"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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July 1. So I've been watching the women's World Cup, and this year they're using VAR for the first time. It stands for video assistant referee, and almost everyone hates it. In theory it makes sure the calls on the field are right, but in practice, it breaks the flow the game, and it allows results to be influenced by things so insignificant that only the machine can see them.
Now goals can be won by drawing the slightest brush of a cleat in the box, or lost by being half an inch offside. The most dramatic defensive play in the game, the saved penalty kick, is now even more rare because the VAR can see the goalkeeper taking her foot off the line a tenth of a second early.
My position is, the rules must serve the game, not the other way around; and the purpose of the game is to be fun for players and audiences. That fun is being lost, because rules that were designed for soft human enforcement are being interpreted by hard machines.
Of course this goes way beyond sports, into our high-tech surveillance society. With machines always watching us, we have to spend a lot of mental energy conforming to rules that were not intended for such strict enforcement, everything from red light cameras to speech codes.
Another rule change in world football, is what the refs look at when there's a handball in the box. They used to consider the player's intention, but now they've been instructed to ignore intention, and only rule on whether one physical object has impacted another. It's like we worship machines so much that we are turning ourselves into machines, devaluing any skill that humans have and machines don't.
Imagine trying to manage a business, or get along with your friends, without ever considering intention. But that seems to be where we're headed. The Supreme Court used to consider the intentions of the authors of laws, but at some point they started to look only at the text. At about the same time, the same thing happened in literary criticism.
I think these trends are part of a larger social trend of disconnection, atomization, stripping away of context. I'm not sure what's behind that trend, but it has to be cyclical, and I'm looking forward to the counter-trend, adding context back.
June 29. Quick note on music. A couple weeks ago I said that Miles Davis's Get Up With It was my new favorite jazz album. Then I started looking into other stuff he did around the same time, and now I'm obsessed with his 1972 album On The Corner. When it came out, the jazz establishment hated it. And if you want to split hairs, you could argue that it's not jazz but psychedelic funk. But to my ear, it's whole evolutionary level beyond Davis's supposed masterpiece, Bitches Brew. The funny thing is, critics at the time thought it was empty of content. But when you understand it, you can hear so many things going on, that it's hard to not be bored by other music.
June 26. Today, some negative links. The Boomers Ruined Everything. The article goes through it issue by issue explaining how they ruined everything, but I'm wondering, why? It's not like one generation, in one country, happened to be born bad people. I think this is a simple case of power corrupting. The most wealthy and powerful generation, in the most wealthy and powerful country, influenced the law to favor the powerful over the weak. Of course they did.
5G Networks Could Throw Weather Forecasting Into Chaos, because 5G uses a frequency that's basically the same as water vapor. Now we won't be able to see hurricanes through the fog of our tweets and memes. More generally, technology continues to turn humanity's attention in the wrong directions.
Long article from the Guardian, How the news took over reality. I would frame this in terms of pseudo-democracy. Everyone wants to make the world better, but the way the news is presented to us, it focuses our attention on giant issues where we have no influence, and it focuses our actions into high-tech shouting into the wind. I'm doing that right now, unless I can convince someone to stop following the news and instead try to make their own tiny world better.
A week ago this video was submitted to the subreddit, What are societies of control? It's dry and brainy, I just skipped through it, but I did notice the conclusion, a quote from Gilles Deleuze, that we need to "look for new weapons." Years ago when I started this blog, my attitude was that society is bad, and we need to go out and fight it. Now I see that strategy as a luxury for people who have actual power, or think they do. Now my attitude is, I'm going to make my own life as good as I can, and if the system doesn't like it, it can come and try to stop me; and I can keep looking, not for new weapons, but for new openings.
June 24. Finishing from last week, 2handband has some thoughts on the subreddit about the culture of metal.
And moving on, some links about how to make the world better. A New Way of Voting That Makes Zealotry Expensive. Instead of one vote per candidate or issue, you get a bunch of voting points to spend, and it costs more to focus them narrowly than to spread them widely.
