"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
March 13. Moving from the outer world to the inner world, Against Willpower. The idea is that willpower is a pre-scientific concept, a social invention, that doesn't match what's really going on. But for me, it seems to match pretty closely. I don't feel like going to the gym, or taking the garbage out, or brushing my teeth, but I force myself to do that stuff because I know it's good for me; and if I force myself to do too much stuff that I don't feel like doing, I get burned out.
But when I take a second look at the article, it's completely about negative self-control, blocking yourself from doing stuff you think is bad for you, and not at all about positive self-control, forcing yourself to do stuff you think is good for you. The latter is usually framed as "procrastination", which is stupid. The problem is that there's all this shit we don't feel like doing, and to frame that problem as putting off doing that stuff, is like framing a knee injury as walking with a limp.
Anyway, one useful concept in the article is "intrapersonal bargaining". I would explain it like this: instead of "me" forcing "myself" to do or not do something, there are different voices inside me, with their own personalities and motives, and they need to have conversations and reach consensus about what to do. It's funny, because the phrase "inner peace" is such a cliche that we don't bother to unpack the words, but that's exactly what the words describe: the voices inside us working together instead of fighting. Maybe in some future enlightened age, they'll look back at our concept of "self-control" as a weird symptom of an authoritarian culture.
March 11. Two links from the subreddit. Is a Harvard MBA Bad for You? It's becoming more obvious that, not only do people with MBA's make the world generally worse, they're also unhappy. The article blames a deeper cultural shift "towards valuing profits and markets." I think it's something even deeper, but I can't put my finger on it. What have we lost, that we're so receptive to the idea that money is a good measure of value?
And this video, Thief vs AAA gaming, compares a great 1998 PC game with its lame 2014 remake. It's funny because the new game is bad in the same way that our whole society is bad. Instead of being immersed in a story with an unfolding mystery, in which we enjoy the process of growing our understanding, we're just given a bunch of quest markers for a tedious grind.
In my last post I wrote: "The real reason society is going to collapse, is when enough of us sense that we'll be happier living in a much simpler society." But "simpler" isn't the right word. Leigh Ann and I have been playing a really complex board game called Spirit Island. It's much better than a simple board game like Risk.
If a game designer looked at our world, they would see that it's highly complex in a way that's not at all fun. We don't actually want to live in a simple world -- we want to live in a well-designed complex world. But the best path from one complex world to another, is through simplicity, by stripping it down and building something different.
March 7. I don't wanna do my video game chores. It's about Red Dead Redemption 2, a new game that's highly rated for its scale and graphics, but a lot of people think it's boring.
I'll probably never play RDR2, but after I thought I was getting bored with all entertainment, Fallout 3 went on sale for $10 at GOG.com, so I started playing, and I love it! Like RDR2, it's a gritty open-world game with lots of quests and weapons. Here's a long video, Fallout 3 Is Better Than You Think.
When you look at discussions about which game in a series is better, like Fallout 3 vs 4 vs New Vegas, or Elder Scrolls Morrowind vs Oblivion vs Skyrim, everyone knows the newer games will have higher resolution graphics, but ultimately nobody cares, because whatever level of graphics the games have, players will get used to it. Instead people talk about things that are harder to quantify, like the feel of the game.
Strangely related: Why So Many Smart People Aren't Happy. The interviewee argues that people are seeking mastery, but they don't know how to measure it, so they fall into measuring it through quantifiable comparisons to other people, like salary, or awards. But those are also the kinds of things where whatever level you're at, you get used to it and aren't any happier than someone at another level. So instead, we should measure success by how much we enjoy what we're doing, and try not to look at the outcome.
You know, that's easy to say if you're already a relatively successful person, who fits well with the dominant culture, and can pick from a broad menu of jobs. I've known basically what kind of life would make me happy since I was 16 and wanted to run off and be a hermit in the mountains of Idaho. The real reason society is going to collapse, is when enough of us sense that we'll be happier living in a much simpler society, even if it's less comfortable.
March 4. Major Games Publishers Are Feeling The Impact Of Peaking Attention. "Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them." The article is focused on the video game industry, but I see this as much bigger. Human attention is the world's most valuable resource, but it's not like oil, where the fields are drying up forever. It's more like farmland, and there's no more room to make new fields. Also, existing fields are getting depleted, as people burn out from all the low-quality demands on their attention. (Related: Let's Destroy Robocalls)
So what's a high-quality demand on your attention? That's for each of us to decide, and it changes with experience. If I had seen today's video games in 1980, I would have thought they could entertain me forever, and now it's hard for me to find anything I even want to play. A week ago I finally quit Ask Reddit, because what I can learn from that crowd, and what they can learn from me, are both approaching zero. About the same time, I wrote this in an email: "I've been meditating a lot more lately, for a strange reason, that I'm getting bored with almost anything else I could do. It's like the mind is a prison, and when you lose interest in all the stuff at the center of the prison, you start looking at the walls."
