February 2019 - ?

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February 1. Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports? The article mentions three reasons. The first is selection bias, that triathlons are expensive. The second is that endurance sports provide something missing from most white collar jobs, "a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in." And the strange third reason is the pursuit of pain.

Back in 2017 I did a post that linked to this long post, The opponent-process theory of emotion. Everyone knows that pleasure often rebounds into pain, and vice versa; but sometimes the rebound is stronger than the initial feeling, so someone could feel more pleasure by actively seeking pain.

That's never worked for me. It's easy to assume that everyone's inner world is like your own, but they might be radically different. The other day there was a short Ask Reddit thread, What does anxiety feel like? The answers are all over the place, and the most interesting difference is that some people feel the wrongness inside them, and some people feel it out in the world.

For me anxiety feels like the world is made of needles and knives, all poised to stab me if I make a move to extend myself. And I've made some progress against anxiety by seeking pain: when I notice that something bothers me, I try to amplify that feeling as long and hard as I can. It feels terrible, and it doesn't feel good when I stop. The mechanism is not like a rebound, but like draining my pain battery, until the charge becomes weaker and less frightening.

It's actually a lot like this technique from the meditation subreddit, an extended metaphor of hunting baby thoughts. Edited:

To catch baby thoughts, first build a fortress -- normally your own breath, but it can be anything. Soon, the baby thoughts will start knocking on those walls, and the method to kill a baby thought is simple: notice it.

If you don't notice it early, the thought will get older and eventually die after several long minutes. During those minutes, you will be absorbed by that thought, and then another thought will wait for its turn, and another. This is what happens to people in their everyday life: the birth, growth and death of long strings of thoughts.

During meditation, you shorten this cycle and hunt the thoughts as young as possible. After many hours of hunting, as you get better at killing them, they will come more sparsely, until you will find yourself alone, in peace and silence.

February 4. Last week Leigh Ann and I watched the new Netflix Ted Bundy documentary. One thing that struck me was how he talked about his youth. In reality, he was a mediocre student and athlete, a social failure, and was probably beaten by his grandfather. But the story he told was not only false -- it was empty, a bland mask of the all-American boy.

The week before that I read a new novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green. (Thanks Alex for recommending it.) What I like about it is its detailed view of how fame works in the age of social media. It's terrifying! Suddenly your name and face are at the center of a battle, where everyone is busy trying to shape your image for their own motives.

The motive of the public, and anyone who can make money off you, is to make your image simple and bold and familiar, something both exciting and easy to understand. The more you play along with that, the more you're rewarded.

For example, there was just a scandal at Der Spiegel. It turns out the prestigious magazine's star reporter has been making stuff up for years. In the words of the reporter who caught him:

One thing you can learn from reading pieces by Claas Relotius, is that this is an easy world. It's easy to explain. It's easy to understand. And this is what Relotius really offers.

I'm thinking of all of this in terms of social ecology. Modern media have created a niche, which is filled by people who are most willing to build their public image backward from the bullshit the public wants, instead of forward from the reality inside them. So it favors people who don't have much reality inside them in the first place.

It's funny because we all wonder what that celebrity is really like, and not what that random person on the bus is really like. But the person on the bus is probably more interesting.

February 6. Still thinking about religion, and I've decided that religion is not a thing -- it's a confusing word, which points to several different things, which sometimes go together but don't have to. These include: 1) a community for doing any of the below; 2) an idea, that you refuse to doubt, and that serves as a foundation or anchor for your mental models; 3) a set of rituals, where a ritual is a highly predictable activity that turns physical energy into mental energy; and 4) an existential theory of mind. I got that last one from this article posted to the subreddit.

The idea is, when you talk to other people, you need to know how they tick, what it's like to be this person, what they want from you, what you should expect each other to do. That's a human theory of mind, and you might have a different theory of mind for dealing with nonhumans, like your dog, or your phone, or the government. An existential theory of mind is about reality itself.

In olden days, the dominant EToM was a bearded man in the sky pulling strings. You would look at things out of your control, and speculate about what God wants. Somewhere in the 1990's, I started to notice a shift, where people still do this, but instead of saying God, they say "the universe". This is full-on pantheism, and I think pantheism is now the dominant EToM of educated people who are not materialists.

Materialism is an existential theory of mindlessness -- not just wondering, but being certain that there is no mind or meaning beyond what humans create. Rene Descartes, the father of materialism, actually believed that if you torture a dog, its howls of pain are no different from a bell ringing on a machine. The funny thing is, Descartes did believe in God. But he separated God from the world in such a way that God could be easily cut out of the equation.

I think materialism is a useful tool for switching from one EToM to another, like a transmission for the engine of meaning. Whatever you thought was important, is now just bouncing particles and waves, and you're free to decide that something else is important. But you can't keep driving in neutral. The Wikipedia page on nihilism is a good survey of all the ways people have continued to look for meaning after giving up on meaning.

Suddenly I understand the religion of progress -- I'm comfortable in calling progress a religion because it fits all four of my points above. The community is the whole modern economy. The undoubted idea is there is no value, meaning, or motive beyond what is created by human activity. The ritual is that your alarm goes off, you go to a job to make money, and what makes a job important is how much stuff it moves, from the empty realm outside humanity, into the realm of human-defined value. For example, turning a forest into board-feet of lumber, or a river into megawatts of hydropower.

But now progress is dying in the face of ecology. If a dog can feel pain, maybe forests and rivers have intrinsic value, which humans have been destroying. With climate catastrophe looming, even human value is now served by undoing the progress of the past.

That's why the Pope of Progress, Elon Musk, wants to colonize Mars -- because re-terraforming Earth means undoing what humans have done, while terraforming Mars means humans doing more things. Green Mars is more valuable than green Earth, because green Earth happened without us, and green Mars will be something we did.

The other way progress is dying, is that more of us are feeling drained, not energized, by its rituals. That's a whole other subject.

February 8. 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.

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 13-15. 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 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. I think it 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.

A better metaphor is to see human society as 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. Postman defines technopoly 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 measurable 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 these 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.

We think we're lazy, but this article argues that laziness does not exist. "If a person's behavior doesn't make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context." 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.

Related, from a year ago, a great Hacker News comment about depression:

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.

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 a good 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 20. Last month I was test-listening to my soft hits of the seventies playlist, 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.

I know I've said this before, but I can't find it, so I'll say it again: In the future, everyone will be famous among fifteen people.