The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre. Kids actually feel motivated help around the house at around 18 months, but normal American parents snuff that urge until the kids don't feel like doing anything, and then pay them for chores, to prepare them for a sad and exhausting life of extrinsic motivation.
Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids. Getting intentionally bitten by a snake is crude, but I'm wondering how much room there is to make drugs that work the opposite of existing recreational drugs: they make you feel bad for a short time, and then good for a long time.
Finally, Swedish Couple Builds Greenhouse Around Home to Stay Warm and Grow Food All Year Long. This comes from the return to now blog, which has lots of good stuff.
June 21. Continuing on the psychology of music, a reader comments:
I lived through certain situations with certain people in a certain mental/spiritual state that helped me understand and feel - in a visceral level - what metal is about.
I don't think I've ever been able to appreciate music on a visceral level. When I love music that other people don't understand, it's on some kind of non-rational brain level. I feel it in my head, but I still can't explain it.
This leads me into a whole other subject: multiple subconsciouses. We talk about "the subconscious" as if it's one thing. But we also say both "listen to your gut" and "listen to your heart", so already we're talking about at least two sources of insight or perception, other than conscious rational calculation. And inside the head there are even more subconsciouses, like where dreams come from, or the voices that schizophrenics hear, or how I can look at a pot of soup and know whether it will fit in a jar, or what athletes are talking about when they say they perform better when they get their head out of the way.
I mean, those could be all the same thing, but I find it more helpful to imagine a jungle of mind, in which the abstract-thinking brain is only a single animal.
That's all I've got for now on that subject, so back to music. Today is the summer solstice, and here's a twelve minute anthem from 2013: The Rutabega - Turn On The Summer. And looking ahead, I forget where I found this luminous teen ballad, and the internet doesn't even know what year it was recorded, maybe 1970: Dennis Harte - Summer's Over.
June 18. A reader sends a fun little article, Heavy metal fans are happier, more well-adjusted adults than others. It's an interview with a psychology professor and former metalhead, who did the study, and they looked hard for other explanations: "We had an 85 page questionnaire, we tried to figure out every single thing we could, and the only thing that differed was the type of music they liked."
I've also seen reddit threads about which concert goers are the best and worst, and reports of the worst go all the way from hip hop to Dave Matthews -- but everyone agrees that metal fans are the best.
The interviewee speculates that metalheads have formed a tribe that's better for them than their families or society. But fans of other music form tribes too, so we're still left with a strange correlation between sound and emotional profile.
I'd like to see a study where they take depressed people who don't listen to metal, and they listen to a bunch and see if it makes them happier. I wouldn't expect that to work with anyone who doesn't enjoy listening to metal. But it leads to a deeper question: what is it, inside us, that makes us like one kind of music and not another?
You can go beyond music, to subcultures of people who dress a certain way, or talk a certain way, or think or believe or observe a certain way. Our tribe membership is rarely rationally chosen. Either we're just following our parents, or it just feels right to us, as if we were already part of it before we knew it existed.
I imagine vast amoebic life forms, like gods, rising out of deep mind-space and taking form in human culture. And I wonder, when Tony Iommi invented heavy metal, or Tolkien invented modern fantasy, did they feel like they were making it up out of nothing -- or like they were finding something that was already there?
June 14. A few more loose ends on confidence. Here's another good definition from a reader: "I feel like confidence is being totally in the flow with one's personal power." The only time I feel like that is when I'm writing. I'm not sure I've ever been in a social flow state.
Of all the things the word confidence can point to, I have identified one of them with enough precision to work on it: I could use more micro-scale decisiveness.
Another reader says "it's worthwhile distinguishing between confidence and self-respect/esteem/regard." I remember when self-esteem was all the rage. Now I almost never hear about it. Trying to put my finger on the difference, self-esteem seems to be more about being, while confidence is more about doing.