I see two kinds of walls, one between conscious and subconscious, and one between head and body. I think that's why the basic meditation technique is to focus on your breath, because your breath straddles both boundaries. Related, a long article from Aeon about conscious breathing.
Also, Seven Practical Facts about the Human Brain, including that 80% of signals go from your body to your brain, and only 20% from brain to body.
And an article about intuitive eating, which basically means getting better at sensing what your body needs to eat, instead of trying to force diets on it from your head.
February 27. I've just been in a minor car crash. I was going down an icy curve in a snowstorm, at the same cautious speed as all the other cars that were making the curve, and I had studded tires, but for some reason my car spun and nosed into the snowbank, and the truck behind couldn't brake in time and crumpled my back end. The car barely still drives, and now I'll have to figure out insurance and repairs, and maybe we'll have to buy another car. I also have a mild concussion, so I'll probably be posting less for a while, and answering fewer emails.
This is my second concussion in three years. In spring of 2016 (also losing control on a left turn) I faceplanted on a motorcycle. Now I'm wondering about the differences between a front-brain and back-brain concussion. There's been very little research on this. Two of the functions of the frontal cortex, which I seem to have been worse at since 2016, are coordination and motivation. The back of the brain does mostly visual processing.
February 25. Three links about work, money, and the future. An Office Designed for Workers With Autism. I've got a crazy idea, and surely I'm not the first person to say this, but I haven't read it anywhere. Julian Jaynes thought that 3000 years ago, by modern standards, everyone was schizophrenic. Maybe in a few hundred years, almost everyone will be autistic. Of course, by then, "autistic" or "on the spectrum" won't be one category. It will be seen as a bunch of different ways of being normal, and today's "neurotypicals" will be seen as throwbacks.
The Religion of Workism Is Making Americans Miserable. I like the article's tidy definition of a religion: something "promising identity, transcendence, and community." Another key sentence: "In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings -- from necessity to status to meaning."
But the most important point, which the article strangely misses, is that when we talk about "work", we're talking about money. If you just go through the article, and substitute every instance of the word "work" with the words "stuff we do for money," the whole issue becomes a lot more clear. It's not that we're trying to merge activity with meaning -- that's normal for all biological life. The problem is that Americans are trying to merge paid activity with meaning, because they can't let go of money as a measure of transcendent value. That's not "religion" under some weird definition -- it's straight-up Calvinism.
Money is the opposite of love, because if you get money for doing something, you don't care if you don't love it, and if you love doing something, you don't care if you don't get money for it. The attempt to merge money and love is an insane delusion of late-stage capitalism. When we give up on that delusion, the right way to live is obvious: find a way to make just enough money, with as little time and energy as possible. Then, do exactly what you love to do, with no expectation of making money from it.
The Philosopher Redefining Equality. I would say it like this: We think that freedom and equality are opposites, because our authoritarian culture defines freedom as the freedom of the powerful to have their way with the weak. So "economic freedom" is the freedom of whoever has money, to leverage it into more money, at the expense of whoever doesn't have money.
But suppose we defined economic freedom from the perspective of people who don't have money. Then it becomes the freedom to have a good life, to do what you love, to participate in society, despite not having money. So if we want to fix social inequality, the best move is not to redistribute money, but to redesign society so that money is not that important. That's why I don't like the unconditional basic income. I mean, it would be an improvement, but it's better to just make more stuff free. Eventually, money could be like casino chips, or like credits in some multiplayer video game. If you have it, you can do some cool stuff in popular sub-worlds, but it's a realistic option to never have it.
There's an old debate: Is money the root of all evil, or is love of money the root of all evil? I think that money alone is a major root of evil, as long as it gives us the power to make other people do stuff they would prefer not to do. When money stops having that power, it's no longer evil, and we no longer love it.
February 22. Going back to the subject of intelligence, our culture tells us that intelligence is a thing, and IQ measures it. I disagree with both points. IQ is a test score, and the word "intelligence" points to a lot of different things. Even if we ignore Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and focus on stuff that's completely inside the head, there are still a lot of things going on.
