system solves everything. Old teachers have been around long enough to see that it doesn’t. My guess for where this tendency towards exaggeration comes from is the neuroticism decrease. From the inside, a large enough decrease in neuroticism feels like it solves a lot of problems because there is a realization that your problems were made up of two parts: the actual problem, and your reaction to the problem. The bigger that latter part was in terms of sucking up your emotional energy and resources, the bigger a relief when it is alleviated.”

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


Recent QRI highlights – November 2018

Some things going on in and around QRI:

States of Consciousness as Points of View — One thing to consider is that the value of a service like Mechanical Turk comes in part from the range of “points of view” that the participants bring. After all, ensemble models that incorporate diverse types of modeling approaches and datasets usually dominate in real-world machine learning competitions (e.g. Kaggle). Analogously, for a number of applications, getting feedback from someone who thinks differently than everyone already consulted is much more valuable than consulting hundreds of people similar to those already queried. Human minds, insofar as they are prediction machines, can be used as diverse models. A wide range of points of view expands the perspectives used to draw inferences, and in many real-world conditions this will be beneficial for the accuracy of an aggregated prediction. So what would a radical approach to multiplying such “points of view” entail? Arguably a very efficient way of doing so would involve people who inhabit extraordinarily different states of consciousness outside the “typical everyday” mode of being.

  • Mike did an interview with Adam Ford on a fairly wide range of topics. An excerpt on the need for bold, testable theories (and institutions which can generate them):

I would agree with [Thomas] Bass that we’re swimming in neuroscience data, but it’s not magically turning into knowledge. There was a recent paper called “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” which asked if the standard suite of neuroscience methods could successfully reverse-engineer the 6502 microprocessor used in the Atari 2600 and NES. This should be easier than reverse-engineering a brain, since it’s a lot smaller and simpler, and since they were analyzing it in software they had all the data they could ever ask for, but it turned out that the methods they were using couldn’t cut it. Which really begs the question of whether these methods can make progress on reverse-engineering actual brains. As the paper puts it, neuroscience thinks it’s data-limited, but it’s actually theory-limited.

The first takeaway from this is that even in the age of “big data” we still need theories, not just data. We still need people trying to guess Nature’s structure and figuring out what data to even gather. Relatedly, I would say that in our age of “Big Science” relatively few people are willing or able to be sufficiently bold to tackle these big questions. Academic promotions & grants don’t particularly reward risk-taking.

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


Recent QRI highlights – October 2018

Some news and accomplishments from the last month:

  • Invited talk: I (Mike) gave a talk on “The Future of Neuroscience” in Moscow, Russia; the basic theme was a light introduction for non-specialists to some of the most interesting current threads in neuroscience. Slides (English) and video (English+Russian).

  • Podcast: The Waking Cosmos podcast interviewed Andrés about the nature (and future) of consciousness research; I was on the podcast earlier this summer.

  • David Pearce: QRI helped arrange and present some of philosopher David Pearce’s ideas when he was in San Francisco; video from his discussion at Foresight Institute, and slides from the talk.

  • Burning Man: Andrés’s post about this year’s experience at Burning Man is up. The title is suitably epic: Burning Man 2.0: The Eigen-Schelling Religion, Entrainment & Metronomes, and the Eternal Battle Between Consciousness and Replicators.

  • What’s going on with ‘Is vs Ought’? – Finally, QRI has been discussing the nature of the is-ought divide recently (thanks to Winslow for kicking off the debate):

    • Andres, from his post Thoughts on the ‘Is-Ought Problem’ from a Qualia Realist Point of View: “If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.”

    • Mike, internal discussion: “My expectation is that figuring out what exists and how to formalize it is prior to ethics. I.e. I’d strongly agree that most of ethics is at best somewhat confused, and I think the nature of this confusion is basically premature optimization around leaky folk ontologies. My hope and expectation is that a good treatment of ‘is’ will clarify the nature of ‘ought’, ideally in such a way that points to one universe-optimization heuristic that’s uniquely elegant.”

Romeo, internal discussion: “My take on [Robert Nozick’s]Invariances: the traditional view is that we have the is and we have the ought, and we must somehow build a bridge connecting them. This is wrong. We have no direct access to the is and no direct access to the ought. In reality we have only the bridge, one end of which feels ‘ought-like’ and one end which feels ‘is-like’. Are the two ends totally different? Nozick argues that the whole bridge is ruled by invariants. Things seem more fact-like when they are invariant in more frames. Universally invariant frames in things like time, space, and energy are our physical laws. A bit higher up we have concepts that seem fairly invariant too like modularity, extensibility, and invariance itself. At the ought end of the bridge you still have things that feel fact-like from the inside based on the same idea: more invariant in more frames and thus having higher ‘fixity’ in the information processing network. Instead of building up a physical world model this end of the bridge builds up our agentic/intentional model of the world for the purposes of coordinating our actions, where intent is something like: how can I bound my expectations on the variance of your behavior given that you have some goals and I can expect you to pursue those goals in structured ways?”

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director


Recent QRI highlights – September 2018

A brief work/links update:

  • A future for neuroscience is finally up; if you’ve found yourself wondering, “how does QRI even begin to connect what we can measure about the brain to what’s happening in the mind?” this writeup would be a good place to start.

  • Last week, my colleague Andrés was at Burning Man and gave a talk on “Consciousness vs Pure Replicators.” The video and his writeup of this year’s Burning Man should be available at some point, but in the meantime you can read his reflections on Burning Man from last year.

  • Seed Ontologies discusses some of the most impressive ideas we ran across at The Science of Consciousness 2018, and explores what a future ‘research ecosystem’ which connects these paradigms might look like.

  • Open Individualism and Antinatalism explores theories of identity and ethics, with a focus on David Benatar’s work. I’d sum up the core theme as ‘you can’t get ethics right if you don’t get personal identity right, and most ethical arguments right now assume a theory of identity (Closed Individualism) which breaks in illegible ways if we try to apply it in novel contexts.‘ I think this is important, and have a few comments of my own.

— Michael Edward Johnson, Executive Director