And some music for the weekend. My new favorite jazz album (on weed) is Miles Davis's two hour Get Up With It. This review argues that it was influenced by a cocaine-fueled car crash, and the track recorded soonest after the crash was Billy Preston, twelve minutes of very psychedelic funk.
I haven't heard anything really great yet from 2019, but here's a cool little song that's available only on Spotify, The Walking Riots - WWW.
June 12. As expected, I got some good feeback on the subject of confidence. Matt mentions that the etymology of confidence means "with trust", and on the subreddit, Naringas suggests the definition "self-trust". I like that, because the slipperiness of the "self" gives the definition flexibility. You could have (or lack) trust in your perception, your decision making, your resilience, your sanity, even your luck.
Also from the subreddit, Class and Confidence. I was thinking something similar: when you or I have confidence without skill, we don't get away with it for long, but rich people do.
That post is mostly about getting hired for jobs: "Coming from a posh family emboldens many people to think they can do jobs even if they lack requisite qualifications." But now I'm thinking about the trend of bullshit jobs. As more jobs are not based on doing anything useful, there is less reason for confidence to be based on skill.
Imagine a future dystopia, where everything useful is done by machines, and success is completely a function of social skills. But then, what we're calling confidence is a skill, the skill of getting other people to believe in you. Confidence is just not the best word for it. A better word would be charisma, or bravado.
June 10. This week I want to take on the idea of confidence. I've been watching Gordon Ramsay cooking shows, and the way they talk about confidence, you'd think it's more important than actual skill. To prove it's not, imagine that you're picking a doctor to perform surgery on you, and you can get an honest answer to one question. Do you ask "How confident are you?" Or "How good are you?"
The popular idea of confidence makes two assumptions: 1) that the word "confidence" points to a simple thing that we all understand, and 2) that that thing is strongly correlated with success. I disagree with both.
Taking the second first, there are lots of examples of confidence being negatively correlated with success. For example, People With Greater Intellectual Humility Have Superior General Knowledge.
When I look back over my own life, whenever I was confident and not skilled, I might have gained some temporary advantage, but eventually I always crashed and burned. And when I was skilled but not confident... actually that's never happened. When I'm really good at something, I'm automatically confident.
So now I'm wondering why other people value confidence so highly. I see two possibilities. The first is that they're wrong, and confidence is bullshit for them too and they haven't noticed. I have a crazy theory that confidence is what philosophers call epiphenomenal. It seems to be a cause, but really it's entirely an effect. Confidence is just what it feels like to be in the process of succeeding.
The second possibility is that I'm missing something, which has led me to do some heavy thinking about the definition of confidence, assuming it's a good thing. The popular definition is something like the belief that you will succeed, but I don't think confidence is any kind of intellectual belief. At best, believing you will succeed is a mental trick to generate confidence, which is something deeper and more subtle. My best woo-woo definition is your energy leaning forward.
A more measurable definition is the absence of hesitation. This has led me to wonder if confidence is not a positive but a negative: not a thing that makes you succeed, but the absence of certain things that make you fail.
The words "confidence", "overconfidence", and "underconfidence" make it seem like we're talking about three levels of the same mental state, but I think we're talking about three different mental states. Underconfidence is when feelings about failure make you perform worse, usually by hesitating or not taking important risks. Overconfidence is when thoughts about success prevent you from focusing on the task. And confidence is simply the absence of both.
One more thought. The cult of confidence seems to be mostly an American thing, but I wonder if Americans are just on the cutting edge of a global trend, in which hard skills are being taken away by technology; and the easier the skill you're dealing with, the more success is a matter of mental state rather than practice.
June 7. Subreddit thread, Climate change and what we can do about it. I just want to raise a question that's never asked, about lifestyle changes motivated by global issues. The question is: does your individual behavior have spooky influence over the behavior of others? For example, I've recently switched my main meat from ground beef to chicken thighs, because beef has a much larger ecological footprint. Without spooky influence, my effect on global ecology is a drop in the ocean, and the only value of my change is that it might make me feel better. But with spooky influence, who knows? I might actually make a personal difference in the global climate.