For example, there's narrow focus, wide focus, and the ability to switch between them. There's the ability to find patterns in apparent noise, and the ability to look outside those patterns. There's the ability to lay down habits, to perform habits smoothly, and to take habits apart. There's creativity, whatever that even means. There's intuition, whatever that means, and the ability to shift between intuitive and rational thinking. There's "rabbitholing", the ability to chase thoughts from one subject to another, and then the ability to remember where you've been and backtrack. There's the ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, and to stay sane when ideas get weird.
How many of these are even being tested for? The guy who invented the sewing machine had a dream where the hole was at the tip of the needle. How can they test for that? Suppose you can see a different interpretation of a test question, something that didn't occur to the test makers, and it leads you away from what they think is the right answer. Then you're going to get a lower score for having a higher intelligence. That isn't just a feature of IQ tests, but of all possible tests.
A week ago I mentioned how IQ tests are always timed. What if they weren't? What if you could take as long as you wanted, with no effect on your score? Then IQ tests would start to measure patience, persistence, and the desire for perfection, all arguably measures of intelligence, that are measured badly or not at all in a timed test. Or you could turn it around and ask: what kind of culture would test intelligence without a time limit? A culture that's not in a hurry.
Industrial culture is not only in a hurry, it's also heavy with grindwork. As physical grindwork gets taken over by machines, there is more mental grindwork. That's probably why mentally skilled people are having a crisis of meaning, because of all the things their brains could be doing, they're mostly serving as mental warehouse workers, stacking and unstacking boxes all day. What if we want to dance with the boxes, or break them?
February 20. More than a year ago, a reader donated a promo code for three months of Spotify premium (thanks Josh), and last weekend I finally got around to making an account and posting some playlists. Here's my user page. I don't plan to use it for listening, because I prefer to keep mp3's on my own machine and use VLC. One thing I do all the time on my computer, that Spotify can't do, is configure the columns, for example to show song length and not album name. Also some of the best musicians, probably for good reasons, keep their music off Spotify. My newest playlist is duel between Big Blood and Camper Van Beethoven -- and Spotify is missing 14 of the 19 songs! (If you're curious, there are YouTube links on my favorite songs page.)
Spotify has all but one of the songs on my soft hits of the seventies playlist. I started that project back in summer of 2017, and it was a lot of fun. Using these two resources, the Hot 100 Singles Chronology and the Weekly Top 40, I went through thousands of titles, whittled it down under a hundred, and started listening. Eventually I got it down to 27 songs in order of when they peaked on the charts. One thing I discovered is that music from 1970 still sounds like the sixties, and 1980 still sounds like the seventies. I don't think the eighties really arrived until MTV launched in the summer of 1981.
Anyway, I was playtesting that list, and I switched over to Sleep's Dopesmoker, and started wondering about music recommendation engines. Imagine your favorite songs that are farthest apart, and what it would take for an AI to connect them. Right now I think music recommendation uses the same idea that Google used to take over the internet: the computer doesn't even try to understand what you're looking for, but just looks at other people who were looking for the same thing.
Here's my crazy startup idea. Shazam already has code for listening really closely to the actual music. What if you could put that code through some kind of learning loop, where it learned to correlate sounds with personal preferences? How good could it get?
I do see an absolute limit in music recommendation, in that sometimes our favorite songs are situational -- whatever happened to be playing at some important time in our lives. But then, when I was making my seventies list, there were some songs with big nostalgia value, like Robbie Dupree's "Steal Away", that now sound totally lame, and some songs I don't even remember, like Steve Forbert's "Romeo's Tune", that now sound brilliant. When I listen to my favorite songs across genres, they have a raw and epic quality that a well-trained AI should be able to pick up on.
Recommendation engines stretch the long tail of culture. The better they work, the more unpopular something can be, and you can still find it. Imagine if AI recommendation gets so good, that you can plug in your favorite stuff, not just music but illustration, prose, dance, design -- and it can find some unknown person on the other side of the world who's doing exactly what you love. And if you've created something good, it can find you a tiny and far-flung audience.
In the future, everyone will be famous among fifteen people.
February 18. I'm not smart enough to do a real post today, so here are some stray links, starting with three about substances.
Is Sunscreen the New Margarine? It always seemed too good to be true: that a magic lotion can block the bad stuff in sunlight and let the good stuff through. Now the evidence is building that we need raw sunlight to be healthy, but the trick is knowing how much. A weird finding: while people who get a ton of sunlight do get more skin cancer, it's mostly benign, and deadly melanoma is more common among people who don't get enough sunlight.