This is a serious question. Fringe biologist Rupert Sheldrake has suggested a model for spooky influence that he calls morphic fields. The behavior of any organism can resonate, across any distance, and cause biologically similar organisms (basically the same species) to behave in the same way. And he's found good evidence, which you can read about in his books. For example, people finish the NY Times crossword puzzle faster in the afternoon than in the morning.
The funny thing is, most people don't believe in spooky influence on an intellectual level -- but they act as if they do, when they make lifestyle changes, or they vote, as if they're magically deciding what other people will do. I'm almost the opposite. I believe in morphic fields, and I also believe the physical world is like a metaphor for a deeper world of mind or myth. But I'm not sure how strong my influence is, so I still mostly act as if I'm insignificant.
New subject. The other night I was watching American Ninja Warrior, and I saw a good definition of intelligence. There was a contest where dogs tried to get up a warped wall, and the more athletic breeds made it. Then a cattle dog runs right past the ramp, around to the back of the structure, and up the stairs to the top of the wall. So the definition would be something like, the ability to see a larger context that the less intelligent haven't imagined.
June 5. Monday night James Holzhauer lost on Jeopardy, and the whole drama was fascinating from a mind-behind-the-world perspective. This was the night when Holzhauer would have broken Ken Jennings' money record with even a below average win. But one challenger was such a trivia-head that as a kid he memorized every Trivial Pursuit question. That guy came in third. The other challenger wrote her masters thesis on the difficulty of Jeopardy questions, and watched the show for years calculating her own accuracy on each row of the table.
Now, maybe they set it all up, the strongest challenger on the biggest night, but I think this kind of thing is happening more often without any conscious intent: public spectacle is becoming mythic. The competition wasn't even the most striking thing that happened on the show. Alex Trebek, who has cancer, showed the get-well card that Holzhauer's daughter made for him, and it totally looked like a tombstone.
So I'm wondering, if some kind of collective subconscious is setting up these stories, is it getting better at it? Or, if humans were already linked in some kind of unseen super-mind, is it gaining new powers from the age of information?
June 3. Procrastination is an emotional problem. The article has some decent advice, but the title and the framing are wrong. Procrastination isn't even a problem -- it's a symptom. The problem is the growing gap between what we think we should be doing, and what we feel like doing. And even this is not an emotional problem, but a social problem.
I see three dimensions of the problem. First, human society has veered off a long way from human nature, probably farther than it's ever been; so there are more tasks than ever that society wants us to do, but it's not in our nature to feel like doing them. Some of this is covered in David Graeber's classic essay on bullshit jobs.
Second, technology has created a lot of hedonic traps, more than we've ever had. A hedonic trap is something that feels good, but leads down a path that eventually feels bad. Here's a smart new article about it, How Limbic Capitalism Preys on Our Addicted Brains.
The third dimension is hard to explain, because we're so deep into it that we have trouble seeing it from the outside. What drew my attention to it was this bit in the limbic capitalism article: "Not everyone was happy with all the talk of addiction.... Libertarians dismissed it as an excuse for lack of discipline."
Libertarians are individualists, everyone knows that. Except I don't think they are. Libertarians are capitalist authoritarians. They define economic freedom, not as the freedom of individuals from economic coercion, but as the freedom of the economically powerful to exploit the economically weak, which in practice means giant concentrations of money exploiting people made weaker by their separation.
But this is not a fringe political ideology. The whole attitude of American culture is to take problems created by society, and put the burden of those problems on each one of us alone.
I haven't identified as libertarian for thirty years, but I'm interested in this subject because I still live like one: my default behavior is to try to figure out rationally what the best thing to do is, and force myself to do it. And as I get older, this strategy becomes more and more exhausting. I think a lot of people are finding the same thing, which is why burnout is now an official medical condition.
Here's my crazy new hypothesis: each person's sense of self, how sharply separated they feel from the rest of the world, is proportional to how much self-discipline they have to use. Or, a culture's belief that the individual self is important, is proportional to how much self-discipline that culture requires.
So the more we can change society to make self-discipline unnecessary, so we can just do what feels good without getting in trouble, the more we'll feel part of a larger whole. This is confirmed by anthropological reports of less individualist cultures, like Richard Sorenson's essay on Preconquest Consciousness.
May 31. Going back to Monday's subject, Jim comments on reincarnation:
I have never gotten past the whole "escape the cycle of rebirth" thing. To me it's the same as the Christian heaven, just with more levels to the game. Particularly, because no one can answer why we're all trying to escape the cycle, or what lies beyond. What if there is no escape? What's the point of rebirth if it just cycles around (which seems more natural than some sort of escape)? What if this earthly life is where it's all at? What if souls come back to earth to be reborn when they get bored in soulworld because no one remembers them and interacts with them anymore? What if gods/goddesses/saints are so busy on the ethereal plane because earthly people still interact with them, that they feel no need to be reborn? The whole thing is fascinating.
I've mentioned this before, but I can't find it in the archives: my favorite crazy idea about reincarnation is that we all start out as miserable gods, then gradually work our way to progressively "lower" and happier animals. That's why there are so many ants and bacteria, because the game has been going on for so long. Maybe after bacteria, we become atoms.
I've also been thinking about a line by Thaddeus Golas, in The Lazy Man's Guide To Enlightenment, that in a metaphysical sense, "There's nobody here but us chickens." No higher power, no cosmic plan, just a very large number of equal beings playing. It can't be that simple, or there wouldn't be so much unnecessary pain, but it's a refreshing idea: a mind-based universe with no purpose.
Then I've been thinking, suppose reality is like fan fiction: it's fundamentally not serious, and within certain constraints, anything goes.
New subject. The women's World Cup starts in a week, and I'll probably be posting highlights. Here's one from a warmup game, a spectacular Erin Cuthbert goal. At around 37 seconds, you can see how the ball beats the keeper by curving hard to the right.
May 29. Long article from The Economist, The Curse of Genius. A few months ago in this post I mentioned that I don't like the word "gifted", and I argued that what IQ tests measure is overrated and often harmful. This article is interesting because it defines "gifted" as more than just intellect: "Kendall describes gifted children of that age as 'driven': 'They never stop and they set themselves incredibly high standards.'" And "They have what is sometimes called 'a rage to master.'"
There's a suggestion here that would be radical, if it were made more explictly: that there is a single underlying cause, that makes kids both smart and driven. Probably these are two different things, which seem related because of selection bias. The kids who have both brainpower and drive are noticed by the giftedness experts, and the kids with only one or the other are not noticed.
I'm interested in this subject because I have brainpower and not drive. I always got top grades in math and science without hardly trying, and teachers were always frustrated that I wasn't interested in whatever they were teaching. Twenty years ago I applied for a proofreading job at Amazon, and aced the test, but I must have failed the interview because I didn't match Amazon's high-achievement culture. My middle school actually had a gifted program, but they didn't put me into it, probably because I worked too slowly.
So now I'm wondering: What exactly is drive and where does it come from? The motivational industry would have us believe it's something anyone can have, but it seems more like something you're born with. My biggest fear about biotech is that they'll discover a drive gene. Of course all the parents will want their kids to have it, and it will unleash a generation so maniacally driven that they'll destroy the planet.
Or is drive a matter of fit? Could you take the high achievers and the lazy people out of one culture, put them in a different culture, and they would switch roles?
Going back to the Curse of Genius article, there's some stuff I can relate to, like chronic anxiety and low social intelligence. But I've never suffered much from boredom, because I'm good at daydreaming. Maybe daydreaming is actually the thing I'm highly driven at.