A scientific article, Consumption of a dark roast coffee blend reduces DNA damage in humans.
And an explanation of the orange juice industry. Only at this time of year is "not from concentrate" real orange juice. The rest of the year, they store the unconcentrated juice in a way that strips the flavor from it, so they have to add flavor back; and they're not even trying to restore the flavor that was lost, but to give consumers whatever they think orange juice should taste like.
And three Reddit threads. Why learning how to draw is a near-perfect analogy for mindfulness meditation, because you're practicing seeing with your eyes and not with your mental expectations.
What is your favorite "holy crap this actually works" trick?
Those who have taken LSD, what can you share with people who have never done it? My advice is, if you want to watch TV or listen to music on drugs, use cannabis; if you've taken LSD, go outside.
February 15. I want to continue bashing IQ, and I have a better metaphor than people who are good at bureaucracy making the rules harder. It's more like human society is a giant board game. Have you ever played a board game, and there was that one guy who was both really good and totally ruthless, so he almost always won, and nobody wanted to play with him? Well, those guys have been winning for thousands of years now, and every time they win, they change the rules to make the game fit their skill-set even better, so they can win even bigger, and the game keeps getting worse for everyone else. But we're all still forced to play.
A short piece from 2011, Neil Postman, Technopoly, and Technological Theology. It's a review of Postman's book Technopoly, a word he defines as "the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology." He lists the beliefs of technological theology, and one of them is: What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value.
The defenders of progress will point out the many ways the world is getting better, like longer lifespan, and more "wealth", defined as more units of money passing through more people's hands. But there's a trade-off, in which easily measurable gains come with losses that are hard to measure. That's why we're all unhappy, and our culture doesn't give us the mental tools to understand why, so we think it's our fault.
For example, just posted to the subreddit, a long article about millennial burnout, which links to this more interesting article, an argument that laziness does not exist. I would say, laziness is an invention of a society that has gone astray from human nature, to morally shame us for its own dependence on tasks that people don't enjoy doing.
Two days ago there was a massively upvoted reddit comment about the hospital fantasy: that you'll get injured, just seriously enough that you can spend a few weeks in a hospital bed with no obligations and people taking care of you. I have that fantasy and I don't even have a job. I would suggest that anyone who doesn't have the hospital fantasy is a member of the motivational elite: the lucky individuals who fill the shrinking number of niches, in the social ecology, where your responsibilities perfectly fit your nature.
I actually do well on IQ tests. A few years ago I took an unofficial online test where I got every answer right. But my score was still not that high, because I was penalized for taking too long. IQ tests are always timed, they have to be, because IQ is not a measure of intelligence -- it's a measure of fit with the technopoly, and another of Postman's rules is: The primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency.
In an adequate society, the primary goal is subjective quality of life. I don't know how we're going to get there from here, or how long it will take. But I do know that, from the perspective of the theology of progress, the world will be worse than it is now. Maybe eventually we'll all be happy and not know why.
February 13. I want to pick up from a week ago, where I wrote, "The other way progress is dying, is that more of us are feeling drained, not energized, by its rituals."
Are Intellectuals Suffering a Crisis of Meaning? The article is full of a word I don't like: gifted. In practice, that word is bestowed on young people who are good at manipulating abstractions. Out of all the things you can be good at, that very specific skill is held up like a magic token that makes a person objectively superior.
Some people think the world would be better if we all had higher IQ's (and don't start with me about how that's impossible under the strict definition of IQ). I think the world would be worse. People who are good at manipulating abstractions are not wiser or more correct -- they're just better at building intellectual fortresses around the things they're wrong about. If everyone were as smart as Einstein, we would just make bigger and more tragic technological mistakes.
I think that's sort of already happened. Here's a 2007 article by Malcolm Gladwell on the Flynn effect, in which we're all getting better at taking IQ tests. He thinks this is caused by an increase in a detached and abstract style of thinking. I always say that the prophet of our time was not Orwell or Huxley, but Kafka. It's like the people who are better at filling out nightmarish bureaucratic forms, keep making the forms harder, to give themselves a competitive advantage, and now we're all stuck in that world.
More links on 21st century malaise: Let Children Get Bored Again. Kids used to be left to entertain themselves, and now adults think it's their duty to keep kids constantly stimulated. So they grow into adults who need constant stimulation -- which is no longer provided by benevolent parents and teachers, but by exploitative technologies and workplaces.
Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America's Rising Suicide Rate. The article argues that the difference between people who attempt suicide, and people who don't, is that the non-suicidal people are better at blocking the impulse to kill themselves. That means, everyone wants to die!
If You're Often Angry Or Irritable, You May Be Depressed. Strangely, anger is an official symptom of depression for kids, but not for adults, so a lot of them go years without the right diagnosis.
I followed the Hacker News comment thread on that article to this great comment from a year ago, which argues that depression is a breakdown in our predictive model of reality:
When an individual's model of reality is broken, and society cannot guide them towards a more accurate one because society itself is still operating on the model that individual has determined to be flawed, then chronic depression is a likely result. Our current societal philosophy, the one our health care system is also based on, sees this individual's suffering not as a transition period in which they form a new model, but a severe disorder. To them, the rejection of the model is a form of insanity, and unclear thinking. This is why you sometimes see people tell a depressed person an obvious platitude in an attempt to cheer them up, only for it to further frustrate the depressed individual: they are aware that the platitude is part of a flawed model.
February 11. A few days back the subreddit had a post about religion with several long comments. The main post mentions Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, with a link to this great post about it, Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind.
I don't think I've ever written about Jaynes. I'm sure that ancient people had different consciousness than modern people, but Jaynes thought it was really different: that they were basically all schizophrenic, hearing voices and seeing visions, which they interpreted as gods. Then around the time of Socrates, those voices faded.
Another good explanation, Mr. Jaynes' Wild Ride. It mentions that ancient Greeks had no word for "body". They didn't need one, because they had not yet formed an identity separate from their bodies.
Some people say the distinction between mind and body is an illusion. I think the disembodied mind is a real thing, a living pattern in our brains, which models an external world and a discrete self. You can't make it go away just by disbelieving it. But with good drugs, or really difficult meditation, you can temporarily shut it down, and become one with your stream of experience.
My guess is that prehistoric people weren't schizophrenic, but tripping. And then gradually, our detached, rational, self-reflective mind became more and more dominant, until educated westerners lost the ability to imagine any other way of being.
I think we're already recovering. That's why it seems strange to us that Julian Jaynes used the word "consciousness" for self-conscious introspection, and not the broader way that we use it now. Now we're curious about the subjective experience of wild animals, and we're learning to see the human subconscious, not as a pit of primal terror, but as a helpful resource.
This is a hard subject, so I'll leave it with a hard question. Is the "unconscious" conscious? What is it like to be the voice in your head?
February 8. For the weekend, some happy links.
How Early Humans Handled Aggression. I read somewhere how miraculous it is, that you can pack an airplane with hundreds of humans who don't know each other, and there will be no violence at all. If you did that with chimps, they would tear each other apart. This article argues that we became so peaceful through prehistoric eugenics! Our male ancestors teamed up to ambush the most violent males, and our female ancestors refused to mate with them. I think that was the right idea -- but now that we have biotech, I expect that kind of thing to go too far. By the way, I think it's crazy that there are libertarians who like eugenics. Who doesn't trust the government to redistribute wealth and power, but does trust the government to say who can have kids? Rich white guys, that's who.
The World Might Actually Run Out of People. I remember this poster from the 1970's, when we thought overpopulation was the biggest problem facing humanity. It turns out, humans don't just mindlessly reproduce. When we have access to birth control, when society takes care of old people, and when women are educated, we have the opposite problem: birthrates are too low to replace ourselves. According to this article, global population decline will happen sooner than we thought, because now even women in the slums of India have smartphones, and with that expanded perspective, they're pushing back against being baby machines for men.
I think this bit is wrong: "Once that decline begins, it will never end." If it looks like humans are going to die out, society will create stronger incentives to have kids -- or just start growing them in vats and raising them without parents. But before that can happen, the population decline will force us to abandon growth-based economics, and that's such a radical change that all bets are off.
Arborists are bringing the dinosaur of trees back to life, planting groves of redwoods all over the world.
Pigeon Towers: A Low-tech Alternative to Synthetic Fertilizers. Not only do they gather pigeon poop to fertilize fields, they can also look really cool.
Ferrock: A Stronger, Greener Alternative to Concrete? It's made from steel dust and ground up glass, and it's carbon-negative, but it's not cheap.
Solar Farms Shine a Ray of Hope on Bees and Butterflies, by letting wildflowers grow in the spaces between the panels.